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Don’t Fall for These 7 Healthy Cooking Myths

There are nutrition “facts” you’ve probably heard so often you think they must be true, such as fat is bad for you. So is salt. Veggies are healthiest when they’re raw.

But healthy eating choices don’t fall into good or bad categories. It’s more complicated than that. 

“It is important not to over-generalize nutrition recommendations. Healthy eating is never ‘one-size-fits-all’ or ‘all-or-nothing,’” said Noel Ugarte, a registered dietitian with Banner Health. “Nutrition varies based on your health goals, medical conditions and socio-economic situation. Over-generalizing nutrition recommendations often leads to confusing nutrition myths that make the idea of healthy eating nearly impossible for most people.”

Here, Ugarte helps us dig into the truth behind seven healthy food myths. Knowing the truth can help you make choices that are right for you, your family and your lifestyle.

Myth 1: Fat-free foods are always healthier

Fat is an important component of your diet. In fact, your body needs essential fatty acids to survive and function,” Ugarte said. Many fat-free foods include sugar, salt and additives to improve their flavor and texture. 

Some fats are more nutritious than others:

  • Choose more whole-food sources of unsaturated fatty acids like fatty fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado oil and canola oil. They can help lower bad cholesterol and triglyceride levels and help raise good cholesterol levels. They may also help your cells repair themselves and help your body absorb vitamins A, D, E and K.
  • Limit saturated fat intake. Foods rich in saturated fats include red meat, pork, poultry with skin, butter, lard, dairy, coconut oil and palm kernel oil. These types of fats may raise bad cholesterol and triglyceride levels. 

The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 5% to 6% of your total caloric intake per day. “If you are following a 2000-calorie diet, no more than 100 to 120 calories, or about 14 grams, should come from saturated fats,” Ugarte said. Swapping out processed snacks and saturated fat for healthy snacks can support your health and well-being. 

Myth 2: Adding salt when you’re cooking is bad for your heart

“Salt sensitivity isn’t the same for everyone,” Ugarte said. However, salt contains a lot of sodium, and if you have heart disease you should limit your sodium intake to 1500 to 2300 milligrams a day —one teaspoon of table salt will bring you to the top of that limit.

You may also want to keep an eye on your sodium intake if you have chronic kidney disease or liver cirrhosis. Too much sodium can lead to water retention, swelling and higher blood pressure in anyone. 

A lot of the sodium in your diet may come from ultra-processed foods, even those that don’t taste salty. So limiting these foods will help lower your sodium intake. You can also try cooking with aromatic ingredients instead of salt, such as garlic, onions, citrus, peppers, herbs and spices. “There are also salt-free seasoning blends such as Mrs. Dash available at the grocery store,” Ugarte said.

Myth 3: All processed foods are bad for you

“I never like lumping all foods as categorically good or bad,” Ugarte said. “We should choose foods that help us achieve our health goals by focusing on individual nutrients.”

She points out that some, but not all, processed foods contain higher amounts of sodium, saturated fat and calories. But some lightly processed foods can provide important nutrients at a lower cost and take less time to prepare. 

For example, canned tuna packed in water is an excellent source of lean protein that can easily be added to meals or eaten alone. “It is significantly cheaper and easier to prepare than a fresh tuna steak,” she said.

Myth 4: Fresh produce is always better than frozen or canned

 “Better is such a vague term,” Ugarte said. “We should consider factors such as nutrient content, price, shelf stability, flavor, texture and preparation time when deciding which foods are ‘better’ for us.”

Frozen produce may actually give you the most nutrients, since flash-freezing locks in vitamins and minerals that can be lost over time with fresh produce. Frozen veggies and fruits are also usually cheaper than fresh, and you can store them for longer. Plus they are usually pre-cut, which can save you time when you’re cooking. 

Canned produce usually has similar nutritional value to fresh produce, is typically cheaper, and has a longer shelf life. “Canned may be the better option when finances, cooking time or food storage is difficult,” Ugarte said. Look for canned products that are low in sodium, with no salt added and packed in water or juice, to help limit added sodium and sugar.  

You might want to mix it up, using fresh fruits and veggies for salads, frozen options for stir-fries and soups and canned when you need something quick and easy. 

Myth 5: When you cook vegetables, you lose nutrients

“Cooking can change the nutrient content of some vegetables,” Ugarte said. For example, vitamin C can be lower in cooked vegetables. So cooked bell peppers have less vitamin C than raw bell peppers.  

“But many nutrients become more available to your body when you cook vegetables,” she said. That’s because cooking softens fibers, so your body can absorb them better. You get more calcium and iron from cooked spinach than raw spinach and more lycopene from cooked tomatoes than raw tomatoes.

Ugarte recommends choosing a variety of raw and cooked produce throughout the day to maximize your nutrients.  

Myth 6: Gluten-free is healthier

“This is not true,” Ugarte said. People who have celiac disease and people who have been told by a medical professional that they have a gluten sensitivity should avoid gluten. If you haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, gluten-free foods are not healthier. 

Grains that contain gluten, like wheat, barley and rye, contain nutrients like fiber, B vitamins and iron. If you can eat gluten, they can be healthy choices. 

A lot of processed gluten-free foods contain high levels of sugar, salt and unhealthy fats. If you can’t eat gluten, try whole, naturally gluten-free foods like quinoa, brown rice, millet and buckwheat. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds are also naturally gluten-free.

Myth 7: All sweeteners are bad for you

Sweeteners should be used in moderation. Refined sugars, such as white and brown sugar, are highly processed sweeteners that don’t offer much nutritional value.

“In general, healthy people should limit added sugar to six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men per day. I recommend paying careful attention to total sugar intake if you have specific diseases such as diabetes,” Ugarte said. 

Be mindful that some sweetener alternatives, such as coconut sugar, date sugar, agave nectar and honey, still contain sugar and impact blood sugar levels. 

Current research isn’t clear about the health effects of artificial chemical sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose and saccharin. Excessive intake may be linked to headaches, intestinal cramping and diarrhea. “There is ongoing research on the association with cancer and heart disease,” Ugarte said.

If you want to avoid artificial chemical sweeteners and added sugar, you can try natural sugar substitutes such as monk fruit or stevia. 

The bottom line

It’s easy to fall for healthy cooking and nutrition myths. But knowing the truth about fat, sugar, sodium, gluten and more can help you make the right choices for yourself and your family. If you would like more tips on healthy cooking and eating, reach out to an expert at Banner Health.

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