When Should I Worry About...

5 Nutrition Misconceptions Debunked by a Dietitian

Oct. 12, 2023 - Katie McCallum

Eating healthy has become challenging, to say the least.

It's not just the overwhelming number of options we encounter at the grocery store, though an entire aisle of just sliced bread doesn't help. It's the information overload that comes along with the options. The front of most every food package makes a claim for some impressive healthy benefit, often only for the nutrition facts label on the backside to paint a different picture.

Social media influencers swearing by a different diet hack every other week doesn't make things any easier. Nor does news outlets reporting on some obscure "superfood" we should consider adding to our diets.

All to say, nutrition advice is coming from everywhere these days and, to make matters worse, the information often conflicts.

"Food manufacturing companies rarely have our best interests in mind," says Mag Ayyad, a dietitian specializing in weight management at Houston Methodist. "This often results in marketing messages leading us to believe that there are certain types of foods we should consume, as well as certain ones we shouldn't."

Organic, cholesterol-free, whatever fad diet is most popular these days — it's easy to get caught up in thinking that something is healthy (or unhealthy) when it's really not.

To sort through the noise, Ayyad is here to debunk five of the nutrition misconceptions he hears about most often.

Misconception #1: Sugar is bad for you

Sugar gets a bad rap, but not all of the criticism is warranted.

Let's start with natural sugars, the ones found in fruit, dairy and the like. Yes, it's true — you can eat or drink too much of anything, fruit and milk included. But foods containing natural sugars have the added advantage of containing things like fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. These nutrients are beneficial to our body. Getting plenty of them certainly isn't a bad thing, especially in the world of ultra-processed foods we live in.

But how about the sugars we think about most often when we hear that word — granulated sugar, brown sugar, honey, the three pumps of vanilla syrup in your coffee? Their story, the story of the refined sugars we add to food and drinks, is a little more complicated, but Ayyad says consuming added sugar isn't automatically bad for you.

"If you're a healthy individual — you don't have diabetes, you don't have issues with weight control — and you want to sweeten something or have a candy bar, have the sugar," says Ayyad.

There are consequences of having as much as you want, whenever you want, though. Weight gain is the most obvious.

The official recommendation is to limit added sugar consumption to:

  • 24 grams per day if you're a woman
  • 36 grams per day if you're a man


"Excessive sugar intake leads to higher inflammation in the body," explains Ayyad. "A healthy body is able to naturally recover from that, so long as you're not constantly consuming sugar in large quantities."

It's why artificial sweeteners can have a place in anyone's diet, not just people who are trying to manage diabetes or their weight.

"A packet of sugar is about four grams," says Ayyad. "If you put one in your coffee to help sweeten it, and then you get a little more sugar here and there, but you haven't gone beyond your limit at the end of the day, that's okay. But if you're putting three to four packets of sugar in your coffee and drinking several cups every day, you're likely already over the edge — and that's not even taking other sources you may eat throughout the rest of the day into account. That's when we want to start looking at replacing some of that sugar with artificial sweetener."

Another example of how quickly added sugar can pile up: sodas. A 12-ounce can contains 39 grams of added sugar, meaning just a single soda can put you over the daily limit.

"If you're having one or more sodas every single day, it's best to start sprinkling in diet soda to help reduce that sugar intake," adds Ayyad. "Otherwise, the excess calories will eventually get stored as fat, and that's how weight gain and other health issues start."

Misconception #2: Organic is healthier than non-organic

Organic produce and grass-fed beef, pork and poultry have their own aisles and sections these days. But what does "organic" even mean? The USDA defines it as a product that has been produced according to the agency's organic standards, which include methods that help promote ecological balance, conserve biodiversity and reduce the use of synthetic chemicals. How does that translate into what you actually eat?

"A huge number of studies and meta-analyses have shown that the amount of pesticides you're reducing through organic farming is pretty miniscule once it enters our gut," says Ayyad. "Additionally, our bodies are very efficient at detoxifying things that are coming from our food, and we're still able to live a healthier lifestyle."

He adds that "organic" doesn't mean the food item provides more nutrients, vitamins or minerals either.

"It's been marketed as something that's 'healthier' for us, but there are no studies showing that organic foods are superior in terms of leading to better health markers," explains Ayyad. "The issue is that now people think they need to consume this supposedly better product which, oh by the way, is more expensive than conventional products."

If you look at the numbers, only about 10% of Americans consume enough fruits and vegetables. Ayyad points out that pushing more expensive organic produce on people only makes meeting daily fruit and vegetable intake harder.

"Eat what you can afford," recommends Ayyad. "If all you can afford is conventional, canned or frozen, but you're getting your daily vegetables and fruits, you will still see a trend toward better health."

(Related: Canned, Frozen Fresh: Does It Matter Which Form of Vegetables You Choose?)

Misconception #3: Red meat and dairy raise your cholesterol

Perhaps you've heard that the cholesterol found in red meat, dairy — even eggs — raises blood cholesterol levels and can contribute to high cholesterol.

"This has actually been debunked for a while now," says Ayyad. "Our body has a very regimented hold on cholesterol levels, and it's not the cholesterol found in food that is the main concern."

In fact, the American Heart Association no longer defines a limit for daily cholesterol intake.

"This doesn't mean it's insignificant, but dietary cholesterol doesn't play as big of a role as once thought," says Ayyad. "What we're most concerned about instead is excess fat consumption, sugar intake, and overall calories. As weight increases, cholesterol levels tend to increase along with it."

(Related: What (Not) to Eat to Lower Your Cholesterol)

Red meat, which contains a lot of saturated fat, can lead to weight gain when eaten in large amounts. It's why Ayyad recommends that only 10%-15% of your overall calories per day should be coming from sources of saturated fat (in grams), including red meat.

To that end, Ayyad would rather see people get saturated fat from dairy, since it's less saturated than the saturated fat found in red meats. Studies show that dairy plays less of a role in the current obesity epidemic, and it's thought to have less of an effect on blood cholesterol levels than red meat.

"In addition to protein, dairy also contains other beneficial nutrients we benefit from, like vitamins and minerals," adds Ayyad.

Misconception #4: You can't lose weight without going on a diet

Keto, Paleo, Whole30 — no matter which popular diet you pick, Ayyad isn't buying the hype. Mostly because, while they can lead to short-term weight loss, these diets aren't sustainable enough to help people manage their weight long-term.

"All of these fad diets essentially eliminate a specific macronutrient — usually either carbohydrates or fats — or a common subgroup of foods," says Ayyad. "Of course we're going to lose weight when we eliminate an entire macronutrient, because we have less we can eat."

Between the mental and the social challenges of restricting what or how much you eat, most people struggle to remain dedicated to a diet in general, let alone a fad one eliminating numerous enjoyable foods.

Instead, Ayyad recommends managing the amount of fat, carbs and protein you eat, whether they're coming from fruits, bread or pizza.

"Among dietitians who are part of medical weight loss centers, we truly all believe that moderation is the key to losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight," says Ayyad. "Let's work on eating patterns and food-related behaviors. We still need to be compliant and diligent about reducing the quantity of some nutrients we eat, but we never need to significantly restrict or eliminate any of them."

(Related: Which Diet Would a Dietitian Actually Do?)

A strategy as simple as the plate method can help you get started.

When preparing a plate, make sure that:

  • Half of the plate contains non-starchy vegetables
  • One quarter of the plate contains lean protein
  • One quarter of the plate contains a starchy carbohydrate


"Lean meat is any cut that ends in 'loin', 'chuck', 'round' or is labeled 90% lean or higher," adds Ayyad. "And then, of the carbohydrates on your plate, make sure you're getting about 4 to 7 grams of fiber with each meal."

Misconception #5: Plant-based milks are healthier than cow's milk

Soy, oat, coconut, almond milk — the explosion of plant-based milks might seem to imply that there's something wrong with drinking cow's milk. That couldn't be farther from the truth.

"These plant-based options initially came about as an alternative for people who are lactose intolerant," explains Ayyad. "As people realized they're also lower in calories than cow's milk, they became really popular generally."

The fewer the calories, the healthier something is, right? Not quite.

"Unlike cow's milk, most plant-based milks come with very minimal nutritional benefit," says Ayyad. "Soy milk aside, you get very little protein from them, and protein content is one of the biggest drivers for consuming dairy."

Plant-based milks are often fortified with the vitamins and minerals they're missing, but that's not always the case. You'll need to check the nutrition label to be sure. For instance, not all almond milks contain calcium. Some of these milks also contain unnecessary additions, like sugar; certain ones, like coconut milk, contain a lot of saturated fat; and others, like oat milk, are high in carbohydrates.

(Related: The Pros & Cons of Popular Types of Milk)

"The only time I recommend a plant-based milk to someone is if they can't tolerate dairy or the taste of cow's milk," explains Ayyad. "And it's best to think of these as a substitute for milk, not a replacement for the nutrients cow's milk provides."

And here's a dairy product pro tip for anyone who is lactose intolerant: consider drinking ultra-filtered milk. Not only is it filtered to remove lactose, but it's also concentrated and contains more protein and fewer calories than regular cow's milk.

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