The Truth About 3 Nutrition Claims
Today’s superfood may be tomorrow’s health warning. It happens all too frequently: Scientific studies may contradict one another, so the expert-recommended eating plan in the spotlight one day may be disputed by another study the next. It can seem daunting to know what to eat to maintain good health.
The confusion stops here. Diabetes Forecast has asked leading nutrition experts to reveal the facts behind some of the most common nutrition misconceptions.
All saturated fats should be avoided.
Traditionally, eating large amounts of saturated fats has been discouraged because they’ve been linked to higher LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, which can up the risk of heart disease. But some research indicates that these fats, in moderation, may not be as damaging to your health as once thought.
One theory: Not all saturated fats are equal when it comes to raising cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Saturated fats coming from animal sources, such as those in red meat, have been found to hike up cholesterol levels. However, plant-based saturated fats may affect the body differently. Stearic acid, a saturated fatty acid found in foods such as cacao (the seeds that are used in making chocolate), does not substantially increase LDL cholesterol, says Rob van Dam, PhD, adjunct associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health. But coconut oil, often touted for its health benefits, is rich in saturated fat. Almost half of it comes from lauric acid, which, in large amounts, increases LDL cholesterol, says van Dam.
Instead of focusing on a single nutrient, van Dam suggests following a balanced, heart-healthy diet. The number of fruits and vegetables you eat (more is better) and how much sodium you get (less is better for some people) can also affect the risk for disease.
Still, he agrees with current recommendations—including those from the American Diabetes Association—that people with and without diabetes should focus on limiting saturated fat, eating recognized healthy forms of fat found in vegetable oils, nuts, and fish instead. “Replacement of saturated fat with unsaturated fat reduces LDL cholesterol, which is an important risk factor for the development of heart disease,” he says. The federal government’s 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting saturated fat to 10 percent of your total calories per day—or less—for optimal health.
The Verdict: You don’t need to swear off all saturated fats—they can be part of a balanced eating plan. But stick to the recommended amounts and aim to incorporate plant-based fats such as olive oil and avocados instead of large amounts of animal fats.
Sugar substitutes are dangerous.
Many people with diabetes use nonnutritive sweeteners, or sugar substitutes, to flavor their food and drinks without added carbohydrate—or the blood glucose increase carb produces. But the safety of these sweeteners, and their potential link to cancer, is often debated. Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, author of Diabetes Weight Loss Week by Week: A Safe, Effective Method for Losing Weight and Improving Your Health, says there’s no need to worry. “The federal government sets acceptable daily limits for each nonnutritive sweetener and finds them to be safe ingredients in our food supply,” she says. (For more on sweetener safety, including a list of acceptable daily limits, go here.)
News reports have raised other concerns about nonnutritive sweeteners, based on scientific studies—namely, that they cause weight gain by increasing the desire for sweets and affecting the gut hormones that impact hunger and sense of fullness. But a review of published studies by researchers in the United Kingdom found that low-calorie sweeteners don’t affect the gut hormones involved in blood glucose and appetite regulation. It is fine to avoid nonnutritive sweeteners if you prefer, but don’t do it simply because of a scary headline, Weisenberger says.
The Verdict: Sugar substitutes are safe to use, though certain sweeteners may lead to upset stomach or diarrhea. Consider using natural sweeteners, such as applesauce, as an alternative when baking. Or try spices such as cinnamon for extra flavor.
Drinking coffee raises blood glucose levels.
Coffee lovers everywhere have been delighted to learn that drinking coffee in moderation may offer health benefits, such as improved concentration and a slight metabolism boost. It has also been reported that coffee consumption might reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. But there is concern that, for some people, coffee may increase blood glucose levels.
Here’s some good news: “Caffeine consumption may reduce insulin sensitivity in individuals who do not regularly consume caffeine, possibly due to the increased secretion of stress hormones,” says van Dam. “However, regular, moderate intake of coffee leads to a tolerance of caffeine and does not seem to have a detrimental health impact.”
So if you enjoy coffee routinely, it’s not necessarily the cause of high blood glucose. But do consider what you put in your coffee. Adding large amounts of cream and sugar to coffee may lead to excess weight gain, van Dam says. Swap out cream (and fancy creamers, which can be high in carb) for low-fat or skim milk, or a low-calorie plant-based milk, and add flavor with a pinch of cinnamon instead of sugar.
The Verdict: The caffeine in coffee can make you less sensitive to insulin if you’re an occasional coffee drinker. Regular coffee drinkers are used to the caffeine, so their insulin sensitivity isn’t likely to be affected.