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5 Popular Internet Nutrition Myths (How Many Have You Fallen For?)

05/18/2015 08:58 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

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If your nutrition information comes primarily from your email inbox or social media, what you're reading may be misleading, inaccurate and may even be harmful to your health. Here, five popular nutrition myths that have spread like a virus on the Internet that you can stop believing.

Myth: Coconut Oil Is a Cure-All

Fact: Coconut oil is supposedly good for just about everything -- from making your teeth whiter and preventing Alzheimer's disease to whittling your waistline. However, according to the FDA, coconut oil health claims are unsubstantiated. In fact, the FDA sent warning letters to both Dr. Mercola and Carrington Farms over claims made about their respective coconut oil products.

According to David Schardt, a senior nutrition scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, "The popularity of coconut oil is based, in part, on the myth that saturated fats aren't bad for you, and marketing hype from those who are selling it, like Dr. Mercola." What's more, "Coconut oil's health benefits are supposedly from the medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) it provides but it actually contains very little -- about 10-15 percent of the beneficial short-chain MCTs," says Sonya Angelone, MS, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Coconut has more saturated fat than butter, lard, shortening and virtually all other edible fats. Since more than 90 percent of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, it should be limited, adds Schardt. "If you use coconut oil in place of oils that are lower in saturated fat like canola, safflower or sunflower oils, your blood lipids will go in the wrong direction, increasing your risk for a cardiovascular event."

Myth: Saturated Fats Aren't Linked to Heart Disease

Fact: Thanks to the marketers of coconut, palm kernel and other sat-fat-rich foods, as well as media reports based on shoddy science, there's a lot of misinformation about saturated fats and whether or not they increase risk for heart disease.

Fueling the debate recently was a large-scale, meta-analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which concluded that saturated fats don't increase risk for cardiovascular events. However, many research groups from other institutions have published commentaries about the study's flawed conclusions and analyses. As Walter Willet, M.D., Dr.P.H., chair of the Department of Nutrition at the the Harvard School of Public Health, commented, "the conclusions are misleading and should be disregarded." One of the major flaws: The meta-analyses did not address whether subjects eating less saturated fat consumed more sugars and refined carbs. HSPH contends that studies consistently show that reducing saturated fats can improve one's health if saturated fat is replaced with good fats, like polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats, but not when it's replaced with refined carbohydrates, like sugary drinks, white bread and white rice.

Based on results from numerous randomized controlled clinical trials, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends 5 to 6 percent of total calories from saturated fats or up to 13 grams per day for a 2,000-calorie diet. To meet that recommendation, it's important to eat fewer full-fat dairy products and limit fatty meats, fried foods and use oils that are low in saturated fat and high in monos and polys like canola, safflower, or sunflower. Canola oil, which is the seed oil lowest in saturated fat and highest in omega-3s, can also be used in place of butter or shortening when baking to reduce saturated fat without affecting the texture of flavor of dishes.

Myth: Diet Foods and Beverages Won't Help You Lose Weight

Fact: While observational studies have reported that people who drink diet beverages or eat foods containing sugar substitutes are more likely to be overweight, those types of studies only show associations and can't prove that zero-calorie or low-calorie products lead to weight gain. Obesity researchers suggest that results from observational studies need to consider that people who are overweight use more "diet" products to help them lose weight, compared to normal-weight individuals. And, other diet and lifestyle behaviors may be responsible for their weight woes. "If you drink a diet soda in place of a 150-calorie beverage but then allow yourself to enjoy a 300-calorie dessert, you're still up 150 calories," notes Schardt.

Results from two human clinical trials (considered the gold-standard for quality research as they identify cause-and-effect relationships) show weight loss benefits of diet beverages. In a 12-week study published in the journal Obesity, subjects who drank diet beverages lost, on average, 13 pounds, compared to 9 pounds lost among the water-only drinkers. The researchers also found that the diet beverage drinkers reported feeling more satisfied, despite both groups following the same calorie-controlled diet regimen. Another study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found subjects who drank diet soda or water were more than twice as likely to lose more than 5 percent of their body weight in a six-month study. Losing weight and keeping it off comes down to reducing calories and sticking with the program. If you use low- or zero-calorie products appropriately, as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, they may help ensure you don't exceed your calorie budget.

Myth: Skim Milk Is More Fattening Than Whole Milk

Fact: Skim milk has been mistakenly called out as being less waistline-friendly than its full-fat cousin, thanks in part to Dr. Oz who says skim milk should be avoided because when the fat is removed from whole milk, you're left with sugar. If you really look at the nutrition facts, skim and whole milk have the same sugar content -- 12 grams -- as well as the same amount of satiety-enhancing protein, 8 grams. And, when it comes to nutrients, like calcium, potassium, magnesium and vitamin D, skim has higher amounts of these essential nutrients.

Is skim milk more fattening? No! If you're watching your weight, calories count. A glass of whole milk is 150 calories, 2 percent has 120 calories and skim, 80 calories. What's more, skim and low fat dairy options -- not full fat -- are recommended by health organizations, including the American Heart Association and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to help us keep saturated fat intake in check.

1 cup whole milk:
• 150 calories
• 8g fat
• 5g saturated fat
• 35mg cholesterol
• 8g protein
• 12g sugar
• 276 mg calcium
• 322 mg potassium

1 cup skim milk:
• 80 calories
• <.5g fat
• <.5g saturated fat
• <5mg cholesterol
• 8g protein
• 12g sugar
• 300 mg calcium
• 380 mg potassium

Myth: If It's "Gluten-Free" It Must Be Healthy

Fact: About one-third of U.S. adults are trying to cut down or avoid products containing gluten, according to the NPD Group.

As a result, gluten-free foods are flying off supermarket shelves. The majority of gluten-avoiders have no medical diagnosis that suggests that they can't digest gluten -- they simply believe that "gluten-free" foods are healthier than their gluten-containing counterparts.

Not so fast. Following a gluten-free diet when you don't have a diagnosis for being sensitive or allergic to gluten may put you at risk for developing vitamin deficiencies because a gluten-free diet is often low in fiber and many essential nutrients. In fact, an Australian study reported that more than 10 percent of both men and women following a gluten-free diet had inadequate intakes of thiamin, folate, magnesium, fiber, iron and calcium in both men and women. Women were also likely to lack iron and vitamin A and men often didn't get enough zinc.

What's more, "gluten-free" versions of many foods aren't necessarily more nutritious. Many are high in calories, added sugars and saturated fat, so it's easy to exceed your calorie budget. A healthier approach to living a gluten-free lifestyle is to focus on wholesome foods that are naturally free of gluten -- fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins like seafood, poultry and low-fat dairy.

Image Credit: Coconut oil -- Elanaspantry.com