Your colleague at the office fills her gallon jug with fresh water every morning, forcing herself to finish it by day's end. Your gym buddy's been loading up on chicken and turkey to build muscle. And your sister is pleased that she's found cholesterol-free cookies, which she believes provide heart-healthy benefits. If you're thinking about adopting some of their "healthy" habits, think again. Read on to separate fact from fiction.
Myth #1: Eating late at night will make you fat.
Fact: Calories are calories--no matter what time they're eaten. There is no magic hour in which your body decides that incoming calories must be stored as fat.
If you routinely overindulge after dinner, it's the overindulging that's sabotaging your weight-control efforts, not the hour on the clock. For some people, the "no calories after 8 p.m." rule is an effective diet strategy because it means they take in fewer calories and less saturated fat over the course of a day.
But what if dinner is late or you're hungry before bed? By all means, eat. Feed and fuel your body. No harm is done if you're balancing your calories over the day and not scarfing down junk food.
Finally, if you train in the evening, eating at night is not optional: You must to replace the nutrients you've just lost. Depending on the activity, you'll need water, electrolytes, carbohydrates and protein.
Bottom Line: What you eat--and how much--is far more important than when you eat it. But do make a point to spread your food intake out over the day to sustain your energy.
Myth #2: Eating extra protein builds muscle.
Fact: "To build muscle, you must have three key components: adequate calories, a good intake of protein and a good strength program," says registered dietitian and American Dietetic Association spokesperson Roberta Anding, a certified specialist in sports dietetics. Without enough calories, "some of the dietary protein will be used as an energy source." Likewise, protein intake beyond your needs will either be stored as fat or burned for energy.
The timing of your protein is important. "After resistance training, consuming a source of protein, such as whey, along with some carbohydrate has been shown to build muscle," Anding adds.
Bottom Line: To build muscle, you need to eat a healthy diet, which includes a normal amount of protein, and strength train regularly.
Myth #3: Cholesterol-free foods are heart-healthy.
Fact: While it's a good idea to limit egg yolks, whole milk, liver and other high-cholesterol foods, it's just not that simple, says Dina Kimmel, New Jersey-based registered dietitian and nutrition counselor.
Even more detrimental to your blood-cholesterol levels are the amounts of saturated and trans fats you eat. There are plenty of supermarket shelves that contain no cholesterol, but are rife with artery-clogging saturated and trans fats. Scrutinize the nutrition facts panel carefully to see what's in your cholesterol-free margarine, shortening, cookies or crackers. Chances are good that they're loaded with either saturated or trans fats, or both.
The FDA allows a product to claim cholesterol-free on its label if there are no more than 2 milligrams cholesterol and 2 grams saturated fat per serving, but there's no limit on trans fat. And your portion may be bigger than the listed serving size, so your meal could be serving up a not-so-healthy dose of fats.
Bottom Line: Load up on nature's heart-healthy foods--whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds--to avoid artery-cloggers. And read a product's nutrition panel carefully.
Myth #4: Eating fish is the best way to get heart-healthy omega-3 fats.
Fact: The omega-3 family is credited with myriad health benefits, ranging from promoting brain development in infants to improving cognitive function in the elderly, but it is perhaps most recognized for its role in shielding the heart from disease.
Fish and marine-based supplements are the only ways to get EPA and DHA, two important omega-3 fatty acids. However, walnuts, flaxseed, canola oil, soybeans and some other plant foods offer ALA, a third omega-3 fatty acid. You need all three types of omega-3 fats for optimal health.
Plant-based omega-3 fatty acids offer distinct benefits you won't get from fish. Without ALA, you'd have scaly skin and problems with hair growth and wound healing. There is even evidence that diets rich in ALA decrease the risk of fatal ischemic heart disease (the result of narrowing or hardening of the arteries, which impedes blood flow).
Fish or marine-based fatty acids, EPA and DHA, are recommended by many organizations, including the American Heart Association, to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease because of their strong triglyceride-lowering effect, says Penny Kris-Etherton Ph.D., R.D., professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. In addition, it appears that the marine-based omega-3 fats are especially important in aiding cognition.
"Based on the evidence we have at this point, I recommend that people include all omega-3 fatty acids in their diets," says Kris-Etherton.
Bottom Line: For optimal health, include both fish- and plant-based omega-3 sources in your diet.