Health & Wellness
19 “Healthy” Food Rules Nutrition Experts Ignore All the Time
Turns out that breakfast may not be the most important meal of the day. And that's just one of many golden rules you can get ready break.
You have to count calories to lose weight
A lot of people swear by the “calories in, calories out” method of weight loss, but if this rule were true, deprivation diets would work, says Rebecca Cafiero, an integrative nutritionist. “My motto is don’t count calories, count nutrition. I’d rather learn to eat the right foods if that means not having to spend all my time tracking calories and macros in My Fitness Pal,” she says.
You must drink 8 cups of water a day to stay hydrated
Setting an arbitrary number of how much water you should drink every day is silly, Cafiero says. The problem is that it doesn’t take into account the weather, your diet, your individual body’s needs or a host of other factors that influence hydration. Instead, she says to focus on how you’re feeling and how things are working out in the bathroom. “Water, via urine, is your body’s way to eliminate toxins,” she says. “Would you rather that waste be carried out on a slow moving stream or a fast moving river?” For the record, she drinks way more than eight cups a day.
White sugar is the devil
“One of the nutrition rules I’ve set for myself is to eliminate refined sugar, but it’s a rule I break pretty often,” says Laurie Smith, a nutritionist at Jack City Fitness. “Why? I’m an addict!” At the end of the day, we’re all human and sometimes you just need a cookie. “Usually, I try to tame the sugar beast by using natural sweeteners like honey or stevia, but that doesn’t always work,” she adds. Obviously, moderation is key.
Never skip meals
Ever get so into something that you forget a meal or two? No worries, nutritionists do it too. “There are times that I am so busy with life and work and kids that I forget to eat a meal,” says Sarah Remmer, RD, child and family nutrition expert. “Then I end up being overly hungry and subsequently overeat later. It happens!” If this happens to you, she says to simply remind yourself to do better the next meal and not beat yourself up or feel guilty.
Fast food is strictly forbidden
It’s a myth that nutrition pros always eat clean, says Remmer. While that’s the goal most of the time, they are just as tempted by that value meal with fries and a soda as you are, especially when they’re tired. “Although I try to make sure that most of the food I eat is made from whole food ingredients and not overly processed, there are definitely times that I eat processed foods out of convenience,” she says. Her tip? Choose the healthiest of the convenience food options available, like one of these on-the-go meals.
Avoid all packaged foods like the plague
A popular nutrition rule is to shop the perimeter of the store—produce, dairy, meat—and avoid all the packaged stuff in the center. Nonsense, says Jessica Levinson, RDN, CDN, culinary nutrition expert. “I break that one all the time,” she says. “There are so many packaged foods like canned beans, canned fish, crushed tomatoes and broth that are nutrient-rich and make eating healthy so much easier and convenient.” Not to mention, they’re budget-friendly.
Never eat in front of the TV
Eating in front of your TV, computer or phone can distract you from your hunger signals, causing you to eat more. Yet even the best nutrition pros succumb. “Sometimes I just need to veg out with a bowl of popcorn!” Levinson says. That said, she recommends being smart about your snacking by portioning out what you’ll eat (as in, put the popcorn in a bowl; don’t eat it straight from the bag) and start with a fresh fruit or veggie before moving on to snack foods and treats.
Skip the bread basket
Carbs have gotten a bad rap recently in the nutrition world, especially simple carbs… like warm, delicious, fluffy, white bread. But you don’t have to pass on every bread basket, says Erin Akey, certified nutritionist and kids nutrition expert. “While too much bread is definitely not a good thing due to the fact that it is usually empty calories, I do love a really good artisan bread with a really nice cheese or tapenade,” she says. She just has one bread rule: Don’t waste the calories on any old bread; make sure you get the good stuff.
Fried foods are public enemy #1
Fried foods are a no-no on pretty much every diet, but there’s a reason they’re the cause of so many cravings, especially when they remind you of your childhood or culture, says Johane M. Filemon, RDN, of Wonderfully Nutritious. “I am a registered dietitian, it’s true, but I am also an island girl and fried plantains are one of my weaknesses,” she says. “We should limit our intake of fried foods, but it is okay to allow ourselves to enjoy some foods that makes us happy every now and again. Again, moderation is the ticket.”
Don’t fall for these common fast food myths that just aren’t true.
Eat every three hours to keep your metabolism going strong
You’ve likely heard the “rule” that it’s better to eat five or six mini-meals a day to keep your metabolism running fast. That’s not only ridiculous, but it’s not realistic for most people, Filemon says. “I’m a mom of three with a busy nutrition practice. Sitting down to eat six meals a day just isn’t going to happen in my life right now,” she says. “Really, ‘meals’ are relative to each person, and your metabolism won’t slow down if you eat fewer meals.”
No late-night snacking
Not eating after a certain point—say, after dinner or 6pm—is a common rule for losing weight. But this is one rule made to be broken, says Joel Palau, RD, of My Swift Body. “I eat past 6 pm every day because I prefer to work out in the evenings and I need to fuel my body after a tough workout,” he says. Ultimately, what’s more important than how late you eat is how many calories you ate throughout the day and the quality of those calories, he adds.
Pass on pasta
Pasta is often one of the first things to go when trying to health-up your pantry, which is too bad, Palau says. You can have your favorite spaghetti bolognese or fettuccine pomodoro and still eat healthfully. “Carbs are the body’s preferred energy source,” he says. “I consume bread, rice and pasta year round and they are some of my favorite foods.” The trick, he adds, is to skip the processed junk and go for freshly made noodles in moderation.
Cutting out gluten? These are the best GF pastas you can buy.
Coconut oil is a superfood and you should eat it on everything
Coconut oil is everywhere these days, from face creams to hair treatments and, of course, in many, many foods. It’s gotten to the point where many people consider coconut oil their preferred source of fat and think nothing of adding it to nearly everything they eat. Not Mindy Haar, PhD, a registered dietitian and Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Affairs at New York Institute of Technology. “At the end of the day, coconut oil is still a saturated fat,” she says. (Not to mention highly caloric!) “I think olive oil, a monounsaturated fat, is a much better choice.”
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Ditch all wheat products and stay away from gluten
The backlash against wheat, once considered a staple crop for humanity, has been sharp and severe in recent years. But unless you’re among the one in every 100 Americans who have celiac disease, there is no reason for you to avoid whole grain wheat products, Haar says. They’re high in fiber and full of nutrients.
Skip the artificial sweeteners
Zero-calorie sugar substitutes, like the kind often found in diet sodas, claim to let you have your cake and eat it, too. But recent research has shown that these processed products may be doing more harm than good, increasing your cravings for sweets and causing you to overeat later. And yet, they can still be really tasty, says Pam Sherman, nutrition expert and personal trainer. “I found this amazing no-calorie, sugar-free caramel syrup. The ingredient list is awful and full of words I don’t know and cannot pronounce,” she says. “However, adding this to hot cocoa is unbelievable! So creamy and delicious.”
Fight those PMS cravings
Many (many) women struggle to stick to their diets the week or so before their period. Thanks to hormones, cravings are high and willpower is low. Instead of fighting it, Sherman says she just gives in. “Yes, sugar and junk food are awful for our bodies; they are inflammatory, can lead to eating more sugar, cause energy crashes, really mess up your sleep and the list goes on and on,” she says. Normally, she tries to steer clear of the sweet stuff, but when it comes to PMS? “I indulge. I have a little of what I’m craving. If not, it can lead to a full-on binge.”
Fatty foods will give you a heart attack
“Unfortunately, fat has gotten a bad rap from the media and scientific literature as a major cause of cardiovascular issues,” says Alex Robles, MD, founder of White Coat Trainer. “What people fail to realize is that the science behind those links is based on very poor quality fats. Fat is a very important nutrient that we need to consume significant amounts of. I don’t fear fat and I eat plenty of it!” His favorite fatty foods are nuts, nut butters, avocados, olive oil, seeds and even dark chocolate.
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Pizza is a diet buster
For Robles, focusing on eating healthy 80 to 90 percent of the time means that he eats what he likes, guilt-free, the other times. His favorite splurge? Really great pizza. “Having whatever I want 10 percent of the time does not have any significant impact on my fitness routine, my body composition, nor my energy levels,” he says.
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Breakfast is the most important meal of the day
For several decades, dieters have been told that they should always eat breakfast, and it should ideally be the biggest meal of the day. But when it comes to omelettes and oatmeal, Christa Biegler, RD, could take or leave it—and she often leaves it. She says she doesn’t sweat missing her morning meal, however, as intermittent fasting can have amazing health benefits.