There are many trends, fads, and popular diets that we try in the name of better health. Whether you find these health myths online, on social media, or hear about the latest fad from your best friend, chances are you’re curious about whether the latest nutritional advice will best serve you. In the ever-shifting landscape of health and wellness, honestly, who has the time to sort through it all and determine what is “best?” That’s where we come in: to help release some of the mental gymnastics around common health myths and practices.
Because the truth is, many of the trends floating around aren’t all that healthy; or at least, they aren’t healthy for everyone. Eating primarily vegan or gluten-free, avoiding fat-filled foods, and exercising every day may seem harmless enough, but sometimes they can do more harm than good when not executed correctly. For more insight on these so-called “healthy” trends, we spoke with Parsley Health coach Christina Kang, who has clinical expertise in longevity and anti-aging. Read on for more on which trends you should try (or skip) to optimize health.
Should I go vegan?
Although a vegan diet might work for some, a strict vegan diet that excludes all meat, animal products (like dairy and eggs), and fish could mean you’re missing out on some important macro and micronutrient groups, and could also lead to other health problems.
“The protein from plants is not going to be absorbed as readily from the body as from things that swim or walk. Protein is essential. The amino acids [found in protein] are required for the maintenance and growth of tissues, make up all of our enzymes that the body needs to function and are needed to create some hormones, such as insulin and human growth hormone,” says Kang. Besides lack of protein, Kang also tells us that vegan diets can lead to B12 and iron deficiencies because B12 is only naturally found in animal/fish products. Even though iron is found in plants, it comes in the form of non-heme iron, which is less bioavailable than the heme iron found in animals. For those on a vegan diet, proper supplementation can help fill nutritional gaps.
Before you try a vegan diet, however, it’s important you consult a dietician or healthcare provider who will help identify which supplements are beneficial and how to best balance the additional nutrients you may need. “Vegans tend to go really heavy on carbs. And so you see a lot of glucose regulation issues because excess carbs can spike your blood glucose,” says Kang. If you want to reap the benefits of a plant-based diet, you can certainly activate the benefits of this nutrition plan without implementing a strict vegan diet. Vegetarian diets also provide many of the same benefits without excluding all bioavailable sources of protein.
Do I need to exercise every day?
Moving your body and regular exercise are beneficial to your physical and mental health. This we know. But sometimes exercise can become a detriment, particularly if it’s really intense or your body is not in a good state to handle the uptick in exercise. So file under health myths: excessive and extreme exercise.
If you experience extreme chronic stress and couple it with extreme exercising, this may lead to HPA-axis dysfunction. “Exercise causes an increase in cortisol, your stress hormone,” explains Kang. “So people in later stages of HPA dysfunction, or have so much stress going on from other aspects of their life may not respond well to exercise.”
The exact amount of exercise that is ideal depends on the individual and his or her state of health. If you think you are pushing yourself too hard, or are unsure of the amount of exercise that is right for you, speak to your health provider for guidance. Some symptoms of overexercising include the inability to recover well, extreme fatigue, hypoglycemia, nausea, or brain fog.
If you want to be pregnant in the future, infertility is another issue that is linked to overexercising: “If you’re underweight, and you’re a woman and overexercising, cycles can become irregular or stop completely (amenorrhea), resulting in infertility,” says Kang. One systematic review found that heavy exercise (over 60 minutes per day) is a risk factor for preventing ovulation in women. Even if you do not want to be pregnant, overexercising may affect your hormonal levels, which can contribute to a host of other symptoms and issues.
Should I avoid eating food with high fat content?
If there’s one macronutrient with the worst reputation it’s fat. Dietary fat is many times misunderstood, which is why we may avoid eating high-fat foods. One in the list of health myths: It will automatically lead to weight gain. Actually, healthy fats are crucial for an overall healthy and balanced diet.
“Fats are so essential. You need fats to maintain your cell membranes and [fat makes up] about 60 percent of our brain matter. Short-chain fatty acids are crucial for helping to maintain the gut barrier and fats are required for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K,” explains Kang. The key is understanding the difference between healthy fats (like the kind found in nuts, avocados, and olive oils) and unhealthy fat, like trans fats. And one of the top healthy myths? Avoiding fat if you want to lose weight. Incorporating a healthy amount of fat in your diet will help your body stabilize blood sugar, which leads to feeling satisfied longer.
Also, remember fats when cooking. Not all fats are equal (another one of the health myths!) when it comes to how well they can stand up to heat. Kang recommends cooking with fats that have a higher smoke point, like avocado oil and coconut oil. Olive oil is great for using on food, but does not stand up well to high heat cooking. “Any time you smoke oil on your frying pan, you want to throw it away. At this point, the oil has oxidized and produced potential carcinogens and other unhealthy compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,” Kang notes.
What about adopting a keto diet?
We’ve touched on this before, but highly specific and individualized diets should first be addressed with a healthcare provider or nutritionist before beginning restrictive eating. And do your research: The goal with a ketogentic diet is to get into ketosis, which is when your body is primarily burning fat for energy instead of glucose. According to Kang, it’s really difficult to get into ketosis and most people who try keto don’t make it into a true state of ketosis.
“Overall, with ketogenic diets, I reserve [them] for special circumstances because of the potential impact on the [gut] microbiome. Everyone agrees that a more diverse microbiome is associated with better health outcomes,” Kang says. And the best way to harbor a more diverse microbiome is by eating a variety of different foods, which may be difficult to do on the keto diet. However, if you have issues with your blood sugar, keto is a great diet to help reverse the path towards diabetes.
Ultimately, if you are ready for a specialized nutrition plan, there are certainly merits to understanding what a keto diet does to the body and can provide health-wise. But know you can always adopt the key takeaways for your lifestyle, without adhering to an eating plan that is quite so restrictive. When you optimize your health, remember to take into account your lifestyle, mindset, and ability to stick with a plan. This will help the longevity of any new nutritional goals.
Should I go gluten-free?
Plenty of us turn to gluten-free eating in the name of better health, and for many, nixing gluten is helpful. But when it comes to complete gluten-free eating, it’s easy to overcompensate with processed, packaged, and overall unhealthy foods just because they are labeled “gluten-free.”
A common side effect contributing to going gluten-free health is constipation. (Which is part of the healthy myths category: that all gluten-free products are inherently healthier.) This bodily response is due to eating whole grain products with gluten and then quickly switching to gluten-free products that may lack fiber. Just another reason to be cognizant of your body and what is truly right for your health needs.
The key to gluten-free eating? Maintaining nutritional balance and avoiding a diet full of gluten-free junk food. “[Gluten-free] is not synonymous with health. You can buy a gluten-free Twinkie if you want,” says Kang. “So that’s something to be careful about [when you eat gluten free]. We ideally want people to replace [gluten containing products] with nutrient-dense foods—vegetables, proteins, and fats,” says Kang.
That all said, what is most important when taking control of your health is a personalized plan for your individual goals and lifestyle. (And don’t fall prey to the health myths that abound.) Only you can determine which nutritional changes will be successful for you in the long run. Working with a medical expert to address holistic changes is ideal, and Parsley Health offers ample plans to meet your needs where you are. Optimal health is available to you and we can help.