Commentary: Feasting on food myths

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Although it’s hardly a credible source of dietary advice, Fitness magazine nevertheless ventured into the middle of the diet-health controversies recently with an article titled, “The Truth About Common Nutrition Myths.”

Given its audience of self-selected health enthusiasts, it made sense that the magazine’s editors focused on exploring the myths about secret diets and special foods that can trigger miraculous weight loss, or maybe the rapid appearance of a chiseled set of six-pack abs.

Some of the myths the magazine attempted to debunk were just silly, such as “Red wine is heart-healthy,” and “Loading up on fruit helps you slim down.” I suppose a fair number of so-called fitness freaks might believe that latter statement is accurate, but seriously, the only way a fruit-heavy diet can result in weight loss is if it displaces other, more nutrient-dense foods (like animal proteins), and, not to be too graphic, “digestive distress” that can causes the wrong kind of weight loss.

As for the rest of the list, it’s a mixed bag. Here’s a review of three of the more common dietary myths:

A grilled chicken sandwich beats a burger. Is that true? Marginally. Give the Fitness editors credit for debunking the “white-beats-red” mythology when it comes to eating meat. For the last 30 years, the poultry industry, the chicken chains and (seemingly) the entire medical/dietary establishment has done a hard sell on the idea that poultry is intrinsically healthier than beef or pork. No matter how much breading is piled on, no matter how greasy the deep fryer, not matter which fat-laden condiments are smeared onto it, the average American believes with a conviction rivaling religious faith that a sandwich containing chicken is automatically better for you than even the leanest, plainest burger on a bun.

And that no matter how they’re prepared, beef or pork are unhealthy, environmentally destructive and, by the way, more expensive.

Here’s the reality. Although the margin of difference isn’t monumental, the typical fast-food hamburger sandwich is lower in calories than a grilled chicken sandwich (390 vs. 420), comparable in fat (about 9.8 grams apiece) and distinctly lower in sodium (about 1,100 mgs. vs. 1,239 mgs.).

And that’s comparing a double hamburger to a chicken patty, which equals them both out at around 8 ounces each in raw weight. Unfortunately, the Fitness editors apparently failed to account for the fact that a single burger patty only weighs 4 ounces, so their comparison was highly slanted in favor of a hamburger. Use comparable weights, however, and the scales still tilt slightly toward beef.

And by the way, even though there’s none in either beef or poultry, both sandwiches contain 11 percent of their total calories from sugar. Want to know why so many people become overweight? There’s your answer.

Next up, a take on the trendy “gluten-free” diet.

Wheat is bad for you. True? Not really — with a caveat. Thanks to celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Lady Gaga embracing gluten-free diets, sales of such food products have nearly tripled since 2006. But as has been noted in this space before, only 7 percent of the U.S. population actually suffers from genuine gluten sensitivity and that’s a generous estimate.

For the vast majority of people, there’s no medical reason to avoid eating wheat (or rye or barley, since they also contain gluten). However, “wheat” doesn’t accurately describe the way most people consume that edible starch. They don’t eat it in the form of plain, cooked wheat berries (similar to grains of rice), but in the form of flour — often highly refined — contained in cookies, donuts, muffins, snack foods, sweetened breakfast cereals and other processed foods that come with added fat and sugars.

In those concoctions, unfortunately, wheat is “bad for you.”

Speaking of which, the next myth addressed a similar controversy.

High-fructose corn syrup is worse than sugar. True? Again, yes and no.

No, because although HFCS has been blamed for contributing to the American obesity crisis, as the magazine noted, “High-fructose corn syrup doesn’t pave the way for weight gain any more than other sweeteners do.”

But yes, because what that statement’s really saying is that all sweeteners pave the way for weight gain.

The problem is that high-fructose corn syrup is relatively cheap, compared to sugar, so food manufacturers add it to a lengthy list of products. As a result, despite dietary admonitions to cut down on “empty calories,” Americans are consuming as much (or more) of their total calories from all forms of sweeteners as they ever have. It just tends to be hidden in food products, rather than sitting in a bowl on the kitchen table.

Finally, it was impossible to ignore the provocative lead of the Fitness article, which stated, “Fired foods can have a place in a healthy diet.” The article quoted Harold McGee, a food-science writer and author of On Food and Cooking: “When properly deep-fried, food soaks up minimal oil.” Supposedly, according to the article, a roasted chicken leg contains only 16 calories more than a fried chicken leg, because high temperatures in the fryer create steam that blocks oil from soaking into the meat.

But that doesn’t stop oil from soaking into the breading, which is the whole point of deep frying.

In fact, according to multiple sources (including USDA) a fried chicken leg contains an additional 43 calories — not 16 — compared with a roasted chicken leg, and 25 (or 58 percent) of those extra calories are from added fat.

So yes, fried chicken can be part of “a healthy diet.”

Just not a very big part.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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