Nutrition Myths Debunked

Nutrition Myths Debunked

Searching for nutritional advice can be a daunting task – there is a lot of conflicting information out there, and sometimes the sources of that information don’t have your best interest in mind. There is quite a bit of money to be made through obfuscation of facts, and processed food companies can skirt responsibility for the adverse health effects their products cause by shifting the blame to consumers. Because we prioritize public health, not profit, we want to clear up the common misconceptions surrounding nutrition.

A Calorie is a Calorie
If You're Fat It's Your Fault

“The processed food and soft drink industries promote the idea that obesity is caused by eating too much and exercising too little. They say the problem is in the quantity of food that you eat, not in the quality of food that they sell. They call this “common sense” and we’ve swallowed it hook, line and sinker. But I’m a scientist. I don’t believe in “common sense.” I believe in science. And the science tells us something entirely different.” – Dr. Lustig, Sweet Revenge: Turning the Tables on Processed Food

  • In general, we humans are very good at storing energy as fat. The human race is highly adapted to store the energy we consume through food within the chemical bonds of fat molecules. In the era of our evolutionary ancestors food was scarce, and a proficiency in storing calories as fat helped early humans to survive. However the genetic mechanisms that helped us survive then do us little good in our current food environment; they now work to our detriment by encouraging over consumption and unnecessary fat accumulation.
  • The fact is that many modern humans live in “obesogenic” environments: at every turn we’re presented with an abundance of tasty, satisfying, and often inexpensive foods that are hard to turn down. These foods help us meet our energy needs, but often have unforeseen health consequences. This food environment, coupled with the disappearance of physically active work lives have resulted in a population-wide shift to overweight and disordered metabolism.
  • Each year billions of dollars are spent to convince the public to purchase processed foods. Companies wouldn’t spend that kind of money on marketing if it weren’t working as intended. Food marketing works.
Food MythBusters

Food MythBusters acts as a platform to demystify false claims existent in the food industry. The organization offers an array of informational tools ranging from movies, videos and articles to create transparency for consumers.   

Exercise is More Important than Diet

Marion Nestle, author of Soda Politics, explains the deliberately misleading “physical activity diversion” often employed by soda companies.

Obesity is a Cause not a Symptom

“The focus on obesity is also driven by mythology – the real issue is metabolic disease, now affecting 25% of people on earth. Obesity is a symptom, not a cause of metabolic disease. This is why in the U.S., 40% of the non-obese population can be classified as “TOFI” – Thin on the Outside, Fat on the Inside.” – Wolfram Alderson, Executive Director of the IRN


Fruit Juice is High in Fiber
Skinny = Healthy

“Up to 40 percent of the normal weight population get the same exact diseases as do the obese. They get type 2 diabetes, they get high blood pressure, they get heart disease. They get fatty liver disease. In other words the [glossary_exclude]fat[/glossary_exclude] sick people and the thin sick people overlap when it comes to illness, as you can see here. And it turns out there are more thin sick people than there are [glossary_exclude]fat[/glossary_exclude] sick people.”
– Dr. Lustig, Sweet Revenge: Turning the Tables on Processed Food

Energy Balance is Marketing Mythology

What is the myth of energy balance? 

Simply stated:

Energy in (E+) — Energy out (E-) = Change in Body Fat Stores

The myth states: the same amount of ENERGY IN (calories consumed) and ENERGY OUT (calories burned) over time = body weight stays the same. More IN than OUT over time = weight gain. More OUT than IN over time = weight loss.

On the surface, this sounds like common sense.  But it’s not true. This oversimplification exploits false assumptions. Let’s gain a better understanding of our metabolic health using real science, not mythology.

Reference: Energy Balance is Marketing Mythology


Wolfram Alderson, a lifelong advocate for food system change, and Executive Director for the Institute for Responsible Nutrition, states: “We simply shouldn’t learn nutrition solely from books. Separating real life food experiences from nutrition has a name: nutritionism – essentially the idea of reducing nutrition to abstractions and constituents and approaching food as if it is simply a sum of many parts. Nutrition must be experienced holistically – in the context of real food – or you end up believing that food can come from factories and chemistry labs and creative packaging. Nutritionism is why there are over 10,000 items approved to be added to our food supply, and most of them are not food, but rather processed food additives. Does anyone really want to eat Butylated Hydroxyanisole?  It is approved to be in our food (Generally Regarded as Safe), so it is likely we are eating it already. The point is that when you separate the ideas of nutrition and food, it becomes possible to turn your food supply into a chemical dumping ground. Context is everything.”

Nutritionism has become a paradigm, a way of doing business that has turned our food into “food-like substances”.  Our modern food system is now the leading cause of chronic disease –  lethal but legal. We can change this. You can bust the myth of nutritionism by adopting a real food diet and walking away from processed foods. Surviving on real food, versus processed food, isn’t all that hard – the 10 Day Real Food Challenge makes it easy, fun, and delicious to test this idea for yourself.


Processed Food is Your Friend

“Imagine the last 50 years was an experiment. The food industry posed the hypothesis: Processed food is better than real food.“

With these words Professor Robert Lustig from the University of California told the story at the International Eat Forum on how the consumption of processed food and sweets has doubled to one third of the total food consumption in the US.

The difference between processed food and real food are huge. Processed food do not have enough fiber, Omega-3 fatty acids (wild fish), micronutrients and too much Trans-fats and branched chain amino acids, Omega-6 fatty acids, additives, emulsifiers, salt and sugar.

Research has shown that out of the 600.000 items in the American food supply, 74 percent have added sugar.

“In the USA, the food industry grosses $1 trillion per year – $450 billion is gross profit. In the USA, health care costs total $2.7 trillion/year – 75 percent of which is chronic metabolic diseases and 75 percent of which is preventable. Thus, $1.4 trillion/year is wasted.  We lose triple what the food industry makes,” Lustig explains.

“In conclusion, the project has succeeded in getting the consumption of unhealthy food rising, and it has succeeded in cash flow for the companies, but it has failed dramatically when it comes to health. And there is only one answer: Real food,” said Lustig.

Watch Dr. Lustig’s presentation here:

Debunking Tactics
  1. Consider the source. Is it coming from an individual or organization that has credibility in the nutrition science space? Does this individual or organization have any special interests (e.g., the Gatorade Sports Science Institute), and are they declared? Does the source have an established track record and position in the nutrition science field? Are they trying to sell you a product, service, diet plan, philosophy, etc.? Are they making their point at the expense of others in the field?
  2. Content is king. What is the nature of the content? Does it start with a sensational headline, a list of the top ten things you should or shouldn’t eat, or use hyperbole to make its point? Are there any references to real data, peer reviewed science, or an established field of study? Are scientific elements referenced, or is it entirely opinion? Is there reference to a “study” but no original sources provided?
  3. Establish reliable relationships with sources that can be trusted. Pay attention to what they are saying. Establish the context of their work (medicine, nutrition, diet, policy, etc.). Truly effective food system change is about establishing and reestablishing relationships with primary sources of real-whole-natural food and those who have knowledge about food (farmers, chefs, nutrition scientists, doctors, public health advocates, etc.).
  4. Mythology, marketing, and flimflam. Is the source promoting the idea that all calories are the same or “everything in moderation” thinking? The energy balance hypothesisOne size fits all diets? Is there something being sold? Who sponsors the site or information? Are there obvious conflicts of interest clouding their perspectives?
Energy Balance is Marketing Mythology

A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on. -Mark Twain

Eight primary diseases related to metabolic dysfunction account for a staggering 75 percent of the healthcare costs in the US. In order to escape culpability for their role in the pandemic of metabolic disease, food and beverage corporations have diverted the focus of responsibility to the consumer by hiding behind a pseudoscientific concept called “energy balance”. They have used this narrative to dominate the conversation about food and fitness for decades, wielding this so-called “science” to discredit any and all who would dare challenge them.

Food marketing relies on the classic propaganda principle: if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. Learning how to separate fact from fiction is essential if society is going to make any progress toward improving our collective health.

In order to deconstruct the myth of energy balance, we need to employ some basic science—physics, biology, and chemistry. And a little history too.

What is the myth of energy balance? 

Simply stated:

Energy in (E+) — Energy out (E-) = Change in Body Fat Stores

The myth states: the same amount of ENERGY IN (calories consumed) and ENERGY OUT (calories burned) over time = body weight stays the same. More IN than OUT over time = weight gain. More OUT than IN over time = weight loss.

On the surface, this sounds like common sense.  But it’s not true. This oversimplification exploits false assumptions. Let’s gain a better understanding of our metabolic health using real science, not mythology.

E is for Energy, F is for Fuel

Let’s begin with the big E: energy.  In reality, when the industry says “energy”, they are actually referring to food. Is food energy? Here is where the false assumption comes in. Food contains chemicals that can be converted into energy. But, to be more accurate, food is fuel. The difference between fuel and energy is critical.

In physics, energy is a property of objects which can be transferred to other objects or converted into different forms, but cannot be created or destroyed. The two main types of energy are kinetic and potential energy.

Kinetic energy is energy that is in motion. Moving water and wind are good examples of kinetic energy.

Potential energy is stored energy. Fuels are any materials that store potential energy in forms that can be released and used for work. Examples of potential energy are oil sitting in a barrel, or food on your plate. If the right reactions were performed, they would release a lot of energy and do a lot of work.

In physics, work is the transfer of energy.  This sounds a little tricky, so here is a good illustration of this – a pitcher throwing a ball:

The baseball pitcher does “work” on the baseball by transferring energy from his arm to the ball. What fuels the pitcher’s work?  Food.

The processed food industry wants us to call food energy rather than fuel because they don’t want us to think about the complex biological and chemical reactions, which are called nutrition and metabolism. It is vital that we understand that energy and fuel are not the same.

Just because a substance provides energy, does not mean it is a food. Not all sources of energy are food (nourishment), and some, in excess quantities, are toxic – and can cause metabolic disease.

Dropping the Bomb

Calories are units of stored energy; the amount of energy required to raise 1 gram of water 1 degree centigrade. The device that measures calories, or the units of energy contained in food, is something called the Bomb Calorimeter.  Pierre Eugène Marcellin Berthelot (1827-1907), a French chemist, invented the bomb calorimeter in 1881. The bomb calorimeter determines the heat of combustion of food substances by burning it in a metal chamber that is placed in an insulated vessel of water. The heat generated is transferred to the water. The increase in temperature of the water determines the heat released by the food. This central unit of measurement, the calorie, is derived from a device invented over a century ago that burns things in a small oven. This highlights another false assumption in the energy balance myth. The human body is not an oven.

Image of a 19th Century Bomb Calorimeter

The process by which potential energy is released from food isn’t combustion—it’s metabolism.  Metabolism includes all the biological and chemical reactions involved in maintaining our living cells. Metabolism is only as efficient as its fuel.

We are all familiar with the expression “You are what you eat.” This is also a myth. If you understand how the metabolic system functions, then you’ll realize “you are what you do with what you eat”, or “you are what you metabolize”. What you metabolize depends on many variables: the quality and contents of the food you eat, the status of your metabolic system, the bacteria in your gut, your stress levels, and even how much sleep you got last night.

Equivalent calories from a glass of milk or a sugary soda are metabolized in very different ways in the human body. While the milk provides nourishment, the soda delivers excess energy to cells that are usually stored as fat. The second pathway also triggers a cascade of negative consequences that damages the liver and impairs the efficiency of metabolism. Combined, these events promote weight gain and metabolic disease.

energy balance - lifestyle

Not surprisingly, the processed food industry would like you to believe that the calories in a handful of Reese’s Pieces are the same as the calories in a handful of almonds. It’s all about energy balance – a balanced lifestyle! In a bomb calorimeter they’re the same, but in the human body they’re not.

Because we are not ovens. And all calories are not the same.

(Photo – “Balanced” by Yoni Freedhoff)

Food is fuel, not energy. 

Food is a substance that contains energy as well as other values (positive and/or negative) that can be transferred to a living organism (with harmful and/or helpful effects).

Food is more than the sum of its parts.

Actually, “real” food is even more than fuel. “Real” food is alive and complex, and contains bioactive macronutrients (fat, protein and carbohydrates including fiber), micronutrients including vitamins and minerals, beneficial phytochemicals, as well as millions of microorganisms, some bad but most good.

Processing food removes many of the beneficial components of food (fiber, nutrients, and microorganisms) to increase shelf life and “palatability”. To make matters worse, the processed food industry uses thousands of “additives”. Look at the online databases called EAFUS (Everything Added to Food in the U.S.) and GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe). Once there were 180 items that were GRAS. Now there are 10,000. Do you really think there are 10,000 things you can safely swallow?

The most dominant industrial additive in the global food supply is sugar…not the intrinsic sugar found in fruits and vegetables and packaged with fiber, vitamins and minerals, but the factory-produced sugar from commodity crops such as beets, corn, and sugar cane. There is a huge difference between the two.

The average American consumes 22.6 teaspoons of sugar per day. That’s 107 grams, half of which is fructose— the sweet molecule. And many Americans consume more than twice this amount. This level of sugar has a very different impact in the human body than the sugar you get from eating an orange, and is a leading cause of diet-related disease.

At the core of every human life is a metabolic system – a cellular engine that can be transformative and uplifting, or degenerative and debilitating – killing us slowly and painfully over the course of our (shortened and degraded) lives. The metabolic system is comprised of organs, hormones and enzymes that work together to digest, absorb, process, transport, and excrete the constituents that are essential to life. When this system becomes faulty because of the fuel you feed it, health is compromised. It is the difference between wellness and illness.

Screenshot_2016-02-01_18.50.20.pngThe food and beverage industry says “Calories in – Calories out”. They say, “We eat too much and exercise too little.” Propagandists bank on you accepting these fabrications as truth. It sounds logical — but it’s not. The idea of “energy balance” is a powerful marketing myth that leads the public to accept false assumptions as science. The processed food and sugary beverage industry side-steps science, and uses big-budget marketing as a tool for deception. Hey, it’s worked for 50 years, since the start of our processed food culture. The question is whether the myth will continue, or whether good science can debunk 50 years of deceit. And whether people will restore their health by simply eating real food.

Wolfram Alderson is Founding Executive Director for the Institute for Responsible Nutrition. He recently had his DNA analyzed and discovered that an estimated 3.0% of his DNA is from Neanderthals, apparently higher than average. This fact hasn’t deterred him from cultivating a passionate interest in nutrition science. Despite his origins, he doesn’t eat “Paleo”; he just eats real food.

Looking for additional references on this topic?

Do you believe a calorie is a calorie?

The food industry vigorously promotes the myth “a calorie is a calorie.” But a calorie is NOT a calorie.

This dangerous lie is easily disproven through these FOUR EXAMPLES:

  1. Fiber. You eat 160 calories in almonds, but only absorb 130—because some fiber calories pass through without metabolizing. Vegetables, greens, beans and whole grains are all high in fiber.
  2. Protein. It takes twice as much energy to metabolize protein as carbs, so protein spends more calories in processing. And, protein makes you feel full longer.
  3. Fat. All fats are 9 calories per gram. But omega-3 fats are heart-healthy and will save your life. Trans-fats will clog your arteries and kill you. Eat more fish, nuts, avocados, olive oil and eggs. Avoid most processed foods.
  4. Added Sugar. Calories from added sugar are different from other calories, and are jeopardizing health worldwide. And yes that includes honey, syrup and High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Excess added sugar leads to, diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver disease, unrelated to its calories. Avoid processed foods and sodas; they’re loaded with added sugar.

There’s an irrefutable link shown between diabetes and added sugar.

My colleagues Dr. Sanjay Basu, Paula Yoffe, Nancy Hills and I asked: “What in the world’s food supply explains diabetes rates, country-by-country, over the last decade?” We melded numerous databases worldwide measuring food availability and diabetes prevalence.

WE FOUND: Only changes in sugar availability explained changes in diabetes prevalence worldwide; nothing else mattered. We assessed total calories from protein, fat, fiber, natural sugar (from fruit) and added sugar (from sugar crops, sweeteners and soda). (Reference study here.)

We found that total caloric availability was unrelated to diabetes prevalence; for every extra 150 calories per day, diabetes prevalence rose by only 0.1 percent. But if those 150 calories were from added sugar, diabetes prevalence rose 11-fold, by 1.1 percent.

Yet Coca-Cola created their Coming Together campaign saying, “All calories count.” They want you to believe the lie that a calorie is a calorie. The food industry will try to sew the seeds of doubt. But they cannot refute the science.

THE GOOD NEWS: In our study, countries where sugar availability fell showed decreases in type 2 diabetes. The UK and Australia have already laid down stricter guidelines for sugar consumption. Americans are growing wary of added sugar and the food industry. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Committee has now put a limit on added sugar at 10% of calories. The cost of inaction is a future where one-in-three Americans have diabetes. Politicians must step up to establish programs that make eating healthy more than a personal goal—it must become a national priority.

For a great infographic on this topic, in English and in Spanish, click here.

Want to read more?

Counting calories is unhelpful for weight loss or disease prevention. 

Dr. Robert Lustig media archive