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Food Fiction

By Jennifer Shaklan M.F.A '02

Published Jan 1, 2018 8:00 AM

Forget what you think you know about good and bad foods — you may be surprised by what food facts are food myths.


Illustration by Juliette Borda.

Forget milk. Get a third of your calories from fat. Enjoy your coffee. Although this may sound like a recipe for bad health, it’s actually the truth, according to the latest research on what constitutes a healthy diet. Professor Karin Michels, a nutritional epidemiologist at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health who specializes in disease prevention, is happy to set the record straight.

Through public talks, Michels dispels common food myths in order to arm people with all the information they need to optimize their diet and minimize their risk for disease. She often surprises her audience with the truth about many widely held food “facts” that, it turns out, are false. Coffee, for example, is actually good for us. It lowers the risk for many common diseases, including diabetes, colorectal cancer and aggressive prostate cancer.

“Unless you have some specific subtype of arrhythmia and are sensitive to [caffeine], there’s nothing bad about coffee,” Michels says. “A lot of people drink four cups a day. There’s nothing wrong with that.” And when it comes to milk, Michels says it’s simply not true that milk does a body good. In addition to being completely different in composition from human mother’s milk, cow’s milk is full of the pregnancy hormones estrogen and progesterone, because cows are generally artificially inseminated while still lactating. Consuming these hormones raises the risk for several cancers.

Eating a low-fat diet is another myth that has become a canon for good health. The average American diet includes about 32 percent of calories from fat, which, according to Michels, is a good thing. Those calories should come from unsaturated fats, however, which raise our HDL, the good cholesterol. Think olive oil, fish, nuts and avocados instead of margarine, cookies and other crispy foods, and coconut oil. The latter contain saturated and trans fats, which raise our bad cholesterol (LDL) and should be avoided.

People also commonly believe that red meat is a great source of iron, but Michels says this type of iron actually promotes cardiovascular disease. The iron found in leafy green vegetables, legumes and whole grains is much healthier.

While Michels advocates maintaining a largely vegetarian diet, with whole-grain carbohydrates and very low salt consumption, she believes it’s OK to occasionally enjoy fish. “It does have good oils that are very beneficial to health,” she says, but adds that it’s wise to select fish low in mercury levels, like salmon.

“Ninety-five percent of obesity could be prevented with changes in nutrition alone,” Michels says. “Heart disease and diabetes are also very nutrition-related.” She’s aware, though, that changing one’s diet can be daunting. Even she indulges in milk chocolate now and then, but Michels doesn’t feel bad about it.

“Everyone has to decide for themselves how healthy they want to be,” she observes. “I wouldn’t want to feel deprived of everything, so that’s why I have a piece of chocolate, and I enjoy it.”