Bad nutrition advice is dangerous. It’s led to an out of control obesity problem and high disease rates.
One reason that this advice is so damaging is that nutrition is all about context. The perfect diet for a hardcharging athlete will be very different from that of someone trying to lose body fat. Therefore, this article will discuss some of the more harmful pieces of nutrition advice that are relevant to an informed and active population.
Bad Advice #1: Eat simple carbs before your workout for quick energy.
The advice to eat a meal of simple carbs, such as toast and honey, before working out comes from the faulty belief that what you eat right before exercise will “fuel” your workout.
The human body is not a car. It doesn’t “run” on carbs in the same way that a Honda runs on gasoline.
Rather, the energy that powers your workout comes primarily from glycogen, which is a form of carbs that is stored in your muscles and liver. It takes a few hours for the body to digest carbs and synthesize muscle glycogen, so whatever you ate in the few hours pre-workout doesn’t count.
Those carbs will most likely be in your bloodstream, which means that if they are fast-digesting simple carbs that are high in sugar, they will spike insulin and blood sugar, reducing the body’s ability to burn fat. You’ll also probably feel sluggish or tired—obviously something that should be avoided.
So what’s the best solution?
Pre-workout nutrition should:
avoid doing harm (reducing fat burning by raising insulin for example),
provide amino acids for protein synthesis, and
keep you from being hungry or having very low blood sugar.
Some combination of protein, low-carb vegetables, and healthy fat like nuts is indicated. Just be sure to allow enough time to digest.
Bad Advice #2: Avoid salt like it’s the plague.
The belief that salt is bad for health and should be avoided is one of the most widespread beliefs about nutrition. Most people have accepted that dietary fat won’t make you fat and that higher protein diets won’t damage your bones, but salting your food is definitely still taboo.
It is true that a high salt intake is a problem if you have very high insulin levels or a tendency towards high blood pressure. And it’s probably good to consciously avoid it if you are overweight and consume large amounts of processed foods.
But, restricting salt would be disastrous if you just ran a marathon or are a hardcore athlete who sweats a lot. If these people don’t get enough salt, they will die. That’s because sodium plays a primary role in heart function and hydration.
Did you know that water on its own does nothing for your hydration?
It needs sodium and other electrolytes for your body to retain it. Otherwise drinking water just dehydrates you.
In addition, a low salt diet could be dangerous for someone trying to recover from excessive stress and overworked adrenal glands. If you have low morning cortisol, levels of another hormone called aldosterone will also be low, leading to excess salt excretion by the kidneys. This produces electrolyte imbalance and dehydration.
The bottom line is that salt intake needs to be individualized instead of this blanket mandate for everyone to cut salt at all costs. People who may want to salt their food include athletes, people on a high-protein diet, and those who don’t eat processed foods.
Bad Advice #3: Eat as few calories as possible to lose fat.
For anyone who doesn’t have a basic grasp of nutrition, it's understandable to think that eating as few calories as possible is best for fat loss. After all, we’re continually told that the only thing that matters for fat loss is that we eat eat fewer calories than we burn.
And it is true that fat loss requires us to create an energy deficit. The thing is that how you create that energy deficit makes a big difference.
First of all, when most people cut calories as low as possible, they end up in the 1,000-1,200 calorie a day range. Fairly quickly, the body will downregulate your metabolism in order to preserve fuel stores, and you’ll burn fewer calories daily.
Top it off with needing to fight off hunger with willpower, and you’ll elevate cortisol. If you’re working out hard in an effort to get things moving again, high cortisol will become a chronic problem and you can cause major metabolic dysregulation.
To fully understand why the calorie approach to fat loss is terrible advice, you also need to know that certain foods like protein and fibrous vegetables affect gut hormones that send a message to your brain that your full, while also keeping insulin release low and blood sugar steady.
The result is that you’ll get more mileage for the calories provided in a meal that contains steak and collard greens than you would from the same number of calories from granola and a banana.
In addition, the body uses different amounts of calories to break down protein, fat, and carbs. A meal of pure protein requires the body to burn 25 percent of the calories it provides to digest and assimilate. The body preferentially uses the amino acids in protein to repair any damaged tissue instead of storing them as fat.
The bottom line is that you should never cut calories below your resting metabolic rate (the amount your body would burn if you stayed in bed all day) because this will produce a metabolic slow down.
Eat plenty of protein, vegetables, healthy fats, and be as active as possible and you should be able to naturally eat fewer calories than you consume without any conscious struggle.
Bad Advice #4: Everything in moderation.
That we should eat everything in moderation is perhaps the most famous piece of diet advice ever given—and if the 66 percent of the U.S. population that is overweight is any indication, it’s the worst ever.
The idea behind moderation is that unhealthy foods are only unhealthy when eaten in excess, so a little bit is okay. The theory goes on to say that avoiding certain foods depletes your willpower, often leading to a rebound effect in which people give in and overeat.
The problem is that just about everyone has some food that they have a hard time putting down. If they eat a little, they eat a lot. And then they feel guilty about it. Moderation straight up doesn’t work.
It’s okay to remove foods from your diet that you have trouble putting down. Having those foods around the house, or ”indulging” in them in social situations does you no good if you eat more than you truly want to and beat yourself up with guilt and regret afterwards.
This doesn’t mean you never get to eat “treat” foods that aren’t part of your main staples if you want to. But, there’s a big difference between eating a “cheat” food, enjoying it, and knowing your body and metabolism can handle it, and struggling with this mythic “moderation” thing and shaming yourself into oblivion after you ate an entire jar of nut butter or pint of ice cream.
A more effective way to exert self control over foods that trip you up is to face up to your food weaknesses, resolve not to eat them, and find other foods that you can eat in moderation when you need a treat.
Bad Advice #5: Nutrient timing and post-workout nutrition are dead.
Two recent pieces of research have resulted in people crying “broscience” at any mention of meal timing or the post-workout anabolic window. Unfortunately, the advice that’s being doled out by these uninformed debunkers is overly simplistic and ends up doing more harm than good.
First, recent research has found that eating six meals a day has no metabolic advantage over eating three meals a day. This is no big surprise. We’ve known for a while that what you eat has a much greater effect on metabolic rate than when you eat.
Planning meals around protein, healthy fats, and veggies during the day and saving higher carb foods for dinner is a great way to keep blood sugar steady, your metabolism cranking, and maintain energy. If you eat this way, it’s much less important whether you eat every 2 hours, every 4 hours, or go with some other complicated meal timing.
Second, a 2013 review on nutrient timing found that a post-workout window of opportunity for workout nutrition does exist, but it’s importance depends on a variety of factors including training status (trained or untrained), age, volume and intensity of training, workout mode (aerobic vs. anaerobic), and training fasted or fed, among other things.
Therefore, there’s no universal answer, but post-workout nutrition is definitely not obsolete.
The classical post-exercise objective of consuming protein immediately after your workout to promote recovery and growth may only be applicable in the absence of a properly constructed pre-exercise meal. Here’s what it comes down to:
Don’t train on an empty stomach. Eat high-quality protein prior to working out and make sure you have enough time to digest.
If for some reason you ignore the advice to eat pre-workout, be sure to get high-quality fast-digesting protein (preferably a liquid from like whey) as soon as is reasonably possible post-workout (no need to skip your shower in an effort to get protein, just be sensible and don’t wait hours).
If you’re training twice a day, or your goal is strength and muscle development, consuming carbs with protein in the first two hours after your workout to replenish glycogen stores and reduce cortisol is a no-brainer.
For people who are trying to lose fat, most important is to establish an eating pattern that allows you to avoid hunger and cravings rather than worry about precise workout-nutrition timing.
Get high-quality protein at every meal and focus on sane, simple, sustainable nutrition. For example, one post-workout protein shake with about 20 grams that is free of added sugar may be useful if your overall protein intake is low, but there is rarely a need to take it beyond that.