To Eat Or Not To Eat? The Science Behind Ten Common Food Beliefs

Nutrition expert Professor Christiani Jeyakumar Henry spills the beans on which popular food beliefs are true and which ones should be taken with a grain of salt.

AsianScientist (Oct. 16, 2020) – On the 16th of October each year, countries around the world celebrate World Food Day to commemorate the founding of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Though its themes vary yearly, World Food Day not only promotes awareness and action for those suffering from hunger, but also highlights the need for healthy diets for all.

But when it comes to diets or anything food-related, inaccurate claims are a dime a dozen. To examine the accuracy of these claims, Asian Scientist Magazine talked to National University of Singapore Professor Christiani Jeyakumar Henry, who is also the Senior Advisor of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*STAR) Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI). Here’s what he had to say about ten widespread food beliefs.

  1. More mini-meals are better than three big meals: TRUE
  2. For Henry, there may be a kernel of truth to this belief. Eating small meals more frequently helps maintain levels of blood sugar or glucose, he shared. Whenever we chomp down on a big meal, our pancreas overproduces the hormone insulin, which prompts cells to absorb blood sugar. If all that sugar isn’t immediately needed, some of the excess is stored in our fat cells—leading to weight gain.

    By eating smaller meals at regular intervals, insulin is produced at steadier rates and hence, only the required glucose is taken in by cells. Don’t assume Henry is encouraging you to eat more often though.

    “The last thing you want to do is eat ten meals that are all high in calories!” he said.

  3. No breakfast, no problem: FALSE
  4. Heads up, intermittent fasters—skipping breakfast is the worst thing to do, warned Henry.

    “When you skip breakfast, your entire day’s glucose levels are completely altered; you tend to eat more at lunch and are likelier to snack,” he explained. “Follow the Old English saying: eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper.”

  5. Lose weight by skipping meals: UNSURE
  6. What about skipping lunch or dinner, then?

    “If you skip a meal, you eat fewer calories and you lose weight in the short-term,” said Henry.

    Now, the question is: can that weight loss be sustained over time? According to Henry, the jury’s still out due to the lack of long-term studies.

  7. Eat for two, expectant mothers? FALSE
  8. The answer is a resounding NO! In the first two trimesters, a pregnant woman actually puts on very little body weight. Hence, eating twice as much during this period could lead to uncomfortable bloating on top of all the other pregnancy symptoms.

    “Mothers have to watch the quality of their diet, not quantity,” advised Henry.

  9. All calories are created equal: FALSE
  10. Henry considers this an important myth to dispel.

    “100-calorie bowls of white rice, whole-grain rice and steak may have the same gross energy, but they are broken down by the body differently,” he clarified.

    High-carbohydrate foods like white rice are entirely broken down into sugar, for instance. However, there’s less available energy available when breaking down fiber-rich whole grains as dietary fiber is indigestible.

    While food gives us energy, it also takes a lot of energy to digest food. This is called diet-induced thermogenesis, and proteins like steak have some of the highest rates.

    “While digesting a 100-calorie steak, you’ve already burnt off a significant number of calories,” explained Henry.

    In summary, the source of a calorie definitely matters.

  11. Eating at night causes weight gain: PARTLY TRUE
  12. It may be tempting to snack during late-night Netflix binges, but you might want to hold back on your cravings. This belief is partly true, according to Henry. At night, processes like the breaking down of food into energy are downregulated.

    “This is because you’re going into a resting state,” he explained.

    Therefore, eating midnight snacks may reduce the amount of fat burned, making them more likely to accumulate in different parts of the body.

  13. Avoid fruit in the afternoon: PARTLY TRUE
  14. This strangely specific belief holds that eating fruit (or other carbohydrates) after 2 p.m. causes blood sugar levels to spike. Come bedtime, it supposedly becomes more difficult for our bodies to stabilize this spike, leading to weight gain.

    According to Henry, 2 p.m. is a little too early.

    “If you have high-calorie sugary foods later at night, it’s true that your glucose regulation will be altered,” he said.

    In fact, a study from his team showed that eating carbohydrate-rich meals during dinner resulted in higher blood sugar levels, compared to eating the same food for breakfast.

    “The timing of food consumption is very important,” concluded Henry.

  15. Keep colds at bay with vitamin C: PARTLY TRUE
  16. Made famous by two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling in the 1970s, this claim is unfortunately bogus. Henry says that scientific studies to date have shown that mega-doses of vitamin C cannot prevent or cure colds. However, for marathon runners and other individuals that regularly engage in high-intensity activities, consuming slightly more vitamin C may be protective—even halving the common cold risk.

  17. Burn extra calories by eating spicy food: TRUE
  18. Though the statement may seem contradictory, it’s true.

    “We were one of the first to show that a compound called capsaicin found in chili increases your metabolic rate,” recounted Henry.

    It’s not just chili too: mustard, coffee and green tea also boost metabolism. Still, eating these foods in moderation is key.

    “Don’t think that eating a couple of chilies will make you skinny!” advised Henry.

  19. Post-op, pass on poultry and seafood: FALSE

According to Henry, this is unnecessary. While a proper diet promotes quicker wound healing, there’s no reason to avoid good sources of protein like poultry and seafood. In fact, protein deficiencies can even impair the formation of new blood vessels and rebuilding of new tissue. Poultry and seafood are also rich in micronutrients that facilitate wound healing, such as zinc and vitamin A. So feel free to reward yourself after a successful surgery, but remember to consult your doctor or dietician first to see if there’s anything that you should be avoiding.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Andrew Wong/Unsplash.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

After working as a science journalist in China for five years, Calo left to pursue his Master’s degree in science communication at the Australian National University. He enjoys telling stories of science across different formats at Asian Scientist Magazine.

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