What you’ve heard is true: Doctors receive fewer than 20 hours of nutrition education in medical school.
As a primary care physician, I realized that if I wanted to know what science says about eating for optimal health, I'd have to study it myself. So I did. My research inspired me to follow a plant-based (vegan) diet and teach my patients how this way of eating helps prevent and treat many chronic diseases.
I also learned that, due to a lack of nutrition education, many of us in the medical profession have the same misconceptions about diet as everyone else.
That’s why I’m sharing some of the most common nutrition myths you may have heard in your doctor’s office — and what the research actually tells us.
1. “You need to eat more protein.”
For the vast majority of people, this is bad advice. Most people in the developed world eat far too much protein. In fact, the average American adult eats more than 1.5 times the recommended dietary allowance of 0.8 grams per kilogram of ideal body weight (about 56 grams per day for men, 46 grams per day for women).
Contrary to popular perception, protein does not make us lean and fit. Rather, excess protein is stored as fat or turned into waste. To make matters worse, most of the protein we eat is animal-based. Animal protein is a key driver of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes — the leading reasons people visit the doctor!
What about eating more “lean” protein? Most meats, including chicken, provide up to three times as many calories from fat as from protein. Fish, too, contain unhealthy fats, as well as industrial pollutants. The leanest, cleanest sources of protein are beans and other legumes — they get less than 5 percent of their calories from fat and don’t have cholesterol, hormones, or antibiotics!
So what do I recommend? Follow a diet based on whole plant foods — like beans, grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. It provides plenty of protein to meet everyone’s needs, along with fiber, antioxidants, and critical phytonutrients. Plant foods have the complete package!
2. “You should cut back on carbs.”
This is another unfortunate piece of advice, often aimed at people interested in losing weight or preventing type 2 diabetes. Low-carb diets usually emphasize increased protein. Ironically, studies show that in the long run, diets higher in protein actually promote unhealthy weight gain and type 2 diabetes! Moreover, low-carb, high-protein diets increase the risk of heart disease and early death.
In my experience directing a weight management program, I’ve seen overweight people shed unwanted pounds when they focus on plant-based foods, which are naturally high in fiber and carbs. Indeed, studies show that plant-based eaters have the healthiest body weights compared to other eating patterns, whereas omnivores are the most likely to be overweight.
The communities around the world where people tend to live the longest — the so-called “Blue Zones” — eat high-carb diets. And large-scale, scientifically rigorous studies confirm that people eating diets high in carbohydrates tend to have the lowest rates of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
But it’s important to know that not all carbohydrates are created equal. Refined, highly processed grains (like white bread, pastries, crackers, and many commercial cereals) can raise triglycerides, promote weight gain, drive up blood sugar, and increase the risk of heart disease.
On the other hand, starches from whole grains (wild or brown rice, oats, whole-wheat pasta, or barley, for example) offer fiber, essential fatty acids, B vitamins, zinc, and protein, and they are an excellent source of energy. Quinoa, legumes, starchy vegetables, and fruits are other healthy carbohydrate sources.
3. “Drink milk to protect your bones.”
Is there anyone who hasn’t heard this? Generations of marketing slogans have perpetuated the idea that milk keeps our bones strong. Interestingly, few if any studies support this claim. In fact, some studies show that dairy products may actually increase the risk of fractures!
Maintaining bone health is far more complicated than just getting adequate calcium. Other nutrients are also essential, such as vitamins K and D. And many lifestyle factors play a role, including physical activity, sun exposure, smoking, and alcohol consumption.
Plus, cow milk and its products contain naturally occurring female hormones and can also contain antibiotics, saturated fat, and cholesterol — substances that definitely do not do a body good! Dairy has been specifically linked with prostate cancer as well as heart disease and early death.
We are better off getting calcium from plants like kale, broccoli, and bok choy — which also happen to be high in vitamin K, fiber, and many other nutrients. Other great options include almonds, sesame tahini, calcium-set tofu, or fortified soy or almond milk.
4. “If you want to lose weight, you should count calories.”
Doing this can definitely help you lose weight, at least at first. But how long can you keep it up? Most people find counting calories pretty tedious. Once they stop tracking, they tend to gain weight back.
Fortunately, there is a better way. Studies show that people who eat a plant-based diet tend to lose weight without counting calories or measuring portions. This is probably due in part to the lower energy density and higher fiber content of these foods; they promote satiety with fewer calories. Plus, research shows that animal products are linked to weight gain.
The trick to losing weight on a plant-based diet is to eat a wide variety of whole foods — like lentils, beans, fruits, vegetables, and intact grains — and limit added sugars and highly processed foods.
You don’t have to measure or count. It’s really hard to overeat calories when you eat this way, because the fiber will make you feel so full. Plus, you’ll be slashing your risk of disease at the same time!
5. “This pill is the solution to your health problems.”
The most important nutrition mistake that doctors make is to overlook the power of nutrition itself. Of course, drug therapy can be lifesaving. But science shows that it’s our food and lifestyle choices — not pills or procedures — that treat the root cause of most common chronic diseases, like heart disease and diabetes. The sooner the medical profession gets on board, the better off we’ll all be!
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