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Tales from a College Nutrition Professor

Pat Baird, MA, RDN, FAND

In the 20+ years that I’ve been a college professor, the comments and questions from students never cease to amaze me.  In fact, it’s one of the reasons I continue teaching-- to keep my fingers on the pulse of what nutrition headlines and myths are circulating and impressing people.  Nutrition misinformation fascinates me, as does the challenge of clarifying it.

Myth: Low-Calorie Sweeteners are unhealthy

For instance, a student recently commented that low-cal sweeteners are “bad” and talked about a study on their unhealthy effects. From what he said, I could tell it was right out of a 1968 study that caught lots of attention in its day, yet somehow still has legs. The problem is the study was done on rats and he clearly hadn’t evaluated the science. I explained where the rumor originated and that evidence shows that low-cal sweeteners are safe and proven to help when used in weight loss programs. I point out that the American Heart Association maintains this position, as do many other health care organizations, like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the FDA, who affirms that low-calorie sweeteners are safe for human consumption.

Science is really the issue and the revelation that nutrition is a science comes as a shock to many students. Yes, nutrition IS a science, and one study, on rats, does not a body of evidence make.

Myth: Soda is the cause of obesity

On the flip side, are the students who believe sugar-sweetened beverages make you fat? The evidence shows otherwise. Excess calories and/or too little activity contribute to weight gain. Obesity is a complex issue that cannot be simply attributed to one dietary ingredient. All calories count and balance really is key.  

Myth: Fresh is best

A myth I often hear is that when it comes to produce is “fresh is best,” while canned and frozen items should be avoided.  Not so.  Due to the transportation and storage involved, by the time they are cooked or consumed fresh fruits and veggies have lost nutrients.  Frozen and canned items are processed immediately after harvesting so nutrient loss is minimal. What’s important is to purchase fresh produce in season, know your vendor, that turnover is quick, and prepare soon after purchasing.

I could go on and on. There are two important considerations in nutrition. One is to take time and know the source of the information; go beyond the headline. The other is balance. That means balance in food choices and balanced opinions. There is no reason to demonize one food or one ingredient. Hidden beneath the dramatic headline is generally a fable that people mistake for fact.

Pat Baird is a registered dietitian nutritionist, a fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; and President of the CT Academy of Nutrition.  She is an award-winning author of five books, a noted media spokesperson, and adjunct professor at UConn Stamford. Pat worked in healthcare at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 



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