8 Healthy Eating Rules You Should Ignore

By Christine Byrne |

Registered dietitians reveal the popular advice they never follow—and why you shouldn’t either.

jug of milk in fridge

There’s no shortage of nutrition advice available on the internet. And that’s not always a good thing.

On the one hand, you have quick access to high-quality resources from the American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They’re incredibly valuable when you have questions.

On the other hand, you have Google, which is where most people go first when searching for answers. This is not always a problem, but the results page is usually a mixed bag, including both truly useful, science-backed information and some subpar sources with little or no real evidence behind their claims.

How do you separate fact from fiction? Always consider the source. Look for nutrition information that’s written by or sourced from registered dietitians, doctors, or trusted organizations like the ones mentioned above. A website that ends in .org, .gov, or .edu is a good sign you’re in the safe zone.

Still, even with due diligence, it’s inevitable you’ll encounter some questionable advice that doesn’t make sense for you or your lifestyle. If you have a chronic condition or are recovering from a serious illness or injury, it’s vital to get personalized nutrition guidance from your doctor or registered dietitian. Good nutrition can help you minimize symptoms or recover faster.

If you’re generally healthy, it’s still a good idea to talk about your diet when you see your doctor for checkups.

In the meantime, we asked experienced registered dietitians to set the record straight on eight nutrition “rules” they never follow. Here’s why you may want to ignore this advice as well.

Ignore This: Cut Sugar from Your Diet

“While most people can benefit from reducing their sugar intake, going completely sugar-free isn’t necessary,” says Nazima Qureshi, M.P.H., R.D., a Toronto-based dietitian.

“When someone goes totally sugar-free, they often skip out on fruits too, which deprives them of key nutrients,” she says. Naturally occurring sugars in fruits, vegetables, dairy, starch, and other carb sources are an important part of a balanced diet.

Even completely cutting out added sugars—from sweetened foods like dessert, flavored yogurt, and other packaged food—isn’t always a good idea. It’s true these foods shouldn’t make up the majority of your diet, but they’re fine in moderation, Qureshi says.

“Extreme restriction of any food is likely going to make you think about it all day,” she says. “Instead, enjoy sugar from natural sources such as fruit most of the time, then enjoy that once-in-a-while slice of cake or whatever treat you prefer without guilt.”

If cutting back on sugar is one of your goals, check out our guide for how to do it safely—without giving up dessert.

Ignore This: Count Calories

Counting calories isn’t always a bad idea, but “when someone is calorie counting, they often forget to consider the rest of the macronutrient distribution—carbohydrates, fat, and protein,” Qureshi says.

That’s a problem, since the number of calories in any given food doesn’t represent how nutrient-dense it is, she says. “This often results in selecting food options that are low-cal but may not be  very nutritious.”

For example, avocado is relatively high-calorie (about 320 calories in one avocado, or about 80 calories in ¼ avocado), but it packs healthy monounsaturated fats and many essential vitamins and minerals. A fat-free cookie, on the other hand, might be low in calories, but it’s also lacking nutrients, fat, and fiber, meaning it won’t be nearly as satisfying.

The bottom line: “You can eat healthy without knowing the exact number of calories in every single meal,” Qureshi says. For overall good health, focus on what you’re eating and keeping portions in check.

If you’re not sure what to eat, check out the new food pyramid for older adults. Hint: Aim to fill half your plate at every meal with fruits and vegetables, then add some whole grains, lean protein, and a little dairy.

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Ignore This: Only Shop the Perimeter of the Grocery Store

“You can find highly nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, and fish around the perimeter of the grocery store, but that doesn’t mean you should completely avoid the center aisles,” says Stephanie McKercher, R.D.N., a Denver-based dietitian and blogger at Grateful Grazer.

The interior aisles are filled with healthy staples like beans, whole grains, spices, nuts, and canned tomatoes, which are just as important as fresh protein and produce.

“Even convenience foods like low-sodium canned soups, protein bars, crackers, and granola can easily fit into an overall healthy lifestyle,” McKercher says. “I look for foods made with primarily whole food ingredients, and I also opt for brands that are local to my area whenever possible.”

Need a little help? Here are seven foods you should always have in your pantry and the nine best frozen dinners at the supermarket.

Ignore This: Too Much Protein Is Bad for Your Kidneys

Unless you have kidney disease or another condition that affects your kidneys, this likely isn’t a concern. Among other things, “protein helps with retaining muscle, keeping us feeling full, and fat loss,” says Erik Bustillo, R.D., a dietitian in Miami.

Adequate protein is even more important for older adults, since muscle mass gradually decreases with age. Plus, you don’t absorb or metabolize amino acids—the building blocks of protein—as efficiently as you did when you were younger, so consuming more protein can help make up for that inefficiency.

Exactly how much protein you need depends on your height, weight, activity level, and any health conditions you have, but it’s likely more than you’re eating right now. In fact, many experts believe that to maintain muscle mass and proper functioning, older adults need to eat double the amount of protein they needed in their younger years, says Abby Sauer, M.P.H., R.D., a dietitian specializing in adult and geriatric nutrition. That’s right, double!

That translates to about 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. What else to keep in mind: Getting more protein doesn’t mean loading up on red meat. Beans, lentils, and chickpeas are terrific plant-based sources of protein.

Learn how to calculate and meet your daily protein needs with this guide.

Ignore This: Low-Carb, High-Fat Diets Are the Key to Weight Loss

This is really two myths rolled into one. First, the belief that carbs make you fat is totally untrue. Carbs can cause weight gain, but only if you’re consuming so many that you eat more calories than you need every day, Bustillo says. “That’s true of any food—it’s not unique to carbs.”

For the second myth, just as there’s nothing uniquely bad about carbs, there’s nothing magic about eating primarily fats. While a low-carb, high-fat diet like the trendy ketogenic diet can be done in a healthy way, it’s not inherently healthy, Bustillo explains.

“We need to consume fats, including saturated fats, but not in excess,” he says.

While some research shows the ketogenic diet may be helpful in managing certain conditions, such as epilepsy, it’s not far better for weight loss. Successful weight loss comes from consistently eating fewer calories than you burn, not from cutting out entire food groups, Bustillo says.

If you think the ketogenic diet—or any other diet—might make sense for you, the first step is to talk to your doctor. He or she can help determine the best plan based on your unique health status and goals.

Ignore This: Eating Soy Messes with Your Hormones

“Soybeans are the primary ingredient in tofu, tempeh, soy milk, and miso,” McKercher explains. There are many misconceptions around soy, including that it causes feminizing effects in men, but a strong body of scientific research debunks such claims, she says.

Soy gets a bad rap because it contains plant estrogens, also called phytoestrogens. “These are different than human estrogens and seem to have neutral or beneficial effects on our health,” McKercher says.

Fermented soy products, such as tempeh and miso, also contain probiotics which can promote healthy digestion. “So in addition to being a good plant-based protein source, fermented soy is a great option for vegans or anyone who isn’t getting enough gut-healthy bacteria from dairy products,” she says.

Just be sure to look for whole soy products: tofu, edamame, and fermented products. And stay away from heavily processed proteins and soy products—just like you would other heavily processed items.

Ignore This: You Should Reduce Your Dairy Intake

If milk, yogurt, and other dairy products upset your stomach or you just don’t enjoy them, go ahead and cut back. But don’t do it simply because you think you should.

“As long as no allergy is present, dairy can definitely be part of a healthy diet,” Bustillo says. Dairy is often a good source of protein and calcium, which is a great combination for preventing muscle and bone loss in older adults.

Bone health isn’t the only thing calcium is good for—it impacts your overall well-being. If you aren’t getting enough, it can affect your sleep and mood, which can negatively impact your ability to exercise, maintain a healthy blood pressure, and stay social.

Watch for these five sneaky signs you’re not getting enough calcium.

Ignore This: All Supplements Are Bad

Supplements have a bad reputation for good reason: They’re not regulated in the same way as prescription and over-the-counter medications.

This means many of the products on the market don’t actually do what they claim to do. In fact, they may not even contain the levels of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients listed on their packaging.

But this doesn’t mean you should write off supplements altogether, Bustillo says. “If anything, they can help prevent deficiencies.”

Even if you eat an overall healthy diet, you might be low in certain nutrients, especially as you get older.

Check out our guide to the only five supplements older adults need to know. Before taking any supplements, talk to your doctor about your current diet, health, lifestyle, and all the medications you take.

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