Once upon a time, in a place far, far away, a medical doctor, a registered dietician, and a college nutrition professor all gathered at the local pub after a hard days work. Bored, and longing for excitement, the three jolly fellows put their heads together and compiled the world's very first book of nutritional folklores. The book consisted of four wonderful "myths," and although completely fictional, they were amazingly convincing; all those who read the book believed the tales to be true. Some time later, the book was brought to the attention of the town governor. After reviewing its contents, he declared the bound pages as nutritional gospel and demanded that it be replicated and distributed amongst the townspeople. Afraid to go against the governor's wishes, the three authors remained silent and allowed for the mythological writings to be treated as fact. As the years passed on, hard copies of the book became scarce and eventually nonexistent; however, the tales therein have been passed down from generation to generation and are still believed today.

Okay, okay, I'll admit, that was a load of crap. But for whatever reason, these myths are incredibly popular, and they must be exposed...now!

Myth Number 1: A calorie is a calorie; if you consume less than you burn, you'll lose fat.

The Real Deal: The numeric value of an individual's caloric intake is not the only factor that affects body composition. The following must also be considered:

The thermic effect of the food ingested. The thermic effect of food (TEF) measures the amount of energy that is required to support the processes of digesting, absorbing, and assimilating food nutrients as well as the energy expended as a result of the central nervous system's stimulatory effect on metabolism when food is ingested [9]. Of the three macronutrients, protein carries the highest thermic effect.

The fiber content of the food ingested. Due to its chemical makeup, fiber is classified as a carbohydrate; however, it is unlike other carbohydrates in that it is an indigestible nutrient [9]. Even though each gram of fiber contains four calories, these calories will remain undigested and will not be absorbed. Therefore, if one were to consume 300 calories of red beans (a food in which nearly 1/3 of the caloric content is from fiber), approximately 100 of these calories would pass through the intestinal tract undigested.

The glycemic and insulin indices of the food ingested. The glycemic and insulin indices are scaled numbers that refer to how quickly a particular carbohydrate source enters the bloodstream as sugar and how much insulin is needed to rid that sugar from the bloodstream, respectively. Generally speaking, there is a positive relationship between the two; that is, the quicker sugar enters the bloodstream, the more insulin is needed to rid that sugar from the bloodstream. When high levels of insulin are present within the blood, fat burning is brought to a screeching halt, which is anything but desirable for those whose goal is to obtain a lean, muscular physique.

The macronutrients present in the food ingested. Although insulin's primary function is to shuttle glucose (sugar) into skeletal muscle, it also carries many other nutrients to their respective storage sites; this includes lipids (fat). Since carbohydrate ingestion stimulates a large insulin response and fat ingestion gives rise to blood lipid levels, the two, when consumed together, promote the greatest fat storage.

The size, frequency, and time of ingested meals. Large, infrequent meals tend to promote storage of the ingested nutrients as the body is unsure as to when the next feeding will take place. Conversely, consuming smaller, frequent meals will result in an increase in metabolism and utilization of the ingested nutrients. Also, ingesting a large amount of carbohydrates before bed spikes insulin, deters nocturnal thermogenesis, and increases fat storage during sleep. On the contrary, consuming a great deal of calories early in the day does not bring about this problem; rather, these calories are likely to be used as energy to support daily activities.

As you can see, someone could be eating a relatively small amount of calories daily, but at the same time promoting a great deal of fat storage by 1) making poor food choices, 2) combining macronutrients in a nonproductive fashion, and 3) consuming food infrequently and at inopportune times. To illustrate this further, let's take a look at a recent study conducted by Demling et al which analyzed the diets of 38 police officers [10]. Demling found that although the officers were consuming a hypocaloric diet (fewer calories than they burn), they all had unhealthy levels of body fat and had been gaining fat mass over the past five years. If all you had to do to lose fat was consume fewer calories than you burn, then these individuals would be losing fat, not gaining it! And to confirm the importance of the factors that I previously mentioned, let's take a look at some of the other things that Demling noted:

Only 15% of their diet consisted of protein, the macronutrient with the greatest TEF.

Their diet contained very little fiber.

Over 50% of their carbohydrate intake was derived from simple sugars, which have very high glycemic and insulin indices.

They didn't note this, but I'm willing to bet that they didn't avoid the fat-carb combo.

They ate infrequently, only 10% of their caloric intake was consumed at breakfast, and over 50% was consumed right before bed.

By now, it should be obvious that fat loss isn't just a matter of calories in, calories out.

Myth Number 2: Dietary intake of cholesterol is highly correlated to blood cholesterol levels.

The Real Deal: The amount of cholesterol that you consume has a negligible impact on serum cholesterol levels, and for good reason. The cholesterol in our blood is made up of both the cholesterol that we ingest and the cholesterol that is synthesized by the liver and other tissues within the body. When cholesterol intake is decreased, the liver will compensate by producing more cholesterol, leaving total cholesterol levels relatively unchanged. In the same way, if cholesterol consumption is increased, the liver will produce less cholesterol, and again, total cholesterol values will not be substantially altered. In reality, changes made in dietary intake of cholesterol will alter total cholesterol levels by a few percent at best. To illustrate this, subjects in one study who decreased their cholesterol consumption by 35% only experienced a 2-3% decrease in blood cholesterol levels [1].

Also, research has shown that individuals on a high fat, high protein, low carbohydrate diet, consuming much more than the 300mg RDA for cholesterol daily actually improved their blood lipid profiles during the testing period [2,3,4]. Total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the "bad" cholesterol) levels went down, while high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the "good" cholesterol) increased. If dietary intake of cholesterol is really correlated to blood cholesterol levels, then the levels of these individuals would be through the roof; instead, as verified by the research, they actually decreased.

So, if cholesterol intake isn't the culprit, then what is? Well, from a dietary standpoint, it seems to be the ingestion of trans-fatty acids that has the greatest detrimental effect on serum cholesterol levels [5,6,7,8]. A trans-fatty acid occurs when one of the hydrogen atoms along the restructured carbon chain moves from its naturally occurring position (cis position) to the opposite side of the double bond that separates two carbon atoms (trans position) [9]. Trans- fats are "created" by:

The bubbling of hydrogen through naturally occurring cis-fatty acids (aka hydrogenation)- this is a process widely used by manufacturers to increase the shelf life of their products.

Deep-frying- when fat is exposed to extreme heat, such as when deep-frying, some of the fats will be converted to trans-fats.

Because trans-fats do not occur naturally (with a few rare exceptions), our bodies are not equipped to "deal" with them. Therefore, when ingested, they cannot be used for any biological function and cause numerous undesirable physiological reactions to take place within the body. And perhaps what is most paradoxical about the whole dietary cholesterol/trans-fatty acid misconception is that products that make label claims such as "cholesterol free" tend to have the highest trans-fatty acid content!
So how does one know if a product contains trans-fats or not? Well, currently, the FDA has not made it mandatory that manufacturers list the trans-fatty acid content of their products; so, until that information becomes readily available on the label, the best we can do is avoid foods that have been deep fried and/or any product containing "partially hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated" oils in its list of ingredients.

So, the next time someone wants to scold you for eating a few eggs, take a look at the ingredients on the products in their cupboard and teach them a thing or two.

Myth Number 3: A high protein intake is dangerous!

The Real Deal: There is not anything dangerous about a high protein intake; in fact I'll dispel each and every argument against it right now:

A high protein intake causes kidney and liver dysfunction. Well, your not going to see any references in this paragraph; know why? Take a guess at how many studies have concluded that a high protein intake causes renal damage in healthy individuals. If you guessed any number higher than zero, you're wrong. This whole argument is based on theory that doesn't add up in the real world along with a few studies conducted on individuals who already had some sort of pre-existing renal disorder. If a high protein intake really caused renal failure, then there would be a nationwide epidemic of liver and kidney conditions among athletes, bodybuilders, and high protein dieters?but, there's not; in fact, it's unheard of.

A high protein intake puts individuals at greater risk for osteoporosis. This argument is based on the premise that a high protein intake leeches calcium from bones, which is true. However, the amount of calcium excreted in a single day is so minute that it can be replaced with the amount of calcium contained in a single tablespoon of milk [15]. The average high protein dieter consumes more than enough calcium daily to combat such a loss due to their consumption of milk and/or milk protein products (cottage cheese, whey and casein containing powders, bars, etc). Not only that, but if you are reading this magazine, I'm going to assume that you regularly perform some sort of resistance training, which by itself increases bone density.

A high protein intake puts individuals at greater risk to develop kidney stones. Again, there are no studies to prove that a high protein intake causes kidney stone formation. Out of all the people you know consuming a high protein diet, how many of them ever developed a kidney stone? This is only true for individuals who previously had a kidney stone in that it may put them at greater risk for reoccurrence. I say "may" because this is only the case if the kidney stone was of the uric acid variety, and only 20% of all stones are uric acid stones. Regardless, unless you have a family history or some sort of pre-existing medical condition that makes you susceptible to stone formation, it's not even an issue.

A high protein intake causes dehydration. When the nitrogen-containing portion of an amino acid is removed in the liver, the chemical compound urea is formed and then excreted. Because urea must be dissolved in water before it is removed from the body, a high protein intake will result in minor fluid loss. The simple solution: drink more water.

When all the BS theory and poorly constructed arguments are thrown aside, and the real world data is analyzed, a high protein intake is safer than the FBI's witness protection program.

Myth Number 4: A high sodium intake causes high blood pressure and should be avoided.

The Real Deal: A high sodium intake does not cause hypertension (high blood pressure). The hormone aldosterone acts on the kidneys to conserve sodium for bodily functions; however, when sodium is consumed in high amounts, aldosterone release is blunted and any excess sodium will simply be excreted [9]. As a result, sodium balance remains normal. This is the case with all apparently healthy individuals who do not already have a blood pressure condition. The only circumstance in which individuals may benefit by monitoring their sodium intake is if they have already been clinically diagnosed as suffering from hypertension and are also salt sensitive [11]. I stress "and" because only 20% of the population is salt sensitive; so for 4 out of every 5 people suffering from hypertension, lowering sodium intake isn't going to do much, if anything at all. And even for those that are salt sensitive, the actual magnitude of the decrease in blood pressure as a result of the lowered intake may not even be substantial enough to warrant decreasing sodium consumption as a method to treat high blood pressure [12,13,14].

Now, I normally wouldn't kick a myth when it's down, but a high sodium intake will actually benefit athletes and bodybuilders for the following reasons:

A higher sodium intake yields a greater overall blood volume and blood flow to the working muscles. With increased blood flow, the amount of oxygen and nutrients delivered to the working muscles is maximized. This is particularly important when an amino acid containing beverage is consumed prior to the workout, as more aminos will be delivered to the working muscles, resulting in greater rates of protein synthesis (muscle growth). Also, increased blood flow will actually increase performance in that removal of various fatigue toxins (lactic acid, CO2, etc) will occur at a faster rate.

It is the responsibility of sodium to deliver potassium into the cell membrane of muscle tissue. If not enough sodium is present, the body is forced to deliver the potassium via "active transport" across the membrane. In this case, active transport is not the preferred method of transportation and as a result less potassium will be transported across the membrane less often.

And yet another myth about sodium is that a high intake causes tons of water retention and a bloated appearance. While, yes, increased sodium intake will cause some initial water retention, the retention is only temporary. As soon as the body becomes accustomed to the higher intake, aldosterone release will be blunted and the excess water will be excreted.

So no, consuming high amounts of sodium does not cause hypertension (and is rarely effective by itself in treating the condition) and is actually a good idea if you want to optimize growth and performance. Shoot for an intake of around 2g per liter of water consumed daily, ala the recommendations of precontest diet guru Scott Abel.

Having said all that, if you still are uneasy about the increase in sodium adversely affecting your blood pressure, pay attention to the BP readings you receive when you visit the doc (more than likely, the uneasiness will fade).


After reading this article, you've probably come to see that there isn't any more truth to the above myths than there was to my little introductory folklore. And while I admitted that that was a load of crap, advocators of these nutritional fairytales won't be so quick to relinquish their views. But, at least now you know the truth, and the next time someone tries to tell you something different, you can hit 'em with the information you just learned (I'll leave it up to you as to whether or not you want to interpret that literally).