Healthy Eating Myths That You Should Stop Following

Nutrition rules are meant to be broken sometimes. Here, the overrated guidelines we tend to put on ourselves and how to break out of the rigidity.


With the firehose of nutrition advice at our fingertips, it can be hard to tell the difference between fact and fiction, especially when it comes to nutrition. Intermittent fasting, keto, low-carb, no-sugar, gluten-free, and vegan diets are having a moment right now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right for runners — or for you.

As a runner, you have different dietary needs than the average person — which means you need to follow a different nutritional playbook. “Runners are extra special,” says Alex Larson, a registered dietitian specialising in endurance athletes. Because you’re running, strength training, or cross-training most days of the week, your nutrition has to support that higher activity level.

“Whether it’s running or strength training, runners are very active, so they have additional, higher needs. So those ‘healthy eating’ or dieting recommendations you might typically see out in the world don’t apply,” Larson tells Runner’s World. “Because we often spend time around folks who aren’t runners, we’re comparing ourselves to them and what they’re eating. But we have to stop that comparison.”

To figure out which diet advice you can leave behind, it’s important to understand why many mainstream nutritional guidelines are counterproductive, particularly for runners. We talked to dietitians to separate myth from fact when it comes to what to put on your plate.

Myth 1: Healthy Eating Means Eating “Clean”
“When runners come in and say ‘I eat a really clean diet,’ I almost always know they’re not getting enough to eat.” says Larson. While they may eat a decent amount of nutrient-dense food, their dietary choices generally don’t have enough calories to support their training, she explains. Often this is because they may eat something like a plate of greens, which has plenty of vitamins and minerals, but not many calories.

Because it’s heavy on whole, unprocessed foods, “clean” eating often means lots of fibre, too. However, a diet that skews too heavily in that direction can cause bloating. “And that doesn’t go with a running lifestyle,” says Larson.

“You need a balance of whole foods and more processed foods,” says Larson. For example, while a bowl of whole grain oats with berries and almonds would make a great, nutrient-dense breakfast, it’s too high in volume (as in, it takes up a lot of room) and has too much fibre to sit well in your stomach right before a run.

You’d be better off saving the oats for your recovery snack and having some crackers or even pancakes right before your workout. “They get digested a lot faster and they’re a quick source of energy to help you have a great run,” says Larson. “Pancakes are looked at as unhealthy, but a lot of runners love to use them because they’re tasty, quick, portable, and easy and are usually really well tolerated as a fuel source before a run.”

Myth 2: You Should Eat a Low-Carb Diet
The idea that you should cut carbs is perhaps one of the most common — and harmful — nutrition myths for runners. Carbs are exactly what we need, says Larson. Even if you’re getting enough calories, insufficient carbohydrate intake puts you at risk for underfueling. Signs you may need to up your carb intake include a lack of motivation, feeling stale during your workouts, a performance plateau, sweets cravings, and unexplained weight gain, she says.

Unfortunately, many runners interpret those symptoms as a sign they need to double down on their training and dietary restriction — but that’s a mistake. “You gain weight because your metabolism is trying to adapt to insufficient nutrition,” says Larson. Over time, consistent underfueling leads to low energy availability (LEA), which can cause a number of health issues, including lowered immunity, injuries, decreased bone density, anxiety, and depression.

Myth 3: Foods Are Either Good or Bad
If you think of chicken breast and vegetables as “good” but see pasta and dessert as “bad,” you’re not alone. But just because it’s common to think of foods as good or bad doesn’t mean it’s healthy — or true. “The underlying premise of this way of thinking is that there’s a food that is fundamentally good and without flaws. But we know this isn’t true,” says registered dietitian Christyna Johnson.

What’s worse, though, is the tendency to judge ourselves according to what we eat. When you think eating a salad makes you “good” and choosing a brownie makes you “bad,” it can be a slippery slope to disordered eating, LEA, and all the issues associated with it. The truth is, there’s room for all kinds of foods in a healthy diet, says Johnson.

Myth 4: Everyone Should Go Vegan
Plant-based diet proponents tout a vegan diet as the healthiest choice. However, there is no universally perfect diet — and avoiding entire food groups can come with health risks. “When you cut out major food groups like meat, seafood, and dairy, you’re also cutting out some key nutrients,” says Larson.

Always prioritising plant-based options at the expense of other foods makes it difficult for many vegan and vegetarian eaters to get the micronutrients they need to stay healthy and perform optimally.

According to Larson, it’s not uncommon for those following a plant-based diet to get insufficient iron and ferritin, which influence immune health and energy levels. They may also have low levels of B12, zinc, and calcium, which can interfere with bone health, overall health, and athletic performance.

“I think it’s great to eat a plant-based diet, but you might need to be a little more concerned about getting your micronutrients. You might need a supplement,” says Larson.

Myth 5: Optimise your Health and Fitness by Working Out in a Fasted State
For most of us, the risks of skipping breakfast before a morning workout are greater than any potential benefits. While the goal is to force your body to use its fat reserves for fuel, your body is much more likely to break down muscle tissue instead, says Johnson. That includes both skeletal and cardiac muscle tissue, which will not only hurt your performance short-term, but sets you up for overtraining in the longer term.

While training adaptations do occur when your muscle tissue builds back up after being broken down, you’re asking your body to do too much with too little when you exercise in a fasted state, says Johnson. In short, “You’ll have a better run if you provide yourself fuel,” she says.

Myth 6: You Should Avoid Snacking
According to traditional health or wellness advice, you should avoid snacks at all costs. But if you’re active — especially if you’re training for a specific event — that advice is not only unhelpful, it can actually be counterproductive. “For runners, snacking is an additional opportunity to get the nutrition you need for the day, because it can be hard to get enough in just three meals,” says Larson.

Whether it’s an additional source of protein, fruits, or vegetables, a snack can be “super helpful” in helping meet your energy, micronutrient, and macronutrient needs, says Larson.

Snacks can also support your practical need to avoid dips in energy or excessive hunger over the course of the day. For example, if you eat lunch around noon and have dinner around 6 p.m., “that’s a long time,” to go without food, says Larson. In that case, an afternoon snack can help you avoid going into the evening so hungry that you find yourself binging. And according to Larson, the simple addition of an afternoon snack can also help you recover faster.

There’s also a solid case for an after-dinner snack. “A lot of people think you shouldn’t eat after a certain time of night. But your body isn’t just a machine that turns off at a certain time,” says Johnson. For example, if you eat at 6 p.m. and go to bed at 11 p.m., even if you’re only getting six hours of sleep, that’s a long time to go without fuel, especially if you work out shortly after waking up. “That bedtime snack gives your body the energy it needs so you’re not waking up hungry,” says Johnson. She suggests an evening snack that includes carbohydrate, fat, and protein to top off your energy reserves and potentially help you sleep better.

Myth 7: Fruit Has Too Much Sugar
This low-carb craze has many of us believing we need to avoid sugar at all costs — which leaves little, if any room for the sugars that naturally exist in fruit. But Johnson suggests we take a critical look at the imperative to avoid sugar in all its forms before throwing the baby out with the bathwater. “Did we forget there are nutrients in fruit?” she asks.

Fruit contains important phytochemicals like vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene, which serve as antioxidants, phytoestrogens, and anti-inflammatory agents. It also contains fibre, potassium, and folate, all of which support overall health and disease prevention.

While you might not want to eat fruit immediately before a workout, you should have enough time to digest if you consume it one to two hours beforehand, says Johnson. It can also be a great form of pos-trun nutrition. Not only is fruit a good source of carbohydrate, the high water content can help you rehydrate while the potassium can help with your electrolyte balance, especially if you’re a salty sweater, says Johnson.

Fruit is also tasty source of fibre, something many of us don’t get enough of. If you’re having to push too hard in the bathroom, chances are you need to up your fibre intake, says Johnson. Not only will it make things easier on the toilet, it also helps promote healthy gut bacteria, she adds.

Myth 8: Brown Rice Is Healthier Than White Rice
The idea is that we need to avoid white carbs, including white bread, pasta, potatoes — and white rice — like the plague. So if you have a choice between white and brown rice, you’re better off choosing the latter (no matter how you feel about the taste and texture). But the truth is, the nutritional difference between the two is “negligible,” says Johnson.

“Brown rice is the ‘parent’ of white rice,” she explains. In other words, all rice starts as brown rice. You get white rice when you remove the outer layer, which is the brown part. While whole grains contain valuable fiber and B vitamins, brown rice has only one more gram of fibre per one third cup (cooked) serving, says Johnson. So if you don’t prefer brown rice Johnson has advice: “There are plenty of other ways to get that gram of fibre that are more interesting.”

READ MORE ON: healthy eating healthy habits

Copyright © 2024 Hearst