Diet & Nutrition
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6 of the Most Controversial Foods—And What You Have to Know

Is a gluten-free diet really healthier? And could processed meat contribute to cancer?

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By Olivia DeLong

Every time you turn on the news or fire up Google, a new report shows something you shouldn’t eat or do because it may hurt your health. But sometimes it feels like there are conflicting reports, and all of it probably leaves you questioning the foods and ingredients that are in your own pantry and fridge.

Does soy really increase breast cancer risk? And is going gluten free really healthy if you don’t have celiac disease? Can coconut oil help you lose weight? Here are six of the most debated foods and what current research says about them.

Soy

2 / 7 Soy

The claims: Eating soy products like milk, tofu, edamame, sprouts and soy nuts might contribute to breast cancer.

The facts: Soy contains all-natural plant chemicals called isoflavones that regulate cell growth. In some animal studies, a high amount of isoflavones resulted in an increased breast cancer risk in rats. One theory as to why this happens: the isoflavones in soy act like estrogen in the body, and increased estrogen may contribute to certain breast cancers. However, humans process soy differently than animals. In fact, the American Cancer Society states that there aren’t enough studies to show that soy can increase cancer risk. Some human studies suggest whole soy might even decrease the risk of breast cancer, especially in premenopausal women. Whole soy foods like soynuts and tempeh are also packed with healthy protein and fiber.

But watch out for soy powders and supplements that contain “soy protein,” which are stripped of nutrients like fiber. High levels of these isolated soy products may increase a post-menopausal woman’s risk of breast cancer.

When choosing milk, look for whole-bean soy milk and make sure there aren’t any added sugars. And always stick with whole, all-natural soy products like tofu, tempeh, edamame and miso, rather than processed ones. One to two daily servings (one serving is a half-cup of tofu or one cup of soy milk) of all-natural soy products are a healthy addition to your diet. 

Wheat Gluten

3 / 7 Wheat Gluten

The claims: A gluten-free diet is healthy for everyone—whether you have a gluten intolerance or celiac disease, or not.

The facts: Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye and barley, and it can have negative effects on people with an intolerance or those who have celiac disease. When people with an intolerance eat gluten, they can experience symptoms like diarrhea, abdominal pain, gas, fatigue, itchy skin and mood changes. People with celiac disease—an autoimmune disease that causes the small intestine to become damaged—should avoid gluten because the immune system will start attacking the small intestine if they eat it.

Other people who don’t have these conditions might experiment with a gluten-free diet to try to lose weight.

If you don’t have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, be careful before you jump on the gluten-free bandwagon. Whole grains have many key nutrients like fiber, B vitamins, magnesium and iron. They may also reduce your risk of heart disease, relieve constipation and help with weight management.

Most adults should consume between 6 to 8 ounces of grains (mostly whole grains) a day. And if you think you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, see your healthcare provider before adopting a gluten-free diet.

Red and Processed Meat

4 / 7 Red and Processed Meat

The claims: Red and processed meats cause cancer.

The facts: According to the World Health Organization, eating processed meats like hot dogs and bacon, and red meats like steak and ground beef, may up your risk of colorectal cancer, and potentially pancreatic, prostate and stomach cancers.

Studies show that people who eat more than 100 grams of red meat per day—a steak the size of a deck of cards—are increasing their colorectal cancer risk by 17 percent. People who eat more than 50 grams of processed meat each day—or about two pieces of bacon—may be increasing their colorectal cancer risk by 18 percent.

Red meat includes beef, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, goat and veal. Processed meats are meats that have been preserved or gone through flavoring processes like salting, curing, fermentation and smoking.

The best thing you can do is limit the amount of red and processed meats you eat. Aim for no more than 18 ounces of red meat per week, and nix processed meats completely, says The American Institute for Cancer Research. Try lean protein options like fish, chicken and tofu instead.

Artificial Sweeteners

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The claims: Substituting artificial sweeteners like aspartame, neotame, saccharin and sucralose for sugar will help you lose weight.

The facts: While artificial sweeteners have been tested and approved for consumption, they may not always be the healthiest option.

And it’s actually hard to say whether or not artificial sweeteners help with weight loss, because the research has been inconclusive. It’s possible they may cause you to eat more. Studies show that sugar substitutes may alter the body’s normal ability to count calories based on certain food’s sweetness levels, or condition you to crave sweet foods. You may also think you saved lots of calories by going the artificial sweetener route, so you’ll be tempted to eat more later.

The National Cancer Institute along with other health agencies report that there’s no scientific evidence that leads them to believe approved artificial sweeteners can cause cancer or any other serious health problems.

Bottom line? It’s okay to reach for a real sweet treat every once and a while, but opt for foods with natural sugars like fruits and berries a majority of the time. 

MSG

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The claims: Monosodium glutamate (MSG) causes “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” a condition that may cause headaches, dry mouth and flushing. Some also believe MSG triggers asthma symptoms and make migraines worse.  

The facts: The Food and Drug Administration deems MSG—an additive commonly used to add flavor to Chinese food, canned veggies, soups and processed meats—safe for consumption. But, the FDA also requires all products that contain added MSG to be labeled to keep manufactures from hiding it under other names like “spices.”

Many studies have tried to link MSG to symptoms like sweating, headaches, numbness, chest pain, nausea, weakness and more, but so far, there’s just not enough evidence to say the food additive is to blame. However, some experts say that a small percentage of people do seem to have mild reactions to MSG, but the reactions will go away on their own.

If you notice any of these symptoms after eating MSG-packed foods, the best thing to do is avoid those foods altogether. 

Coconut oil

7 / 7 Coconut oil

The claims: Over the last few years, coconut oil has gained popularity. Why? Many people believe it can help digestion, boost the immune system, keep your skin healthy, help you lose weight and may even keep your teeth and gums healthy.

The facts: Coconut oil is actually chock-full of saturated fat (82 percent to be exact) and eating a lot of saturated fat can up the levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood. High LDL cholesterol levels can increase the risk of clogged arteries, heart attack and stroke. In fact, the American Heart Association (AHA) says consuming coconut oil may raise LDL levels just as much as other saturated fat from butter or beef.

So what’s the verdict? Some diets recommend coconut oil as a healthy type of saturated fat. The AHA and most health experts disagree. The AHA has concluded that replacing saturated fat found in foods like coconut oil and butter with oils containing good fats, like olive oil, sunflower oil, canola oil and soybean oil can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by about 30 percent.  

When it comes to your oral health and coconut oil, the American Dental Association does not recommend oil pulling, or swishing coconut oil around in your mouth, as a replacement or supplement for standard oral hygiene routines like brushing and flossing. To keep your teeth and gums healthy, you should brush your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste and floss once a day.

And when it comes to your skin, if you’re prone to acne, products with coconut oil can encourage breakouts. It can, however, be a good skin and hair moisturizer for those that don’t experience any irritation from it.