The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Area dietitian busts popular food myths

4 min read


Does turkey really make you tired? Are sugary foods actually the cause of hyperactive kids? Is chocolate a cure for depression?

These are just a few of the countless misconceptions surrounding food in America.

Despite scientific research that proves the opposite, many people still regard these misguided beliefs as truth.

Nancy Farrell, RD, of Farrell Dietitian Services took time to debunk some of these popular myths.

“Nutrition is not emphasized in our school systems,” Farrell said. “Health is not a core subject. Yet, how many times a day must we all make decisions regarding our nutrition intake? Oftentimes consumers turn to the Internet for misleading answers.”

Farrell has been a registered dietitian for 27 years and has spent over a decade working in the Fredericksburg area, in addition to teaching nutrition courses at Germanna Community College. She specializes in helping those with eating disorders, autism, food allergies, childhood obesity and gastric by-pass nutrition counseling.

One of the most common myths about food is that roast turkey, traditionally eaten on Thanksgiving, has high levels of tryptophan, which is a chemical that causes the sleepiness that sets in after the Thanksgiving feast.

According to Farrell, tryptophan is a nonessential amino acid involved in the production of serotonin, an important chemical in mood regulation. Tryptophan is actually found in all kinds of protein rich foods and can be produced by carbohydrates.

“In fact, other amino acids are better at passing from the bloodstream to your brain,” Farrell said. “Besides, tryptophan works best on an empty stomach, and when is the last time you heard your friends or family comment that they just didn’t get enough to eat on Thanksgiving Day?”

This myth can probably be attributed to the large amount of food and alcohol consumed on the holiday, rather than the chemicals in the turkey.

Many people believe that fresh is always the best way to go when it comes to fruits and vegetables, but, according to Farrell, frozen and canned fruits and veggies may be more nutritious than fresh ones.

“Freezing tends to ‘lock in’ important vitamins and stops nutrient loss,” Farrell said. “While freshly picked vegetables contain the greatest amount of nutrients, prolonged storage can lead to substantial nutrient degradation, even when refrigerated.”

Frozen or canned produce with the fewest ingredients (to ensure they are not highly processed) are a healthy, convenient and often less expensive option to get your recommended five to nine daily servings of fruits and vegetables

This one is sure to disappoint parents who attribute their kids’ hyperactivity to sugar intake, but according to an analysis of 16 sugar studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association (AMA), there is no evidence to prove that sugar influences the behavior of kids.

The human body cannot tell the difference between the sugar in an apple and the sugar in a piece of candy, yet fruit is considered the healthy option.

Why is this myth still so popular, then?

It’s likely because, according to the AMA studies, naturally occurring sugar, such as that in fruit, is absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream than the sugar found in candy or pastries. This spike in blood-sugar levels, combined with the pervasiveness of this myth, is probably the reason it’s still perpetuated.

Feeling stressed about finals? Don’t bother eating a high carb snack, like a bagel, to improve your mood and calm you down.

Although carbohydrates boost serotonin levels, it will take a half a day for the effects to be felt, if it is noticed at all. Moreover, consuming anything besides carbs would inhibit this process and most diets combine carbohydrates with proteins and fats to some degree.

A better alternative to improving your mood with food is to consume fish or nuts.

“Research is looking at the mood enhancing effects of Omega-3 fatty acid consumption which are found in salmon, mackerel, tuna, flaxseed, and walnuts,” Farrell explained.

Although it contains mood-enhancing chemicals such as caffeine and phenylethylamine, chocolate doesn’t appear to actually play a substantial role in relieving depression.

“Chocolate does contain phenylethylamine, which is a slight antidepressant that acts similar to the body’s natural stimulant dopamine,” Farrell said.  “Dopamine is associated with pleasure and makes people feel good when they do something they enjoy.”

Chocolate also increases the brain’s level of serotonin, a chemical lacking in the brains of clinically depressed people.

Research is still needed to prove if the levels of these chemicals are high enough to make a difference. It is possible that enjoying a treat like chocolate triggers good feelings in the brain, just because it is a simple pleasure.

Dark chocolate, however, is proven to be beneficial for the human body.

“It contains natural antioxidants that relax the blood vessels and lower blood pressure,” Farrell said. “In general, the higher the cocoa content (70 percent cocoa), the darker, more intense chocolate, the healthier it appears to be.”

Although many of these popular myths have simple, scientific explanations, this is not discouraging news. Farrell recommends balanced, protein-rich diets consisting of complex carbohydrates and plenty of fruits and vegetables to maintain a good mood and keep up a healthy lifestyle.