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Debunking "Non-Facts" - Clearing up a couple myths behind healthy choices.

Of all the columns I've written and advice I've given, it's the small things that have generated the most controversy. I wrote about the dangers of detox diets, and there was barely a murmur. But when I suggested that people switch from regular soda to the diet versions, I received more than three dozen emails and letters from people as far away as Thailand!

The correspondence all tends to follow a theme. They contain a sprinkling of truth, but then they're surrounded by large amounts of misinformation and capped off with what I call the "big scary non-fact."

What's a non-fact? It's a skewed reason people give themselves to continue doing things that are unhealthy. In the past year, there have been two recurring topics covered in half of those letters and email. Here they are, along with what I hope will be my final words on each.

Non-fact #1: "You can't suggest people switch from regular to diet soda! Haven't you heard? Diet soda CAUSES obesity!"

The answer is, it's complicated. Sharon P. Fowler, MPH, and her colleagues at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio made a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Diabetes Association in San Diego. Fowler's team looked at approximately seven years of data on 1,550 Mexican-American and non-Hispanic white Americans aged 25 to 62. At the beginning of the study, 622 of the participants were of normal weight. By the end of the study, about a third became overweight or obese.

One of the things Fowler and her colleagues concluded from the study was, "There was a 41 percent increase in risk of being overweight for every can or bottle of diet soft drink a person consumes each day." That's the headline that ran in papers and news reports around the world. But there was more.

"One possible part of the explanation is that people who see they are beginning to gain weight may be more likely to switch from regular to diet soda," Fowler suggests. "But despite their switching, their weight may continue to grow for other reasons. So diet soft-drink use is a marker for overweight and obesity."

At no point in the study did they ever claim that diet soda (or any ingredient of diet soda) was responsible for the weight gain. Fowler and her team simply said that diet soda consumption was a marker for overweight and obesity.

But now we know more. Researchers have discovered that diet soda DOES stimulate appetite, and here's how.

Our stomachs have taste buds. When we drink a diet soda, our stomachs detect "sweet" and start preparing for the sugary calories. Unfortunately, diet soda has none. After about 30 minutes, our bodies start to crash because the "sweet calories" they were expecting never appeared. That makes us feel more hungry and tired than when we first drank the diet soda.

To deal with the hunger and crash, diet soda drinkers eat more calories, totally defeating the reason many drank diet soda to begin with. In a study called "Diet-Beverage Consumption and Caloric Intake Among US Adults, Overall and by Body Weight" published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that overweight diet soda drinkers consumed an extra 88 calories a day and obese diet soda drinkers consumed an additional 194 calories a day.

For years I have recommended that people who consume regular soda switch to diet versions while still watching their overall calorie consumption. BUT, if drinking diet soda causes you to have cravings, don't drink it! Water is a perfectly healthy and viable alternative whenever you're thirsty.

Non-fact #2: "Don't cook with non-stick cooking pans. Haven't you heard? They release chemicals into your food that cause CANCER! I cook the old fashioned way with metal pans and coat them with butter to prevent foods from sticking."

It makes a great headline. Kitchen cookware causes cancer! Mysterious chemical is slowly killing your entire family! More news at 11:00...

The story behind this statement is a big chemical company (Dupont), a brand name (Teflon) and the chemical PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid).

Here are the facts.

PFOA was used by Dupont for more than 50 years as an essential processing aid in the manufacture of non-stick surfaces called fluoropolymers (I'm going to call them "poly's.") "Poly's" imparted valuable properties to materials, including fire resistance, water repellency and to provide non-stick surfaces on cookware.

The bad.

PFOA has been definitively linked to a number of health conditions. Those conditions include thyroid disorders, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, testicular cancer, infertility and low birth weight. The rumors were true; PFOA is absolutely BAD STUFF!

The confusing.

Today, all Teflon products are PFOA-free. Therefore, the health effects of PFOA EXPOSURE from non-stick pans are no longer a cause for concern.

Did you follow that?

PFOA WAS used in the manufacturing process of non-stick cooking pans, but as of 2013, all Teflon products are PFOA-free. That means you can't get CANCER from PFOA in non-stick cooking pans because they don't have PFOA in them.

This is where it gets strange. Non-stick pans CAN be harmful to birds. When non-stick coatings are heated to around 570 degrees Fahrenheit (300 degrees Celsius,) the "poly" coating starts to release fumes that can be hazardous to birds and cause temporary flu-like symptoms in people. The onset occurs after 4–10 hours of exposure, and the condition usually resolves within 12–48 hours.

(I'm curious, how many people heat their pans up to 570 degrees F? Keep in mind water boils at 212 degrees F. Are there lots of people who enjoy burnt food?)

Here's the bottom line. If you're someone who keeps birds in your kitchen AND regularly cook your food at or above 500 degrees Fahrenheit, don't use non-stick pans. For everyone else, try worrying about the really important stuff like how much fat, sodium and sugars you might be eating. THOSE are the real killers.

What "non-facts" have you been relying on to avoid getting fit?

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Updated 1/21/2014
Updated 10/19/2020