“O you who believe! Make not unlawful the Taiyibat (all that is good as regards foods, things, deeds, beliefs, persons, etc.), which Allah has made lawful for you, and transgress not. Verily, Allah does not like the transgressors.” (Al-Maidah 5:87)
Allah (swt) has created a beautiful world full of His bounties for His creatures. Shukr, or being thankful for these bounties, is enjoined on people in countless passages of the Quran. In the above verse, Allah (swt) discourages us from adopting extremes in behaviour. Let’s relate this to some common food myths being practiced currently.
• Eight glasses of water a day
People are generally advised to drink “an 8-ounce glass of water, 8 times a day,” which makes 1.9 litres. In reality, water requirement depends upon many factors, such as one’s health, level of activity, and location. On an average, in a moderate climate, men are required to take 3 litres (about 13 cups) of total beverages in a day and women need to take 2.2 litres. It is also important to include all fluid intake towards the daily total. Water intake needs to increase in certain conditions, such as for pregnant or breastfeeding women and people who are suffering from vomiting, diarrhea or other conditions that cause unusual water losses.
• Eggs are bad for your heart
A large-sized egg contains about 211 milligrams of cholesterol, which is the fatty stuff in our blood that contributes to clogged arteries and heart attacks. However, banning eggs as “bad for your heart” is not correct. “Epidemiologic studies show that most healthy people can eat an egg a day without problems,” says Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., distinguished professor of nutrition at Penn State University. This is because we have two sources of cholesterol. The first is the ready cholesterol in food, and the second is what our body manufactures itself. For most of us, the cholesterol we eat doesn’t have a huge impact on raising our blood cholesterol, as our body simply compensates by manufacturing less cholesterol itself. The chief heart-disease culprits are saturated fats and trans-fats, which have much greater impact on raising blood cholesterol. For those at risk of heart disease, 2-3 eggs per week are safe.
• Carbohydrates make you fat
Carbohydrates, a large group of food mostly comprising of foods of plant origin, supply our bodies its coveted fuel: glucose. While such high sugar or “bad carbs” as cookies, cakes, and doughnuts are best left out of the grocery cart, cutting out such “good carbs” as whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables deprives you of your body’s main fuel (glucose) and makes you miss out on vital nutrients and fibre. Even for “good carbs,” portion control is necessary to avoid weight gain, as weight will increase when the intake of calories exceeds the output, irrespective of the source of these calories.
• If it says fat free or sugar free, it means it is healthy
The American Academy of Family Physicians warns that many products use an increased amount of sugar to mask the lack of taste in fat-free products. Making products fat-free or sugar-free requires a big compromise in the traditional taste and texture which is a challenge for many manufacturers. As a result, we are bombarded with sugar-free products that are high in fat, and fat-free products that are high in sugar. A common example would be frozen yogurts. One cup of regular vanilla ice cream contains 275 calories, and one cup of regular vanilla frozen yogurt contains 221 calories. The calories vary depending on your portion size and what you put on it, as frozen yogurt is usually offered with many sugar and fat-laden toppings. As a result, this can supersede ice cream in the fat, sugar, and caloric content. If you want to eat frozen yogurt, choose toppings wisely. You can even opt for an occasional ice cream, as long as you watch fat content in other foods.
• As long as you eat healthy, portion size does not matter
Whole-wheat bread and brown rice have just as many calories as regular bread and white rice. Sometimes multigrain bread is higher in fat if seeds are used in its preparation. Brown sugar is not bleached, but is similar to white sugar in caloric content. Nuts and olive oil deliver heart-healthy fats, but are also very high calorie foods. Olive oil has as many calories per teaspoon as margarine or butter. Raw or processed honey is considered to be an added sugar, even though it contains important nutrients that sugar doesn’t. One tablespoon of sugar provides 48 calories and 12 gms of sugar, whereas one tablespoon of honey provides 63 calories and 13.5 gms of sugar. This means that if you use these foods more than you need, you are likely to gain weight and increase your risk of developing certain diseases.
• Avoiding trans-fats will save me from heart disease
Trans-fats are vegetable fats that are artificially reacted with hydrogen to make a desirable texture. Consumption of this type of fat has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease. However, foods that contain no trans-fats can contain the same number of calories as those made with trans-fats. For example: French fries, cookies and doughnuts prepared with “healthier oils and fats” are still not nutritious. They are mostly low in nutrient density, high in empty calories, and contain too much saturated fat and sugar. Healthy oils should not be an excuse to overindulge. As calories per teaspoon of butter, margarines, and oils are the same, the take-home message would be to avoid frying and keep high fat snacks as very occasional treats.
• A detox plan is needed to remove toxins from my body
With the detox fad out in full swing, we tend to forget one fine detail. Why were our ancestors not sicker than us when we know that they did not adopt any such fads? Allah (swt) has given each human his own complex, state-of-the-art detox system in the form of a liver, which acts as a sieve for all body toxins, kidneys that remove impurities, and lungs that get rid of carbon dioxide. We don’t need to starve or survive on mere vegetable or fruit juices to enable our body to do what it already does very well.
• Energy drinks for energy
Energy drinks have been around for over a decade. However, earlier they were mostly for athletes. With a shift in the market, they have become mainstream, with teens and young adults emerging as the largest consumers. Not only is it considered to be cool to have these drinks, they increase alertness and give a boost of energy or so they say. Where does the energy come from? The prime source is their high caffeine content, with some energy drinks providing as much caffeine as 4-14 cans of cola, depending upon the brand. Additionally, a 16-ounce can of energy drink may contain 13 teaspoons of sugar. Other ingredients that are often found in energy drinks include taurine, glucuronolactone, B vitamins, ginseng, guarana, ginkgo biloba and milk thistle. So far not many restrictions have been put on the kinds and amounts of ingredients and the claims that are made about them, even though there is a serious concern about their unchecked use.
• Pregnancy – eating for two, not like two!
During pregnancy, a woman’s dietary needs increase in terms of balance, variety, and quantity of food. However, culturally, most women are over-fed, concentrating only on quantity, due to which they end up with a lot of extra weight after the baby is born. The need for increased calories is very slight. If you’re at a healthy weight, you need no additional calories in the first trimester, about 350 extra calories a day in the second trimester, and about 450 extra calories a day in the third trimester. Only a couple of glasses of low fat milk, or a sandwich can give you 450 extra calories. When you are tempted to eat junk, remember you are eating for a very small baby, not an adult. Your baby needs important nutrients, so choose nutritious food over high calorie foods that are low in nutrients.
• Gluten-free eating is healthier
Gluten is a kind of plant protein that occurs in cereal grains, chiefly corn and wheat, and is used as an adhesive and as a flour substitute. A gluten-free diet is recommended for celiac disease, where people lack the stomach enzymes needed for its digestion. The world over, many people are using this diet to lose weight. Since wheat flour is the base for cakes, cookies, and other such baked goods, which are low in fibre and simultaneously high in sugar and fat, a gluten-free diet seems to help with weight loss.
• Consuming sugar will give me diabetes
It is not that simple. Eating excessive calories in any form can cause weight gain. Obesity is one of the leading risk factors for type II diabetes (adult onset type). It is highly recommended that people should lower their total intake of sugar to reduce this risk. Sugar-sweetened beverages raise blood glucose levels and provide several hundred calories per serving. For example, one 12-ounce can of regular soda provides 150 calories and 40 grams of sugar. This is as much as 10 teaspoons of sugar. Casual intake of such drinks is a definite cause of weight gain.
• Sea salt is better than table salt
Sea salt and table salt have the same nutritional value, despite the fact that sea salt is often promoted as being better. They are processed differently, which is why their taste and texture are different. Sea salt is generally less processed. Table salt is processed to remove minerals, and sometimes an anti-clumping agent is added for free flowing effect. Sometimes iodine is added to table salt, which is an essential nutrient that helps prevent a thyroid gland malfunction and goiter.
• Green tea is beneficial for those with heart disease and causes weight loss
There are numerous health benefits associated with the intake of tea, ranging from its ability to nullify a heavy meal to reduced cancer risk. Tea, whether green, black, oolong or white, contains flavonoids and catechins – anti-oxidants that are shown to have beneficial effects on LDL or bad cholesterol. However, the jury is still out on its overall impact on health until more detailed and long-term studies are conducted. No effect on cancer risk has been proven so far. Substitution of high caloric snacks with plain green tea can help with weight loss – only because of the calories you are able to omit. Moderation, 2-3 cups a day maximum, is the key in tea consumption as well. Tea is high in oxalate, and its over-consumption can cause kidney stones. Caffeine is also a mild diuretic, and negatively affects hydration.
If we take a look at Ayah 87 of Surah Al-Maida again, we will recognize the balance in Allah’s (swt) instruction to us. All “good” things have been made lawful for us to enjoy and benefit from, as long as we maintain moderation in behaviour. “There is more misinformation pretending to be fact in this field than any other I can think of,” Dr. Jeffery M. Friedman, a Rockefeller University obesity researcher, was quoted as saying in the New England Journal of Medicine (Jan 31, 2013).
It is important to sift through all the food trends that reach us at lightning speed from all parts of the globe, because our body is an Amanah from our Creator, and we will be held accountable for it on the Day of Judgement.