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Nutritional advice is tricky to navigate. Food science is incomplete, evolving, sometimes contradictory, and easily misrepresented by people and companies who have something to sell. We are bombarded with passionate messages about foods that will allegedly save our lives—or ruin them. What to eat?

Most students (about 75 percent) are pretty sure they know which foods are good or bad for their health, according to a recent survey by Student Health 101 (1,900 students responded).

Here’s what we found when we looked at those “pretty confident” students:

  • Only one in four said they know where to get reliable nutrition information.
  • These students were split on certain key nutritional questions.
  • They generally agreed on some other issues. But were their conclusions in line with the evidence?
  • Their responses were similar to those of students overall.

Are dairy and wheat the real enemies?

Unless you’re diagnosed allergic or intolerant, giving up gluten (a protein in wheat, barley, and rye), or lactose (a natural sugar in dairy products) is unlikely to make you healthier. And there’s an obvious downside. “Beware of the potential nutrient and health implications,” says Dr. Gary Miller, associate professor of nutrition at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. If you cut out these food groups, be conscientious about getting essential nutrients from other sources.

  • If you don’t eat dairy: Load up on white or black beans, sardines, and kale.
  • If you don’t eat gluten: Get your fiber from split peas, lentils, and beans.

What you said:
It could be worth giving up dairy or wheat even if I’m not allergic or intolerant

  • Seems true: 3 out of 10 student agree
  • Seems false: 6 out of 10 student agree
  • I don’t know: 1 out of 10 student agree

Based on current nutritional science seems false is the best answer

General media outrage on GMOs

Arguments are raging about foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs): genes not naturally found in the ingredients’ DNA. Two-thirds of processed foods contain GMOs, but the jury is still out on whether they hurt us. “GMOs pose a significant environmental threat, but we don’t know the long-term health effects,” says Shabnam Greenfield, a nutrition consultant based in Washington DC. GMOs have major benefits for increasing food security and improving nutrition worldwide. Still, worried consumers are pushing for GMOs to be identified on food labels.

What you said:
Genetically modified foods are a significant threat to our health

  • Seems true: 5 out of 10 student agree
  • Seems false: 3 out of 10 student agree
  • I don’t know: 2 out of 10 student agree

Based on current nutritional science we currently don’t know the answer

Need protein power?

The research isn’t conclusive about how much protein we need if we’re strength training. That said, Americans in general average twice the recommend amount of protein. When we’re weight training, more protein is used by the body—at first. Eventually the body adapts and our protein needs drop again. “While some students are really strength training [think football players or serious weight lifters], others are just adding a strength regimen to their routine, and may not be lifting enough to produce a huge protein deficit,” says Karen Moses, a dietitian and director of wellness at Arizona State University in Tempe. If you’re adding a strength class or free weights to your workout routine, you’re likely all set.

What you said:
If I’m strength training, I should eat a lot more protein than usual

  • Seems true: 8 out of 10 student agree
  • Seems false: 1 out of 10 student agree
  • I don’t know: 1 out of 10 student agree

Based on current nutritional science seems false is the best answer

Low-sodium podium

For most of us, it’s probably safe to consume a teaspoon of salt each day—from all our foods and drinks combined. But Americans typically eat 1½ times that much salt. When we’re in our teens or 20s, it’s difficult to care. By age 45, more than a third of us have high blood pressure (women as well as men), upping the risk of heart disease—and we’ll care then. African-Americans and people with hypertension or diabetes are wise to limit their sodium intake even further.

What you said:
My sodium intake is likely significantly above the recommended limit

  • Seems true: 6 out of 10 student agree
  • Seems false: 3 out of 10 student agree
  • I don’t know: 1 out of 10 student agree

Based on current nutritional science seems true is the best answer

Time to retire your plastic water bottle?

Certain chemicals released from plastics and other packaging appear to be harmful to our health in the long run. We’ve heard mostly about BPA, but other chemicals may also be implicated. The chemicals may taint your food when the packaging is heated or cooled, exposed to UV light, scratched, or old. Fatty, oily, and acidic foods seem especially prone to contamination. The research shows an association, not a cause and effect relationship, says Shabnam Greenfield.

What you said:
I am concerned about the health effects of chemicals in packaging

  • Seems true: 8 out of 10 student agree
  • Seems false: 1 out of 10 student agree
  • I don’t know: 1 out of 10 student agree

Based on current nutritional science seems true is the best answer

Low-fat or low-carb?

This is one of the most fiercely argued nutritional questions. Most research has tried to measure the effects of these diets on weight loss, not general health. (For losing weight, both approaches seem to work.) Most nutritionists advise against seriously restricting food groups. “The best advice for people wanting to maintain a healthy eating style is to eat a balance of healthy foods from a variety of food groups, including healthy fats, vegetables, fruits, dairy, grains and proteins,” says Dr. Moses.

What you said:
A low-fat diet is generally healthier than a low-carb diet

  • Seems true: 5 out of 10 student agree
  • Seems false: 3 out of 10 student agree
  • I don’t know: 2 out of 10 student agree

Based on current nutritional science we currently don’t know the answer

Sweet as it seems?

Artificial sweeteners (calorie-free) can help with weight control. Aspartame “has been evaluated far more extensively than any other food additive” and shown to be safe, wrote Harriet Hall MD in the SkepDoc column at Skeptic.com. Stevia, another popular sweetener, might be involved in lowering blood sugar (a concern for people with diabetes) and may interfere with some medications. Bottom line: For most of us, moderate consumption of artificial sweeteners is probably OK.

What you said:
Artificial sweeteners are generally safe for my health

  • Seems true: 1 out of 10 student agree
  • Seems false: 8 out of 10 student agree
  • I don’t know: 1 out of 10 student agree

Based on current nutritional science seems true is the best answer

Here’s how to cut down on contamination from packaging

  1. Look for water bottles and food packaging labeled BPA-free.
  2. Opt for products in glass, stainless steel, ceramic, and other non-plastic containers.
  3. Don’t heat or chill food while it’s in plastic packaging.Avoid canned foods, including soup and beverages. These are a major source of BPA.

Here’s how to figure out how much protein you need

Multiply your body weight in pounds by 0.336. Unless you’re a serious athlete, you probably don’t need more.

For example:
If you weigh 150 lb, you need 50 grams of protein a day (0.336 x 150 = 50.4)
If you weigh 200 lb, you need 67 grams of protein a day (0.336 x 200 = 67.2)

PROTEIN SOURCES
  • Steak (size of a pack of cards): 42 grams
  • Chicken breast: 30 grams
  • Most fish fillets: 22 grams
  • ½ cup tofu (size of a pack of cards): 20 grams
  • 2 Tbsp. peanut butter: 8 grams
  • 1 egg: 6 grams

Here’s how to cut down on sodium

  • Eat fresh, unprocessed foods.
  • Cook for yourself. Flavor your foods with herbs and spices.
  • Let your taste buds adjust: Soon, you won’t miss it much.
  • When you buy processed foods, look for low-sodium and sodium-free options.
  • Rinse canned foods to reduce the salt content.

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