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Old wives’ tales about your diet

Families pass them on from generation to generation, but are the age-old stories true?
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“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” “Feed a cold; starve a fever.” These are just some of the adages our mothers and grandmothers may have used while we were growing up. But, is there any truth in them? Los Angeles Times syndicated columnist and “Today” show contributor Phil Lempert shares the scoop on these age-old stories.

It’s holiday time, and you know what that means — family get-togethers and seeing relatives that some of us wish we could forget. Too often we find ourselves in conversations that offer “fool-proof” advice on everything from curing the common cold to losing weight.

Many times this advice is passed on from generation to generation — the proverbial “old wives’ tales,” if you will. We decided to review some of the most common, and see if the facts back up the advice.

1. Drinking eight glasses of water a day is good for you.

Today more than ever before, we see people of all ages carrying water bottles to work, play and just about everywhere. The reason is that water has been promoted as an “all-purpose health potion.” Doctors and nutritionists agree that the eight glasses a day rule doesn’t carry much — water — in fact. In order to replace our daily loss of water, an average-sized adult with healthy kidneys needs only about one liter (or four 8 oz. glasses) of fluids a day.

A report in the October issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition measured how different combinations of water, coffee and caffeinated sodas effect the hydration of adults. The conclusion? No significant difference, refuting yet another old wives’ tale that only pure water is an effective hydrator.

Other nutritionists suggest that eight glasses of fluids a day may even flush valuable nutrients and vitamins out of one’s body.

The bottom line: Drinking water is good but not as a cure-all.

2. Eating grapefruit increases your metabolism:

For years we have heard about the grapefruit diet as one that would actually burn fat. Maybe it started because of the tartness or highly acidic taste, but the reality is that grapefruit does not burn off fat in the body (nor does any other food).

On the plus side, grapefruits, like most fruits and vegetables, are packed with nutrients. An added bonus is that grapefruits are a great low-calorie, low-fat snack any day of the week.

3. Castor oil is good for your health:

For generations, the threat of a spoonful of castor oil was enough to get kids out of their sick beds and on the way to school. The truth is that castor oil has been proven to strengthen the immune system; it creates a significant increase of lymphocytes. It also appears to have a balancing effect on the autonomic nervous system, increasing liver activity and improving digestion. Ricinoleic acid, the main ingredient of castor oil, prevents the growth of numerous species of viruses, bacteria, yeasts and molds. It is used for fungal infections, ringworm, keratosis, warts and even “liver” spots.

4. Feed a cold, starve a fever:

How many times have you heard this one? It’s one of those tales that was probably thought up before there was anything you could do for a fever, or high temperature.

Anyone with a really high temperature doesn’t even think about eating. And that’s a mistake. We now know that nutrition is important all the time, especially when you are ill. Most of us, when under the weather, eat only

when we feel hungry. But we should be sure we are getting the nutrients we need and that means eating and drinking nutrient-dense foods and beverages to help us back to good health.

5. You can’t get one cold straight after another:

Oh yes you can! In fact, if you do not look after yourself when you have a cold, then you will increase your chances of getting another one soon. The resistance you get from fighting one cold infection only helps you fight off exactly the same strain of virus. Remember that there are over 200 different strains to catch.

6. Eating candy gives you cavities:

The longer food stays in your mouth, the better chances of it causing tooth decay. But many candies, such as jellybeans, caramels and plain chocolate, are broken down and cleared out quickly. Sugars are easily washed out of the mouth by saliva, while complex carbohydrates (starches) can take several hours. According to dentists, it is the starches such as chips, pretzels, crackers and cookies, along with bananas, dried fruit and other fruits that are low in water, that hang out in the spaces between and on tops of teeth for a long time.

Brushing after every meal and especially after eating sticky, chewy candies is the best defense. If you cannot brush, chew a piece of sugarless gum for at least 10 minutes to help speed the removal of food particles from your teeth.

7. The reason women can’t consume as much alcohol as men is because they usually weigh less than men, and have a higher percentage of fat:

This one was probably made up in a men’s-only bar. The reality is that a man and a woman of a similar size can drink the same amount of alcohol. The woman will retain more of it in her bloodstream, as women have lower levels of an essential alcohol-metabolizing enzyme. In addition, women do not metabolize as much alcohol in their stomachs as men do.

So women can drink as much, but the effect of the alcohol will probably be greater.

8. Meat takes days to digest:

When you wind up eating at dinner at your aunt’s house — you know, the one who overcooks every piece of meat — you don’t have to worry. Meat digests within four to five hours. It might feel like more, but it’s not.

The truth is that dietary fiber in fruits, vegetables and whole grains takes 48 to 78 hours to digest — much longer than meat. Don’t worry, this is not a problem, but neither is the digestion of meat. We humans are omnivores and can digest a wide range of foods.

9. It’s best to eat fruit at the end of a meal:

Fruit eaten after a meal will be broken down at a faster rate than the main components of the meal, and so can speed up the transition of foods into the colon. While the meal itself is being broken down, the fruit may start to ferment, which can lead to bloating and let’s just call it “wind.” Fruit is better off eaten alone, away from your main meal.

So there you have it, the knowledge to combat those annoying recommendations that your well-intentioned friends and family will offer over the coming weeks. Happy holidays!

Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru®, analyzes the food marketing industry to keep consumers up-to-date about cutting-edge marketing trends. He is a regular “Today” show contributor, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and host of Shopping Smart of the WOR Radio Network. For more food and health information, you can check out Phil’s Web site at: