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With so much health information out there it's hard to decern which is more important, or even correct. Do I eat three vegetables a day or four? Do my kids need 120 or 150 minutes of exercise? How much sugar should my significant other have? In a world full of complicated health information, here are 8 "healthy habits" that you don't need.
1) Eat Vegetables Every Day
We need to eat vegetables because they have vital vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. Different vegetables contain unique mixes of these essential nutrients; essential because we can’t make them ourselves, but our bodies use them as building blocks.
The two types of vitamins are fat-soluble and water-soluble. As the name describes, fat-soluble vitamins must combine with fat to be absorbed into the body. Water-soluble vitamins dissolve in water and can be readily absorbed by the gut. (That’s why it’s beneficial to eat some fat with your vegetables; have the ranch dressing!)
Examples of fat-soluble vitamins are vitamins A, D, and E. These vitamins are found in kale, Brussel sprouts, and sweet yellow peppers. Examples of water-soluble vitamins are vitamin B1, B12, and C. These vitamins are found in Brussel sprouts, collard greens, and green onions. (Notice the example lists overlap!)
The reason we don’t need to eat every vegetable every day is that some vitamins can be stored in the body for later use, while others can’t. Fat-soluble vitamins can be stored in the body, so we don’t need a daily quota.
The proper title for this healthy habit you don’t need should be “eat every vegetable every day” (but the current title got your attention!). The point is you don’t need to eat every vegetable every day because vegetables (and fruits) have over %100 of some of your daily nutrition needs. If you consume various fruits and vegetables within a few days, you will get enough vital nutrients.
Some vegetables have over 100% of the daily recommended value or RDV, which means they have enough vitamins to last for days, so you don’t need to eat them every day to get your daily recommended serving.
For example, 100 grams of kale has 200% RDV of vitamin C; 100 grams of Brussel sprouts have 142% RDV of vitamin C; 100 grams of sweet yellow peppers has 306% RDV of vitamin C.
For example, the recommended daily serving of vitamin K is 70 micrograms. 4 ounces of Brussel sprouts have 78 mg of vitamin K whereas 4 ounces of collard greens have 494 mg of vitamin K. A half a cup of green unions have 103 mg of vitamin K.
2) Take Your Vitamins
Studies show that people who eat their vitamins are more likely to have other healthy habits, like eating vegetables and exercising. Multivitamins would appear to be part of a healthy lifestyle, but supplements haven’t been shown to improve health. On the contrary, studies show that high doses of synthetic vitamins can be harmful.
Multiple studies have shown that vitamins and minerals don’t positively affect chronic diseases like cancer and type 2 diabetes Multivitamins don’t reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, or mental decline. Rates of heart attack, heart surgeries, and death didn’t change with supplement use. One study even found that older female cancer survivors with poor general health and/or dietary intake that used supplements post-diagnosis had a higher mortality rate.
Multiple studies have found that too many synthetic vitamins/supplements can be harmful:
Research has shown that 1 in 57 babies born to women who consume more than 10,000 IU of vitamin A daily had congenital disabilities. [Source]
Research shows that consuming more than 400 IU per day of vitamin E is connected to all-cause mortality (all of the population's deaths, regardless of cause). [Source]
Studies have also found that high doses of vitamin A, vitamin E, and beta-carotene may cause unwanted effects on health. [Source]
Supplemental Iron increases the death rate. [Source]
Supplemental iron increases the risk of lung cancer. [Source]
Research shows that a daily intake of 400 IU or more of folic acid led to unmetabolized folic acid (UMFA) in the body. UMFA can slow the immune system, lower iron concentrations, and impair memory. [Source]
Folic acid treatments were also shown to increase cancer and all-cause mortality rates. [Source]
What happens to extra vitamins in the body?
A fundamental chemistry principle is “like dissolves like”; it refers to how solvents work. A solvent dissolves a solute; a solute is a substance dissolved in another substance. For example, water is the solvent, and salt is the solute in a saltwater solution.
Salt dissolves in water because it is polar, meaning it has positive and negative poles. Oil and water don’t mix because water is polar, and oil is nonpolar.
The amount of salt in an amount of water or the ratio of solute to solvent is called concentration. If a solution is saturated, that means no more solute can be dissolved into the solution; no more salt can be dissolved into the water. A solution is supersaturated when no more solute can be dissolved into the solution, and the solute remains separate from the solvent.
If you have ever tried to dissolve a giant scoop of protein powder in eight ounces of water, you know what I mean.
The same principle holds for water-soluble vitamins; they are suspended in water. If the body determines their concentration is too high, the kidneys will excrete them naturally. At a particular concentration, the blood will become supersaturated, and the molecule will stop dissolving into the solution, creating solid deposits in the body.
Fat doesn’t dissolve in water. Fat comes in many forms, but it’s basic form is pictured below. Half of its structure is polar, and the other, nonpolar. When fat and water interact with each other, fat clustered together because "like dissolves like." The fat creates a micelle.
When we eat fat, the stomach breaks it into large fat droplets. Digestion and absorption take place in the small intestine. Bile salts from the liver coats the fat droplets, and pancreatic enzymes chop the fat into monoglycerides and fatty acids. This process is called emulsion. The result is micelles, which can be transported into the cells of the small intestine. There, the fat is repackaged into a chylomicron and sent through the lymphatic system.
Fat-soluble vitamins are dissolved in the large fat droplets and go through the same digestion and absorption; that is why eating fat with fat-soluble vitamins is crucial. Extra fat-soluble vitamins are stored in the liver and fat cells.
Continuously taking large doses of vitamins can lead to vitamin toxicity or hypervitaminosis, the condition of abnormally high storage levels of vitamins. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, dehydration, weakness, irritability, fatigue, drowsiness, stomach pain, loss of appetite, confusion, and vision changes. Hypervitaminosis usually occurs from increased supplement intake or fortified food consumption. If left untreated, hypervitaminosis can lead to kidney damage, kidney stones, or liver damage.
How are supplements different from natural vitamins? A natural vitamin or nutrient comes from whole foods in your diet; you consume them naturally when you eat real, one-ingredient foods. Supplemental vitamins or nutrients, also referred to as isolated nutrients, are made artificially through an industrialized process. Synthetic vitamins are typically made from petroleum.
Research has shown that natural vitamins are superior to synthetic ones. It’s not just about the vitamins, but the enzymes, nutrients, and other vitamins in the food. We don’t pick the potassium out of the banana or the vitamin C from an orange. Nature packaged nutrients this way for a reason.
Now that you know all this information don’t freak out and throw away all your supplements. The lesson here is that taking vitamins is not a be-all-end-all. If you live in a first-world country and have a relatively diverse, balanced diet, you will consume all the nutrients you need. Some supplements will help, but ultimately excess vitamins will not save you from a bad diet.
3) Go to the Gym/Daily Exercise
Mountains of research tell us that exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle. Still, experts disagree about how much physical exercise to get, how intense that activity should be, and how long to exercise. The official recommendations are:
American Heart Association (AHA): “Get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week.” [Source]
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): “At least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity such as brisk walking; At least two days a week of activities that strengthen muscles.” [Source]
American Diabetes Association (ADA): 150 minutes of exercise per week [Source]
World Health Organization (WHO): “Adults should do at least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity; or at least 75–150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity; or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity throughout the week, for substantial health benefits. Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities at a moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week, as these provide additional health benefits.” [Source]
Scientists are still working on answering the most basic questions: How often should you exercise? How intensity should you exercise? How long should you exercise? We have a few definitive answers.
Research has shown that doing one or two sessions of physical activity a week can reduce mortality rates. These results mean all the “weekend warriors” are healthy when it comes to exercise. [Source]
One study from the Exercise as Medicine program at Loughborough University in England found that people who exercised once or twice a week reduced their mortality rate by 30 to 34% compared to inactive people. In contrast, people who worked out almost every day only reduced their mortality rate by 35%. [Source]
It’s unclear whether the intensity of the workout matters. Recent studies have been published in the JAMA Network that contradicts one another. One paper concluding, workout intensity doesn’t affect mortality rate; the other article saw a correlation between the two parameters. [Source 1] [Source 2]
Studies have shown that moderate exercise can increase immune function, whereas strenuous exercise stresses the body and decreases immune response. [Source]
Exercise should be a part of your daily life and is a legitimate healthy habit, but the way you get that physical activity is ultimately up to you. The misconception is that the gym is the only place to work out and that exercise has to be intense and/or more than an hour long.
In reality, exercise can be anything you want it to be. If you want to clean, go for it. If you can’t stand doing the same workout twice, you don’t have to. If you play with your kids, go for it. The point of physical exercise is to increase the heart rate for a significant period. As long as that happens, you have exercised.
You don’t have to go to the gym to work out, nor do you have to do a planned exercise routine every day. Cancel that unused gym membership, sell that dusty treadmill, and throw out those rusty hand weights. The main consensus among professionals is that you should be moving more and sitting less. How you do that is up to you!
4) Weight Yourself Regularly as a Measurement of Health
Weight is a sticky subject. Many healthy habits lists include a habit about the scale - weigh yourself daily, weigh yourself weekly, throw the machine in the trash, etc. Regardless of what healthy habits lists say about weight, it’s not the measurement that should be used for health. Instead of a weight scale, you need a body composition scale.
What is body composition? It’s a way to break down the body’s components. The main elements are water, fat, bone/minerals, and muscle/protein. A body composition analysis shows body fat mass, body fat percentage, skeletal muscle mass, dry lean mass, and total body water.
Body fat mass is the portion of the body weight attributed to fat, presented in pounds or kilograms. Body fat mass is different from percent body fat, which is body fat mass divided by the total body mass and is presented as a percentage. The usual range of body fat percentage for me is 10 to 20%, and the normal range for women is 18 to 28%.
Skeletal muscle mass is the amount of body weight attributed to voluntary muscles or the skeletal muscles. It is presented in pounds or kilograms. The recommended range differs depending on gender and height.
Dry lean mass is the pounds or kilograms of minerals and proteins in the muscles, bones, skin, and organs. It doesn’t have a recommended range.
Total body water is the amount of water inside the body in pounds or kilograms. The recommended range differs depending on gender, age, and weight. Total body water decreases with age.
Weight is a measurement of the force exerted on an object by gravity. It does not indicate what’s going on inside the body, just the amount of space it takes up. The weight doesn’t tell you if you smoked a pack of cigarettes a day or sat on the couch for the past year, whereas body composition does.
A person could weigh the same after a year of working out and healthy eating, increasing their lean body mass and decreasing their body fat mass, and a health professional wouldn't know by just looking at the number on the scale. The person is healthier because of the change in body composition, while their weight hasn’t changed.
InBody breaks down the body into four types depending on the person’s weight, skeletal muscle mass, and body fat mass. Their scan organizes these components into a chart, as pictured below. When determining the body type, a line is drawn from the weight to the skeletal muscle mass to the body fat mass.
The classes are as follows:
Athletic or “D” Shape: The skeletal muscle mass is higher than weight and body fat mass. This body type is ideal. High levels of muscle mass and low body fat decrease the risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
Balanced or “I” Shape: Weight, muscle mass, and body fat mass are similar. A line can be drawn straight down the chart, forming an “I.” Though this person’s numbers are usually in the average range, there is still room for improvement. Work to increase muscle mass.
Obese or “C” Shape: Weight, muscle mass, and fat mass are all above average, with weight and fat mass significantly above average. Drawing a line from the weight, muscle mass, and fat mass creates a C. This body type indicates an imbalance in the body. This person has an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.
Sarcopenic Obese (Skinny Fat) or “C” Shape: Weight is within the normal range, but the skeletal muscle mass is below average, and body fat mass will be above average. The line creates a C shape. Recommend increasing muscle mass and reducing fat mass. The weight on the scale might not change, but the muscle and the fat percentage will.
Experts recommend measuring body composition every month. Whereas weight fluctuates daily, body composition does not. It takes a long time to lose fat and gain muscle, so measuring every four weeks will show any changes more accurately.
5) Cook at Home
The point of cooking at home is that you know what is going into your food. You won’t add extra sodium, trans-fats, or simple carbs. You have control over the food and ultimately over your health, but the place you eat doesn’t determine if your choices are healthy.
You can still pick the wrong foods, spend too much money, and eat too many calories by cooking at home. It’s more about your choices than the place you are eating. If you only eat frozen meals at home but have a wrap or salad at a restaurant, eating out is healthier than eating at home.
Part of health is making good choices. Calories are calories; carbs are carbs; fat is fat. Do you know which food has fewer calories, a wrap or a salad? Do you know which bread is made with simple carbs and which with complex carbs? Do you know you can ask for grilled if the food isn’t?
Knowledge is power. If you know how to eat healthily, you can do it anywhere. Tired on a Friday night? It’s okay to order out. Possibilities are an Unwich from Jimmy Johns,
6) Meat with Every Meal
We need protein with every meal, but the misconception is that that protein must come from meat. The concern with beef is the amount of fat. Meat has more fat than other sources of protein. The overconsumption of animals can lead to overeating of fat.
Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fats
Fat is composed of glycerol and three fatty acid chains. The fatty acid chains are made up of connecting carbon. Carbon needs four molecules attached to it, so hydrogen fills in where needed. The way hydrogen attaches to carbon in the fatty acid determines if the molecule is saturated, unsaturated, or trans-fat.
Saturated fat is when all the carbons are bonded to hydrogen, pictured below. Unsaturated fat is when some of the carbons are double bonded, and less hydrogen is needed. When the carbon is double bonded to each other, the molecule bends to accommodate this change. The bend in the fatty acid tail is crucial to the function of this molecule.