The wellness industry – a booming market – is clever at marketing. It has created strategies for us to believe certain products or ways of eating will help us lose weight and optimise our health. The result? Food fads with little basis in nutritional fact.
Every day, our Instagram feeds tell us how food can help us feel better, look more radiant (#youglowgirl, #celeryjuice) or make us thin. Do these food fads live up to the hype?
Let’s explore trending nutrition approaches and unpick the science behind them.
My heart sinks every time someone says they’re on a ‘detox’. Whether it be juice cleanses, weight loss teas or appetite suppressing gummies, they’re all food fads as far as I’m concerned.
The claims usually centre around promises to boost metabolism, flush out toxins and curb appetite. Our bodies do a great job of detoxifying themselves already. It’s done via the kidneys and liver whose job it is to convert toxic substances into ones safe for excretion.
I’m happy to report that a few weeks of over indulgence doesn’t mean you need to resort to expensive supplements. You just need to go back to balanced eating. Abstain from excessive amounts of alcohol and ensure you move your body pretty regularly.
There are certain plant compounds (glucosinolates) that can support the liver’s detoxification enzymes. They’re found in brassicas such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and kale. Vegetables not food fads! Feel free to eat as much of them as you like, but steer clear of skinny lollipops.
Carbs are the devil
Carbs are routinely touted as the root of all dietary evil. We’re told they’re toxic, fattening and addictive. The truth is glucose from carbohydrates is your body’s preferred energy source and that includes your brain. If you don’t eat enough you run the risk of feeling tired, dizzy and finding it hard to concentrate.
You might also experience a dip in your mood. Carbs play an important role in transporting tryptophan (key to creating serotonin, your happy hormone) to the brain.
Do carbs make you fat? Any food eaten in excess will cause you to put on weight. Even kale. But it’s a hell of lot easier to overeat brownies than it is kale.
Carbohydrates – especially complex or starchy ones such as oats, potatoes and legumes – are a good source of energy and fibre. These help your digestive system stay healthy and keep your blood sugar levels steady. Better still, they contain all sorts of micronutrients that help release energy from food.
Some people experience initial weight loss from a low-carbohydrate diet (the ketogenic diet is one such example). However most won’t maintain it because it feels so restrictive.
Remember, no single food group is responsible for weight loss/gain. The bottom line is you need to play your carbs right. Opt for high quality fruit, vegetable and grain sources over refined carbs most of the time and you won’t go wrong.
One of the most-quoted food fads. Time restricted eating (or intermittent fasting) is being hailed as a magic bullet for weight loss, cancer prevention and healthy ageing. The issue, however, is that most studies to date have been carried out on rodents not humans.
Some people swear by diets such as the 5:2 whereby you eat ‘normally’ for five days and restrict your calories for the remaining two days. This is perfectly fine if you have no history of disordered eating and are happy to make this style of eating/fasting work for your lifestyle.
From a research point of view, however, intermittent fasting isn’t a miracle cure for weight loss. It simply restricts energy intake just as all calorie controlled diets do.
Multiple studies have found intermittent fasting leads to no more weight loss than traditional ‘diets’. Some studies show weight is quickly regained when intermittent fasting stops.
Celery juice is having a moment right now. It’s the faddiest of food fads thanks to a book by Anthony William AKA ‘the medical medium’. Advocates of the celery juicing movement assert that drinking it first thing in the morning on an empty stomach will prevent chronic illness, ‘cure’ mental health conditions and eradicate skin complaints such as eczema.
There’s not a shred of evidence to back up these outlandish claims. Not only is straight celery juice pretty unpalatable for most, juicing any fruit or vegetable strips it of its fibre content, which is crucial for good gut health.
If you like the taste, go for it, but from a nutrition standpoint you’d probably be better off eating whole celery with something delicious like hummus.
Don’t eat after 6pm
The premise around not eating after 6pm is that your body switches from metabolising food for energy to storing it as fat because you haven’t had a chance to ‘burn it off’. But, physiologically, that isn’t how we work. It’s your overall energy (calorie) intake across a day or week that matters, not the exact time you eat. If it were the case, all night shift workers would be overweight.
Listen to your body and don’t override your hunger cues. If this is something you struggle with, you could try looking into intuitive eating (read Just Eat It by Laura Thomas). One thing worth remembering though is that eating a heavy meal too close to bedtime can affect your sleep and isn’t advisable if you suffer from acid reflux.
The ‘healthiest’ diet is vegan
A vegan diet, done well, can provide everything you need to stay healthy. But cutting out any food group can have detrimental health outcomes, so it requires thought.
You need to be mindful of hitting your protein targets (approximately 1g per kilogram of body weight), as well as ensuring you get enough calcium, iodine, selenium and zinc.
Unlike animal products, plant based protein tends not to contain all nine essential amino acids (with the exception of quinoa, hemp and soy), which means you need to combine different foods across the day – beans and rice for example – to make them ‘complete’.
B12 is only available from animal sources so look for fortified cereals and plant milks and consider investing in a supplement. It’s also worth bearing in mind that iron (non heme) from plant based sources is much harder to absorb than from animals (heme). Ask your GP to check your levels as being deficient can lead to fatigue, hair loss, shortness of breath, dizziness and heart palpitations.
The bottom line is that vegan diets take work but there are plenty of good resources around these days to help you make the switch. I often recommend clients do it incrementally, ie. making Mondays meat-free or going plant-based at home but being more flexible when eating out. At the end of the day a simple increase in unprocessed plant based foods can pay real dividends to your health, you don’t have to go the whole hog.
So there you have it, sadly there are no miracle food fads or weight loss fixes. It all comes down to long term, sensible eating that keeps you full and makes you happy. Basically it’s all about balance. Not a very sexy marketing message, but trust me it works.
Read more from Emma at Emmabardwell.com, and follow her on Instagram @emma.bardwell. To book a consultation, email firstname.lastname@example.org