My name is Mike and I am a context-aholic.
As such I have a knee-jerk aversion to blanket statements. Whether it’s across-the-board condemnation or praise of a certain food, diet or training system, I tend to want to pull what’s left of my hair out whenever I hear “food X is bad”, “food Y is a superfood”, lists of foods nobody should eat or the constant stream of fad-ish shenanigans that populates my social media feed.
The problem with context is that is doesn’t sell. Moderation doesn’t sell, complexity and nuance doesn’t sell.
What DOES sell?
Fear and broad-based proclamations.
If you get your nutrition information from fad diets or hysteria-filled websites, you are likely to believe that any number of foods will expand your waistline. If you’ve browsed the diet section of your bookstore, frequent popular alternative health websites or scrolled through a facebook or instagram feed recently, nobody would blame you if you thought that gluten made you fat, arthritic and caused tension in the middle east and maybe a few hurricanes.
The problem is compounded by the fact that there is a mountainous variance in terms of what is being villainized and lionized between diet and fitness gurus.
And in defense of the marketing tactics – the diet book publishing outfits are simply doing what works; Appealing to our hedonic desire for the quick fix and clear cut answers – even when our questions are complicated and dependent on individual circumstance. I get it, we want a convenient enemy to blame things on. We want to see Batman vs The Joker, not a bunch of Alfred-esque characters coming to some sort of compromise based on all the available information.
I’m hoping to contextualize some of the more prominent claims that have arisen over the past decade.
Claim: Sugar is poison, addicting and fattening.
Scientific consensus (so far): It’s not a bad idea to cut back on sugar. That said sugar in and of itself does not make you gain weight, make you diabetic or directly cause any disease – provided you are moderating its intake, living a healthy lifestyle and not consuming more calories than you are expending. While it adds to the palatability of many foods, there isn’t enough evidence to support it being addictive in the same way illicit drugs are.
Claim: Wheat gives you a belly (and causes many other health issues)
Scientific consensus (so far): Wheat and products containing gluten can be problematic for those who have allergies/intolerances/sensitivities, however there is no scientific rationale for across-the-board avoidance. Wheat products can be consumed by most people without issue and will not contribute to weight gain unless overall calories are in a surplus.
Claim: Ketogenic diets are superior for fat loss and performance
Scientific consensus (so far): Ketogenic diets can work well for those who can adhere to this type of eating pattern. When protein levels are accounted for, however there is no clear advantage for weight and fat loss. When it comes to endurance performance measures, the majority of studies show either no difference or a decrease in performance compared to higher carbohydrate groups.
Claim: Bulletproof coffee helps burn fat and boosts mental clarity
Scientific consensus (so far): Putting butter and extra fat calories adds extra calories to your coffee… and that’s the end of that story. There is no scientifically plausible reason to believe that adding butter and medium chained triglycerides will confer any benefit above and beyond ruining a perfectly good cup of coffee. Regular coffee has a myriad of benefits already provided you are not adding a lot of cream and sugar in each cup. There is no evidence to suggest that alertness and mental clarity is increased by adding butter and no plausible reason to believe so other than clever marketing.
Claim: Artificial sweeteners cause health problems and make you hungry
Scientific consensus (so far): Hundreds of animal and human studies have examined the safety of artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame and Splenda. In realistic amounts (less than 10 cans of diet pop per day) there is nothing in the literature that suggests cause for alarm. In terms of artificial sweeteners causing hunger, the studies are mixed but side mostly with them not increasing hunger. Overall replacing caloric drinks with non-caloric sweeteners can be effective in lowering overall calorie intake.
Claim: Eating animal products causes ill health
Scientific consensus (so far): It is wise to eat minimal amounts of processed meats, however there is nothing substantive to suggest that when other dietary and lifestyle factors are accounted for that eliminating all animal product has any additional health benefit. In fact including moderate amounts of poultry, lean beef and fish makes it easier to get adequate protein while getting a full complement of essential amino acids. The massive, ongoing 45 and up study showed no difference in all-cause mortality between vegetarians and meat eaters.
Claim: Vegan diets lead to ill health
Scientific consensus (so far): When properly executed, people can not only enjoy long term health but thrive on diets devoid of meat products. There has been a strong anti-vegetarian/vegan slant promoted mostly by low carb extremists – none of which is founded.
Claim: Detox diets help with weight loss because toxins cause fat gain
Scientific consensus (so far): Detoxes and cleanses have enjoyed significant and steady popularity over the years – appealing to those who want to drop weight quickly. The claim is that we carry “toxins” and that getting rid of them is the key to losing weight, feeling great and a myriad of other benefits. The truth is these regimens “work” short term due to the absurdly low calories and not because of any special blend. There is no evidence to suggest that detox diets have any special powers to help us shed pounds.
Take Home Points
While it’s exciting to think that there might be some magic bullet or breakthrough that will help us easily shed pounds and get healthy – alas there is no such thing.
We don’t want to be told it takes hard work, time, patience and grit to achieve our goals. While the rewards are incalculable and well worth it – make no mistake that your journey will take time.
Instead of jumping on diet fads, look inward and look at habits. Find ways to get more vegetables and nutrient-dense foods into your diet. Find opportunities to move with intent and lift. Discover and RE-discover your “why”.. Your purpose and your mission. Whichever eating pattern you choose, be sure it’s something you can commit to over the long haul.