Beat the diet post-truths

Clear up the con­fu­sion about what you should be eat­ing.

Health & Fitness - - Contents - WORDS: Char­lotte Haigh

When the new wave of healthy eat­ing ex­perts first ap­peared in magazines, books and on In­sta­gram, health-con­scious women every­where were se­duced. A way of eat­ing that promised glow­ing skin and über-vi­tal­ity was sure to ap­peal, even to those with lots of nu­tri­tion knowhow.

But some of the orig­i­nal pro­po­nents of ‘clean eat­ing’ – as the ap­proach has come to be known – have since dis­tanced them­selves from the trend and a back­lash is in full swing, with crit­ics claim­ing that the well­ness in­flu­encers’ ad­vice has no sci­en­tific back­bone. So what’s the is­sue? Is the clean-eat­ing ethos re­ally that wonky?

The big prob­lem, says nu­tri­tion­ist Rob Hob­son, is that ‘clean eat­ing’ is a vague term mean­ing dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. ‘Orig­i­nally, clean eat­ing was sim­ply about choos­ing whole, nat­u­ral foods, avoid­ing chem­i­cals and pre­par­ing meals from scratch,’ he says.

‘No­body can ar­gue that’s not a good ap­proach to your diet. But then the term got hi­jacked by well­ness blog­gers and writ­ers, and clean eat­ing started to mean lots of other things; usu­ally cut­ting out ma­jor food groups, such as dairy and gluten, and some­times meat and all grains, with­out nec­es­sar­ily re­plac­ing the im­por­tant nu­tri­ents th­ese foods con­tain,’ adds Hob­son. ‘But there isn’t a sin­gle def­i­ni­tion. So that im­me­di­ately makes it con­fus­ing.’

The glam­our fac­tor

‘The peo­ple mak­ing the clean claims have helped raise its ap­peal,’ says nu­tri­tion­ist Fiona Hunter. ‘They’re usu­ally young, gor­geous women, or good-look­ing, toned men, who talk about the way th­ese diet changes have trans­formed their well­be­ing,’ she says. ‘It’s nat­u­ral to want to be­lieve some diet changes could be all you need to make a huge dif­fer­ence.’

Food psy­chol­o­gist Dr Christy Fer­gus­son thinks our in­built tribal men­tal­ity may also play a role. ‘One of the rea­sons phrases such as “clean eat­ing” have such ap­peal is that they al­low us to feel uni­fied and part of a col­lec­tive group. La­belling your­self as “pa­leo”, “ve­gan” or “a clean eater” is a way to sig­nify what you stand for,’ she says.

New re­search* has shown a quar­ter of us are af­fected by those around us when it comes to eat­ing. ‘And nowa­days, those in­flu­enc­ing our eat­ing be­hav­iours are not just friends and fam­ily mem­bers, but also those we fol­low on on­line,’ says Fer­gus­son.

A gen­eral mis­trust of ex­perts is also at play, be­lieves Hob­son. ‘There’s so much in­for­ma­tion out there now, peo­ple are less will­ing to lis­ten to pro­fes­sion­als with train­ing in nu­tri­tion. It’s more ap­peal­ing to be­lieve a glam­orous blog­ger, who sug­gests a diet re­vamp will mag­i­cally trans­form your life.’

Out of bal­ance

While a wealth of ev­i­dence does sup­port the link be­tween good health and a diet rich in fruit, veg­eta­bles, oily fish and whole­grains, and low in su­gar and pro­cessed foods, Hunter ar­gues there’s no sci­ence to sug­gest go­ing fur­ther than this – by in­clud­ing spe­cific ‘su­per­foods’ or cut­ting out grains and dairy, for ex­am­ple – is ben­e­fi­cial. Hob­son agrees. ‘Some have gen­uine sen­si­tiv­i­ties to gluten and lac­tose, and for those peo­ple, of course avoid­ing th­ese foods is im­por­tant. But for the rest of us, it’s un­nec­es­sary. Yet some­how it’s be­come seen as “healthy” and vir­tu­ous to avoid gluten and dairy. I be­lieve this is driven by the food in­dus­try, as a way to mar­ket gluten-free and lac­tose-free prod­ucts to a wider au­di­ence, in­clud­ing those who don’t need them.’

But con­sid­er­ing the ma­jor­ity of Bri­tons are over­weight and there’s a ris­ing tide of weight-re­lated health prob­lems, such as type 2 di­a­betes and heart dis­ease, does it re­ally mat­ter if we’re fol­low­ing healthy eat­ing trends? Even if the sci­ence is lack­ing and some el­e­ments are over-the-top, pack­ing your diet with greens and avoid­ing su­gar can only be pos­i­tive. ‘The trou­ble with the more ex­treme, faddy di­ets is they aren’t sus­tain­able,’ says Hunter. ‘Gen­er­ally, peo­ple will fol­low them for a few weeks and then be­come dis­cour­aged and give up. You need to be able to fol­low a long-term, con­sis­tent healthy eat­ing plan, and for most of us that means mod­er­a­tion, with­out cut­ting out ma­jor food groups.’

Plus, a diet that re­lies on ex­otic foods, such as ca­cao and co­conut oil, can be ex­pen­sive. ‘For cer­tain peo­ple – of­ten those most drawn to healthy eat­ing trends – it can en­cour­age an ob­ses­sion with food, and even or­thorexia: anx­i­ety-driven pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with only eat­ing cer­tain foods,’ says Hob­son.

The ex­perts’ ad­vice? ‘I favour “in­tu­itive eat­ing”: rather than la­belling in­di­vid­ual foods as “good” or “bad”, look at your diet and try to tune into what your body wants, un­der­stand­ing when you feel full and when — and what — you need to eat,’ says Hob­son. ‘Healthy eat­ing should be sim­ple, based on foods that are as nat­u­ral as pos­si­ble.’ If there’s a health con­cern you want to ad­dress, see a nu­tri­tion­ist or di­eti­cian for ad­vice. By all means use the recipe books and blogs for in­spi­ra­tion, but there’s no need to swal­low the ethos whole.

‘The trou­ble with more ex­treme di­ets is they aren’t sus­tain­able’

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