Wherever there’s food there’s a fad, designed to part you with your cash – it’s time to take them down…
Food is big business, and the massive multinational corporations that fill your plate with unhealthy slop aren’t necessarily interested in your health. Or at least they didn’t seem to be, but pressure from the World Health Organisation, national governments and obesity campaigners has forced the food industry into cleaning up its act – to a point.
Barely an online grocery shop goes by without some new healthy food fad cropping up, but there’s some bad news for you – they’re nothing more than marketing tools, designed to sell you things you might not have been interested in trying if it wasn’t for the hype that the people selling them have created. At RISING we’re a bit fed up with it, so we spoke to some independent nutritionists – the sort who actually know what’s good for us – to wipe the worst food fads clean off the plate.
1. ‘Superfoods’ There’s no such thing as a ‘superfood’. Or to put it another way: every healthy food is a superfood. It’s not some cliquey members’ club where pomegranate tuts as kale rustles his newspaper and beetroot slurps his coffee – although you’d be forgiven for thinking that, given the way a succession of miracle-working fruits and vegetables have been trumpeted over recent years.
Rating food as more or less super is daft – like taking the alphabet and saying that T is better than C
‘It’s a term coined by the media for the latest food that’s been found to have healthy benefits,’ dietician Sarah Schenker tells RISING. ‘In the early days it was based on what’s called the ORAC test, which measure a food’s total antioxidant count. But there’s no scientific definition or criteria, and nutrition has moved on. These days we look at a range of benefits – such as anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties – as well as antioxidants. Rating food as more or less super is daft,’ she adds. ‘It would be like taking the alphabet and saying that T is better than C. You need the whole alphabet to communicate, just as you need the whole range of foods and their nutrients to eat a healthy diet.’
2. ‘Clean Eating’ This isn’t about mopping up every last morsel from your plate. Nor is it about wearing a bib. Clean eating is about having whole or ‘real’ foods rather than those that have been processed or refined – which sounds very worthy and new age but is also impractical and, in scientific terms, nonsense. That’s because not all processing is bad – it can remove toxins and bacteria, and allow veg to be frozen out of season.
You’re on dodgy ground when you start claiming that certain foods cure cancer
‘The term is synonymous with healthy eating but there’s a sinister undertone,’ nutritionist Anita Bean tells us. ‘It’s been picked up by food bloggers and it’s particularly popular among young people because it’s a socially acceptable form of dieting. But it’s a front. Attaching words like “clean” to food implies other foods are dirty. It’s attaching a moral value – a judgement – that can lead to a fear of food and restrictive eating that can develop into unhealthy, obsessive behaviour. I’ve seen it happen. There are too many rules and it fosters an unhealthy relationship with food. That may not have been the intention, but that’s the result.’
3. The Alkaline Diet The Alkaline Diet sounds like the sort of thing the kids are moshing to right now, but it is actually a ‘thing’. An A-list endorsed, highly marketed and scientifically shonky ‘thing’, but a ‘thing’ nonetheless. The science is relatively simple. Some foods – for example meat, wheat, refined sugar and processed foods – cause your body to produce acid, which is bad for you. Eating specific foods that are more alkaline are better for you, and can protect against evils such as cancer, diabetes and arthritis while also helping you lose weight.
It would appear these days that to be a proper fad you have to be even more restrictive than the previous fad, and the Alkaline Diet is a corker: most (but not all) fruit and veg, nuts, seeds and legumes are OK. So are tofu and soybeans. Dairy, eggs, meat, fish and most grains are out. You’ll lose weight, probably because you’ve died of boredom.
‘It’s based on the belief that foods should be classed by their by-products, and that “acidic ash” throws the body out of balance,’ says Bean. ‘But you’re on dodgy ground when you start claiming that certain foods cure cancer, and this is complete and utter nonsense. There’s no scientific basis at all. Your body regulates your pH levels – how much acid or alkaline is in the body – and what you eat has no effect. Eating acidic food makes your urine more acidic, not your blood. That’s the whole point of kidneys. It’s quackery gone mad.’
4. Meal Replacement Diets The concept is simple: you replace some (or all) of your meals with scientifically formulated shakes, bars and soups to help you control your calorie intake and lose weight. ‘As an example, you might buy a meal replacement plan that allows you a shake for breakfast, a bar for lunch and a sensible dinner,’ says Dr Mayur Ranchordas, nutritional consultant to Premier League and Championship football clubs, as well as senior lecturer in sport and exercise nutrition, and physiology at Sheffield Hallam University. ‘The shakes and bars will contain fortified vitamins and minerals, but may also contain up to 20g of sugar.’
How many people do you know who have lived their entire adult lives on meal replacement plans? None – it’s a fad.
He continues, ‘Weight loss comes from a strategic calorie deficit, which some people think is harder to achieve with food. It’s not, it’s just more convenient to do it with shakes. But sustained weight loss comes from making lifestyle changes and sensible choices. How many people do you know who have lived their entire adult lives on meal replacement plans? None, because it’s a short-term fix – and therefore a fad.’
5. Free From It’s all the rage – and Free From is arguably the biggest and most cynical attempt to cash in on people’s fears that the food industry has dreamed up for years. There are precedents dating back decades. The Atkins Diet, and many like it, demonised carbohydrates as the evil of Western civilisation, but fad diets have moved on. These days the target is gluten. And wheat. And dairy. The Free From aisle in your local supermarket is big business.
‘Unless you have a genuine, diagnosed food allergy you don’t need to remove gluten, wheat or dairy from your diet,’ says Bean. ‘People blame tiredness on their diets but people are just tired – from lack of sleep, work stress, busy lives or even too much exercise. People expect easy answers to complex questions, and cutting out an entire food group isn’t the answer.’ Schenker agrees: ‘It can be good to moderate gluten and dairy but most of us don’t have to cut them out completely. Worse, some people will give up wholemeal bread or porridge oats and head to the Free From aisle to pick up gluten-free brownies or macaroons. That’s not healthy eating.’
So, How Should We Eat? So, what to do in a world without food fads? Nutrition is all about balance. That means balancing calories in (how much you eat) and calories out (how much energy you burn through everyday activities and exercise). It’s also about balancing what’s on your plate. ‘I’d rather people ate “superdiets” than superfoods,’ says Ranchordas. ‘Healthy eating sounds boring, which is why the people who come up with fads have a good way of making them stick. But quite simply you want to eat a good balance of carbs, protein and healthy fats, with a “rainbow” of fruit and veg of all different colours. Do that right and you don’t need fads.’
WHAT NEXT? Want some straightforward nutrition advice? Watch nutritionist Sarah Schenker discuss some helpful approaches to fueling your day.