We want to be healthy. We want a balanced diet. We just don’t want it to be so hard.
And that makes us easy prey for the latest food-fad headlines. Whether it’s a newly released nutritional study disparaging whey protein or a friend bragging about having more energy after removing all corn syrup from her diet, we think, “This is it. The magic bullet.” And so, sometimes without much critical thought, we jump aboard the bandwagon.
Every era arrives with a prevailing food trend or trumpeted foodlike product. Who could forget the fat-free movement of the 1980s, quickly followed by the low-carb Atkins revolution of the ’90s? Within those trends, offshoots of nutritional orthodoxy arise. In a 2007 New York Times article titled “Unhappy Meals,” Michael Pollan half-jokingly referred to 1988 as “The Year of Oat Bran,” when food scientists got the material “into nearly every processed food sold in America….Oat bran’s moment on the dietary stage didn’t last long, but the pattern had been established, and every few years since then a new “oat bran” has taken its turn under the marketing lights.” Currently kale, quinoa (see Capital Grains story) and chia seed are center stage. “Vegan,” “paleo” and “gluten-free” are splashed across restaurant menus and product labels from one end of the grocery store to the other.
Molly Kimball, a registered dietician with Ochsner Health System in New Orleans, believes basic human nature drives our bandwagon behavior. “I was at the grocery store the other day, and the customer said to the checkout person, ‘You look great,’” says Kimball. “I guarantee the next question was ‘what have you been doing?’” When we see our friends or coworkers looking and feeling better, we want to grab a piece of that for ourselves.
But there’s another reason these sensationalist trends persist: They all boil complex nutrition science down to concepts that are easy to grasp and easy to follow, at least for a brief time.
And guess what: Even the trendiest among them might actually be doing us some good.
“All these diets take something out of our current diet,” says James O. Hill, Ph.D., executive director of the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center in Aurora, Colo. “You’re cutting either fat, sugar, carbs, blue foods, red foods, you name it.” Going paleo, for example recommends dropping processed foods, which are often high in saturated and trans fats—major enemies to heart health. “Removing something from your diet is an easy change to make, and it almost always makes people feel better,” says Hill.
That said, removing entire food categories from a diet brings its own set of nutritional concerns. “We know the body relies on the interplay of multiple, varied foods we eat,” says Caroline Glagola Dunn, a doctoral fellow at the University of Florida’s Food Science and Human Nutrition department. “The variety helps us function, keeps us regular and feeds the healthy bacteria in our gut.”
Removing macronutrients such as fat, carbs or protein impacts our intake and balance of micronutrients—aka vitamins and minerals. Kimball also cautions against the pitfalls of seemingly healthy foods and health halos.
“Eliminating sugar or carbs is [easy] for people to get their brains around for a short period of time,” says Kimball. But she and other nutrition experts note that people often cut one “enemy” only to replace it with another. In this respect, people’s best intentions to change their diet for the better can actually work against them.
For Dunn, her concerns with extremely low-carb diets (such as Atkins and paleo) are twofold. First is the potential decrease in healthy fiber, which not only removes waste and toxins from our digestive system, thus allowing us to absorb other important nutrients, but it also increases satiety, so you feel full longer. Second: the lack of folic acid, especially for women of childbearing age. In an effort to prevent birth defects, the USDA mandates an enrichment program that adds folic acid to most commercial grain products. Forgoing enriched grains could put pregnant women or those who plan to become pregnant and their babies at risk for folate deficiency, which can lead to neural tube defects.
Plus, although cutting out entire food or nutrient groups might feel like a quick and relatively easy approach, generally the positive effects of elimination diets are short-lived. Jumping on and off bandwagon diets often leads to yo-yoing—losing and then regaining pounds. Combined with a subsequent feeling of failure and potentially harmful nutrition gaps, the result might be a net negative.
There are exceptions, though, says Hill, who sees the long-term impact of obesity as a far bigger concern than the nutrition gaps or emotional risks of weight-cycling. For people battling obesity, “losing weight trumps everything else,” he says.
In his practice at the CU Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, Hill has clients, even those who haven’t received a celiac diagnosis, asking about gluten avoidance. He calls it the “hot topic of the day” but surprisingly doesn’t argue against this food trend. “There’s a psychological element to it all,” says Hill. “Hey, if you think it makes you feel better, that’s OK,” he says. There’s no medical downside to removing gluten. The question is: What are you replacing it with?
Dunn agrees in part, but points out: “There’s nothing inherently healthier about a gluten-free diet. In fact, we’ve found a lot of processed gluten-free foods have added fat or sugar to improve the texture and taste.”
Incidentally, Kimball thinks the paleo diet is a trend that might have legs. Encouraging people to eat the foods of the pre-agricultural hunter/gatherers, paleo advocates very little dairy and grains, increased lean protein (mostly from meat), and no processed foods. “I like that it has people thinking about where their food comes from,” says Kimball. Still, she notes, it too can leave gaps. “There’s no room for low-fat Greek yogurt or high-fiber tortillas—but it makes us think about whole foods, and I see that as a trend that will stick with us.”
Just don’t assume because something was healthy 10,000 years ago it’s right for your health today. “Our bodies have evolved,” says Marlene Zuk, evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota and author of Paleofantasy (W.W. Norton & Company, 2013). “If you use a governing principle of not eating anything that wasn’t around 10,000 years ago, you’re going to miss out on a lot of stuff, like calcium from dairy. People have changed in the last 10,000 years, and that’s a good thing.”
To say the least, nutritional information can be misleading, the data confusing and the hype overblown. Pollan blames scientific reductionism—investigating the individual components of a food while ignoring more complex interactions and contexts in which they’re consumed. “It encourages us to take a mechanistic view of [the] transaction: put in this nutrient, get out that physiological result,” he says in the New York Times article. “Yet people differ in important ways.” Some can metabolize sugars or digest milk or tolerate gluten better than others, he explains. “The same input of 100 calories may yield more or less energy depending on the proportion of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes living in your gut.”
In other words, go ahead and jump aboard the bandwagon if you’re curious where it’s headed. Most experts agree it’s a good way to get more conscious about the foods you’re consuming, and it might take you to a healthier place. Just don’t be surprised if it’s a bumpy ride or you end up back where you started. And don’t be afraid to jump off the wagon if it’s headed in a bad direction.