Can healthy eating go too far?

We are pleased to welcome Registered Dietitian, Ana-Kristina Scrapac, to our blog. Each month, Ana-Kristina will be sharing perspectives on nutrition and wellbeing. She has a broad experiential base working as a Specialist Dietitian across both the NHS and private practice for the past 15 years seeing clients for a range of health concerns. She founded London Nutrition Consultancy in 2008 as an avenue to provide evidence based nutrition advice and expertise to groups and organisations regarding nutrition matters. This month, Ana-Kristina weighs in on the hot topic of ‘Clean Eating’: What does it mean, can it go too far, and how to tell fact from fad.

There seems to be a surge in Clean Eating, individuals seeking to detox from allergens, additives and processed foods, and it’s making waves. It’s grabbing the attention not only of the health conscious consumer, but also health experts who are raising concerns.

It’s a question that I am often asked about, and what is really at the heart of this is the question, can healthy eating become extreme.

With my debut blog for Ride Republic, I thought it might be apt to shed some light on the matter and better equip readers to wade through the masses of nutrition information, and sorting fact from fiction.

Let’s start at the beginning and understand some of the claims behind this new way of eating.

Clean Eating is part of a wave of new diet trends that are part of the ‘fashionable food movement’ – a term that I feel describes it rather well and was featured in the Suns article, Daft Diets Dissed, a few weeks ago when Clean Eating made the headlines. The basis of Clean Eating is described as a complete avoidance of all foods that have additives, preservatives, colours or binders – or in simple terms, anything that doesn’t occur naturally in that food. Clean Eaters are encouraged to eat sustainably, shop with a conscience, and avoid all processed and refined foods.  You might be reading this asking yourself, “so, what’s so bad about that?”

Eating wholesome fresh foods over processed foods is a message that most health experts would concur with, but what seems to define this diet from others, is the rather extreme side of the craze. Research has shown that restrictive diets often lead to restrictive thinking, and for many this can be a precursor to entrenched beliefs, food avoidance and in turn health problems.  Recognising healthy nutrition messages from fads can be tricky due to clever marketing ploys. It’s really important to be able to spot the sign posts, which alert fact from fiction and help us to keep a healthy mindset.

Recognising Fads

Most fad diets are based on restriction, denying ourselves of something. Fads such as ‘avoid all cooked foods by eating raw’ (Raw Food diet), ‘avoid solids foods and stick to liquids’ (Soup diet), ‘avoid carbohydrates’ (Paleo Diet, Atkins Diet, Banting Diet) – these are all essentially based on restricting foods for the purpose of weight loss.

What is indisputable, just as all diets have a start date, they all have the inevitable expiry. And this is because no one could possibly live on soup alone, or reasonably avoid carbohydrates completely for any length of time – these diets are fad diets because they just are not sustainable, and eventually individuals revert back to their usual way of eating.

The problem with Dieting is that it’s so often a roller coaster of restriction, which rebounds to overeating, and then the overeating becomes the precursor to more restriction. This negative cycle, can lead to more extreme dieting, and with it a range of health problems can arise. I’m certainly seeing more of an uptake of extreme eating in the guise of ‘clean eating’ for ‘health’ in young people, which is having a profound effect on wellness, nutrient deficiencies and precursors to disordered thinking around foods.

How can we best arm ourselves with knowledge, and best detect the Fads from sound nutritional advice? Here are my top tips:

  1. Who is making the claim: sound nutrition advice is backed up by science, and nutrition experts will have a degree or specialism in the area. If the person making the claim is without qualification, then it’s very likely they are broadcasting their opinion rather than facts. So take the information as opinion, not expert consensus.
  1. Is the diet asking me to avoid a whole food group: our basic nutritional needs need to be met by a variety of foods in the diet, we don’t need to cut out whole food groups to optimise our health, quite the contrary, if we cut out foods on mass we will be more likely to run into risk of deficiency. The classic example here is the low or no carb diet of which there are many variations. Our natural metabolism is geared towards oxidising glucose (burning carbohydrates) for energy – a process that is particularly amplified during exercise. If you have ever tried to exercise on a low-carb diet, you will likely have found your performance is greatly affected, you feel quickly fatigued, dizzy, and are more likely to have an injury. Avoiding carbohydrates longer term can lead to muscle breakdown, ketosis and weight problems.
  1. Am I asked to buy supplements: healthy eating is about balance and variety; it doesn’t need expensive powders, tinctures, or multiple mineral pills. Tapping into the health conscious is big business. So ask yourself, is someone trying to sell me something that I just don’t need, as a placebo to make me feel better, and if so, you may have spotted a fad diet.
  1. Is the philosophy extreme: let’s be honest, fad diets are extreme and attract individuals when they are searching for an extreme change, often called a ‘detox’. We don’t need to detox our bodies, our liver has the natural ability to detoxify our bodies and there is no juice or pill that will accelerate this process. If the diet requires you to avoid foods to an extreme, you will likely find it difficult to eat normally, socially, and sustainably – if this is the case, you are likely following a fad diet.

Be informed. Remain curious and ask questions. Look for the expert qualifications. If you keep to this rule of thumb whilst weighing up what you read, you will better avoid the recycled fad diets, and sort the fact from fiction.

Look out for Ana-Kristina’s next blog in our January newsletter. In the meantime, you can follow her on Twitter at @AnaKristinaLNC

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