Hardly a day passes when we’re alerted to a new dietary fad, and many people often slavishly latch on to the latest one, expecting great achievements ranging from weight reduction, better health and perhaps even immortality! But don’t get seduced—here are some diets and their related claims to strenuously avoid:
Claim: Wheat is making you Fat
Recent books are claiming that not only is wheat making you fat, but fat is accumulating around the midsection, which is the worst kind of fat! Since belly fat itself puts you at a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, we can supposedly cut our weight and health risks way down by cutting wheat out of our diet. Since the 1970s Americans have been pushed to eat more “whole grains” in order to be healthy. But since the 1970s, Americans have gotten steadily fatter on this supposedly healthy diet. So can we blame wheat for ruining our health?
The Facts Speak Otherwise: Correlation between wheat and weight gain doesn’t necessarily mean causation. Even through the nation has been gaining weight at a sorry clip, increased caloric intake from any source is the real culprit, leaving wheat in only a secondary role. Belly fat is certainly unhealthier than regular fat, for abdominal fat cells tend to boost the production of certain hormones which aren’t healthy. How fat accumulates in the body is related more to caloric intake combined with heredity and gender; males are more apt than females to fatten in this way. If you want to lose belly fat, you might want to look at saturated fats. In one study, men who ate muffins made with saturated fats gained more abdominal fat than men who ate muffins made with unsaturated fat. There is even one carefully-done study that suggests carbohydrates might lower a person’s amount of belly fat. Men with a daily diet that contained 10 grams of soluble fiber such as oats, barley and beans lost more visceral fat over 5 years than men who didn’t eat the soluble fiber. However, there are no miracle diets that will simply take away your belly. Nor, really, do there need to be.
Claim: Get Thin and Healthy by Controlling Your Body’s pH Balance
There are a lot of “alkaline diet” books that caution people to stay away from acidic foods, claiming that our acidic diet makes us sluggish, destroys our bones, and makes us prone to disease. Most of these books make uncontroversial health recommendations, asking people to drink water with lemon instead of coffee, cut out the alcohol, eat more vegetables, and eat goat cheese instead of cow’s cheese. Adhering to alkaline-diet-approved foods supposedly will make the body alkaline, reducing the chances for cancer and for bone loss.
The Facts: Although a steady diet of alkaline foods is meant to make the body more alkaline, blood pH is regulated by the kidney, and diet has virtually to effect on the pH. There is no substantial evidence that this diet improves bone health or protects from osteoporosis or any other diseases. There is also no evidence that an acidic diet can cause cancer.
Claim: Probiotics Will Keep Our Insides Ecologically Balanced
Fermented foods have become very trendy. Why drink tea when you can drink kombucha? Why drink milk when you can eat yogurt? Probiotic foods help keep us full of “good” bacteria. These bacteria help us with digestion, treat irritable bowel syndrome, calm inflammation, and thin us down by stopping our carb cravings.
The Facts: Foods might not need to actually be fermented to be helpful. One study of irritable bowel syndrome sufferers had them drink either milk or yogurt. The subjects found relief not just with yogurt, but with plain nonfermented milk. And probiotic or not, the relief was described as merely “adequate.” Fermentation is not a wonder cure. Even if probiotics were wonder cures, they wouldn’t be present in any pot of yogurt – even if it is labelled as “probiotic.” Laboratory studies on the effects of bacteria maintain strict quality control, so scientists are sure that people are getting an effective amount of a certain kind of bacteria. Companies, and home fermenters, do not have the same quality control systems. A survey of probiotic products found that most companies don’t really make any effort to measure how much of this “good” bacteria goes into the product. They also don’t make any real effort to keep it alive when it’s in there. Unfortunately, probiotic foods are often just foods full of a small amount of dead bacteria. For more information, see previous post: http://www.mortontavel.com/2015/09/17/887/
Claim: Raw Foods Will Cleanse You
Cooked foods are alleged to allow toxins to build up in your body, causing you to be sluggish and increasing your risk of cancer. Raw foods supposedly cleanse you of these toxins. Cooking also destroys key nutrients and denatures important enzymes that make your body healthier. Finally, certain foods are not meant to be combined with other foods. For example, if you want to get all the nutrition to be harvested from them, fruits are not to be mixed with vegetables
The Facts: First of all, the liver and kidneys “detox” the body already. If they aren’t working, a raw carrot isn’t going to help. Only an organ transplant will help. Cooking can destroy nutrients, but substances like lycopene in tomatoes can be more completely absorbed into the body if they are cooked. As for enzymes, their existence is dependent on a lot of factors. Heat is one, and pH is another. Considering that is no way to digest anything without giving it an acid bath in your stomach, few enzymes get “absorbed” into the body whether they’ve been heated or not. Finally, there is no evidence to support that certain combinations of common fruits and vegetables — or any other food — need to be avoided.
Claim: Sugar Consumption is a Drug Habit You Have to Kick
Sugar is claimed to be not just a bad food; it’s an addictive drug. Studies done on lab mice show that brain response to sugar addiction is similar to brain response to cocaine and heroin.
The Facts: Everyone agrees that sugar is not very healthy, but it’s not heroin. In some cases, we can use rat behavior as an analog for human behavior, but this is not automatic Lab rats love sugar. Multiple studies show that lab rats go through an addiction cycle of eating, withdrawal, and craving sugar — sometimes even more than they do cocaine. Sugar also lights up reward pathways in their brains. However, studies done on humans give us a different picture, and there is no evidence that physical addiction is present. People eat too much sugar, and some may crave it, but sugar is not a physically addictive substance for humans.
Claim: Superfoods Will Save You from Everything
It is alleged that you should shift your staple diet to “superfoods.” These foods have special antioxidants that will prevent cancer. They’ll boost your immune system. They’ll speed up your metabolism to help you lose weight, too! Anything is possible if you live on green tea, blueberries, and kale.
The Facts: It’s possible—but controversial—that antioxidants do, at least in the laboratory, protect cells from cancer. The antioxidants pair with free radicals – molecules with unpaired electrons. These molecules might otherwise pair with our DNA. Free radicals damage the body. Free radicals damage other things as well, including microorganisms like viruses and bacteria which have invaded our bodies. The problem is that these microorganisms are part of the immune system, so it’s not a good idea to wipe them out, even in theory. And while some studies show that antioxidants prevent cancer, others show that they keep cancer cells alive and decrease the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Cells alone on a plate in a lab respond consistently well to antioxidants, but cells in the body are far more complicated. Food is more complicated as well. There is no question that superfoods are good for you, but they can’t be used as cancer-preventing drugs. The best plan is to incorporate these foods into a well balanced diet as often as possible.
Claim: Juices Will Cleanse You and Shrink Your Waistline like Magic
It is maintained that juices help you cleanse yourself and detox! They’re healthier than whole fruits, and give you more nutrients!
The Facts: As noted above, the body has kidneys and a liver to detox and cleanse itself. There is no cup of anything that will work the way these organs do. Nor is there any evidence that making something into juice allows you to get more nutrients out of it. Moreover, fruits are full of sugar, and so people on juice cleanses can consume too much sugar without noticing. The sugar in fruit can do a number on your teeth, as well. Juicing isn’t terrible, but it’s an extreme change in diet—more extreme than any other diet on this list—and should be avoided.
Claim: Paleo Diets Make Us as Healthy as Cave People
Human beings supposedly evolved to eat the diet they ate during the Stone Age—no milk, or wheat, or processed foods. No cultivated foods at all. If we want to be like lean, ruthless, healthy hunter-gatherers, we need to eat seeds and nuts, roots and berries, fish and meat. The food of today is making us fat while depriving us of nutrition. We need to eat only the food we evolved to eat if we’re going to be healthy.
The Facts: As I noted in a previous post (http://www.mortontavel.com/2015/09/05), this is pure nonsense. We’re still evolving. A surprising amount of evolution happened in the past few thousand years. Scientific evidence supports none of the claims.
Claim: Go Vegan and Go Ultra-Low-Fat
This claim arose from a constellation of media, including a book, a cookbook, and a documentary about the diet formulated by Dr Caldwell Esselstyn. The centerpiece of all this is The China Study that showed that rural villagers in China, who ate a mostly-vegan diet had extremely low rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease. As the prosperity and westernization of their area increased, and the population ate more meat and more fat, the disease rate increased. In the documentary, one woman on the Esselstyn diet seems to have fought off breast cancer with the diet. Other dieters halt or reverse coronary artery disease with the diet. Their success is presented as the result of giving up all meat, meat products, and added fat. Not only are all animal products off the table, but vegetable oils, nuts, and avocados are as well. Dieters “fry” their food in broth or water.
The Facts: The documentary never actually claims that a low-fat vegan diet stops cancer, which is good, because it does not. There is some evidence that people on vegetarian diets have a better survival rate once they already have colon cancer, but most of the studies done on a vegetarian diet note that vegetarians already tend to be more health-conscious than the rest of the population. Another study comparing vegetarians and meat-eaters noted that vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease, but tend not to have a lower mortality rate for other diseases. As for the reversal of symptoms of coronary artery disease, a group of people on a carbohydrate-rich diet created by Dean Ornish also reversed their symptoms. Though also low-fat, the Ornish diet allows for egg whites and cheeses.
Although experts agree that The China Study shows very strong correlation between an increase of fat and meat in diet and an increase in cancer and heart disease, the study has some problems. Critics point out that many factors, including the intake of plant protein, increased the rate of cancer. They believe that the data have been selectively picked over, and deliberately interpreted in a way that overemphasizes the negative effects of animal proteins. Even Dr. Colin Campbell, the author of the survey, openly admitted that there are no data showing that going 100 percent animal-free is better than going 95 percent animal-free. The China Study is but one of several studies that evaluated diet and population health. Studies of the Inuit and Masai people show they consume a lot of animal protein while maintaining good overall and cardiovascular health. The French, meanwhile, eat a lot of saturated fat and have a low rate of cardiovascular disease. Although an incredibly low-fat vegan diet is (generally) good for you, it’s not a miracle cure, and you can get similar effects without going vegan.
Claim: Grains Are Killing Your Brain
It is alleged that grains cause inflammation, causes neurodegenerative diseases. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ADHD — they can all be avoided if we just stopped overloading on carbohydrates (even whole grains) and ate more fat. A high fat diet might even help us grow more brain cells.
The Facts: Interestingly, recent the books on this topic Forks Over Knives and Grain Brain seem to be directly opposed to each other. In fact, the Forks Over Knives website has a page full of links rebutting the arguments made in Grain Brain.
Scientists have long pointed out that the evidence that seems to advocate a low-carb, high-fat lifestyle, is inconclusive at best. One study linking diet and Alzheimer’s makes it clear that, although obesity and diseases like Alzheimer’s are related, obesity hasn’t been proven to cause Alzheimer’s. Another study was meant to show a correlation between gluten and cognitive decline, but it involved only 13 patients with the uncommon condition, celiac disease, accepting preliminary studies as definitive proof, which in science, is unacceptable. Thus there’s no definitive evidence that avoiding gluten will save anyone’s brain, or, for that matter, virtually anything else.
I do not claim that most of these diets aren’t beneficial in any way. With the possible exception of juicing, choosing a random diet on this list and adopting it would probably improve the health of most of us. These dietary fad guidelines also point out that most people aren’t aware of how much fat, sugar, processed food, and refined carbohydrates they eat or how bad those things are for their health. To get really healthy, however, most of us need to radically change our diet, not just add a couple of salads a week. Sadly, there is no diet that can make you younger, cure or prevent cancer, magically give you limitless energy, or fix your brain. There are also no foods that are equivalent to meth or toxic waste. And, finally, there was no golden age when everyone was “natural” and “healthy.” Humans have always had diet problems; what’s changed is that now we have scientific investigations that can help us understand them.