Ah, fads. The health industry certainly isn’t sparse of them. I remember when little old me first started dabbling in health and fitness. The online world opened my eyes to a plethora of ‘innovative’ approaches, overhauling everything I previously thought I knew about common-sense nutrition. There were weird and wonderful new products; miracle diets and fit disciplines, most of which made health claims that were neither evidenced nor accurate. I’m not a total fool as to believe everything I read on the internet but, with social media breaking down the walls between brands and consumers and building a relationship seemingly based on friendship and trust, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish fact from fiction if emotions, endorsements and anecdotes are mixed up in the equation.
When you meet a brand face to face who genuinely appears to believe in their product, when you hear stories from bloggers and friends who sing praise for their unique approach, knowing their intentions are most probably pure and have every underlying desire to better the lives of others (although not always the case), it’s often easy to jump aboard the trend train and subscribe to a fad that perhaps isn’t all it claims to be.
Admittedly, I bought into a fair few fads during the very early days of my journey. Although my encounters were brief and none ended in disaster, none of them were pleasant experiences either. Perhaps you’ve tried some of these too or perhaps you’re considering giving one a go. I’m no expert and I’m certainly not about to tell you what to do, but take it from someone who’s been there, done that and got the over-flowing cupboard of useless products to prove it, most health trends really aren’t all that. Here are some of the popular food fads I tried once and most definitely won’t be trying again.
Gluten may well be synonymous to happiness for some. It exists in cake, pasta, pizza, toast. All delicious foods that are well loved by our taste buds, although, if we eat too much, our waist-lines aren’t such big fans. When wellness created its rules for health, it knew that telling people to lay off the bread basket and buttered pastries was not going to go down well. Kate Moss may have said that ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,’ but any one who’s tasted a warm Ben’s Cookies with melted chocolate chunks and peanut butter lashings knows that this simply is not the case. And so, when research discovered this protein present in all our favourite carby treats, the diet industry was quick to use the small body of research into gluten intolerances to promote the banishment of these foods. Instead of blaming sugar, fat and processed carbohydrates for belly bloat and weight gain, gluten was named the demon ingredient. Thus, the great gluten free fad was born.
We’ve been told that gluten is responsible for migraines, leaky gut, infertility. That it causes severe immune responses that could even result in intestinal cancer. Truly, it painted a frightening picture that would make even a passionate baker shun a baguette. So, when I heard the terrifying ‘truth,’ despite experiencing no notable symptoms of gluten intolerance myself (although digestion has always been a tricky situation for me so I forgive myself for being confused), I binned the bread and jumped on the GF bandwagon.
Going gluten free wasn’t all bad. It opened my eyes to a whole host of gluten free alternatives that can make for a hugely interesting way of cooking and baking. I’d never even heard of quinoa or buckwheat before and I love finding unique uses of ingredients that no one else has thought to try. But, when dining out, being gluten free made choosing healthy options a lot more difficult. Along with other sensitivities I do suffer from, adding gluten to the list just made things confusing for chefs, frequently resulting in wrong orders, dishes being sent back or left uneaten and understandably frustrating every one at the table. It was an added stress that just didn’t need to be there and naturally disrupted life in a way it shouldn’t have.
I’ve since learnt that, unless you experience severe discomfort when eating foods with gluten or have been diagnosed with coeliac disease (by a medical professional please), it’s completely unnecessary to cut it from your diet. I’m not a total bagel worshipper and don’t eat foods with gluten every day, but demolishing that gluten-free barrier has allowed a lot more choice and a lot less restriction. There’s nothing inherently bad about gluten and plenty of gluten containing foods are incredibly nutritious. Even if not though, I maintain that eating a slice of regular old gluten-filled bread is far healthier than feeling overly anxious or depriving yourself. When it comes to your health, going gluten free is not a step everyone needs to take.
Whilst I was initially enamored by the idea of eating raw and the creativity it inspired when confined to only foods that are uncooked, an attempt at a 3 day raw challenge quickly made me realise how tedious, restrictive, unsatisfying, not to mention hideously expensive eating raw food can be. I don’t know about you but I most certainly don’t have the time or patience to wait 3 days for my dinner to dehydrate, and eating a brick-load of nuts and seeds as a poor, cardboard-textured excuse for a pizza does not leave me or my digestion sprightly.
The concept behind eating raw is that foods are not heated above 40 degrees in order to preserve their enzymes, aiding the digestion and absorption of nutrients. However, this logic is flawed on so many levels. I’ll allow a real scientist to explain and direct you to this great blog post by nutritionist Pixie Turner but, from a linguistic perspective, I also take issue with the use of terms such as ‘living’ food which implies consumers’ higher moral status over those who choose to eat cooked ‘dead’ food. Perhaps this comes from the idea that uncooked food is ‘purer’ and less processed and therefore a person who eats raw food engulfs this purity and youthfulness. But, pair that with the ridiculous cost of raw food restaurants and products, a raw diet intertwines morality with financial and social status. Our society really doesn’t need to add any more fuel to the fires that foster unhealthy attitudes towards food.
All in all, eating raw is nothing more than another elitist fad disguising itself as healthy based on an ill-informed understanding of nutrition. I can assure you, no one is going to hell for eating a curry or plate of sweet potato wedges
The ‘natural sugars’ myth is one that still very much continues to prevail in the wellness industry. Practically every health blog and book encourages people to throw out all refined sugars and fill their cupboards with ‘natural’ alternatives like agave nectar, coconut sugar and raw honey as these offer additional nutritional benefits and don’t create the same harmful effects on the body. Perfect! So, you can smother your pancakes in maple syrup and still feel like a kale queen? Well, no. Not quite.
A few months ago, I was commissioned to write an article on why unrefined sugars are healthier than white sugar. Only, I couldn’t write the article to fit the given brief. Why? Because no such truth exists. Studies support only that ‘free sugars,’ that is, sugars that are not naturally occurring within whole foods, contribute to increased risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Whether or not those sugars are refined bears no significance on how these sugars interact within your body. Registered nutritionist and frequent knowledge bomb dropper Laura Thomas, PhD, explains.
“Chemically speaking, ‘unrefined’ sugar is the same as ‘refined’ sugar. Both are made up of the same two simple sugars – glucose and fructose. Our kidneys and our pancreas can’t tell the difference between maple syrup and white sugar. Sure, unrefined sugar may have a few extra minerals, but you’d have to consume them in such large quantities to get any additional benefit that, at that point, your blood sugar levels would be sky high.” (Check out Laura’s article on ‘Refined Sugar Free’ to learn more about the science behind this).
Now, it hasn’t escaped my attention that I use these ‘natural’ sugars in my recipes and have in the past described their use as healthier. Let me explain. Initially, I too bought into this idea that unrefined sugars are a better alternative to white sugar and so filled my cupboards with natural sugar galore. But it became apparent fairly quickly when I got the exact same sugar rush from eating too many squares of Pana as when I used to demolish a bag of Percy Pigs after a bad day that sugar is sugar, refined or not. Moral of the story? A rare instance where I’ll admit quantity over quality is key.
I use these sweeteners now primarily because they are what I already own and additionally because I don’t believe in endorsing a fear of food by cutting it out, sugar included. Dessert is delicious and brings me and the people around me so much joy. I love baking for the people in my life and seeing faces light up when they try my creations. It’s one of the most fulfilling parts of my work. I know that when I’m at my happiest, I’m also at my healthiest and so I stand by my belief that my recipes are indulgently healthy. But, if that’s not enough reason for you, there are a few additional factors to consider. I’m always mindful of how much sweetener I add to my recipes, aiming for only the bare minimum to make sure something is as delicious as it needs to be without reaching that point of sickly sweet. I try to use free sugars in part conjunction with fruit or otherwise naturally sweet whole foods such as cashew butter, rice milk and sweet potatoes, and I always pair them with fibre-rich ingredients so that there is still a slightly slower release of sugar. I’m not going to pretend that my recipes are as nutritious as a kale salad but I’m adamant that they can be good for you if they enable you to have treats without stress or anxiety. Life is too short to hold yourself back from happiness. Just eat the cake (even the refined sugar kind) and enjoy it.
When I open my kitchen drawers to see a huge stash of partially empty superfood satchets and I think of how at one point I viewed these as the holy grail of health ingredients only to learn that the miniscule serving quantities recommended by suppliers actually have little notable health benefits, my graduate heart weeps for all the good money lost to feeding this fad whilst skimping on other joys to survive on a student budget.
What exactly is a “superfood?” I’ll tell you what it’s not. Overpriced green powdered supplements you add to your smoothies to pollute all delicious flavours with the taste of pond. Superfoods were all the rage when I created my Instagram account and tagging those ‘it’ brands in your posts was a sure symbol of health ‘status.’ The promise behind superfoods is ‘quick-fix’ wellness. Take a wheatgrass shot daily and you’ll be glowing from the inside out. Pop a maca pill and you’ll have twice the energy any caffeine hit could give you. They claim to be absolute miracle products but we all know that if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is.
As it turns out, the health claims behind superfood powders are greatly exaggerated and, in some cases, totally misleading. For instance, spirulina, a blue-green algae typically sold as an essential health staple, has been touted as the most accessible complete source of plant protein and a good supplier of vitamin b12, which is beneficial for those who follow a vegan diet and are at risk of deficiency. But the recommended daily teaspoon of spirulina (5g) can only give a measly serving of protein and, according to research published in the Journal of Experimental Biology and Medicine, predominantly contains a pseudovitamin b12 which is biologically inactive in humans. It may have been fun to turn your smoothies blue, purple and green for the perfect Instagram shot, but overall superfoods are a pricy, wasteful and environmentally destructive fad that’s best put to rest.
Low Carb Alternatives
I confess, I love a bowl of zoats. Butternut squash noodles are always welcome in my house and cauliflower rice is a frequent accompaniment to my weeknight stir fries. Any preparation method that encourages people to eat more vegetables and think outside of the box when it comes to cooking is a winner in my books. But since these methods have grown more popular as a mainstream food trend, their use has become less about incorporating added goodness into your diet and more about endorsing calorie and carb restriction instead.
It’s not uncommon to see a perfect plate of spiralised courgette smothered in vegan nut-free pesto and complete with a scattering of edible flowers on Instagram but, beautiful as such a sight may be compared with a plain old bowl of brown wholewheat pasta, it is neither a balanced nor healthy meal. Carb alternatives offer significantly less fibre than the grains they replace, meaning if you’re completely switching out spaghetti for courgetti to shave off a few kcal, you may well be missing out on some important macro and micronutrients and harming your health in the long run.
Not only are carbs delicious, they’re an amazing source of energy for your body which is absolutely essential for health, especially if you’re an active individual. I also know that, when I don’t include a proper source of carbs in a meal, I often don’t feel satiated despite being ‘full,’ and may find myself more prone to a post-dinner binge. I prefer to mix my veg alternatives with complex carbs for a delicious combination, as well as accompanying them with a good source of protein and fat to construct a whole and balanced meal. As always, I don’t agree with any fad that encourages fear and restriction of food. Carbs are not the enemy and cutting them out inflicts damage on both your physical and mental health.
Even us bloggers, who are wholly passionate about our health and dedicated to helping others, get things wrong and make mistakes. Every one of us is on our own journey. We’re constantly negotiating our way through new techniques and what works for me right now may not work at all next week. Does that mean that I suggest you try out these fads and find out their faults for yourself? Not at all. Does it mean I support the endorsement of health practices which we don’t fully understand? Absolutely not! My aim here is to be totally transparent and to let you know that health bloggers don’t have it all figured out. Despite the label, we aren’t ‘gurus’ of any sort.
Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about the malpractices of bloggers and brands using flawed knowledge within their philosophies and consequently creating unhealthy behaviours and attitudes around food and fitness. The messages that have been spread can’t be changed and it’s useless continuously attacking people for doing what really was simply the done thing at the time. But it’s also equally irresponsible for those people who did endorse trends and fads to now brush their errors under the rug and not own up the mistakes that were made. There’s no shame in admitting what we don’t know and offering people a better chance to find a healthy lifestyle grounded in evidence by supporting and collaborating with the scientific community instead.
The saying goes “you should write what you know.” I’ll happily continue to share my passion for creativity in the kitchen and, of course, indulging in dessert. I blog to encourage people to embrace life and make happiness and positivity a priority and, with my degree in linguistics, I also believe it’s crucial for me discuss the way we speak about food and its ability literally transform our relationship with it in order to help foster healthier relationships. These are the topics that are within my knowledge to talk about. But, when it comes to nutritional advice, I’ll leave that to those who know best.
Want to read more about adopting a balanced and healthy attitude to food and fitness? Read more blog posts like this and be sure to check out my scientific contributors, Pixie and Laura on their websites and social media.