With the wealth of information available regarding our health, we have developed an increasing consciousness of nutrition and the kinds of food we put into our bodies. Along with this comes a deluge of suggestions on what to eat and how to eat it, resulting in the rise of several fad diets, popular diets that are assumed to be ‘good for you’. But are these fad diets all they are marketed to be, or are they merely unsubstantiated myths?
The Atkins diet is one of the most well-known diets, thanks to reports of celebrities such as Hollywood stars Jennifer Aniston and Catherine Zeta-Jones as followers of the diet. In 2003, Atkins’ book, Dr Atkins’ New Diet Revolution topped Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in the bestsellers chart, another testament to the diet’s popularity.
In place of starchy carbohydrates such as potatoes, Atkins recommended consuming more a high-protein and high-fat food such as cheese and meat. The diet is based on Atkins’ deduction that sugar from carbohydrates prevents the body from burning fat, causing weight gain. By cutting the body’s supply of carbohydrates, the body is forced to burn fat instead of blood sugar.
However, such a high-protein, high-fat and low-carbohydrate diet has serious health risks. Firstly, consuming high levels of fatty food has links to increased risk of coronary heart disease and obesity, which has been linked to diabetes and some forms of cancer. Secondly, when the body is forced into burning large amounts of stored fat with insufficient blood sugar, chemicals produced by the body could have adverse side effects such as dehydration and nausea. Thirdly, it has been agreed by nutrition experts that the main determinant for weight loss is caloric intake, thus this diet could backfire as fatty and protein-rich food tends to be calorie-laden. Furthermore, cutting an entire food group out of your diet could deprive the body of certain essential nutrients.
The 5:2 diet is a form of intermittent fasting which has soared in popularity, particularly here in the UK, in recent years. Its popularity could be attributed in part to media coverage such as a documentary by the BBC featuring the diet, as well as by celebrities who have publicly mentioned adhering to the diet.
This diet involves ‘fasting’ for two non-consecutive days a week, and eating as per normal the other five days. The ‘fast’ period stipulates 600 calories (instead of the usual 2,500 estimate according to the NHS) per day for men, and 500 calories (instead of the usual 2,000) for women. An example a ‘fasting’ day’s food intake would be two scrambled eggs and a slice of ham for breakfast, skipping lunch, and grilled fish and vegetables for dinner, with only water, green tea and or black coffee to drink. Advocates of the diet claim that apart from weight loss, it could also contribute to an increased life expectancy and improved cognitive function.
However, experts are quick to point out the shortage of research on diets involving intermittent fasting, leading to insufficient findings to draw any significant conclusions about its benefits. As such, this diet is seen as lacking in scientific evidence and could have undiscovered side effects. Due to this lack of information, experts have recommended against intermittent fasting without the supervision of a medical professional. Furthermore, followers of the diet have reported several side effects such as dehydration, poor mood, bad breath, problems sleeping or even hallucinations.
Another recent fad that has exploded onto the scene over the past two years is the juice cleanse. The reason for its popularity could be attributed to convenience as the juices can be ordered pre-made and specifically catered to an individual’s needs, and can be consumed on the go, with no preparation on your part.
This trendy diet involves completely replacing meals with fresh juices made from fruit, vegetables and occasionally nuts. Juice cleanses commonly last from one to five days, excluding pre-cleanse and post-cleanse diets. The pre and post-cleanse diets usually consist of around three days each of reduced caloric intake, avoiding essentially anything other than vegetable, grain, fruit and nut-based meals. During the cleanse, nothing other than the prescribed juices, water and herbal tea is to be consumed.
Despite the hype surrounding this diet, there have been several criticisms of it. Firstly, when vegetables and fruits are pressed into juices, they lose most of their fibre, an essential nutrient for the body. What remains though, is natural sugar present in the fruits, and this could be more the amount of sugar in a can of soft drink! Juice diets also lack protein essential for muscle tissue, causing the body to lose muscle instead of fat. In addition, juice cleanses are often marketed as ‘detox’ diets to make up for an unhealthy diet, such as to ‘clean up’ your body after a Christmas season of overeating and overdrinking, which could encourage an problematic pattern of bingeing and detoxing.
Another well-known diet is the Paleolithic diet, also known as the Paleo, stone-age or caveman diet. This diet has only emerged in popularity in the 21st century, with several published books advocating this diet, and reported celebrity fans such as Tom Jones and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Champions of the diet claim that our genetics and anatomy have had minimal changes since the Paleolithic times, and that since the human body was genetically adapted to life in that era, humans should attempt to emulate the diet of the cavemen in order to be healthy. Thus ‘modern’ food such as dairy products, grains, salt and refined sugar should be removed in place of large amounts of meat, and ‘natural’ plant products like seeds and fruits. Processed food is, of course, out of the question.
Although this diet sounds relatively harmless, it is a controversial and polarising trend. The leading criticism of this diet is that according to experts in biology and evolution, the central argument for the caveman diet is likely to be untrue. Experts argue that since the Paleolithic era 10,000 to 2.5 million years ago, the genetics and anatomy of humans have had the potential to change rapidly, meaning that we may not be as similar to the cavemen as Paleo diet advocates claim. Furthermore, the diet disallows a wide range of food including dairy products, whole grains and legumes, all of which have been scientifically proven to be sources of essential nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and calcium.
With all these contradictory claims about the effectiveness of such fad diets, one could make a strong case against blindly following such trendy diets that are, arguably, insufficiently substantiated. Perhaps the safest bet would be to stick to the good old ‘everything in moderation’ school of thought, and take what advocates of such extreme diets claim with a grain of salt.