Dietitians love bashing nutrition fads. We’re quick to point out, and rightly so, the dangers of the many that offer quick fix promises and miracle cures. Their side effects range from nausea and fatigue to actual malnutrition. Extreme ones can also disrupt mood and hormones, trigger adrenal fatigue, and slow metabolism, all while being unsustainable long-term and at times socially isolating due to their relentless rigidity.
But if I’m going to preach that there are no inherently “good” or “bad” foods, then it’s probably time I concede: there can be benefits to many of the trends I caution against so often.
The Issue: Juicing strips fruits and vegetables of their fiber, leaving pretty much a big ‘ole glass of sugar (ok, and vitamins). Fiber is kind of a big deal when it comes to wellness, and few of us get. Besides, our bodies do not need help “detoxifying,” as many of the juice cleanses claim; that’s what our liver, kidneys, skin and entire immune system are busy doing all day long.
The Silver Lining: Skip the cleanses, and instead incorporate small juice portions into well-balanced meals. If the juice is fruit heavy, go lighter on the carbs that meal, and make sure you’re getting fiber, protein, and fat elsewhere. For example, pair a small glass of fruit and veggie juice with whole grain toast and almond butter, or a large salad with nuts, seeds, or avocado (fats); tuna, chicken, hardboiled eggs, or beans (protein); and extra veggies (fiber).
The Issue: The term is unregulated, so it can be used by companies however they please. Plus, I don’t care how many antioxidants they have, throwing blueberries into a sugary, refined cake doesn’t make it nourishing. “Superfoods” set us up for unrealistic expectations, without considering how much needs to be consumed to see results (a lot), or if there are side effects of consuming that much (often, there are).
The Silver Lining: Then again, if calling foods “super” makes people more jazzed about eating fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and salmon, I really can’t complain! Go ahead and enjoy a diet rich in these foods (rather than relying on powders and supplements making those same claims), but don’t expect any miracles.
Raw Food Diets
The Issue: This diet can be low in certain nutrients, like protein, calories, vitamin B12, iron, calcium, and omega-3 fats. It’s also a lot of fiber, which can cause discomfort if the average Westerner dives into head-first. It’s expensive, time consuming, and can be socially isolating for some. Besides, some nutrients are more easily absorbed from cooked foods!
The Silver Lining: You don’t need to go 100% raw to enjoy the benefits! This diet will automatically limit less nutrient-dense foods as well, like refined sugar, processed meats, and well, a lot of what we categorize as “junk.” Try filling half your plate at most meals with non-starchy veggies; rely more heavily on nuts, seeds, and avocado for fat than more processed oils; and only continue if you as an individual respond well to it.
The Paleo Diet
The Issue: I’ve seen plenty of Paleo dieters polish off entire cartons of ice cream because the rigidity of it all wore them down; if you can’t sustain it, it’s not working for you. Keep an eye out for nutrient deficiencies too, including calcium, fiber, and potassium. Lastly, this is not the new Atkin’s diet, and should not be viewed as a green light to load up on meat and restrict carbs!
The Silver Lining: Many Paleo principles are solid, like limiting processed foods (cakes, candy, ice cream, chips, and fast food); and more home cooking. Be more critical of principles which don’t sound sustainable for you. If a food group doesn’t bother you, there’s no reason to eliminate it. I’m a big proponent of well-soaked beans, for example, and moderate amounts of whole grains, especially when sprouted.
The Issue: This diet is not associated with weight loss and so far no evidence supports its benefits for the average Joe or Jane. Gluten-free specialty products are expensive yet not necessarily particularly nutritious, often lacking fiber and riddled with fillers and binders. And of course, social gatherings and eating out become quite the challenge.
The Silver Lining: By all means, incorporate more naturally gluten-free foods into your diet, like fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, beans, salmon, eggs, and even certain whole grains. But swapping Oreos out for gluten-free chocolate sandwich cookies won’t make most of us any healthier. Make sure you’re getting enough fiber, and further support that gut with probiotic-rich foods.
Look, honestly? Do what makes you feel good, but please make sure your diet is balanced and nourishing. If something stops feeling good, it’s probably not be right for you, no matter what someone else says.