“Cut out/down on gluten, dairy, meat, fat, sugar, salt… eat ‘clean’, buy organic, source locally, drink kefir and home-made kombucha, do a juice cleanse, fast regularly, eat slowly, eat mindfully. Meditate daily, do yoga, journal nightly, learn mindfulness....and take a high quality multivitamin”.
This was advice I found on Instagram over the weekend, penned by a 24 year old ultra-bendy, airbrushed and highly influential ‘neutritio coach’ (zero qualifications but followers of 700K). This lady occupies a completely different universe to mine, and I’m tired and irritated at seeing this type of food-related 'advice' saturating media platforms. The only thing that 700k Instagram followers assures us is the person in question is really good at Instagram. However, the by-product of this massive reach can often extend to making us feel paralysed and more anxious about our lives, particularly how we eat, what we buy and how we choose to feed ourselves.
THIS NOT MY LIFE ⤵️ !
This started me thinking about how stressful it is to simply enjoy food these days; eating is one of the our greatest pleasures, one that’s sustained us since the beginning of time, yet in our privileged world, it’s become a source of woe, confusion and shame.
It seems we have become unwittingly dominated by dodgy online information, penned by armchair food and nutrition ‘experts’, to the point where we’ve lost perspective on what’s actually real or important – food and eating should be simple, nourishing and joyful, an opportunity to pause and share time with people. Instead, many perfectly wonderful foods have become vilified, and many elevated to near-spiritual status - there are over one millionn #avocadotoast hashtagged photos on Instagram right now! I rest my case.
Over dinner with a friend in London at Christmas, she gave me a withering look when I ordered a steak, and as for the dark chocolate tart…well, my wild abandon had her reaching for her nutritionist's detail so I could get myself tested for deficiencies. In her opinion, I clearly had to be low in something if I was ordering red meat and a sugar-laden dessert (incidentally, a link between cravings & deficiencies has been widely debunked). Forget religion and politics: food has become the latest hotbed of judgement which is propagating a flavour of snobbery where we're moralising and judging our edible beliefs and standards against one another.
Remember a decade ago, when Atkins was all the rage? In hindsight, we were such innocents! Today, so many people I know are on a special dietary plan of some kind. Whether it’s gluten-free, raw food, keto, vegan, etc., it seems that we all have a defined nutritional regime. The last time I had friends over to my place, I had three guests each with vastly different diets (try simultaneously feeding a vegan and paleo mate and watch the moral sparks fly)! Finding food that everyone could eat required hours of online scouring and multiple levels of cooking which took all the social fun out of the night for this cook.
The entire episode left me wondering: why does eating have to be so complicated and what’s happened in the last decade or so that’s driven us to the point where our starting point with food is that everything is likely to be bad for us, possibly toxic and undoubtedly deemed "wrong"?
Even the respected food writer Michael Pollan’s widely quoted and seemingly sensible advice, “Eat food. Not too much, Mostly plants” isn’t as simple as it sounds. For example, do “plants” include the ones with a high glycaemic index? What about those raised conventionally vs. organic? And the list of questions goes on.
When Eating Healthy Goes Bad
While no one would ever say it’s a good idea to throw caution to the wind and eat whatever we want, it is certainly possible to worry too much about food and actually develop a full-blown obsession with eating right. There is, in fact, a recognised eating disorder, orthorexia nervosa, which is a compulsive behavior and/or mental preoccupation with 'clean' eating believed by the individual to promote optimum health.
I appreciate there are countless reasons why taking our food choices seriously is important, not least because it allows us to do the best we can in managing our personal needs and those of our families. However, when the pursuit of an ultra-clean diet comes to the detriment of physical and mental health, surely it's time to stop and work out what influences (and influencers) are causing us to become so disconnected from the pleasure of eating a healthy, balanced diet. In the unregulated jungle of social media and the internet, where we're spending more time than ever before, consumers have become easy prey.
Our Hit List
I spend plenty of time online, for work and fun. My teenage kids love Instagram and YouTube and have inherited my love of food sites and bloggers, along with sports, music, fashion and entertainment heroes. I've started chatting with them about what they're seeing and observing when they flick through their feeds; achievement is huge, fitness is big, physique and diet are always present.
So, we drew up a list of social media 'red flags' to be mindful of, which I hope will begin to give them a sense of awareness, a filter of what's questionable and what's not. Key words make this pretty simple:
1. “Cut Out”
If it’s online, in a blog, magazine or from the mouth of a friend, the words “cut out” immediately sound the alarm bells. Cutting out dairy, grains, meat, carbs etc and blaming specific foods for disease or distress without a complete assessment is dangerous, and testing by a qualified doctor or dietician is the only way to go. Eliminating carbs, fats, proteins or any combination can have some pretty serious consequences, for example, going gluten-free to lose weight. There’s a huge body of evidence-based research telling us there is no medical, health or weight reducing reason to do so, and it can in fact be damaging to our health, yet it’s a massive food trend that shows no sign of abating (I do not include Coeliac Disease in this, as it’s a crippling chronic illness that requires a rigorous, life-long commitment to a gluten-free diet). No reputable, licensed nutritionist or dietician will promote this approach other than for diagnosed medical reasons. Same for cutting out carbs, or fat. Instant no-no. Scroll on.
Detox cleanses with magical powers seem to have invaded the wellness industry, and have yet to leave. Despite celebs like Gwyneth Paltrow claiming they work (based on anecdotal proof only), there is a massive body of scientific evidence which confirms the opposite. www.sciencebasedmedicine.org goes so far as to say, “Detox is a legitimate medical term that has been co-opted to sell useless products and services. It is a fake treatment for a fake condition. Real detoxification isn’t ordered from a menu at a juice bar, or assembled from supplies in your pantry. Real detoxification is provided in hospitals under life-threatening circumstances..”
Dr. Ranjit Mishori’s of Georgetown University School of Medicine confirms,"The body has its own amazing detoxification systems: the liver and the kidneys…Unless there's a blockage in one of these organs that do it day and night, there's absolutely no need to help the body get rid of toxins."
We do not need to detox. Advocates should be ignored (but gosh, those products and pics sure look pretty..)
Juice Cleanses fall into the same bracket. Have a look at 4 Myths About Juice Cleanses in which Joy Dubost, a dietitian and spokeswoman for the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states "There's no scientific research that it provides benefits in the short or long term, and it's not an overall healthy approach to eating".
Unless there’s a legitimate, medically-directed need for it, most qualified experts agree elimination diets, shunning entire food groups, detoxes and cleanses are absolutely unnecessary for wellness or health.
3. “Low Fat Diets” and “Low Carb Diets”
Low fat or fat-free products have been a godsend for the food industry, with an entire category targeting nervous shoppers anxious to do the right thing by reducing their intake of fat. When food companies saw the falling demand for “normal” products, they responded to the consumer shift by making low-fat products instead. They might not add as much fat, but they make up for that by adding heaps of sugar and other flavourings and additives; low fat = high sugar = no net gain. Dr. Robert S. Bobrow, in his Huffington Post article about low-fat diets, also noted low-fat foods tend to be less filling, prompting you to eat more. This makes total sense - processed foods are often made up of empty calories, and lack essential nutrients like fibre to keep you full.
Pass on the low fat, and just have a smaller portion of the real stuff.
A quick search of low carb eating will give you endless reasons why it’s really not an advisable food choice, but let’s jump to Medical News Today which reports on new research presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Germany by Prof. Maciej Banach of the Medical University of Lodz in Poland. The Professor found that, “..low carb consumers were 51 percent more likely to die from coronary heart disease, 50 percent more likely to die from cerebrovascular disease, and 35 percent more likely to die of cancer..”.
4. "Celebrity" Anything
No comment required....
5. "Only Organic ”
Once a word that commanded reverence, even organic foods have come under the spotlight as being less than perfect. Organic is not notably better than conventional foods, this is becoming apparent as more scientific research is conducted. I wrote a blog on the subject of organic myths and facts not too long ago, so I won’t duplicate what I discovered here, but even since then, the debate has moved on. It’s now less about which is better (they’re both broadly the same) and more about the politics and policing of the organic industry itself. My view is pretty straightforward; I don’t generally buy organic because I don’t see enough evidence that it’s notably superior. That said, if I know the supplier and have visited the farm myself, being organic wouldn't put me off. It would just make me ask more questions and check standards with local authorities.
It’s more complex when we look at meat and eggs, where you have to factor in overuse of antibiotics, factory farm practices and animal welfare, but as far as everyday pantry products, fruits & veg etc go, I have no issue with the conventional as I use a trusted product to remove any pesticides from fruit/veg/rice etc.
6. “Perfect Foods” and “Perfect Diet Plans”
The fact is, there is no perfect diet plan but there are perfect balanced diets and plenty of medically reviewed diet comparisons readily available online. Most diets are simply unsustainable in the longer term, so if you’re ok with short-term results and short-term weight loss, then many plans out there will do the job for a while, but perhaps to the detriment of other aspects of your nutritional needs.
I think it’s fair to say that we tend to assess wellness through the lens of social media, awash with celebrity images. We look at a stunning actress on the red carpet who has credited the X diet with her gorgeous figure and glowing skin, and forget about the gruelling personal training, the bulimia, the plastic surgery, the custom-made gowns etc. This is not the real world.
Over the years, I've had eating advice - most of it unsolicited - from yoga teachers, massage therapists, many friends and other well-meaning people with no background in nutrition. Having an interest in health or even working in a health-related field does not mean expertise. Even the vast majority of medical doctors receive very little training when it comes to nutrition, per my doctor friends.
If I’m in need to a dietary tune-up for whatever reason, my go-to is always a registered nutritionist or dietician who is recommended by someone I know who has been successfully treated by him/her. Dieticians are regulated, and particularly important for anyone dealing with a medical issue or an illness because their level of nutritional expertise is second to none and entirely science-based.
Nutritionists I know recognise the problems of 'fake' nutrition experts all too well. One nutritionist friend recently highlighted the issue of 'fake' nutritionists and food coaches who inflict huge damage to their profession. Sadly, consumers tend to buy the brand, headlines and elegant websites, often paying little attention to qualifications. This article summarises it perfectly;
"Neither a framed qualification nor the size of an Instagram following is a definitive marker of expertise...As shots of quinoa porridge and gourmet omelettes have filled Instagram feeds globally, there’s now a growing band of healthy foodies whose own dietary rules are considered public directives.".
My friend recently spotted this ad for a Diploma in Human Nutrition which can be achieved for the a princely sum of $9.99 after 10-15 hours of online study and urges people to be cautious in checking the credibility of qualification from so-called experts, particularly on social media. I think this is especially important to highlight for parents with teens.
8. "Sponsored By"
This is one I often miss, but in addition to fake credentials, many nutrition gurus, diet and food bloggers benefit commercially by (subtly) promoting specific products or services. It can be more difficult to spot them on Instagram than on websites, so look out for signs (or teeny disclaimers) that it's a paid product promotion or partnership - it's a massive business.
I’d also recommend the same when reading any research or scientific papers, as many scientists and publications have strong financial backing from food companies and their representative bodies. Between March and October last year, Nestle identified 76 industry-funded studies. Of those, 70 reported results that were favourable to the industry sponsor.
Most of what I've shared won't be news, and I'm sure some of my sentiments will strike a bell. I'd love to see a more honest attitude to food and eating, one that doesn't make us feel badly about our choices. Coconut water, hemp and chlorophyll lattes are not necessary. Protein, fruits and veg will do the trick perfectly fine.
My personal recipe is super simple - I buy the best quality food I can afford and that I trust. This is of course super important for me - knowing where the food on my plate has come from and trusting that nothing nasty has been added to it. I buy with no restrictions on specific groups, I cook with heaps of flavour, eat plenty of veggies and fruit and throw in exercise a few times a week. I am a huge fan of treats, be it a slice of gorgeous cake, a juicy burger or a bar of dark chocolate. I don't count calories or buy low-fat products, and if I need help with nutrition, I'll seek out the best professional. That's my eating plan.
I'm not afraid of eating what I love, and this year, I'm going all-out to reclaim my unadulterated love of good, without second guessing myself. While obsessions like #cleaneating, weight loss and #cleanse food photographs on Instagram have created a shaming, toxic subculture of foodphobia and guilt, there is a still huge foodie community on social media that rallies against these movements. I've started 2019 with my own "cleanse" of social and online media feeds, replacing them with the likes Lyndi Cohen - the Nude Nutritionist above - and other great professionals who share anxiety-free content for real people.
Not a Kardashian to be seen!
I hope you'll join me 'cos life is just too short.