Top 3 Science-Free diets of 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen it comes to fad diets, science is irrelevant.

It’s a constant source of frustration to nutrition experts everywhere: some random person cooks up a new fad diet, cherry-picks a few factoids to make the diet sound plausible, and an eager public literally eats it up.  When the nutrition experts — armed with data and facts — explain why the diet premise is false, no one wants to know.  When it comes to fad diets, Science-Free rules.

For the past year, 3 particularly egregious Science-Free diets have dominated the news, all equally annoying.  Here they are:

1. Paleo Diet

Despite reams of evidence to the contrary from paleontologists and biological anthropologists everywhere (not to mention nutrition experts), Paleo True Believers cling to the belief that gorging on meat is the only true path to health.  Since our hunter-gatherer paleolithic ancestors were thinner and didn’t have chronic diseases, we can leap to the conclusion that eating mostly meat is healthy.  Never mind that our paleolithic ancestors lived short lives, didn’t have much for clothes, didn’t sit in cars or in front of computer screens, were infested with parasites and infectious disease, and were physically active all day long doing the non stop hunting and gathering, and ate anything they could scrounge.  The food they did find, whether plant or animal, was nothing like our luscious hybridized modern food.  When bacon hijacked the Paleo diet narrative, science went right out the window.

But who cares about all that sciencey stuff?  The Paleo Diet gives people permission to do what they wanted to do anyway: eat a lot of meat.  It’s so manly — the virile hunter running across the savannah with a spear, tearing at raw meat with his teeth.  It’s also elitist.  Meat is expensive; beans and grains are cheap by comparison.

National Geographic recently ran a great article on the Paleo myth.  Complete with tips on how to cook a raccoon-like coati (singe the hair off over a fire first).  Yum!  Plus the observation that heavy meat intake affects human gut bacteria in a bad way, increasing inflammation.  As one scientist notes “Red meat is great if you want to live to 45.”

2. Gluten Free

Yes a tiny minority of people – less than 1% of the population — has actual Celiac disease and must avoid gluten, a protein in wheat.  Even a small exposure to gluten can set off a very unpleasant reaction, such as explosive diarrhea.  But plenty of other people are jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon.  Thanks to fear-mongering books like Wheat Belly, they think gluten is a toxin.  Solution: avoid all gluten-containing foods.  And spend a lot of time talking about it to anyone within earshot.

For me, this is one way to sort the real celiac people from the posers.  Celiac disease isn’t fun.  The symptoms are unpleasant, and no one wants to dominate dinner conversation talking about it.  On the other hand being gluten “intolerant” can be an ego boosting experience.  The symptoms are whatever you want them to be, because there are no official diagnostic criteria.  The self-diagnosed gluten-intolerant can hijack conversations with blow-by-blow accounts of aches, pains, mood swings, sniffles, weight gain, weight loss and complexion problems, followed by a laundry list of all the foods given up and all the wonderful (pricey) gluten-free alternatives.  You demand lots of attention.  People jump through hoops to accommodate your sensitivity.  How special.

And there’s that elitist thing again: gluten-free foods are expensive.  In her hilarious tale of a visit to Whole Foods, comedian Kelly MacLean hits the nail on the head: “I’m not rich enough to have dietary restrictions.  Ever notice that you don’t meet poor people with special dietary needs?”

3. Low Fat

I’m sure I’m going to get criticized for daring to suggest that the whole decades-long fear of fat is anything but scientific.  After all, if research subjects go on low fat diets, they do lose weight and see improvements in heart disease risk factors.  That’s nice.  Unfortunately there are two serious problems with this argument:

  • Anyone who loses weight sees improvements in heart disease risk factors, regardless of what type of diet caused the weight loss.
  • The low fat diets used in these studies were also typically lower in calories as well, which causes weight loss, regardless of diet type.
    • Sub problem: it’s nice that people in studies followed low fat diets under supervision, for short periods of time.  In the real world, almost no one can stick to a low fat diet.  Therefore they don’t work.

Where did our fear of fat come from?  From the simplistic observation that high cholesterol was associated with heart disease.  Cholesterol is fat; therefore fat is bad; therefore eating less will be beneficial.  There was probably also a big dose of fat phobia from our prejudice against excess body fat.  Fat is high calorie; therefore eating more fat makes you fat and less fat will cause weight loss.  Since those assumptions hijacked our food supply, we’ve only gotten fatter.

Clearly actual science was missing from this equation.  Nevertheless, we’ve got grocery stores chock full of food products engineered to be lower in fat, and an entire industry of health organizations promoting low fat as the healthiest diet.  Result: a population that misinterprets “low fat” as meaning healthy or lower calorie or both.

What does actual science say?  That eating a moderate fat diet — such as the Mediterranean diet — is better for health and weight.  Plus it’s far easier to stick to that type of diet long term.  But beware!  Extremists on the other side of the fat spectrum have used that information to promote the idea that high fat is good, not just high fat but high saturated fat, which will definitely impact your heart disease risk.  Perhaps that diet makes the Science Free Top 3 next year.

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