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Curious Cook: The gluttony of health diets, part 2
People often perceive diets as something of a choice between health and enjoying food, though proponents of diet fads will always claim their fads are a wonderful mix of both. The truth is somewhere in between ...
In Part 1, we discussed three categories of diet plans restricted by calorie, food group and time. Here are a few more diet fads.
March 25, 2018
By CHRIS CHAN
Due to the regulatory functions of human organs, the body simply never needs
‘detoxing’, which means detox fads are simply absurd. Photo: VisualHunt
People often perceive diets as something of a choice between health and enjoying food, though proponents of diet fads will always claim their fads are a wonderful mix of both. The truth is somewhere in between – and much depends on why you choose to diet. If the motivation is better health or weight loss, then you probably have plenty of choices. If diet change is required for some disease/condition, then the options are probably limited to what is medically prescribed.
Three square meals?
As an aside, the modern practice of eating three square meals a day started less than a century ago – the impetus was the US government promoting breakfast as the “most important meal of the day” around the 1920s, possibly following popular advice from Good Health magazine, which was then edited by Dr Kellogg, the inventor of corn flakes. However, there is no biological necessity for humans to eat three meals a day – the Romans survived well with only one meal a day and so did many other civilisations on less than three meals a day.
There is therefore no compelling reason to start mornings with, for example, processed cereals – and even less sense in the over-consumption of sugary, deep-fried or processed foods during the day (all contributory factors of modern obesity and diabetic epidemics). But we have all been guilty of being silly with food – and this reflects in no small way the influence of our peers and the marketing prowess of the food industry.
And now, here are some more categories.
Category 4 – Supplementals
Some diets require utilisation of supplements – whether this is worthwhile is hugely linked to the reasons why the diet is chosen. If it is for specific reasons, for example high-fibre pills to promote intestinal function, then it may be helpful. The same applies if supplements are prescribed for medical reasons; eg. drugs to control cholesterol or blood pressure. Common also are compounds such as creatine, glutamine, etc, used to increase muscle bulk – these may work, though research on such compounds is often sponsored and therefore potentially biased.
However, many supplements are marketed purely to part fools from their money. These products are easy to identify, mainly from their lack of genuine scientific/health credentials and outrageous claims – such as cures for a variety of (usually serious) ailments, longevity aids, weight loss accelerants, etc. Some of these supplements are packaged as expensive drinks, pills, infusions, syrups, powders or as fresh, preserved or desiccated plants/herbs/fruits. It does not matter – the common factor is that benefits from such products usually range from small to zero and will usually be vastly overshadowed by the cost. In some cases, the result is a decrease in health – teas and pills claiming to “burn fat” and “promote weight loss effortlessly” encourage people to eat more, with the attendant consequences. In terms of effectiveness, ingesting weight loss pills is no different to wearing a new pair of sunglasses – both simply will not help if you choose to stuff your face with another dozen doughnuts.
Another weight loss supplement is anorectics, or appetite suppressants. They
There is no biological necessity for humans to eat three meals a day. Photo: VisualHunt
claim to work by interfering with body hormones to reduce the sensation of hunger – most are based on green tea extracts, seaweed or a South African plant genus called hoodia. Non-pharmaceutical anorectics are seldom rigorously tested for efficacy (or safety) and medical anorectics have had a history of problems.
If anyone is considering the use of appetite suppressants, here is a free alternative: drink 500ml to 600ml of water a few minutes before any meal. The stomach distension due to the water will reduce appetite and cause one to eat less.
Category 5 – Combinational
Some plans recognise that dieting works better if the body is also active – this helps circulation, generate useful hormones, and promote overall physical well-being. So some diet plans specify the expenditure of a certain number of calories (or time) performing a series of daily exercises such as cycling, walking or running. The intensity of such exercises may also increase over time as the diet plan progresses.
A lot of evidence indicates that the combination of exercise and good dieting is the best way to maintain/improve health and alleviate certain ailments, provided the body is fit enough to undertake such physical activities.
Category 6 – Fanciful
There appears to be no limits to human imagination (or something less noble) when creating and marketing diet fads for gullible consumers. Top places for recent fanciful fads would probably include Clean Eating and the Alkaline Diet. Anyone following the Clean Eating fad would have voluntarily elected to become, in the words of a former female practitioner, a “gluten-free, sugar-free, oil-free, grain-free, legume-free, plant-based raw vegan”.
This same lady stopped Clean Eating when her periods stopped, her hair fell out and her skin turned orange. So apart from having lots of pretty pictures of food to post on social media, there appears to be no benefit from such an unhealthy restrictive fad.
As for the Alkaline Diet, it always bemused me that lemons were included as “alkaline” food items – a clear indication of a poor grasp of elementary chemistry. This actually is probably the least disturbing aspect of the Alkaline Diet – if you are curious, the pseudo-scientific premise of this fad was explored in the article, “What lies in our diets – Part 2”.
Other absurd notions include the “detox” fads. Due to the regulatory functions of human organs, the body simply never needs “detoxing”. Any perceived benefits are incidental and due to food restrictions – it is seldom mentioned that persisting with such restrictions can also damage health.
The common element of fanciful diets is pseudo-science – the implausible made to sound plausible based on misinformation, anecdotes, ignorance and evasion/distortion of facts. As such, if one is rational, fanciful diets are easy to identify. So why are these diets often popular, even though they can be dangerous? It may be that in this post-truth age, many people are oblivious (or even hostile) to facts and science – and these people, like flat-earth believers, will constantly support and elevate fanciful notions (and diets) as long as the ideas fit within their limited belief systems.
Reality (simple version)
The current situation is that, unlike dog food, there are too many diet options available. So before embarking on any diet, it helps to understand WHY you want to diet. Some reasons may be:
• Weight loss
• Better health
• Intestinal problems
From the reasons, you should quantify the benefit expected; for example:
• Lose 5kg weight
• Lower blood pressure by 10%
• Eliminate constipation
If, for example, the primary target is weight loss, then you need to find a diet with elements of Category 1 diets. If you also want to lower blood pressure, then look for a diet with Category 1, 2 and 5 characteristics. If fixing constipation is also required, then your ideal diet may have elements of Category 1, 2, 4 and 5. (For Categories 1 and 2, refer to Part 1.)
Other considerations are time-scales when you want results, budget available, time and resource availability, food preferences, etc.
Reality (real version)
The harsh truth is, despite the many thousands of diet plans out there, chances of finding one that immediately suit even three simple targets as above are minimal. That is because many diets are created for specific or very general purposes (or purely for marketing) – they are not designed around your requirements. Or there might be a perfect diet but it is hidden and undiscoverable in the thousands of options. To be fair, most sensible diets will probably work eventually, but they may not fit your timescale, budget or resource availability.
Food as medicine
Although many dietary and health problems are caused by over-indulging in food, it is still a fact that the same problems can often also be solved by food (which would probably be a better solution than medications) – it just requires eating a little differently. Some people treat dieting itself as a lifestyle and adhere rigidly to various regimes, such as veganism – while this might be noble (or drastic), it does not suit everyone, including myself.
People have idiosyncratic reasons and separate targets – so knowing the underlying characteristics of diets helps one to realise no diet plan is a miracle formula. One suggestion is, if weight loss is a target, then it helps to find low-calorie foods which are enjoyable and eatable at all times.
Weight loss always require diets with Category 1 characteristics and munching low-calorie foods such as cucumbers, celery or endives can help alleviate those inevitable hungry twitches. And whenever possible, always include some physical activity in any diet.
If anyone is interested in the ease of devising a personal diet, an unambitious, self-created diet is outlined in the article, “The perils of dieting – Part 2”.
It is so laid-back (but personally effective) that I have been using it periodically for years, even when bingeing – the plan allows over-indulgence because, well, that is what I sometimes have to do.