Why are so many emerging diet trends focused on extreme, restrictive patterns that may do more harm than good? When it comes to your health, you don’t want to be trendy. You want it to last.
BY: MONICA MO, PH.D.
In our modern society, we’ve grown accustomed to the idea that healthy eating means avoiding certain foods. Just take a quick look at all of the emerging diet trends around us.
The keto diet requires cutting carbs down to a level in which the body’s natural survival instincts kick in to avoid starvation. Despite only 1% of our population needing to avoid it, the gluten-free market is projected to reach over $7B by 2020 as it continues to grow to the point where applesauce pouches are slapped with the label to increase its healthy perception. The Plant Paradox diet demonizes a slew of nutritious vegetables, beans, and legumes, all in the name of a common plant compound that’s deactivated anyway when those foods are prepared and cooked properly.
So why do we like to single out and villainize nutrients?
For one thing, it’s a natural instinct.
People summarize complex pieces of information, all for the sake of convenience and efficiency. It’s actually an amazing thing the brain does. Instead of analyzing every single detail about what we experience with our five senses, we are only processing a summary of them. So instead of standing there analyzing a car speeding towards you, you simply recognize – with the biological help of your summarizing brain and hormonal cues – to move.
While the brain’s essential survival component is efficient, it can actually lead us off course when we’re talking about food.
That natural instinct draws us to messages which appear to explain complexity in a simple, elegant way. And so, we find ourselves rationalizing that it makes sense to single out individual variables in our health equation.
Through this simplification, it fulfills an innate need to feel competent in learning something new, and effectively applying it. Following a specific diet dogma also creates a sense of identity, a reason why some equate food with religion.
The diet industry has long understood these human behaviors, and they have leveraged this for their own gain. They fuel the notion that by finding one piece of the dietary puzzle, we can find the cause for all of our health ailments.
At one point, too much fat was considered the cause for heart disease, sparking the low-fat trend that has since come under fire. Now, carbohydrates and gluten have become the dietary bane, asking consumers to resort back to supposed Stone Age eating habits and avoid ground up grains.
We are being sold silver bullets to our health that don’t actually exist.
In fact, our nutritional health is defined through a complex, coordinated dance between the nutrients and biochemical machinery that fuels our cells. Nutrients are altered through a series of biochemical steps, a process known as metabolism. The impact of nutrition on your health is linked to the way your metabolism maintains all the necessary parts for your cells to survive.
As simple as this conceptual relationship between nutrition and health sounds, the complexity lives heavily within the intricacy of metabolism. Metabolism is a complicated yet structured logic sequence that lays out the possible chemical paths that each individual cell in your body can take. These cells range from those within your tissues, to the little bacteria living symbiotically within your body. And those chemical paths are what lead to different health outcomes: sometimes the outcomes are good, other times, not so good. It’s complex simplicity at its best, in all its hairball glory.
The confusion and inconsistencies around how nutrition works is due to the fact that your metabolism is not static.
It adapts and changes like traffic patterns, influenced by your age, genetics, external environment, exercise, sleep, stress levels, and of course, what you eat. Unless you are living in a static, perfectly-controlled environment, the ability to have precise control over the path in which food affects your health is not realistic. Yet, we continue to insist on trying to emphasize an oversimplified, reductionist approach of singling out nutrients to avoid.
With the exception of those with a legitimate food allergy, the elimination of entire food groups based on their nutrient content just doesn’t make sense. It instills unnecessary fear that leads to exaggerated reactivity and food obsessions with dire consequences.
It really is a contradiction: we are evolutionarily wired to generalize our understanding of the world so we can be efficient. In doing so with food, we label them as good vs. bad.
Therein lies the problem, because there is never a single right answer. How can that be, when no one is the same? Ranging from our genetics to all of the external variants that impact our body’s health, it is never that black and white.
With an ever growing list of healthy eating trends focusing on what not to put in our bodies, we tend to overlook why we can put nutritious foods into our bodies. Let’s take a step back, observe, and thoughtfully react to what we know is tried and true when it comes to good nutrition:
The message may not sound as novel or exciting, but it’s the simpler truth. No magical precision needed, because control is an illusion anyway. All you can do is try your best to incorporate a variety of nutritiously beneficial foods that will help your body function. Makes sense, right?
As overloaded with information and marketing hype as we are, let’s cut out the noise and start with the basics:
What your body needs.
Monica Mo, PhD is the founder and CEO of WellSeek, a brand and media company on a mission to dispel myths and spread truth in the health and wellness world. She’s the Curating Editor of the WellSeek Collective and a member of the Council of Directors at True Health Initiative. What began as a passion for health and science led to Monica’s realization that her own behaviors contradicted her knowledge, inspiring the conception of WellSeek as a way to guide others towards discovering their own path to health and happiness.