Sunday 5 January 2014

Fad diets

The Sunday Times is advising readers to give up sugar entirely for the new year because it's addictive and toxic etc. And who better to sift through the science than the former deputy fashion editor at Vogue, Calgary Avansino, who has read a bunch of anti-sugar books, watched Robert Lustig's Youtube video and spoken to some of her Sloane Ranger mates in London who are flogging organic vegetable juices and naturopathic "remedies"?

The result is a fad diet/advertisement masquerading as a news article that reads like this: "The nutritionist and naturopath Rhian Stephenson tells her clients... The nutritionist Amelia Freer says... The Center for Science in the Public Interest in America reports that... Jenna Zoe, author of Super Healthy Snacks and Treats, says... etc." Everybody who has a bee in their bonnet about sugar gets their say, no dissenting voices are quoted.

The number one new year’s resolution is to lose weight, and yet we are failing spectacularly. Despite the growing list of diets — from Atkins and Caveman to the fasting or 5:2 diet — none of them ever seems to work... Rather than fat, as was originally thought, it is sugar that is the biggest threat to our health.

Read: our attempts to blame a single item in the diet for obesity have failed spectacularly every time so far, but we won't let that dent our confidence.

If you really want to look and feel better in 2014, then forget about following a diet: make quitting sugar your new year’s resolution.

Er, quitting sugar is a diet and it is every bit as much a fad diet as those that preceded it.

The white granulated sugar you put in tea is harvested and refined from sugar beets and sugar cane and, like all other sugars, it has absolutely no nutritional value — no proteins, no essential fats, no vitamins or minerals.

As a couple of the comments to the article point out, the "no nutritional value" claim is false.

Sugar is carbohydrate, carbohydrate is a nutrient. Excess sugar may well not be good for you, but claiming "sugar has no nutritional value" is nonsense.

"Nutritional value" includes energy. If your diet already has enough micronutrients, fibre, etc, then there is no downside to some of your calories being "empty".

She continues:

When we eat any form of sugar, the body deals with it in one of two ways. Either we burn it off as energy — but, given the amount of sugar the average person now consumes, it is impossible to expend it through activity unless you are Mo Farah (and I guarantee you he limits his sugar intake)

How much does Mo Farah avoid sugar? Let's ask the man himself...

"Breakfast was coffee and cereal, normally Frosties, as I really like them - probably a little too much! However they gave me my much needed sugar rush to get me through the early part of each day.

I need my sugar fix from time to time - some chocolate will usually give me the variation I need.

Chocolate, usually dark chocolate is good for an energy boost. There are all manner of sports snacks that pretend to do wonderful things, but I mostly like to stick to the basics."


So, are we actually physically addicted to the sweet stuff? Most nutritionists respond to that question with: “Try giving it up and then tell me what you think.”

To be candid, I don't care what the grab bag of charlatans, obsessives and frauds that call themselves nutritionists think.

The chairman of the Functional Medicine Institute, Dr Mark Hyman, believes we are. 

"Functional medicine" is yet another term for the pseudo-science of alternative medicine.

“The slick combinations of sugar, fat and salt in junk and processed food have hijacked our tastebuds, brain chemistry and metabolism. These foods are biologically addictive. We are held hostage by the food industry and yet we blame ourselves for not having willpower,” he says. 

Evidence please.

“One animal study found that sugar is more addictive than cocaine. When rats were given the choice between cocaine or sweetened water, scientists found that most rats preferred the sweetened water. Even the rats who initially preferred cocaine switched over.” 

I wrote about this ridiculous study here when I nominated it as the junk science of 2013. So have other sceptics.

We shouldn’t eat or drink manufactured sugar bombs, full stop.

The examples of "manufactured sugar bombs" given are Snickers Marathon bars and cans of Coke. And that's not all we should be abstaining from. The author then turns her attention to alcohol, carbs and fruit...

The author David Gillespie says in his book The Sweet Poison Quit Plan: “Alcoholic drinks are OK for the recovering sugarholic as long as they don’t taste sweet and are not mixed with other drinks that contain sugar."

"Recovering sugarholic", for God's sake.

"You can keep the dry wines, beers and spirits, but you need to toss out the dessert wines, ports, sweet sherries, liqueurs and mixers.”

I could settle for just drinking beer, wine and neat spirits, although I very much doubt I'd lose any weight. This is the problem with having a single-minded obsession with one ingredient. You will not lose weight if you keep drinking lots of beer.

As for carbs, they're also a no-no, apparently.

Starches and carbohydrates are more of the same, I’m afraid. Our bodies process certain types of carbohydrates (the white, refined kinds) in a similar way to pure sugar, and they create an equally powerful endorphin response, making us want them more and more. ...During the initial sugar-free week of our plan, however, try to resist carbohydrates as much as humanly possible. If you do feel the need for carbs, choose the good ones: brown rice, rolled oats, millet, quinoa, buckwheat, wild rice, bulgur and rye.

So, no sugar, no carbs and as little alcohol as possible. This diet that isn't a diet is starting to sound pretty rigorous. Oh, and you have to steer clear of fruit too...

Fruit is not fundamentally bad for us, but the amount we are eating can be detrimental. In The Sweet Poison Quit Plan, the author David Gillespie [a lawyer who wrote a diet book after apparently realising that he "needed to stop poisoning himself" - CJS] recommends that adults eat only two pieces of fruit a day and children only one. Fruit containing higher amounts of fibre and lower quantities of fructose such as kiwis, apples, grapefruit, blackberries, pears, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and lemons are the best choices, while bananas, watermelon, pineapple, mangoes, papayas and grapes should be avoided.

And no fruit juice at all...

None of this matters when it comes to fruit juice, as it’s all bad. When fruit is juiced, any positives are squeezed out and all that’s left is sugar, water and a bit of vitamin C.

I have a blender that juices an apple and leaves me with a drink. After I drink it, there's nothing left. Where do all the "positives" go? Into the third dimension?

The author of Grain Brain, Dr David Perlmutter, says: “Our caveman ancestors did eat fruit, but not every day of the year."

Ah, the caveman, that paragon of health whose diet we should all aspire to. If we're going to resort to the naturalistic fallacy, let's go back even further. How about our monkey ancestors? Did they not eat lots of fruit?

However, the Plenish Cleanse founder, Kara Rosen, reassures us that not all juice is evil [yes, evil!- CJS]. “The new juice taking the market by storm is cold-pressed vegetable juice, particularly green juices made up of ingredients such as cucumber, spinach, kale, broccoli and lettuce and low-glycemic-index fruit such as pears [that sounds revolting - CJS]. The sugar content is lower than conventional juices, and due to the cold-press juice extraction method, they have other nutritional benefits.” 

Can you guess what Plenish Cleanse sell?

On balance, I would say that this diet that isn't a diet will help people lose weight. Not because sugar is a "poison", but because there isn't a whole lot left to eat once all the foods listed above have been excluded. Sugar is high in calories and an excess of calories causes weight gain. It is therefore a good idea to cut down on sugar if you're looking to shed some pounds in 2014. It is not necessary to completely abstain from sugar, or anything else, nor is it necessary to make hysterical claims about toxicity and addiction. Just consume fewer calories than you use. That is the simple truth that the multi-million pound diet industry tries to obscure.


Macheath said...

'Despite the growing list of diets — from Atkins and Caveman to the fasting or 5:2 diet — none of them ever seems to work...'

...might come as something of a surprise to the Times journalists who devoted much of Saturday's magazine to 'How to get started and lose up to 12lb a month' on the 4:3, the updated version of the 5:2 diet.

nisakiman said...

Well fisked, Chris. I particularly liked the Mo Farah reference!

Why are these obviously misinformed and misdirected people given column inches? Are the press so desperate for content that they'll publish anything, regardless of whether or not it has any merit? This is so patently utter tosh that I can't understand how it got past the editorial team.

Perhaps I'm just a dinosaur, harking back to the days when editors passed a critical eye over copy before it went to press.

Anonymous said...

I have the impression that these people are trying to turn everyone into anorexics.

But why?

Ben said...

It's almost too easy to deconstruct all their ridiculous, unfunded recommendations.
"processed food have hijacked our tastebuds, brain chemistry and metabolism" The term 'Processed food' is used as a buzz word. Nobody seems to question its meaning. Our digestive system is unsuited for larger volumes of unprocessed. i.e. raw, food. Processing food (which means cooking) not only enables the digestive system to extract nutrients, it is also a means to prevent food from rotting or to eliminate bacteria or toxic substances.
Can you think of a diet consisting of raw meat, potatoes, coli-flour, wheat (instead of bread), milk, asparagus.

And yes, food has to be tasty, otherwise there is no incentive to eat it.

Ivan D said...

"Eat less; move more"

Billy Connolly

I reference Mr Connolly because I believe him to be at least as qualified as the pseuds you correctly criticize in your post.

It looks as though fat people and the food industry will be key targets for self righteous sociopaths in 2014.

I also predict that the BBC will remain obsessed with obesity and that reporting standards will continue to be inconsistent

MsMoople said...

I totally agree actually that sugar is a problem. But not sugar in chocolate, sweets, fruit or what we add to coffee. The fact that food that isn't obvious has added sugar for no apparent reason is one problem. Bacon, Salami, roast chicken, tomato puree, low fat food alternatives and pretty much everything else. So it is hard to escape. The other problem is Fructose Syrup made from corn. Nothing to do with fructose as in fruit sugar. It is a chemically made product that causes problems to our liver. HFC is not natural and neither is HFC made from apple juice, hidden on labels as fruit juice concentrate. But is is creeping into lots of foods because it is cheap.
So no, sugar isn't the problem. We are all intelligent enough to know, we won't lose weight if we eat large amounts of sweets and chocolate. Hidden sugar in unexpected foods and the increase of HighFructoseCornsyrup instead of sugar is cause for concern.