How safe are alternative diets?
At some point along our development into adulthood food stops being something that is simply prescribed to us, instead becoming the central crux of our day-to-day lives. Every dietary choice we make is, on some level, a partial indicator of our personalities, lifestyle, class, culture, discipline, ethics, our past and genetic dispositions.
Yet eating – or the processes in our brain that decide what, when and how we eat – is an often mindless activity, of the body rather than the mind, that gives us the space to think about more important matters, or to socialise, as humans have historically used it for.
This might explain why our diet decisions – even when we try to make a very conscious effort with them – are emotional rather than pragmatic. Fad diets almost inevitably lack rigorous and unanimous backing from experts and science, yet this does not deter people from flocking to them. Even vegetarianism, a longstanding alternative diet and norm in many cultures, has not gained its Western popularity simply from purporting to be healthy. Conscientious vegans may have sound ethical reasons for their diet, but it is often the emotional response that keeps them away from animal products in their daily lives, rather than any intellectual rationalisations, just as it is a lack of emotional urgency that doesn’t convert many more meat-eaters.
With the threat of misinformation distorting how we look at health, it’s important to scrutinise, as well as explore, the basis of current fad diets, enduring cult diets and any other sort of popular, if not mainstream, diets with vocal proponents.
But first, let’s start with the baseline.
Government recommended diet: balancing act
What is a balanced diet? If you learnt nutrition through a system such as the Eatwell Plate or Food Pyramid, then you might describe it as three meals a day, each containing a variety of foods from the different food groups: fruits and vegetables, carbohydrates, protein, dairy and fat – or something similar. Judging by the latest rendition of the Eatwell Guide on the NHS website, much of the government guidance remains the same as it ever was, albeit with an increased accommodation of vegan alternatives. Progress!
Yet despite the ubiquitous nature of ‘the balanced diet’ in the Western world, we should take this recent guidance to task. Here are some notes:
- Five a day is still gospel – this is not surprising, and it is largely still sound advice, as long as you recognise that one portion is usually 80g, though it is 30g if it is dried fruit. Five might see like an arbitrary number but research suggests that increasing portions of fruit and veg to seven a day does not actually carry any notable benefits. Keep to the magic five to reduce the chance of a number of diseases over your lifetime.
- Starchy foods (carbs) ‘should make up just over a third of everything you eat’. This element has received criticism from the European Parliament, as well as other commentators, due to the link between starchy foods and obesity. It has also been suggested that this is unhealthy for diabetics.
- Meat and fish are not shown to be the only forms of protein, but for many will be the most viable; meanwhile, the dangers of red and processed meat are alluded to. The risk of eating lots of processed meat is clear, due to the nitrates and preservatives that can contribute to the development of cancer. However, it is not yet fully known if fresh red meat carries a similar risk because of its natural chemicals.
- Fats are not explained at great length, though the tone continues to be that of demonisation, highlighting the problem of too much junk food without bringing up examples of healthy fats (avocado, real butter, olive oil). Low-fat substitutes can actually be less healthy because they are processed. While unsaturated fats have long been considered healthy in moderation, the same is now being said of saturated fats according to some sources. A benefit to fats is that they are filling – drastically reducing them from a diet can actually lead to overeating.
- The plate diagram suggests ‘sustainably-sourced fish’. On the surface this is a good thing to advocate, yet is both inconsistent by not saying the same for meat, and inconsiderate of the cost. Besides, there is sparce public knowledge to what ‘sustainably-sourced’ actually entails, with the recent Netflix documentary Seaspiracy suggesting that it is impossible to guarantee fish is either ethically-sourced, or environmentally-sustainable.
It is a bit problematic that the guidance doesn’t reference the diets of other cultures, considering the UK’s diversity. Another problem is that it is a uniform diet, which emerging research and anecdotal evidence suggests may not be appropriate for everyone – even discounting those with specific dietary needs, which are at least briefly noted by the NHS.
The idea of a standardised diet, containing crops that are easily grown in abundance, has in the past been used to benefit the agriculture industry, rather than public health. Troublingly, the Eatwell Guide (and other government health initiatives) is influenced by board members representing some of the biggest food companies in the world – Coca Cola and Nestle, for example, whose interest in naturally in selling refined sugars foods. Though this guide is largely backed-up with evidence, it’s worth acknowledging the inherent conflict of interest.
Animal product exclusion: don’t have a cow, man
Vegetarianism and associated diets have seen a significant rise in the UK in recent years, with a recent survey suggesting that 14% of the adult population follow a meat-free diet. Around half are vegetarian, almost are a third pescatarian, and the remainder are vegan. There are a number of reasons why this trend is positive, but how safe are the diets themselves?
Veganism: Though veganism is the least popular of the meat-free diets, it has certainly entered the public consciousness and represents an ideology that goes beyond food. For some, following the vegan ethos means boycotting all products, companies and practices that exploit animals or are unsustainable. Businesses have likewise capitalised on the lifestyle, and so we are now seeing an abundance of vegan products in the market. Unfortunately, that status is often achieved by cutting corners, or food-processing that goes even further than meat-equivalents; although they may seem like a more health-conscious option, meat-alternatives, dairy-free deserts and vegan snacks are often just as unhealthy if not worse than the foods they imitate. If you are adopting this diet for health reasons, it is worth closely examining the dietary sense in cutting out meat, milk eggs and other animal products.
It is notable that vegetarianism is far more popular than veganism all over the world, which should hint at the difference dairy and eggs make to a diet. Egg yolks, fish oil and dairy products are a direct source of vitamin D, which cannot be derived from plant-based foods. The same is true of vitamin A, which can only be found in egg yolks as well as other animal products. Provitamin A is found in several fruits and vegetables, but these are inefficient for the body to convert, and on top of that almost half of us carry a genetic mutation which reduces its effectiveness further. The vitamin K2 is essential for carrying calcium to the bones, but yet again it is almost exclusive to animal products. The associated issue with this is that people feel they should be taking vitamin D and calcium supplements, which can be counterintuitive. Indeed, getting the necessary vitamins and nutrients should be a prime consideration for anybody tempted by veganism. As well as those discussed, vitamin B12 is also excluded in a vegan diet, which is a major crux because its deficiency has been linked to a number of nervous system disorders.
Inclusive vegetarian or ‘flexitarian’ diets: Because of these nutritional issues, it might be worth trying vegetarianism or pescatarianism first before taking the plunge into a no-animal product diet. These diets still address many of the climate concerns of veganism, since meat production is a significant producer of greenhouse gases, while making it a lot easier to eat healthily. The inclusion of fish can make a dramatic change to an otherwise vegetarian diet because of its many associated health benefits and the fact that this food group is high in nutrients that are otherwise found in meat.
Low-carb diets: twinkle twinkle, little starch
Carbohydrates, while still being promoted as part of a healthy diet by most nutritionists, have seen antagonism by some, mainly over the past century. Though low-carb diets are certainly not within mainstream health guidelines, they are nothing new. The idea of cutting starchy foods (the main source of carb) in favour of other types, proteins and low-carb vegetables particularly, has been popular in some form since at least the Ancient Greeks, whose athletes favoured a meat-heavy diet. Nowadays its influence can partially be attributed to a number of maverick health influencers, such as Dr Robert Atkins, who published two controversial books in 1972 and 1992 respectfully, advocating his own variation on this diet. But how healthy is it, really? Looking past the fact that sufficiently replacing carbs is excruciatingly difficult for many, the low-carb lifestyle poses some health challenges alongside the benefits it very questionably produces.
A common claim from those practising this diet is that they were able to lose weight astronomically quickly. This might be true, but only in the short term. Carbs are pretty essential for maintaining energy levels, and so cutting them out completely will likely result in a nutrient deficiency. The dietary fibre abundant in wholegrains, potato skins and cereal are very effective at keeping you full on relatively little calories. Carb substitutes are much less energy efficient, and so can lead to overeating. From this perspective, low-carb is simply not the safest, or healthiest, option for most people.
Keto diet: Developed in the 1920s as a way to treat epilepsy (which had previously been treated with fasting) this diet has gained notoriety as a weight-loss fad. Drastically cutting carb intake forces the body into a state of starvation known as ‘ketosis’. This refers to the ketone bodies produced in the liver, which fuels the body in the absence of glucose. This diet is usually touted for burning fat, but it also requires an incredible intake of fat, much of which is saturated. It also means a massive restriction of fruits as they are typically rich in carbs, as well as vegetables with the exception of leafy greens. It does not take much imagination to envisage the issues with a high-fat, nutrient-restrictive diet, but here’s a few anyway: liver and kidney problems, constipation and nutrient deficiency.
While keto may yield impressive results in the short-term, it is hard to maintain safely, and hasn’t seen particularly promising results in clinical trials. The verdict? For most – neither fun nor healthy. Approach at your own risk.
Gluten exclusion: a wheat has been lifted
At what point did the gluten-free diet go from a necessary concession for those with coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity, to the most popular health fad of the 21st century? We can partly thank Dr Alessio Fasano, whose research published in the early 2000s reclassified what it meant to be suffering from coeliac disease, consequently leading to a surge in diagnoses and bringing widespread attention to the downsides of gluten. Further studies would suggest that the gluten-free lifestyle could benefit those suffering from a number of other inflammatory illnesses. Then a number of sources hailed it as a miracle diet, able to address whatever ailment you can imagine, and it saw a massive celebrity uptake that has not diminished. To this day, the diet has been popular with non-coeliacs – so much so that they outnumber those who have been officially diagnosed with an allergy to wheat or gluten. But is it really a good idea to cut out gluten without doctor’s orders? Let’s see.
America’s Mayo Clinic states ‘there’s little evidence that a gluten-free diet offers any particular health benefits’ for those who do not have a bad reaction to the nutrient. Gluten alternatives do not seem to be any healthier than their counterparts, and in many cases are less nutritional than them. Products with their gluten taken out are made with refined grains, which do not have fibre, iron, or calcium.
However, this diet is not as radical as some of the others mentioned. It is technically safe and healthy as long as you can find naturally-free gluten-free alternatives, such as buckwheat and quinoa. Still, it is recommended you consult a doctor beforehand to establish if your body has an issue with gluten. A large proportion of people on this diet are self-diagnosed, which is not recommended when it comes to allergies.
Elimination diets: take-away food
Ideal for those with prolonged stomach problems (such as IBS) and other ailments, usually when a doctor cannot determine what foods are causing the problem, the elimination diet is something of a last resort. Often advised to be carried out under medical guidance (for those who suspect they have an allergy, say), this short, 5-6 week regime involves gradually cutting out individual foods and observing the effects on the body. You would start with the likely culprits: nuts, dairy, soy, acidic fruits, meat, fish, sugary foods, spices and wheat before going further if necessary. Keeping a daily health journal is a thorough way to track any changes. In the process you should be able to determine what is causing you problems and then slowly reintroduce benign foods into your diet. There my be no correlation between your issues and what you’re eating, but it’s worth ruling it out first.
For obvious reasons, a very restrictive diet should not be adopted for too long. Diet can have a significant effect on not just our health, but energy and mood. It is not sensible to try this one out on a whim, though advocators on social media might claim it has produced dramatic benefits for them.
Carnivore diet: An extreme example of this is the niche community of people exclusively eating meat (and other animal products), after pushing their elimination diet to the very limit. Suffice to say this goes against all conventional nutrition advice and any notion of a ‘balanced diet’, so why have some been so drawn to it? Is this a diet for guys who hate veg and want to get buff and boost their testosterone levels, a stark contrast to the feminine associations of health-conscious eating? In part. But it’s not just men embracing the meat lifestyle, nor are adopters doing it simply for the image. Some see it as an extension of the keto diet. Again, it is possible to lose weight very quickly by restricting what sorts of foods you eat, especially if you are exclusively eating animal products, though this is hard to maintain.
Others may cite human evolution as a justification: anthropologists have linked a significant period of brain development and body growth in homo sapiens to the advent of hunting 2 million years ago, where our ancestors were supposedly ‘hypercarnivores’, mainly sustaining themselves on meat. Plants were only used as a fallback when meat was scarce, and the production of grain-based foods 10,000 ago when agriculture began has apparently added nothing to our diet. This is a slightly dubious reason as modern homo sapiens have the characteristics of omnivores, such as teeth that can tear meat and chew, and digestive systems that are between those of carnivores and herbivores. It is also worth noting that our ancestors had a very active lifestyle, and a much more diverse diet than we may think, often sustained with whatever foods were available.
Modern nutritional consensus is that carnivory is not such a good idea for people, even if there is merit to cutting out processed foods and embracing a palaeolithic diet.
Brain diets: food for thought
Will consuming the right foods supercharge our brain? Possibly (though not instantly). At the very least we know some foods are really good for the brain’s development, as well as learning and memory as we age. Though what we eat has long been suspected to influence mental function, recent studies have finally given us a picture of brain performance in the long-term.
It is not that certain foods have magical, brain-altering properties. We should think of the brain in terms of the amount of energy it consumes, which is 20% of that of the entire body, though it takes up only 2% of the body’s total weight. Brain foods are those which fuel the brain, which help it run efficiently, and which protect it.
The right balance and variety of nutrients can improve cognitive health and ability in numerous ways. These can be gotten from:
- Wholegrains, a nutritious carb option containing various vitamins, minerals and healthy fats that powers that brain throughout the day
- Oily fish (salmon, cod, tuna), full of omega-3 fatty acids which can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia
- Eggs, rich in a number of B vitamins which prevent cognitive impairment
- Broccoli, a source of vitamin K which boosts brain power
- Pumpkin seeds, which contain zinc, magnesium, copper and iron which help proper brain function
- Walnuts, a source of protein, vitamins, minerals and fibre that promotes brain longevity
- Blueberries, containing high amounts of antioxidants that may protect brain cells and keep the brain alert
Best of all, these foods are not too difficult to incorporate into the diet, and will not require you to make radical, potentially harmful, lifestyle decisions in the name of health.
The risk of dieting: meal or no meal
A consistent issue with diets is that they require drastic changes to our eating habits, which are usually very hard to maintain, and lose any positive effects when we quit them. Most people choose an alternative diet to lose or gain weight, but these are short-term effects that are very hard to retain over longer periods. They give the illusion of health, while often ignoring the repercussions to mood, energy or the needs of the body.
This is not to say that no alternative diet is viable in the long-run. There are plenty of vegans who will find it harder to revert back to consuming animal products than go the rest of their life in their current fashion. Equally, some dieters may find the idea of boosting their carbs unthinkable. However, if you are committing to a diet that restricts a certain food group it’s important to take extra care in ensuring you get all of your required nutrients from other sources.
If health is your goal, then your level of activity may have even greater implications than your diet. We are at our fittest when we are making the most out of the body’s physical ability while sufficiently fuelling it. Don’t skip meals (particularly breakfast), don’t fast for the hell of it, and don’t restrict your food sources arbitrarily. If we make an enemy of food, we will not get very far.