The Holidays Are Here: Bring on the Fad Diets!
Google recently released their analysis of the top searches for 2014, and the most searched for diet of the year is the Paleo Diet. Others in the top 10 include the “Super Shred Diet” and “The Doctor’s Diet”. Nutrition trends like diets with fancy names or clever back stories come and go, and often when you boil them down the logic tends to fall apart. In the case of the “Paleo Diet” – which advocates a diet heavy in fruits, vegetables, and meats and avoiding anything processed (a la what a caveman would eat, hence the name) - may in fact have “no historical basis”. Evidently, the actual diet of early hominids was revealed to be quite diverse, and ultimately there’s no evidence that their diets were any healthier.
What each of these diet fads have in common is that they often vilify a particular nutrient or class of food. Fat is bad, carbs are bad, GMO’s are bad, processed foods are bad – the list goes on and on. Yet the story is rarely that simple, despite the claims of many of these fad diets that a particular food or nutrient is bad for you does that ever turn out to be the case. The elimination of processed foods from your diet is something of a cornerstone of the Paleo diet – since our caveman ancestors didn’t have access to processed foods, they should be avoided. Are processed foods really that bad?
Of course not. Earlier this year, the American Society for Nutrition published a scientific statement on the contributions that processed foods make to nutrition. According to their analysis, processed foods make major contributions to the so-called “Nutrients of Public Health Concern”, specifically contributing 55% of the intake of dietary fiber, 48% of the intake of calcium, and 34% of the intake of vitamin D in the American diet. Because of their role in supporting nutritional adequacy and a variety of other reasons, ASN concluded that “processed foods are nutritionally important to American diets”.
So if processed foods aren’t all bad, and if we know that it can be rather difficult to meet nutrient needs without the contributions made from fortification and supplementation, then what does this mean for fad diets like the Paleo diet that advocate a complete elimination of all things processed? Ultimately the logic of the Paleo diet falls on its face – if the one thing that’s supposed to be bad for you isn’t that bad at all, then really how much are you going to do for your health if you avoid it? Optimizing your diet isn’t just about removing one food from your diet and hoping for the best – among other things, it means meeting your micronutrient intake needs.
We need to remember that processed and fortified foods aren’t the only solution to address nutrient gaps, but they are one of several available solutions to address these dietary shortfalls. There’s no magic bullet – even fortified and processed foods aren’t the panacea to fix all things nutrition. In line with this balanced approach, the ASN statement on processed food states “diets are more likely to meet food guidance recommendations if nutrient-dense foods, either processed or not, are selected”.
There is no one best way to improve your health through nutrition. Be nutrition agnostic and remember that we live in a world where tools like fortified foods and dietary supplements exist to help improve your intakes of key nutrients, and consider using them before turning to the fad diet of the week.
Happy Holidays to all from the Talking Nutrition team!
Fulgoni VL 3rd, et al. Foods, fortificants, and supplements: where do Americans get their nutrients? J Nutr 2011; 141(10: 1847-1854.
Weaver CM, et al. Processed foods: contributions to nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr 2014; 99: 1525-1542.