May 7th, 2013 by Donnell Alexander
Fad diets. They’ve always been a bugbear to dietitians and nutritionists. Generally they’re written by people with no formal nutrition expertise or understanding of scientific evidence, but rather astute business people who know that silver bullet promises can earn them serious money from book sales. Fads provide great news bites, and therefore often pop up in media articles. Sigh.
The current fad is no exception. I took this photo in my local book shop this week, and you’ll see that the recurring silver bullet today is cutting out sugar. It seems we’re lining up in droves to buy these books, judging by the amounts stocked in bookshops.
As a dietitian who works with food industry clients, including a sugar company*, I know quite a bit about the role of sugars in our diet, our intake of sugars in New Zealand, and the evolving scientific consensus involving sugars and health. So this diet fad is keeping me pretty busy as I try to inject some New Zealand context and scientific evidence into the space.
Let’s be clear, I’m not advocating for unrestricted sugar consumption, or arguing that sugar is particularly good for you. Advice relating to sugars is, and always has been, relevant to strategies to reduce the high risk of overweight and obesity in many countries. However, a singular focus on sugars is unwarranted and would be ineffective for the wider population, when there is nothing metabolically special about sugars (over any other energy source) to cause weight gain. This singular focus also distracts from the importance of a person’s whole diet, and may unintentionally reduce diet quality by reducing intake of nutritious foods such as fruit, vegetables and milk, and increasing intake of saturated fats.
In 2010 an Australian nutritionist, Dr Chris Forbes-Ewan, provided this useful and balanced feedback on one of the books pictured above. The points he made are still just as relevant today, and I could not put them better myself.
My own personal advice on sugars is pretty simple – ideally items high in sugars should either; also contain a lot of other essential nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fibre, phytonutrients) to justify their regular consumption; or be enjoyed in small amounts.
I used the word enjoyed deliberately. Food is more than a collection of nutrients. We are social beings who interact, share, love and dream over food. Without the ability to enjoy food (responsibly) life just isn’t much fun.
To justify their investment, some of those on these fad diets claim all sorts of short term health gains. I’ve even been approached by “believers” suggesting that all dietitians should provide this advice to their clients, because a number of general practitioners are promoting it. With all due respect to general practitioners, nutritional science isn’t generally their area of expertise.
While I applaud the “believers” for changing their lives, there is no evidence that the responsible consumption of sugar caused their initial health problems. Frankly, cutting any common source of dietary energy from your diet altogether will drastically reduce overall energy intake. Simply being conscious of (and thereby restricting) what you’re putting into your mouth is known to result in weight loss to start with.
Unfortunately the long term results on weight and micronutrient status are unknown – generally because people can’t stomach fad diets for very long. That’s what makes them fad diets. But not to worry – the astute authors will have dreamed up another fad diet to make their money from by then, and so the rollercoaster devoid of common sense continues…
*this blog represents my own personal views, not those of my clients.