It’s February now, and I am seeing a minor resurgence of the “new year, new you” themed posts in my feeds as friends and friends-of-friends are gearing themselves up to eat cleaner, lighter, or smarter in order to drop weight after having failed at the first go ’round of their ye olde New Year’s resolution(s). It’s not a surprise that weight loss resolutions often don’t stick past the first few weeks of the year. For the most part, resolutions are driven by remorse brought on by overindulgence during the holiday season. The weight loss industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that feeds on insecurities and the desire for a quick fix, but the truth is that there are no one-step solutions that result in effective, safe, and prolonged weight loss.
I was recently diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, and in the wake of that diagnosis I have been faced with wading through an ocean of bullshit dietary information. Speaking with and reading what other women with PCOS (“cysters”) have to say about weight loss is really making my blood boil because there are so many misinformed notions about what people should or should never eat. Before a friend pointed me toward woo-free support groups, I was raging pretty hard. Anyway, I wrote a by no means exhaustive list of things that irk me about our sanctimonious food-obsessed culture.
1. The One Weight Loss Plan to Rule them All
There are dozens if not hundreds of weight loss plans being touted by celebrities, gurus, and “doctors” and each one is more outrageous and more of a miracle than the last. The plans are easy to fall for because snake oil salesmen will punch up the product with scientific terms to lend credulity to the claim. The problem is that these terms are used incorrectly, out of context, or combined with other terms in a way that doesn’t make sense and alters or removes the original definition. Basically, it is a convoluted way to falsely advertise (see the ketogenic diet and insulin-carbohydrate theory, and how it has been debunked).
In the interest of preventing a list of my gripes that repeats itself, let’s make The One Weight Loss Plan to Rule them All an umbrella term that covers:
- Diets that require the consumption of one type of calorie while simultaneously vilifying another. (Example: Low carb, high fat diet.) These diets ignore the simple math of weight loss and engage in false advertising. I see this one a lot in the PCOS community.
- Anything that makes use of the words “detox” or “cleanse”. (Example: 10-Day Detox Diet or Master Cleanse) These diets promote scientific illiteracy by hijacking scientific terms to falsely legitimize the claim, and often leave the body calorie- and nutrient-starved.
- Diets that promote superfoods, a marketing term that doesn’t mean anything. (Example: Green tea.) “Superfoods” are often expensive specialty items. Diet plans based on the consumption of superfoods is unrealistic and, since the nutrients promised by these foods can be absorbed via a variety of other more affordable and accessible foods, unnecessary. Also, many of the claims made about superfoods are not backed by evidence. To quote a friend of mine, “Fuck kale. Fuck açaí. Especially fuck quinoa – demand for it in North America and Europe has made it prohibitively expensive for the Andean peoples who have cultivated it for thousands of years. Fuck spirulina, too.”
- Diets that require participation in multilevel marketing sales. (Example: Herbalife.) MLMs falsely advertise, financially drain participants, and encourage the salespeople to engage in behaviour that borders on religious zealotry.
So, let’s get straight to the facts.
Calories provided by a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and fat are required to power your body. No single one of these three items is inherently more bad for you than the other – they are all important pieces of a healthy body. Professional fitness columnist and smart-ass James Fell said, “… it doesn’t matter how you manipulate fat, carbs, protein, whatever – it’s not going to open a rift in the space-time continuum of your midsection and magically transport the fat to a parallel universe.”
There is no miracle food item, class, or plan that guarantees weight loss, burns fat, etc. Losing weight is a question of simple arithmetic: calories in minus calories out. When you are in a caloric deficit, you lose weight. It’s that simple.
In terms of strictly weight loss, it seems that the quality of the calories consumed do not have an impact on the quantity. Does anyone remember the professor at Kansas State University who went on the Twinkie diet in 2010? He lost weight eating almost exclusively Twinkies, Oreos, and other similar high sugar and fat foods (aka “empty calories”) because he maintained a caloric deficit for the duration.
2. Sugar. You know who else ate sugar? Hitler.
Poorly drawn parallels between public outrage at sugar and the absolute tragedy that is mass genocide aside, there is an unreasonable amount of evil attributed to the consumption of this sweet treat.
Hands up: who has seen the movie Fed Up? It’s an advocacy film about how addictive and poisonous sugar is. Among the expert opinions are carbohydrate-hating health guru Gary Taubes, anti-vaccine Huffington Post columnist Mark Hyman, and GMO-critic Michael Pollan. Hold on, I just need a moment to…
The movie blames obesity exclusively on sugar and advocates for its total elimination. It also claims sugar is an addictive substance just like cocaine. (Well, at least I am not the only one making totally outlandish comparisons.) There is plenty more that the film gets wrong – Science-Based Medicine wrote a pretty comprehensive list detailing the many failings. Note the point that the film excludes the correlation between increased calorie consumption versus expenditure in favour of furthering its narrative.
I think we all need to take a step back and educate ourselves before we go around disparaging sugar. Jim Laidler, MD, details sugar varieties and compositions and what that means in everyday life in his article High Fructose Corn Syrup: Tasty Toxin or Slandered Sweetener? To summarize, whether you consume it as fruit juice, honey, or refined white, sugar breaks down in your body in the same way. Are there legitimate health consequences for excessive consumption of sugar? Absolutely. Should it be branded as an inherently evil and poisonous substance? No.
What really helped me with identifying what is considered a lot of sugar is when my pseudo-niece was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I was one of the primary caregivers for her at the time, so when the family went through a two day workshop about how to manage her condition we learned an awful lot about carbohydrates, including quick rules of thumb for calculating carbs on the fly (for instance I will never forget that a single piece of bread is around 13 carbs), how to break those carbs down into their components (fibre, sugar, and starch), and what kind of an effect those carbs have on a diabetic body. If anything is going to help you really think about sugar in a meaningful way, I think a crash course in how not to accidentally kill a loved one is the way to go.
Really, it boils down to one simple rule that really doesn’t get the love it deserves: the dose makes the poison. Different doses absolutely mean different things for some people (for example, maybe avoid eating candy regularly if you are diabetic or insulin-resistant), but generally speaking, having a Snickers bar once in a while is not going to kill you. Overdosing on water sure as hell will, though. Get it?
3. Gluten is causing every health issue you have, and eliminating it is the best thing for every person EVER.
I’m going to have to hang my head in shame here, because much like my former belief in cranberry to cure UTIs, I briefly bought into this one (kind of). For many years I had had a complicated relationship with food. Between involuntary interval fasting as a teenager (read: I was welfare-poor and needed to make sure my little brother ate), extreme iron-deficiency anemia, irritable bowel syndrome, and undiagnosed gastroesophageal reflux disease, eating has always been kind of a Big Deal for me. When the gluten-free craze started to roll out in the late 2000s I jumped on the bandwagon and cut it out of my diet for close to a year. Of course, blacklisting gluten meant I was forced to be a lot more mindful about what I was putting into my body, which resulted in much healthier choices in general. I couldn’t eat cookies all day so I started snacking on sugar snap peas and yogurt instead. To the surprise of absolutely no one, I had more energy, felt sick far less often, and lost weight. I was convinced I was sensitive to gluten.
The problem is, unless you have celiac disease, there is inconclusive evidence regarding the claim that gluten sensitivity is a thing.
Until there is concrete evidence showing gluten sensitivity is an actual thing and not a perceived thing, those who eliminate gluten without a confirmed celiac diagnosis may be creating more problems for themselves than they are solving. Many gluten-containing foods are fortified with nutritional components that a portion of the first world population might otherwise lack in their diet, and opting to eliminate these foods without a complete knowledge of dietary needs may result in nutritional deficiencies. This is an interesting one, since one of the largest complications of celiac disease is malabsorption of essential nutrients due to the body’s violent autoimmune response to gluten. So, while diagnosed celiacs are fighting to keep gluten out of their digestive tract to prevent malnutrition, non-celiacs are willfully inducing nutritional deficiencies because, like, it’s trendy.
I am not saying gluten sensitivity is a total myth. Clearly there is enough anecdotal evidence of gluten sensitivity being reported for researchers to be formally looking into the issue. However, until gluten sensitivity is a confirmed condition with distinct diagnostic criteria, it’s just some smoke without a fire.
Unless you work from a baseline diet where items are eliminated one-at-a-time with careful observation of the effects, other possible culprits of symptoms can be passed over. This is a perfect illustration of one of the theoretical situations discussed in my previous post about clickbait:
Example #2b: A health guru or natural health page releases a very well-made yet objectively false meme or short video saying that you experience x symptom because of y. You very much want to stop experiencing x symptom, and as most people, you want to take the path of least resistance. You never consult with a medical professional and as a result z medical condition goes undiagnosed and untreated while you sink money into something that has no impact on x symptom.
I went out of my way to significantly alter the way I ate when I was riding the gluten-free train and as a result I felt a lot healthier. Why? Because I was eating more fresh produce and not nearly as much crap. Some time later, I reintroduced gluten to my diet and found that as long as I took the time to carefully chew my food, and didn’t shovel as much sugary or starchy stuff in my face as often as I used to, I felt fine. Was I gluten-sensitive? No. Turns out I was just another self-diagnosing idiot.
Conditions that may be confused for gluten sensitivity include but are not limited to irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance, inflammatory bowel disease, other food allergies, depression, anemia, skin conditions… I am not an expert on the subject, but I am sure the list could go on and on. And, on top of all the obfuscating missed diagnoses, there is the possibility that a legitimate diagnosis of celiac disease has been botched.
Finally, let us not forget Ye Olde Placebo Effect. It’s pervasive, it feeds confirmation bias, and it is not a phenomenon that is exclusive to prescription medication.
Bottom line is that it is not cool to play pretend that you have a medical condition. If you have real concerns about your health go to a health professional, or several health professionals. These people have spent thousands of hours learning how to investigate and diagnose medical conditions. Twenty minutes on Google does not make you more qualified for the task.
4. “Organic”. It’s a buzz word…
… Because it attracts flies (the gullible consumer) to shit (the “natural” health food industry).
I am so sick of seeing people look down their nose when they talk about how much better organic produce is versus produce grown using conventional farming methods. I wonder if those people actually know the differences between the two or if they are simply regurgitating buzz words and rhetoric.
I want so much to pick apart the claims made by the organic food industry, but Christie Wilcox did it a lot better in her article for Scientific American, Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture. I strongly encourage reviewing the cited points that Christie makes about the flawed beliefs about organic foods, including:
- Organic farms don’t use pesticides.
- Organic foods are healthier.
- Organic farming is better for the environment.
I think another common misconception is that organic farmers are the little guys, the martyrs of agriculture making grand financial sacrifices in order to produce a “better” product. Fact check: Is organic agriculture a financial hardship for farmers? Simply put, no. Organic food is a hugely profitable industry. Despite organic agriculture making up a minuscule percentage of total agriculture industry, profits are high and are predicted to continue to soar even if price premiums are reduced.
If you have the extra cash and want to buy organic, no one is going to stop you. Even Big Agriculture can’t put an end to the roaring success that is the organic market. Just be honest with yourself about the claims that are being made. Remember, organic farming does use pesticides, it’s not harmless to the environment (especially when considering CO2 emissions involved in transport), and it has not been shown to be healthier than conventionally farmed produce. Going back to Christie Wilcox’s mythbusting piece:
“Nutritionally speaking, organic food is more like a brand name or luxury item. It’s great if you can afford the higher price and want to have it, but it’s not a panacea. You would improve your nutritional intake far more by eating a larger volume of fruits and vegetables than by eating organic ones instead of conventionally produced ones.”
Even though I am critical of the blind, cult-like appraisal of organic food, I won’t deny that there are benefits to the system. Organic farming practices allow for polyculturism, resulting in happier soil and reduced chance of disease wiping out entire crop lands. However, until organic farming can produce yields comparable to conventional farming to address the global hunger issue, and there are strict guidelines enforced to monitor practices including production, delivery, and advertising, it’s simply not a viable replacement for conventional mass-scale farming. If you really want to support the industry, at least buy from local organic farmers. Get to know your community and support its growth, rather than paying twice the price for wheat grown in an exotic location that exploits workers and requires hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide to put it on display in your local marketplace.