By: Judy Davie - The Food Coach
The other day while walking I started to think about the messages we've learned about diet and health over the years and how these messages differ today to what we were told 10, 20, 30 and 40 years ago.
My earliest childhood memories concerning diet and weight loss were due to my Mum who was always trying to lose weight. Back then the message was to avoid cakes and puddings.
In the 70's, Mum's focus switched to avoiding fat. Butter was replaced with margarine and my father's daily breakfast of boiled egg, toast, butter, and (second slice) marmalade was switched to bran flakes, low fat milk, fruit compote, toast, margarine, and extra marmalade to mask the taste of the margarine. That "healthy" swap added an extra 28 g of sugar to Dad's breakfast.
The Atkins Diet, published in 1972 took the world by storm and was widely criticised by nutrition experts due to its high saturated fat content. While the rest of the Western world was avoiding fat, Atkins advised people to load up on fat, virtually cut out carbohydrates and eat moderate amounts of protein. The balance of 75% fat, 20% protein and only 5% carbs, is based on the subsequent ketogenic diet where, in the absence of carbohydrate and glucose, the body goes into a forced metabolic state called ketosis. The body thinks it's being starved and becomes terribly efficient at burning fat for energy. It also converts fat from the liver into ketones which are used, in place of glucose, to fuel the brain; they also make your breath smell bad.
During the first phase of The Atkins Diet, people are advised to avoid sugar and grains and all foods with sugar and grain in it, vegetable oils, Trans fats, low fat foods, high carb fruit and veg such as bananas, grapes, melon, potatoes and corn, legumes and pulses. They encourage consumption of all meats, including beef, pork, lamb and bacon, eggs, low carb vegetables, full fat butter, nuts and seeds and good fats from extra virgin olive oil, avocado and coconut oil.
The diet works when people stick to it.
While Atkins was turning the nutritional world into a spin, and boosting sales in bacon and butter, along came Pritikin whose book in the late 70's made the New York Times Bestseller Top Ten list for more than 54 weeks and sold more than 10 million copies. It's another diet that is still in existence today and advocates minimally processed foods such as fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, starchy vegetables such a potatoes and corn, beans and legumes, low fat dairy, fish and lean protein. The Pritikin Diet cautions against eating too much red meat, oils, processed white grain foods, salt and refined sugars, and suggests we avoid altogether saturated fats from coconut oil, butter, fatty meat and whole fat dairy, organ meats, processed meat, hydrogenated vegetable oil and egg yolks.
The diet works when people stick to it.
Yet it is terribly confusing. Both diets claimed to be evidence-based despite the many polar opposite recommendations.
As a student in the early eighties, I put myself on the F-Plan diet, the high fibre diet that allowed you to eat baked potatoes with beans, chilli con carne and bran cereal. Ultimately, it promoted a high-fibre, low-fat, calorie-controlled eating plan which nutrition experts still recommend today. It was economical, it filled you up, (and cleaned you out), and although I didn't know it at the time, it helped feed the good bacteria in the large intestine. My flatmates today would testify the by-product was almost as unpleasant as ketosis breath, except it was emitted from the other end. I did lose weight probably because, as a student living in a cold house in the Midlands of England, the diet had a comfort factor that made it sustainable.
The diet worked because I stuck to it.
I've lost track of the numerous diets that have flooded the market since then. Some stick in my mind because they are ridiculous - like the Mars Bar Diet - other stick in my mind because they sound so hard to stick to.
Today we are told we should eat like cavemen and avoid grain foods, legumes and pulses, sugar and sugar-filled foods and only eat the types of food you could hunt or find in the wild. And while there is merit in some of the messages, it's the stringent rules that bother me. Do a google search on what you can and can't eat on the Paleo and you'll walk away with your head spinning.
With the emergence of health blogging, and Instagram full of images of glorious looking young girls and buff young men spruiking some new trend in food, the term "evidence-based" has become the mantra of nutritionists' world over
When you consider the evidence and understand when scientists talk about evidenced-based and peer review studies they are talking about the studies they have heard about. Science reviews are a bit like songs. Loads are written but they're not read by everyone and those that are read are not always that good. They are also (and often) conflicting. There are for example studies which say that saturated fat including coconut oil raises triglyceride levels (and increases the risk of heart disease), studies which suggest that saturated fat raises triglyceride levels but coconut oil does not and studies which suggest that dietary saturated fat has no effect on triglyceride levels. There's pretty strong evidence to suggest that processed meat including bacon increases the risk of bowel cancer, and diets which are high in animal products do increase the risk of heart disease (and the carbon emission burden on our planet), however hitting the top of the popular diet charts is the Paleo Diet where meat is an essential food on the diet - with evidence to prove it. Depending on what you read excess salt will raise your blood pressure or, provided you get plenty of potassium from vegetables, it doesn't matter how much salt you eat.
It goes on and will continue to go on: Where there's evidence to suggest something there's more evidence to disprove it, and often it depends on who's paying for the research.
Except where they agree; when the stars and planet align. On the subject of processed foods made from white flour, sugar, hydrogenated and Trans fats the diet world is united. We should avoid them. Low carb vegetables, also get the thumbs up. It's common ground and the most obvious place to start.
They also agree that people must limit how much they eat and drink to lose weight.
And finally, to the point I have been trying to make since I started writing this article: You have to be able to stick to a diet if you want to lose weight. Very few people with weight to lose will lose it in a few weeks. Consider how much weight you have to lose and, realistically, how long it's likely to take to lose it. If it's 3 years consider whether you'll be able to stick to a diet where you can't enjoy a slice of toasted sourdough with eggs on the weekend, or a cup of tea with a biscuit?
Forget the evidence. Ignore the guarantees. Trust yourself. What can you do?
And then, if all you can do is cut out the processed foods made from white flour, sugar, hydrogenated and Trans fats and eat more low carbohydrate vegetables you're still off to a good start.