Lately it seems that the list of foods you should or should not eat changes every day. If you follow the headlines from Runner’s World, or Women’s Health, or the NY Times, every new issue has the “Top 10 Super Foods” or “14 Ingredients You Should Never Eat.” It’s hard to keep track of what is “good” for you and what isn’t, especially since this changes depending on who and when you ask. One week, you should be eating blueberries, the next week goji berries, the week after that, Acai berries. Don’t forget the chia seeds, I mean quinoa, I mean buckwheat. And of course, you should always avoid saturated fats. Or is it trans fats? Or perhaps high fructose corn syrup. No, wait, I think it’s gluten we should be avoiding now.
Not to mention all the fad diets that have been popping up lately. The Atkins diet was all the rage for a while, then the South Beach diet had a surge in popularity, and most recently the paleo diet has seen a huge uprising, especially among Crossfitters. The crux of the paleo diet, from what I can tell, is that human bodies are designed to eat the types of foods that our paleolithic ancestors might have noshed on: meat, nuts, berries, and vegetables. Paleo supporters postulate that our gastrointestinal tracts can not properly digest cereal grains like wheat, as the agricultural revolution was a scant 12,000 years ago. These grains are cast out of the diet, supposedly to the tune of better health, more energy, increased endurance and strength, and less acne.
Now as far as fad diets go, the paleo diet doesn’t sound all that bad. It emphasizes real, natural food, and eschews processed, artificial foodstuffs. Great! But I find it hard to swallow that whole grains, which have been a staple of human diet for thousands of years, are suddenly to blame for everything from obesity to autism to ADHD. A study done by Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes of Health estimates that about 1 in 141 people in the U.S. have Celiac disease, which requires a gluten restriction, So less than 1% of the people in the U.S. have Celiac disease, but somehow it seems that every other person these days is gluten-free.
Proponents of the paleo diet point to the fact that for a long time, fat was vilified by our society, under the notion that it would make you, well, fat. But now we know that eating fat won’t necessarily make you any fatter than eating the same amount of calories from carbohydrates or protein, generally speaking. But they fail to realize that by pinpointing carbs, grains in particular, as the sole source of unhealthiness that plagues us today, they are making the same mistake. And that mistake is to identify one culprit as “bad,” and fail to realize that nothing is ever black and white. It is impossible to definitively say “Carbs are bad.” Are carbs bad for diabetics? Most definitely! Are carbs bad for a marathon runner? Most certainly not! Likewise, gluten is definitely not good for people with Celiac disease. For the majority of us, though, most dieticians agree that whole grains are still a good way to go.
Combine this with the fact that two of the most vocal diet groups right now are at bitter odds with one another. They are paleo dieters, and vegetarians. To listen to vegetarians, meat causes cancer, fatigue, ulcers, halitosis, premature balding, premature ejaculation, liver spots, ringworm, and global warming. But paleo dieters prefer to eat a pound of bacon to a bowl of pasta or a black bean taco, and would never be seen chowing down on a whole wheat pita. Who do you believe then?
Basically, what I’m saying is, if you follow anything that has the naming convention “The (something) Diet,” you’re on a fad diet. They come and go just like the rise and fall of the tides. They all promise miracles, and all they ever deliver is short-term, nearsighted success, and long-term health issues and failure. There is no best “diet.” If there it is, I believe it can be distilled into the three sentences from Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food (which admittedly is a sensationalist fad nutrition book by its own right): Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
There is no single ingredient or food that is either 100% healthy or 100% unhealthy. However, it is generally accepted that processed foods are a very recent commodity, and are not as healthy as natural, real foods. I believe you can eat what you want, as long as you try to consume as much “real” food as possible. Of course, if you do have medically-necessitated dietary restrictions, then please follow those, but for everyone else, stop overthinking it so much!
Thank you, and good night.