Health

Saturday 23 August 2014

Forget celebrity fad diets and go with your gut instinct

Beyonce: reportedly a fan of the maple syrup and cayenne pepper diet
Beyonce: reportedly a fan of the maple syrup and cayenne pepper diet

If preoccupation with food, diets and body size is a risk factor for eating disorders, then it's hardly surprising that eating disorders are so prevalent. Diets have been around since the third Century BC but then there were no dieting magazines, no internet and, of course, no food programmes on television to reach the masses.

There wasn't even any printing press to spread the word about Cleopatra's latest food fad or the approach to weight loss adopted by Eurydice of Athens.

Modern-day celebrities are not so constrained and from Jane Fonda to Beyonce, their every snack and fad diet becomes our temptation.

Magazines feed us information about how one celebrity lost 30 pounds on the cabbage diet, or how another dropped two dress sizes on a diet of grapefruit or by eating egg yolks and asparagus. No concoction is too bizarre for a public frantic for nutritional tips.

Our self-esteem is intimately linked to our weight, to our shape and to our clothes size. The benefit of weight loss in shoring up our self-image is the carrot used to sell us all kinds of diets.

For several decades governments promoted the food pyramid. First developed in Sweden, it was in vogue until a modified version was introduced in 2005 and finally in 2011 it was replaced by Myplate.

According to the underlying theory of the pyramid the first step was the one from which most food should be selected and this contains bread, rice, cereals, pasta and potatoes. Meat, poultry, eggs, beans and nuts were near the top and so lesser amounts of these should be consumed.

This way of looking at diet seems counter-intuitive since most of us know that bread, potatoes and pasta are fattening. Myplate is the latest official nutritional guide in the US and a broadly similar version, the Eatwell Plate, is promoted in Britain. It depicts a plate divided in four segments and a side dish representing four food groups and dairy products. However, Harvard University has issued its own modified version called the Harvard Healthy Eating plate. And on and on it goes.

The average person pays little attention to such advice, especially when it changes as often as we change our shoes. Instead we wrestle with our food intake and stagger from diet to diet in the hope of becoming svelte but healthy.

One of the most popular, the Atkins diet, consisted of high protein and low carbohydrate while derivatives of it recommended high protein, low carbohydrate, low fat.

Imagine the horror then when it was announced just over a week ago that diets high in protein were as harmful as smoking for your health and increased the risk of dying from cancer. In fact, this was probably a fear-mongering, headline-grabbing tactic. And it worked.

The "As Harmful as Smoking" headline was challenged a few days ago now that food scientists have had time to digest the methodology and finding of the study. It transpires that the "harmful as smoking" claim was not a finding in the study. In addition, the increased risk of death was only found in the 50-65 age group but not the older age group.

Data on diet was collected on one day only although eating patterns may have changed over the person's life. The amount of physical activity was not controlled for either. So this study has flaws and needs to be done again.

So, where does that leave the person on the street trying to lose weight or prevent weight gain. It leaves us with our own gut instincts. Most of us know some foods, such as sweets, definitely make you fat. White bread and chips aren't great either and butter, while lovely with potatoes, helps expand the waistline.

Everybody knows that the larger the portions the more weight you will gain. Perhaps we should trust our common sense about this instead of buying expensive weight-reduction magazines. If there is a particular diet that suits then stick to it.

We should be wary of our focus on faddy diets. They are one of the fuels for eating disorders.

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