Dietitian Orla Walsh on how the diet industry has complicated the simple act of eating – and what you really need to know to eat well
The diet industry has cashed in on our health fears. We’re told about the health consequences for our body and then offered a ‘quick solution’ that comes at a price. It promises dramatic weight loss, that’s easy and permanent. Research doesn’t back that. In fact, you don’t have to lose weight to gain health. You can become healthier without losing a pound. Health is not a size. It’s not a look. You can’t look at someone and know definitely if they’re healthy.
What’s more, because of diet culture, the answer to ‘what is a healthy diet?’ can sometimes be confusing for people. It’s understandable. The diet industry has pushed low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets, followed by high-protein low-carbohydrate diets and more recently high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets. It makes something relatively straight forward appear complicated.
When you really get down to the crux of it all, research suggests that the smaller bodied people pushing these often bizarre diets look like they do because of their environment and genetics. They would most likely be thin without their fitness and nutrition plan.
Hardcore diets end, they don’t continue. Failure is the expected result when provided with something completely unsustainable. A bit like the exercise industry suggesting ‘no pain, no gain’, the diet industry implies we have to compromise our social lives, be hungry, risk our mental well-being and follow the latest set of rules to achieve our goals. Restriction isn’t pleasant. It’s human nature to find hunger uncomfortable and missing out on pleasure annoying. Perhaps it’s time to say goodbye to cutting out foods, or food groups, and challenge your food thoughts.
Here is a sample of some of the more common misconceptions:
Fruit contains natural sugars. It’s why fruit is so delicious. A large handful of fruit may provide a similar amount of sugar as one or two jelly sweets. However, fruit helps protect the body against conditions and diseases, helping us add both quality and quantity to our lives. Jellies, although delicious, do not.
Diet culture has made people consider the healthiness of carrots. Let’s be clear, root vegetables aren’t something most of us need to eat less of. Some vegetables contain more carbohydrate than others. To put that into context, the amount of carbohydrate in each item has been calculated per 80g.
⬤ Potato 12 grams; sweet potato 17 grams; radish 2 grams; pumpkin 2 grams; turnip 4 grams; carrots 6 grams; beetroot 6 grams; parsnips 10 grams
So if a 70kg adult with low activity levels needs just over 200 grams of carbohydrate each day, the carbohydrate content of most root vegetables isn’t that big of a deal.
Carbohydrates are a bit like petrol going into a car. The further we drive, the faster we drive and the more frequently we drive our car, the more petrol we burn through. The further we move, the faster we move and the more frequently we move, the more carbohydrates we burn through. It’s a healthy approach to eating to make sure you’re fuelling enough.
Counting macros has been touted as a way to eat what you like, as long as it fits your macronutrient requirements. Therefore, you’re required to count how many grams of carbohydrates, proteins and fats you eat. If doing this, remember that the human brain depends on carbohydrate as its main source of energy. Although the brain is only about 2pc of our bodyweight, it requires about 20pc of our calorie intake each day. Providing enough carbohydrate to your brain is critical for brain function. So, best not to scrimp on carbs. But, is that level of micromanagement really needed? If it isn’t, then why bother?
Obviously, you can count them if you wish. Nonetheless, keep it in the back of your mind that not all diets turn into eating disorders, but a lot of eating disorders started with a diet. Additionally, when you don’t eat some of the calories your body needs, some parts of your body have to do without. Your body’s systems, like your immune, digestive and reproductive systems, don’t function as well as they could. This isn’t ideal.
With all the myths out there, you might feel that nutritional information is always changing and professionals always contradict each other. Nutrition is a science, not an opinion. There are different views out there but not many between those who have actually studied nutrition.
So what actions could you take this week?
Have a look at the following suggestions and see if any of them feel like a good fit for you.
⬤ Unfollow anyone providing nutritional advice on social media who is not qualified.
⬤ Once you’re eating a healthy helping of protein and colour at each meal, what feels good to you — focusing more on carbohydrates or fat sources?
⬤ Use up any diet products from your household and reconsider future purchases.
⬤ You are the expert on you. What advice have you taken on board that doesn’t sit well with you or doesn’t feel good for your body?
⬤ Avoid complicating matters. If the earth naturally provides you with a food, it’s probably healthy and it’s often at its healthiest delivered as natural as sensible to your body.
⬤ Foods/fluids that don’t deserve a bad rep: milk; potatoes; bananas; egg yolk; bread; coffee; tea.