8th June 2016
With last week’s media rash of ‘Eat fat to get thin’ headlines, it’s hard to know what to eat anymore. A casual skim through Instagram would suggest we should all be ‘eating clean’. There’s no clear definition of it – it loosely means eating natural unprocessed food – but typically involves cutting (most) carbs, gluten and sugar; and filling up instead on green smoothies and cauliflower ‘cous cous’. When I last checked, there were more than 22 million Instagram posts with the hashtag #cleaneating. Of course, the clean eating movement peddled by bloggers with no scientific qualifications can be very persuasive. All those mouth-watering photos of courgette spaghetti, guilt-free desserts and perfectly-garnished raw salads juxta-positioned with lean bodies can make you want to jump on the bandwagon. Before you do that, though, be aware that there are hidden dangers lurking beneath the gloss.
While there’s nothing wrong with a bit of inspiration to eat a few more salads, I worry about the language used. It implies that any other form of eating is dirty and therefore bad. It imposes a set of arbitrary and unnecessarily strict eating rules, which, for some people, can lead to unhealthy and obsessive behaviour around food.
I’ve seen teenagers and young people take clean eating to extremes and exclude first one food, say bread, and then carbs altogether. According to the Powered by Bread research, 59% of women aged 18-34 don’t think bread is a healthy source of carbohydrate, and only 22% would consider eating it when they need to up their energy levels before exercising. What may start as a keen interest in eating healthily, a quest to cure a minor health condition or a mission to drop a few pounds, can quickly spiral into highly restrictive eating and a whole host of new health issues. There’s no scientific basis to such regimes and I suspect that clean eating is as much about weight loss as it is about health. Eating disorder experts believe that there’s a fine line between obsessive clean eating and orthorexia (‘an unhealthy fixation’ with healthy eating).
One of the biggest clean-eating myths is the gluten myth. Unless you are part of the 1% of the population that suffers from coeliac disease, or a diagnosed intolerance, cutting out gluten is unnecessary and could even harm you in the long run. In fact, according to gastroenterologist Norelle Reilly, writing in the Journal of Paediatrics, people who switch to gluten-free foods without medical guidance may develop iron and B vitamin deficiencies (as many gluten free products are not fortified) and actually increase their calorie intake. “There is no evidence that processed gluten free foods are healthier nor have there been proven health or nutritional benefits of a gluten free diet.”
But sales of bread are down by 8.9%, which analysts say is down to the clean-eating and low-carb trends. Last year a YouGov poll found that 60% of adults have bought a gluten-free product. This could be creating another health problem. By excluding gluten and wheat, you’re also excluding naturally-occuring fructan-type resistant starches, which researchers believe are important for a healthy gut microbiome. These fructans increase beneficial gut bacteria; this mechanism helps explain the inverse relationship between whole grain intake and risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and inflammatory conditions. In other words, by eating wholegrain products like bread, you’re creating a healthy composition of colon bacteria, which helps protect the gut from disease.
This gluten-free trend has also spread to the fitness community and athletes who believe that it will help improve their performance. However, a recent study by researchers in Tasmania (Australia) found no difference in the time trial performance of 13 non-coeliac cyclists after consuming either a gluten-free diet or a gluten-containing diet for 7 days, There were also no differences in their gut symptoms, wellbeing or markers of inflammation between the diets, which led the researchers to conclude that excluding gluten has no benefit for those without coeliac disease.
While there’s nothing wrong with taking a keen interest in food, don’t take it to extremes. Instead of demonising single nutrients (like carbs) or following the latest restrictive food trend (like gluten-free), take a broader look at your diet and lifestyle. Eating a wide variety of foods from all food groups in appropriate amounts as well as taking regular physical activity that you enjoy is key.
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