By Ava Feuer, REDBOOK.
I spend a lot of time looking into claims about the best way to eat--in part because it's my job to cover health, but also because it's very much a personal obsession. I know I'm not alone--trying to look and feel our best is a major focus for loads of American women.
While it's fascinating to grill experts on why their gluten-free/Paleo/whole-foods diets reign supreme, I'm a skeptic. That's why I found myself so interested in Matt Fitzgerald's new book, Diet Cults, which explores how certain ways of eating can create the same cultish tendencies as fanatic religious sects, especially as the "diet wars" move online. "Social media platforms allow everyone to participate in promoting and defending their favorite diet and attacking others," he says. If you've ever wanted a reason to stop blaming yourself for why these doctrines haven't worked for you, Fitzgerald boils it down.
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"What makes every diet cult part of the same phenomenon is the idea that there's one true way," says Fitzgerald. "But the science just doesn't prove that." In fact, if you look at history--from the kosher diets of the ancient Jews to the rice-centric ones of Confucian China to the high-fat Mediterranean ones of Cretans--it's evident there are many ways someone can eat for optimal health.
Here's where a few of these "healthy eating" doctrines run into trouble.
According to Fitzgerald, there are three major problems with eating like a caveman. To start, it's based on an outdated model of evolution that presumes our bodies can't adapt quickly. But we now know that the human gut can evolve from one day to the next--leaving little reason to presume we have to eat like we may have millions of years ago. And the word "may" is key. New evidence shows that our ancestors ate grasses and sedges (grain-like plants) as much as 3 million years ago. "We're here in 2014, and Paleo doctrine doesn't stand up to the fact that overall health outcomes from eating whole grains are positive," says Fitzgerald. "Our history is irrelevant if we now know that they're good for us."
The low-carb frenzy may have peaked in the early aughts, but with the renewed push for Paleo and update of its disciples, like South Beach, the idea remains that to lose weight, we should cut out grains, starchy vegetables, and fruit. "The carbohydrate hypothesis of obesity never gained much traction in the mainstream scientific nutrition community," says Fitzgerald. "For example, research has found that higher-carb foods keep you full, so you eat less, suggesting the idea that blood sugar spikes leave you reaching for more food is false." While it's certainly smart to stay away from refined, processed, or white grains, whole grains have myriad heath benefits.
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"The raw food movement, like so many diet cults, thinks in absolute terms," says Fitzgerald. "There's the idea that processing foods is always bad, and nothing could be further from the truth." Cooking food greatly increases its usable energy, which is why the development of the human brain correlates with our beginning to use fire about 1 million years ago. And our bodies need cooked food too. A German study classified one third of people who ate purely raw diets as undernourished, and 60 percent of women either stopped menstruating or menstruated irregularly. "We've come up with bad ways of processing foods--like adding trans fats--but you have to consider it on a case-by-case basis," adds Fitzgerald.
Avoiding all pleasures
I like to say that a life without chocolate is no life at all, and science agrees. Japanese researchers studied 80,000 adults over 12 years and found that those who reported experiencing the least enjoyment in life were almost twice as likely to die of heart attack or stroke than those who experienced the most delight. "Any source of pleasure--it's been shown that laughing and spending times with friends is healthful--helps your body," says Fitzgerald. "Taking pleasure from food belongs on that list."
There's actually lots of evidence that intermittent fasting can be good for you. For example, Greek Orthodox people on the island of Crete fast for roughly half of the year and they have excellent health outcomes. However, skipping meals--even if you replace them with green juice--can quickly become a means of masking serious food issues. "While juice-fasters often report feeling great during and after the experience, that feeling may be nothing more than the same sense of self-control that other fasters enjoy," writes Fitzgerald. He believes--and I'm inclined to agree--that healthy eating patterns are far more sustainable when they conform to cultural norms. So if your five-day juice fast means five days of no dinners with friends, no wine with you husband, and no coffee with colleagues, it may be more hurtful than helpful.
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Gluten-intolerance and Celiac weren't on anyone's radar 20 years ago, but today, it's difficult to go out to dinner without someone announcing that no, they would not like you to pass the breadbasket. Some attribute this to the rise of genetically modified corn and food processing, but that hypothesis becomes less feasible when considered in a broader context. "Celiac disease is one of 72 auto-immune disorders, the rates of which all are rising simultaneously," says Fitzgerald. "It's extremely unlikely that the gluten is the culprit for every one of them. I throw out the hypothesis that they're all tied together by our skyrocketing stress levels, since stress may interact with the genes that predispose a person to a disease in a way that 'activates' it." What's more, a recent study published in Nutrition in Clinical Practice found that 94 percent of people who self-report as gluten-intolerant are women, providing strong evidence that going gluten-free is being used to exert potentially orthorexic behavior.
So what's the solution?
Fitzgerald calls it "agnostic healthy eating," and no, it's not another diet cult. "This is a set of basic parameters that breaks down food types using a combination of common sense and science," says Fitzgerald. And unlike a diet that tells you exactly what to eat, agnostic healthy eating takes into account that your food-related wants and needs may evolve throughout your life. It simply breaks down what to eat the most and the least of in descending order with no rules for portion size, instead trusting your body to guide you:
3. Nuts, seeds, and healthy oils
4. High-quality meats and seafood
5. Whole grains
7. Refined grains
8. Low-quality meats and seafood
10. Fried foods
From there, it's up to you: What makes you feel good? What fuels you? What satisfies your taste buds?
"Choose happiness," writes Fitzgerald. "As long as the happier way of eating stays within the rules of agnostic healthy eating, you will come out ahead."