The Pendulum Swings: Nutrition Trends

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In recent months, I have noticed a shift in nutrition trends. From my observation, there appears to be a shift from recently popular dietary practices (Paleo, Vegan, Gluten Free, Low Carb, etc.) to an “all in moderation” approach. What do I mean by this? Most of those dietary practices I previously mentioned are associated with the elimination of specific foods. The new shift in thought, seeks to debunk these trends and even label them as abnormal.  There have been books and articles popping up to this affect. A book that I recently skimmed through (I’ll admit that I didn’t get a chance to read the whole thing) was called Diet Cults by Matt Fitzgerald. Maybe I am off, but it appeared that the main message of this book was to recommend eliminating nothing from your nutrition plan (assuming you are not allergic), and focusing on getting an adequate amount of physical activity. There was also a recent article I read from Outside magazine, downplaying the effects of sugar. I will freely admit that I am not a nutritionist or dietitian, just someone who has a big interest in nutrition and health, and I believe a return to the “all in moderation” approach is a step back in the science of nutrition. That approach in the past has clearly not worked well, as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease has greatly increased. It’s amazing that with all the technology we possess, we can’t seem to come to a clear consensus on what the best approach for nutrition truly is. I am sure that some of this misinformation (shoddy science) and lack of agreement is due to politics and companies/industries that stand to lose money if certain foods are abstained from by a majority of people. I mean, it’s hard to trust our nutritionists and dietitians when they attend annual conferences that have food supplied by McDonalds and Hershey. Ultimately, nutrition, like most things, probably comes down to how each individual responds to specific foods and their own preferences. Meaning, there is probably not one perfect nutrition plan that is right for everyone. What we probably can all agree on, or should consider agreeing on, no matter what nutrition approach we choose, was summed up best in Death By Food Pyramid by Denise Minger. Here is a refresher. We will enhance our health by omitting or greatly reducing the following items from our diet.

  • Refined Flour
  • Refined Sugar
  • Industrially Processed Vegetable Oils
  • Chemical Preservatives and Lab Produced Anythings
  • Any creation in a tin foil package, microwave tray, or fast food take out bag

There, I said it, omitting these things from your diet may have a powerful affect on your health. With that being said, I want to take a closer look at the backlash against going gluten free, reducing or eliminating sugar, and elimination of any food from our diet.

The gluten free movement has really taken off over the last several years. In fact it has become so trendy that people are joining in, even if they don’t know what gluten is. Check out this video from the Jimmy Kimmel Live show that has been circulating around social media. It’s pretty funny that some people don’t even know what it is they really are avoiding, but I’ve seen people use that example to ridicule the whole gluten free movement in general. I don’t think this means that being gluten free doesn’t have any merit. I want to clarify though, I am not talking about indulging in processed gluten free foods, that stuff is on par with junk food. Since there are a bunch of people who seemed to be unsure of what gluten actually is, let’s start by defining it. Gluten is the protein found in wheat and related grains. It is has a sticky texture that helps make dough elastic, and allows it to rise and maintain it’s shape when baked. There are some people out there who have an extreme immune system reaction to gluten, known as celiac disease. Over time, this inflammation response caused by gluten can damage the small intestine and cause a whole host of digestive system ailments. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness(NFCA), they estimate that 1 in 133 Americans have celiac disease, which is about 1% of the population. It’s actually a very small number of people. Why do others that are not afflicted with this disease, avoid gluten? There is a belief that there is a condition known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. NFCA estimates that 18 million Americans suffer from this condition. There have been studies that appear to show that gluten sensitivity exists, yet the research still seems to be a bit unclear. A new study just came out that appears to refute the existence of gluten sensitivity, but may show that symptoms are caused by FODMAPs. FODMAPs are short chain carbohydrates and related alcohols that are poorly absorbed in the small intestine that create all kinds of havoc in the digestive system. The majority of the intestinal problems occur when the FODMAP foods are not absorbed in the small intestine and pass through into the large intestine where they ferment. Examples of FODMAP foods include grains (wheat,rye, barley), vegetables (broccoli, asparagus, brussel sprouts, cabbage), beans, and fruits (apples, avocados, cherries, peaches). These are just examples and they are by no means the full list of FODMAPs. A full list from the Stanford University Medical Center can be found here. As we can see, there can be benefits to avoiding gluten. If you have some digestive troubles, going gluten free can possibly be a simple solution to feel better and worth trying. Personally, I struggled with digestive issues and eliminating gluten from my diet really helped me. It helped eliminated my symptoms of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), and in a study with celiac patients, they had rapid and persistent improvement with GERD symptoms. Whether gluten sensitivity exists or it is digestive problems due to FODMAPs, many people can benefit from keeping gluten out of their diet.

Robert Lustig , M.D. is on a crusade to demonize sugar. I have read his book, “Fat Chance” and watched his YouTube video, and he makes some convincing arguments against sugar. Very recently, an article appeared in Outside magazine downplaying the negative effects of sugar consumption. In fact, Dr. David Katz of Yale University is disappointed in the way sugar is portrayed in the new documentary “Fed Up”, which features the previously mentioned Robert Lustig, as one of it’s experts. Dr. Katz is disappointed in the way they downplay the benefits of exercise, and he even goes as far as to say sugar is crucial for exercise performance. I have seen estimates that the average american consumes a 130 lbs of sugar each year. I can find numerous studies that link the consumption of added sugars to poor cardiovascular health, which includes elevated blood pressure and high triglycerides. Here is one from the April 2014 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Here is a study from the January 2014 issue of Nutrition Research that revealed, when sugar sweetened beverage consumption decreased, HDL increased, LDL and C-Reactive Protein decreased. That shows a decrease in chronic disease risk. I feel Dr. Katz’s message is a poor one to send to people. It sends the message that you need to consume sugar for exercise, which people already consume too much of, and exercise will be the antidote to high sugar intake. Yes, exercise does help, but chronically elevated blood sugar levels cause damage to the circulatory system, no matter how active you are. Even elite runners who had junk filled diets succumbed to poor health as was written in another Outside Magazine article. Some of that could be due to excessive exercise and poor recovery, but that’s another blog post, for another time. Look, in my opinion, I don’t think he have to cower in fear at the sight of sugar, and it’s okay to indulge from time to time, but when the intake gets excessive, health problems often appear. If you combine added sugar with a high carbohydrate diet, you could be keeping your blood sugar levels chronically elevated. When I was running high mileage, I had several blood tests that came back with an elevated fasting blood sugar at pre-diabetic levels. I could not get anymore active than I already was, but I was also consuming a high carbohydrate diet. I reduced both my carbohydrate consumption along with my sugar consumption, and my fasting blood sugar levels came down to well within normal limits. As far as needing it for exercise performance, I raced last year while eating a very low carbohydrate (ketogenic) diet, and I raced just fine. I didn’t pass out or die, so it’s not crucial to be consuming tons of sugar to race and exercise. I did have to go through an uncomfortable transition period (carb flu), but felt fine after a few weeks of adjusting. At the moment, I am not keeping my carbs so low that I am ketogenic, but I still consume a higher fat, lower carbohydrate diet, and avoid sugary treats on a regular basis. It seems to effect my immune system also when I eat too much sugar.  I don’t get the nagging colds I was susceptible to when I ate high carb. In my opinion,I think most people would benefit from reducing their carb and sugar intake.

Lastly, I would like to address the movement back to “all in moderation” I see happening in nutrition. Let’s define moderation, it’s an avoidance of excess or extremes in one’s behavior or political opinions, according to the definition that comes up on Google. Matt Fitzgerald’s new book, Diet Cults, appears to tout a message of moderation. As I mentioned earlier, I have only skimmed through the book, so I may be misrepresenting what the author is trying to convey, but I still want to take an opportunity to comment on moderation. Moderation in nutrition is not something new, and it has been a nutrition strategy in the past. It can be interpreted differently by different people, so I believe it’s a bit too ambiguous to be useful. Obesity has only continued to grow over time. It doesn’t help that physical activity levels in the United States are declining, but I think physical activity is only part of the solution. Maybe nutrition strategies such as Paleo, Ketogenic, Vegan, and Mediterranean are not perfect. And maybe the right strategy will be different for each individual person, but I believe they are on the right track. They are far better than a Standard American Diet (SAD) in moderation. People see improvements in health from limiting/eliminating grains and added sugars. I have improved my health this way. To say eliminating certain foods is ridiculous or abnormal must be said by someone who has never experienced poor health or digestive disorders. I saw a post on social media where a fitness professional was speaking negatively about the new documentary “Fed Up” and blasting contributing experts such as Robert Lustig, Gary Taubes, Michael Pollan, David Kessler, and Mark Hyman, as quacks. This fitness professional had a picture of himself downing a meal from Costco which included pizza, hot dogs, and soda. Maybe he was trying to make a point that we shouldn’t be fearful of food, but I do know that if you follow that nutrition path for the long haul, you’re probably going to have some health consequences. I am hoping in the future that progress will continue to be made towards optimal nutrition and we will not fall back on failing strategies.

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