Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Food: So Complicated?

You know what's confusing? Food. It shouldn't be, really. In a perfect world, eating would be simple and enjoyable. We wouldn't agonize over calories, diets, and toxins. We'd just eat.

Alas, this isn't our reality. It seems new nutrition trends pop up every day, most of which are endorsed by medical professionals, athletes, and celebrities. I'm a nutrition student, and yet I find it nearly impossible to distinguish fact from fallacy.

Food. Why do we have to go and make things so complicated?

With the uncountable number of diets trending right now, it'd take forever to dissect them all. But I'll touch on just two of today's particularly buzz-worthy trends: gluten-free and detox diets.


Judging by the many, many conversations I've had with people on the topic of gluten, one thing seems certain: a heck of a lot of people have no idea what gluten actually is.


Gluten is actually just a composite of two proteins found in the endosperm of wheat and other cereals. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which individuals cannot digest gluten. 

Celiac disease is different from gluten intolerance or wheat allergy. People who are gluten intolerant show celiac-like symptoms after eating gluten, such as diarrhea and fatigue, but don't have the intestinal damage associated with true celiac disease. Wheat allergy, on the other hand, is a rare food allergy where people experience classic allergy symptoms (ie. rash, respiratory reactions). 

So there is definitely a good number of people out there who should steer clear of gluten for medical purposes. But what about people looking for weight loss? 

According to Dr. Alessio Fasano, the Director of the Center for Celiac Research in Boston, MA: 

"The major misconception, because it's called a diet, people believe that in going gluten free they will lose weight. And that's not necessarily the case, it depends how they implement the diet." 

Simply replacing your wheat breads and pastas with gluten free varieties will not trigger weight loss. 
In fact, many gluten-free products tend to be low in a wide range of important nutrients, such as B vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, and fiber.

Now, this isn't because gluten itself contains all these nutrients. Rather, gluten-free products are often made with highly refined, unenriched flour. Naturally gluten-free whole grains, such as quinoa, millet, and brown rice, are great sources of vitamins, minerals, and complex carbohydrates.

Regardless of whether you are gluten-free or not, complex carbohydrates are really important! Our brains need glucose for fuel. Need need need. Our brains are greedy little pigs when it comes to glucose. And this glucose is released more slowly from complex carbs (i.e whole grain breads, pastas, rice, oatmeal, quinoa, all that jazz) than from simple sugars.

Bottom line: despite its dazzling popularity on the red carpet, going gluten-free isn't necessarily the magic bullet you might be looking for in terms of health and weight loss. If you're feeling sluggish or heavier, have a look at your lifestyle. Are half your grains whole, or do you perhaps love your muffins and Timbits a little too much? Is your idea of physical activity watching the Olympics? The factors behind lethargy and weight gain are many - so give gluten a break.

But of course, if you are concerned, confused, or your body is doing weird things, go talk to a medical professional, such as a Registered Dietitian. 

(Click here for a really excellent review of the book "Wheat Belly"!) 


The idea behind a detox diet is that toxins from food, chemicals, and our environments build up in our systems, thereby necessitating a "cleanse". 

Also, Beyonce dropped a whole lotta weight really fast on a detox diet, so it's gotta be good for something, right? 

While I acknowledge that Beyonce is basically a superhuman, I have to disagree with her on this one. The science just isn't there. 

"There is no scientific evidence to support the need for detoxification diets. Detox diets claim to "cleanse" your system of toxins, but your liver, kidneys, and intestines already do that for you."
- Dietitians of Canada

Detox diets usually involve a period of fasting followed by a really strict diet. I'm never one for strict, unsustainable diets simply because they are unrealistic and absolutely no fun. However, detox diets can actually be really harmful if carried on for too long, or if used frequently as a means of weight loss.

"Frequent fasting or fasting for more than a few days may cause unhealthy side effects such as headaches, dehydration, low blood pressure or an irregular heartbeat." 
- Dietitians of Canada

Fasting diets can screw with your fluid and electrolyte balance, leaving you super fatigued and unlikely to go out and get physically active. Extremely low calorie diets can also put the body into "starvation mode" - the metabolism slows right down and the body hangs on for dear life, and on to any shred of nutrition it can get its villi around. 

So by engaging in a "detox" diet, you actually could be inhibiting your body's natural mechanisms of maintaining healthy weight! 

Bottom line: If you're feeling bloated and groggy after a decadent Valentine's Day wine & dine, don't reach for the Master Cleanse. Rather than depriving your body of the vitamins and macronutrients it needs, try eating greener for a couple days. Increase your water intake and go for a walk, run, or bike ride.

And I guess if you live anywhere in Canada that isn't Vancouver, shovel some snow.

So that's my post for the week. Thanks for reading, and Happy Family Day/Valentines Day/Olympics/ Reading Week to you all.

Stay tuned for Alisha's post next week!


Dietitians of Canada (2013). Myths.
Dr. Alessio Fasano (2013). What is Gluten?
Juliann Schaeffer (2008). Spring Cleansing: Assessing the Benefits and Risks of Detox Diets.
Nikki Talacek, Sarah Hanrahan, et al. (2010) Experts warn of the dangers of detox diets.

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