food

Paleo shmaleo: why the diet wars are doing more harm than good.

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Nutrition is a hot topic in the news right now, and controversies abound. This is terrific for the most part, as it’s certainly making lots of people stop and think about what they are eating. That’s the first step in instigating change and so I welcome it. Inspiring and enthusing people about lifestyle change are a key part of what I as a trained dietician, and many others, do.

I’m genuinely delighted to hear journalists, bloggers, chefs and members of the public join in with views and a very real passion for the food path and belief system they have chosen to follow, whether it’s veganism, paleo, sugar free, the Mediterranean diet or any other whole food diet philosophy.

The “this is what I do and I feel great” approach to nutrition is potentially hugely harmful.

I also have no doubt that, despite all the different paths people may choose, they will all feel much better, and experience significantly better health as a result. Most people do, simply because by sticking to a diet philosophy, they have given food a higher priority and moved away from consuming less nutritious foods. This, of course, reinforces their belief that they are doing the right thing, so their passion grows and they shout louder and louder for others to come on board.

But what is right for one is not necessarily right for another, and that’s why the “this is what I do and I feel great” approach to nutrition is potentially hugely harmful.

 I see the guidelines being blamed for our levels of obesity and heart disease, yet the 2007-8 data showed that less than 10% of Australians ate the recommended amount of veggies and fruit.

I am frustrated and quite frankly sad to hear dietitians and degree-qualified nutritionists being bagged, while people turn towards anyone claiming to have ‘found the answer’. Suddenly everyone is a nutrition expert, and knows more than those who have studied and made it their career.

Dietitians are not just taught to ‘spout the dietary guidelines’. Those guidelines are exactly as they state – guidelines to be used in a very general and very broad way. The job of a dietitian is to use their knowledge of nutrition science, and how foods affect our bodies in different ways to make diets specific for the individual.

Yes, there are some problems with the dietary guidelines – but while it’s easy to throw criticism we should also realise that an absolute minority of people are actually following them. I see the guidelines being blamed for our levels of obesity and heart disease, yet the 2007-8 data showed that less than 10% of Australians ate the recommended amount of veggies and fruit.

For those not paying attention, things have seriously moved on from that line of thinking.

By the way, dietary guidelines  no longer specify low-fat, high-carb diets anymore. For those not paying attention, things have seriously moved on from that line of thinking. I agree that too much added refined sugar isn’t a good thing. But sugar is only one part of the problem, and is therefore cutting back is only one part of the solution.

Reducing added sugar has been part of general dietary guidelines since I first became interested in nutrition as a teenager over 20 years ago. It was refined starch that we didn’t really understand until more recently. As our understanding has deepened, that has been a welcome change in our guidelines.  Now we have much greater emphasis on cutting down on refined grains and choosing wholegrain varieties.

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Paleo is the hot diet of the moment and there is much about it that I love – the emphasis on whole foods is completely in line with my own philosophies, and that of pretty much every other dietitian and nutritionist I know. But then when I see a cafe packed with paleo bread, paleo brownies and paleo protein powder I have to laugh. These are not foods that were ever a part of the diet of our hunter-gatherer ancestors! Many of them are just as processed as the foods they criticise, yet they cost three times as much. It seems the desire to ‘have one’s cake and eat it’ is powerful.

Scientists are taught to be critical thinkers and research is about being able to think outside the box and explore new ideas.

Dietitians train for a minimum of four years and they complete a science degree. I completed 11 years of university, including two years of psychology, a 4-year Bachelor of Science and five years completing a PhD in nutritional science. This study was also not spoon-fed teaching. 15 years ago, one of my assignments was exploring the cholesterol myth – this is not just a new idea!

When nutrition science evolves and grows we have a tendency to throw stones and slander the profession.

Scientists are taught to be critical thinkers and research is about being able to think outside the box and explore new ideas. A short online course in nutrition is just not the same thing. Because that’s what nutrition is – a science, and like any other science new discoveries are being made all the time. We don’t expect medicine to be doing the same thing they did 20 years ago, yet when nutrition science evolves and grows we have a tendency to throw stones and slander the profession.

The recent media coverage of saturated fats is a prime example. Poor old Ancel Keys (the author of the Seven Countries Study that started the whole saturated fat and heart disease debate) has been hung, drawn and quartered; yet his initial advice was never to go away and eat shedloads of processed low-fat, high-GI foods.

Currently we have several lines of nutritional thinking. To name but a few, there is the practically vegan, very low-fat approach of Dr Dean Ornish; the Paleo diet of Dr Loren Cordain; the high animal fat diet of the Weston-Price Foundation; the low-carb approach of Dr Atkins; the low-GI South Beach Diet; and then the traditional diets of Japan and the Mediterranean, with low and moderately high fat respectively. They all have passionate scientists at the helm. They all cite good research to back up their claims. They all make valid points and they all have a massive following of avid believers.

No wonder so many people are confused, or have joined their tribe and are sticking with it. The thing is, there is not one healthy diet. There are many.

Are you ever confused by the variety of different dietary information available?