I'm sure most people have certain things within their profession that somewhat grind their gears – we nutritionists are no different! Nutrition is a field where everyone has an opinion. There is so much misinformation around, especially on social media, about what we should and shouldn't be eating – so for someone who has studied and worked in nutrition for a long time, it can feel very frustrating to have to dispel the same misbeliefs regularly.
Nutrition is an ever-changing field, as we're continually learning more and more – so you have to be open minded to new discoveries. But, there are certain things that we know are just incorrect, yet they get bandied around as fact time and time again. So this week I thought I'd share five of my bugbears as a qualified nutritionist, and aim to put the record straight!
As mentioned above, nutrition is a field where everyone has an opinion! I've lost count of the number of times people tell me all about their latest dietary regime, without even asking what the nutritionist thinks about it. Now I'm all for people finding what works for them and doing their own research – but you'd think that maybe they'd be interested in getting an expert opinion, given it's my profession. Surprisingly it's often not the case, people are so invested and passionate about their diet solutions. Never one to impose my opinions unless invited, I just listen. What they are doing might be fine, or it might not, but you'll never know unless you ask me!
So next time you're chatting to a nutritionist, just remember to ask for their opinion – we may just have some interesting info or top tips to share.
Claims such as 'no added sugars' or 'high-protein' on food packaging, can lead people to assume these products are a healthy choice. But that's not always the case! A food product may not have 'added sugar', but still contain fruit concentrate or purees, which means it is high in easily-digestible sugar. We'd like to think we can trust the on-pack claims, so it really bothers me that these labels can misled people who aren't nutritionally clued up.
Take breakfast cereals for example, these are heavily marketed at children with colourful packaging and fun characters, but for the most part cereals are full of added sugars meaning they're not the healthiest choice for our little ones. Opting for porridge oats, Weetabix or shredded wheat with added fruit is much healthier – or look for low-sugar cereals options which also state whole grains in the ingredients list. Be mindful that a bowl of frosted flakes or choco pops can add a lot of sugar to your diet.
Another good example are sauces and dressings labelled as 'light'. I spotted a salad dressing recently described as 'light' but when reading the small print, I discovered this was only versus the full-fat version of the same brand, it wasn't actually 'light' by nutritional definition. In fact, a 20ml serving contained 46 kcals. Add a couple of these to your salad and you're looking at 100 extra calories in dressing alone – probably more than the salad.
I find this type of labelling really unfair for consumers, as it is easy to get misled into making choices that aren't actually the healthiest. Always read the label to check the nutrition panel, and use the Nutracheck app to help you build your nutrient knowledge.
The good old 'detox diet' has been marketed very well over the years. How many people believe this type of diet is necessary or helpful to kickstart a healthy lifestyle? We've swallowed the message we must abstain from most food and consume nothing but green juices or celery for days to help rid our bodies of harmful toxins.
Let me set the record straight – it just isn't necessary! Our bodies are detoxing all the time, we are well designed to remove toxins or else we'd end up being very ill. Our liver and kidneys do the work of removing unwanted substances from our body to ensure we stay well.
Now this isn't to say a diet full of processed foods and lacking in fruit and veg isn't going to put a strain on our body, because it will. Our liver and kidneys will need to work extra hard and that can leave us feeling sluggish and downright rubbish. So absolutely focusing on a diet rich in whole, minimally processed foods, and lots of fruits and vegetables is a great way to limit the toxins going into our body and keep us feeling good. But this doesn't mean that we have to consume celery juice and water to 'clean out' our system. This is honestly just a clever marketing ploy to get people to invest in expensive juices.
The best thing we can all do is eat more of what nourishes our body – fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, good fats, lean protein, and less of the stuff that puts more of a demand on our system – processed foods, deep-fried foods, confectionery, sugary drinks, fast foods and takeaways.
Eating a diet full of 'real food' from all the main food groups but focusing on unprocessed as much as possible is the best way to 'detox' our body – it really doesn't require us to drink nothing but vegetable juice for 3 days!
Fad diets come and go, over my years as a nutritionist I've seen many. Thanks to social media and influencers, some trends get a lot of air time and can sound very compelling. The issue is, many of the latest 'answers to your weight loss prayers' aren't backed by reliable evidence – or any evidence at all! The problem is that when one influential person shouts loud enough and swears by their own experience, lots of people will buy into it – but remember, a case study of one is not reliable data.
Let's take gluten-free diets as an example – how many people believe that gluten is 'bad'? I imagine a substantial number, given this has been the narrative in the media and on social platforms over recent years. Research suggests that just 1-2% of the UK population suffer from coeliac disease, a condition which means you must avoid eating gluten, but more than 30% of people will self-diagnose themselves as having 'gluten-sensitivity' . This has fuelled a big increase in sales of gluten-free products in recent years. But the truth is, a very small percentage of us actually have a medical reason to avoid gluten, and even accounting for those that are recognised as intolerant (approximately 6%), around 30% of the population going gluten-free is a lot of people who don't really need to.
Or keto diets! Advocates who say keto is the best way to lose weight or the healthiest way to eat are often very opinionated! I've spoken to many a keto fan who raves about it being the best diet they've done, but the interesting thing is, these people are rarely still on a keto diet a few months or a year later. Did you know the keto approach was created as a medical diet to help manage the symptoms of epilepsy? Yet over the years, it has made its way into mainstream dieting. In truth, there's not a lot of long-term evidence supporting the use of a keto diet for weight loss or health benefits, and it does raise some concerns due to the lack of fibre and high intake of saturated fats. Long term, it's no more effective in producing weight loss than a standard calorie-controlled diet, so it's seriously worth considering if the pain is worth the gain.
Fad diets irk me because the hype leads to misinformation and people making unnecessary dietary restrictions. By all means if you feel that gluten is something you don't tolerate well, speak to your doctor and go for some tests. Please don't however, believe the latest influencer on Instagram who has no qualifications to advise you on your dietary choices. You could be missing out on those delicious bowls of pasta for no good reason.
If you want to hear more about popular diets and whether I would recommend them as a healthy choice, check out the podcast episode I recorded with BBC Good Food. You can find all the information here.
I talk about this one at every opportunity because it really bugs me! Carbs get such a bad rep in the dieting world, one of the first things many people say when embarking on a weight loss diet is 'I'm going to cut out bread'!
It seems to be taken as fact that you need to limit carbs if you want to successfully lose weight – influenced without a doubt, by the highly popular Atkins and keto diets!
The issue for me is the lack of long term evidence to suggest that a low-carb diet is any more beneficial for weight loss success than a low-fat diet for example. Yes, some research has found that low-carb diets may yield faster results initially, but it's not the case long term. This may simply be because carbs are stored with water in our body, so when we cut carbs we lose a lot of water weight. Plus, limiting carbs could mean we're more restricted and therefore less likely to be eating foods like chocolate, crisps and cakes which tend to lead to excess calories.
Truth be told, simply monitoring calories and including foods from all the main food groups is the best diet to stick to long term, it doesn't limit you and become unenjoyable. Carbs are also the main source of fibre in our diets, so cutting down can mean we're missing out on this all-important nutrient. We're learning more about the fantastic benefits of fibre on gut health and weight loss, so it's definitely something to be getting more of – not less. It's all about choosing the right carbs, not cutting them out. Choose your wholegrains for extra fibre and B vitamins, plus pulses and fruits/vegetables for added vitamins, minerals and yes, you guessed it, fibre.
Okay, I'll get off my soap box now, vent over! I just want to stress there's a lot of misinformation about nutrition out there. It can be very compelling when your favourite influencer raves about 'the amazing diet that helped them drop 10lbs in a week', but please be mindful of who and where you're getting your information from. If in doubt, ask a qualified nutrition professional for guidance.
Nutritionist Emma White (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.