Diet dogma, food and morality

This is a tricky subject but something that has been on my mind lately. As someone who has been in the health and wellness field for several years, I have seen this reoccurring pattern of almost a cult-like mentality around various diets. As a former vegan I have certainly fallen for this idea that there is “one diet to rule them all” and experienced this almost religious dedication to my diet dogma of choice. But this doesn’t only happen with veganism, I’ve also seen the same aggressive preaching, tunnel vision and exclusionary mentality amongst followers of the paleo, raw food, keto and carnivore diets as well as those who believe that gluten, dairy or sugar are the devil.

Why do we do this? Why does following particular way of eating give us this feeling of safety and superiority? Why do we cling onto the idea that a particular diet will save us, take away all of our suffering and lead us to an infinite nirvana of perfect health? I think advertising definitely plays a role as health, youth and beauty have become aspirational products that can be marketed and sold. This used to be a tactic adopted by food manufacturers to sell us products like diet coke and special k but now with social media, anyone can become a diet “guru” and make millions selling the new version of sermons and religious texts (aka recipe e-books and courses), sometimes without any qualifications to back up their claims, other than personal experience.

When we are struggling, either with a chronic health condition or with the belief that we aren’t good enough as we are and need to somehow improve ourselves, we become the perfect customer. These gurus become our idols and we are vulnerable to believing everything that we see and trusting what we are told. We see people sharing about how cutting out all carbs or adopting a raw vegan diet cured them of every symptom and disease and improved their life in every way and of course, we want a piece of that! But we always have to remember that we don’t see everything about people’s lives and especially when someone has a product to sell, they have an investment in promoting perfection and sweeping any issues under the rug.

We all know in theory that social media is a highlight reel and that people tend to share what is going well or their success stories in overcoming their problems, myself included! I’ve often shared stories of my past struggles and how I have managed to balance my hormones and fix my relationship to food and my body. I try to be transparent and also share the process when I am in the messy place of trying to figure something out but of course I don’t write about every single thing going on in my life. Partly because I don’t want to bore people but mostly because when you’re in the eye of the storm, you don’t have the clarity and understanding that comes with hindsight and enables you to write about your struggles. So I don’t believe that anyone does it on purpose but we all tend to show more of the positive and less of the negative aspects of ourselves. It’s human nature to want to show our best side but our shadows and struggles are what make us human.

There has been a trend over the last couple of years on social media, with vegan influencers coming out and sharing “why I’m no longer vegan” stories. Often these are people who spent years declaring to the world how good they felt, how energetic they were and how amazing their hair and skin had become on this diet, only to admit a few months later that they were struggling all along and didn’t feel able to talk about it because they felt trapped by the web they had weaved around themselves. Their online identity and professional reputation had become so tied up in their diet dogma that they found it so hard to change their diet for their health, never mind tell their audience that they were doing so. And the ones that did share this experience received so much backlash and abuse from the community for being selfish or hypocritical.

This public shaming behaviour was so shocking to me and made me realise just how far this moralising of food and diet <cult>ure has become. Food is no longer just fuel and nourishment for the body and soul but it is now a way for people to express their status as a good citizen. Yes it’s great that we are now becoming more aware of the ethical issues surrounding our food system, especially now the size of the global population is leaving our planet straining at the seams. Making more ethical choices is is a good thing and something I am totally on board with and often talk about on this blog. It’s amazing that companies are now looking at their supply chains, consumers are seeking out more sustainable, fair trade products and we want to see this trend continue. However, this is work in progress and all we can do is make the best choices where possible to meet our conflicting objectives.

A healthy diet isn’t always sustainable or ethical and a sustainable diet isn’t always healthy. And no food or diet is perfect. You eat meat and dairy and contribute to climate change and potentially animal cruelty and pollution. So you cut out animal products and instead end up eating vegan products that are shipped from all over the world, produced on farms that cause large scale eco system damage or exploit bonded labourers in developing countries. You try to eat all organic, local, plant-based food and end up with a myriad of health issues due to your overly restrictive diet. We all have a responsibility to make better choices where we can, even though with the way the food system operates right now some of this is out of our hands. But we certainly shouldn’t feel guilt or shame for our food choices when they are not perfect, or shame others who do not have access to or cannot afford to make these better choices, because let’s be honest, choosing high-quality, organic, local produce is often a privilege rather than the easy option.

Moving away from ethics and towards health and wellness, when it comes to the macro-nutrient wars of the HCLF (high carb low fat) vs. the LCFH (low carb high fat) communities, it just gets silly. Each camp has their own key pieces of research that they cite and doctors that they follow who claim that this way of eating is the perfect human diet. Each has their armies of followers with stories of healing and longevity who battle against each other in pointless debates and who circle in their own communities, brainwashing themselves and proving each other right. In reality how can we possibly know what the perfect human diet is? Humans developed all over the planet and survived on so many different diets: hunter gatherers, agricultural communities and now industrial societies like the ones most of us live in today. There is so much conflicting research out there that it’s possible to find evidence to back up almost any claim.

There is so much variety in our genetics, environment and physical health status that there’s no way there is one truth when it comes to food and diet. Plus, health is about so much more than what we eat. When we look at the blue zones (the places with the highest number of centenarians), they don’t all follow the same diet but one thing they have in common is their sense of community, slow pace of life and connection with the natural world. I think there comes a point when you have to accept that perfecting your diet can only get you so far and the simple act of trying can be a stress on the body that causes health issues to continue. It’s much better to eat food that makes you feel strong and energetic, keeps your metabolism functioning at it’s best but also brings you joy and connection with the community you live in than keeping yourself in an isolated bubble, trying to consume the optimal diet for humans.

I am saying this as much for my past self as I am for all of you out there. I have been through phases where I was so desperate to heal my body that I put all of my energy into eating what I believed was the best diet for my body as well as the planet and it only made things worse. Letting go of the diet dogma was what finally helped me to heal. Now I definitely make the effort to make ethical and healthy food choices. I buy from local markets when I can, experiment with growing my own food, eat lots of plant-based meals and choose organic, fair trade products where its available and affordable. But I’m refuse to obsess over it or feel anxious when I can’t make the ideal choice. I eat plenty of things that aren’t sustainable or health promoting just because they taste good. I also now eat animal products again as for me, veganism didn’t work out and I experienced health issues despite being very careful with my diet and supplementation (I’m sorry to any vegans reading this but this was my experience).

I would never recommend to a client that they should eat a certain way and exclude particular food groups or foods, unless they have their own ethical or medical reasons to do so. I am a strong believer in paying attention to your bodies’ response to certain foods and choosing a diet based on what makes you feel your best. One of the best ways to do this in my experience in using a food diary, not to restrict your intake but to record how you really feel, physically and mentally, after eating certain foods or meals. This way you are totally in control and rather than relying on external information, you can listen and respond to your own bodies’ signals which is what we are designed to do. And even when you do find something that works, remember that this can change! Our bodies are never stagnant, we are constantly aging and adapting to the changing seasons and environment so we can’t expect that what works for us today will work 10 or 20 years down the line.

Over to you

Anyway, that’s enough of me ranting for one day! Please leave a comment below if you have any thoughts on this topic, I’d love to hear your opinions and have a discussion. If you found this article interesting, please like this post and follow my blog to be notified when I post something new.

If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, please contact me or check out the nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I am a qualified Public Health Nutritionist and hatha yoga teacher and my specialty is helping women to balance their hormones and heal their body and metabolism after restrictive dieting. I would love to work together with you to move past any health blocks and get you feeling your best again!

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Real health #11 Should you try the keto diet for weight loss?

As a public health nutritionist, I like to keep track of current trends in the dieting world and wow 2020 was the year of the keto diet! On average there are a million internet searches a month for the phrase “keto diet” and Youtube health and fitness world is full of people sharing their success stories of dropping 10lbs in a week, curing diabetes and overcoming binge eating on a keto diet. You might be wondering whether you should try the keto diet for weight loss. In this article I want to explain a bit about the keto diet, how it works for weight loss and some of the potential risks so that you can make your own mind up.

For anyone not familiar, a keto diet is a high fat, very low carbohydrate diet meaning that grains, potatoes, beans, most fruits and some legumes are off limits. The maximum recommended carbohydrate intake is usually between 20g and 50g per day, sometimes less in the beginning. If you ate this amount of carbohydrates from bread and pasta it wouldn’t add up to much! So generally these carbohydrates come from non-starchy vegetables such as leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, peppers and courgettes as shown in the plates below by the Diet Doctor.

The majority of your energy intake on a keto diet is from fat, usually 75% of calories come from fat, 20% from protein and 5% from carbohydrates. Fat sources are often animal products such as meat, eggs, lard, fish and dairy but there is also the magical unicorn “vegan keto” which only includes plant-based sources such as oils, nuts and seeds. The difference between the Atkins diet and the keto diet is that Atkins diet focuses on the low carb aspect and doesn’t set any limits for protein, whereas keto emphasizes the importance of consuming only a moderate amount of protein. This means that you can’t just eat bacon and cheese all day on the keto diet as they have too much protein!

How does the keto diet work for weight loss?

The keto diet works by putting you into the metabolic state of ketosis. Your body has this back-up mechanism for generating energy when carbohydrates are unavailable, for example during periods of fasting or famine, extended intense exercise or a low-carbohydrate diet. In ketosis, your liver produces ketone bodies from fatty acids which are then transported to your cells to be used in place of glucose for energy. The theory is that adapting your body to run on fat rather than carbohydrates allows your body to turn more easily to it’s own fat stores for energy rather than sending out signals for you to consume more carbohydrates every time your blood sugar drops.

Once you are off the blood sugar rollercoaster, you no longer experience the dips which cause you to experience hunger and cravings. Those who follow the keto diet claim that their hunger levels are significantly reduced and they can go much longer periods of time without feeling hungry. On the keto diet, you have the majority of your calorie intake coming from fat. Even though fat is more energy dense having more than twice the calories per gram compared to carbohydrates and proteins, it also which triggers release of satiety hormones which make you feel full. This helps some people to feel satisfied on much less food than they usually would, especially when fats are combined with low calorie vegetables which provide fiber and water.

By excluding carbohydrates, the keto diet also completely cuts out many energy dense processed foods such as chocolate, soda, sweets, cakes and other baked goods. For some people with more black and white thinking, eliminating these foods altogether is easier than trying to eat them in moderation and it makes decisions about what to eat more simple. Over time on the keto diet, your taste buds can adjust so that you no longer have cravings for these foods, great if you are trying to beat a sugar addiction! Of course there are energy dense snack foods on the keto diet too, especially nuts and seeds, but generally these are harder to over eat because they are so filling.

keto diet foods to avoid
Another useful infographic from the Diet Doctor!

What are the downsides of the keto diet?

Even though the keto diet works for weight loss short term, I’m not convinced that it is sustainable long term. Firstly, it’s complicated! Some people test their urine using ketone-strips or test their blood ketone level to check whether they are in ketosis which can be pretty invasive. At least in the beginning you have to learn the carbohydrate content of different foods and have some way of tracking what you eat to make sure that you are below the recommended 20-50g of carbohydrates per day. I’m sure that over time this gets easier, especially if you eat similar foods day to day, but it still needs some attention and certainly isn’t for everyone. The world isn’t exactly keto-friendly either and finding options to eat when out socialising with friends and at family or work events could be a challenge.

Even if you decide that the complexity is worth it, the risk with any diet that cuts out whole food groups is that your food choices are limited which puts you at a greater risk for nutritional deficiencies. Of course, a well-planned keto diet which includes a variety of vegetables, animal and plant fats can be nutritionally adequate but I’m not sure that every person following this diet is going to do their research and pay enough attention to their diet to make sure they are getting everything they need. Short term in a healthy person this is unlikely to be a problem but when someone attempts the keto diet after a long line of other failed diets, they may already have depleted nutrient stores and could run into problems down the line. Restrictive diets also put you at a greater risk for binge eating and rebound weight gain.

Another risk of the keto diet is that your appetite might be reduced to the point where your don’t eat enough. You might laugh at this one, especially if you think your problem is eating too much, but when you are removing so many types of foods from your diet it can be easy to accidentally under eat. the problem with extremely calorie restricted diets is that can be very stressful for your body. I wrote above why calorie restricted diets don’t work in a previous post so you can check that out for more information but in short, when your body perceives a large energy deficit, it starts to freak out and tries anything it can to reduce your energy output and maintain balance. This is commonly known as starvation mode and can lead to low energy levels, fatigue, slow growth and repair, and hormonal issues.

keto diet fatigue keto flu
Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

On the other hand, many people report feeling high energy when they start out on the keto diet. This might seem like a positive but it can be a sign that your body is releasing stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline as it struggles to adjust to the extreme change in diet. Cortisol is normally released by your body during low blood sugar events to trigger release of stored glucose from your muscles into your blood stream and this can be more intense as your body adapts to ketosis. Reports of hair loss, sleep issues and menstrual disturbance in women who attempt the keto diet can be because it is just too stressful for the body. Again, a generally healthy person may be able to handle this adjustment period but someone who is already under a lot of pressure and stress might want to think twice about whether the keto diet is for them.

Finally, there is the risk of medical complications with the keto diet. Removing carbohydrates affects the water and electrolyte balance in your body and can lead to dehydration, low blood pressure and kidney problems. The “keto-flu” is common as the body transitions into ketosis and can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, bad breath and low energy. The keto diet was originally developed to cure epilepsy and was carried out under medical supervision. It is now being widely promoted as a weight loss diet but the long term impacts of the diet on the body are not fully understood. If you decide to try out the keto diet, you should know you are putting your body in an extreme state and effectively conducting a science experiment on yourself!

So should I try the keto diet to lose weight? And how can I reduce the risks?

It’s not for me to say whether you should try the keto diet for weight loss or not. It isn’t something I would try myself or recommend to my health coaching clients but there are definitely people who have had success with it. I would always ask the question of whether you need to put your body through such extremes or whether there is an easier way. But with that being said, if you do decide to try it out I’d suggest the following to reduce the risk and make the transition smoother:

  1. Always speak to your doctor before you start out. Check that you have no pre-existing medical conditions or nutrient deficiencies that could be made worse by the keto diet.

  2. Do your research. Don’t just dive into the keto diet but take some time to research what to eat to get the nutrients you need as well as other precautions to take or supplements you might need.

  3. Transition slowly. Rather than going from a standard omnivore diet straight into keto, try gradually decreasing your carb intake over time to give your body chance to adjust.

  4. Stay aware of your physical and mental health. If you feel like you are suffering in any way, don’t be afraid to “fail” the diet. The keto diet is definitely not for everyone and it is ok if it doesn’t work for you.

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this post on the keto diet and the blog series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on the keto diet and your experience if you’ve tried it.

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health January series, like this post, check out the recommended posts below and follow my blog for daily updates. And please share with anyone you think might be interested!
  • If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, pleaseĀ contact meĀ for information on the nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I would love to work together with you to get you feeling your best again.

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