Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

Why I find it difficult to digest all these celeb diets

Do you know your mung bean from your aduki? Jonathan McCambridge nibbles on some of the latest popular food fads

It is said that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Nowhere is this old cliche proving to be more of a truism than in the world of healthy eating. With stories emerging daily on the supposed healing properties of the latest miracle food, you can't get anything more fashionable than having your own gut-healing regime.

Those seeking happiness, healthiness and everlasting energy through their diet will be well versed with the power of the NutriBullet, or the versatility of the chia seed.

They will have perfected their technique for smashing avocados and spiralising courgettes. They may even have sampled the delights of bone broth, or detoxed with activated charcoal.

Whether you are following a clean eating code, or a free-from diet, there is no doubt the health food industry is booming. This is largely down to the explosion in popularity of the recipe bloggers. Ella Woodward (Deliciously Ella) and Madeleine Shaw (Get the Glow) are just two who are taking the form to new heights and dominating the web. Part celebrity chefs, part lifestyle gurus, they are selling cookbooks by the lorry-load.

Woodward's first book, based on the recipes from her blog, last year became the biggest selling debut of all time.

More established stars like Jamie Oliver are joining the revolution, too. His most recent cookbook and accompanying TV series saw him fly all over the globe in search of the societies which had the healthiest diets and whose people lived the longest.

His conclusion was that seaweed is the most nutritious vegetable in the world and we should all be eating lots more of it. To use another word that is creeping into our vocabulary, it is the ultimate superfood.

There are no set rules for healthy eating, but the following basic principles seem to be in vogue - eat your food in its most natural state, avoid anything which is processed or has chemicals added, and stick as close as possible to a plant-based diet.

Do this and, we are told, it can transform your health, make you sleep better, improve your mood, help your skin to glow, aid weight loss and increase your brain function.

So far, so good-living? Well, yes and no. While anything that helps to educate us about food and nutrition is a good thing, I must admit to feeling a bit conflicted and often overwhelmed by the tsunami of information being rammed down my throat.

Rather than feeling enlightened, I confess to finding myself more confused than ever about what is good to eat.

Let me state my case. Like many other people, I am an enthusiastic home cook with a desire to create and eat food which is healthy for me and my family. Like, I suspect, the vast majority of people, I have absolutely no specialist medical, scientific or nutritional knowledge about food.

All my thoughts and ideas about what I eat and what it does to my body comes from what I read or see on TV or the web and, most importantly, from my own experiences and common sense.

But with so much information out there feeding our appetite for healthy eating, it becomes harder to distinguish between what is credible and what is crazy.

A quick scan of a popular daily news website as I write this throws up the following headlines: 'Why eating greens is good for your gut', 'Junk food really is addictive', 'Organic milk and meat found to have higher levels of nutrients', 'The science behind the perfect potato chip', 'Eating too much fish while pregnant could leave your children obese' and 'Why you may want to consider eating an avocado a day'.

That's the home page of one news site on one single day. That's more information than my brain function can digest, no matter how much oily fish I eat.

What is worse, is that so much of this information seems to be contradictory. Let's look at the great gluten debate which is currently raging, as an example. Gluten is the protein present in cereal grains, especially wheat. It's what gives our bread its shape.

But in recent years gluten has been widely portrayed as the biggest threat facing mankind since the Black Death. The naughty protein is blamed for everything from headaches to nausea, to insomnia to bloating and fatigue.

High-profile gluten-haters include Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckham and Miley Cyrus. Novak Djokovic, the world's dominant male tennis player, attributes his astonishing level of success in recent years to the discovery of a gluten-free diet.

Gluten-free is now a multi-billion pound industry, with sales of expensive products soaring.

Supermarkets have jumped all over the trend, with whole aisles now devoted to free-from items. Gluten-free bread is paraded as the best thing since ... well, since sliced bread.

About 1% of the population are thought to suffer from coeliac disease, a condition in which the immune system reacts badly to gluten. They should avoid all wheat, rye and barley.

But what about the rest of us? Are we all just jumping on the latest food-fad bandwagon? Is this obsession with allergies and intolerance leading increasing numbers to try and heal themselves by cutting out an entire food group based on sketchy evidence?

Last year, a group of Australian and Canadian scientists set out to determine whether there are any fitness benefits in gluten denial.

A small group of cyclists embarked on a gluten-free diet for two weeks.

However, unbeknown to them, during one of the weeks they were consuming fairly large amounts of gluten.

Results showed almost identical performances after a week in which a rider ate zero gluten or large amounts of gluten.

Andy Murray, the world's second best tennis player, decided to try the Djokovic method, but complained that the few months he spent on a gluten-free diet left him drained.

Are you feeling enlightened about gluten now? No, me neither.

And the free-from market goes much wider than just gluten. Add in sugar-free, dairy-free and meat-free and there isn't much left for you to order on a restaurant menu, other than a side of vegetables.

Have you heard of the Paleo diet? It's an increasingly popular eating plan, apparently followed by Megan Fox, which bases itself on the diets of those in the Palaeolithic era (I'm not making this up). In other words it encourages you to eat like a caveman.

So, are we any better off after dining on a surfeit of healthy eating information? It's hard to tell.

Perhaps the only sensible approach is to use your own experience and discretion and to realise that what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for the next.

I have experimented with going gluten and dairy-free and noticed small benefits. However, it is not enough to convince me to cut them out of my diet altogether. I have tried baking cakes using ingredients as varied as avocado, sweet potato or beetroot. They are fine, as long as you like cakes which taste of avocado, sweet potato or beetroot.

Anyone considering cutting out whole food groups, or making sweeping changes to what they eat based on food fads, should be aware of the risks of an unbalanced diet.

Stop eating bread and pasta and you need an alternative way to get complex carbohydrates. If you give up dairy, then calcium must be found from somewhere else.

A no-meat diet can lead to a risk of protein deficiency.

These problems can be overcome, but it all starts to become a lot more complicated finding the substitutes. I would have to be very certain of radical benefits before I cut a food group out altogether.

One thing I realise as I get older is that the biggest part of eating sensibly, for me at least, is controlling portion sizes.

Many of the ill-effects I have suffered from food are not because of allergies, but simply because I have just eaten too much. Over-indulgence does not automatically mean zero-tolerance.

I started this article with a cliche, so I will finish with another: everything in moderation.

  • Jonathan McCambridge is deputy editor of the Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph