Focus: Misunderstood diets pose dangers

Photo courtesy of CELIACOS.ORG


Current trends toward eating foods devoid of ingredients such as gluten, animal products or protein has become a distorted campaign which does not reflect the importance or seriousness with which these diets were originally designed.

Any casual observer of food-related items, whether they be restaurant menus, Internet blogs run by self-titled “foodies” or ingredient labels on food packages, cannot fail to have noticed one thing: the surge to portray everything as “gluten-free,” “fat-free,” and even “vegan,” is a result of the current national obsession with healthier eating.

The trend in marketing food with packaging proclaiming diet help is not new. According to The New Yorker, the fat-free health movement began in the 1980s when food manufacturers began labelling foods “low-fat” or “fat-free.” However, to make up for the lack of fat, such foods are often packed with sugar, salt and other additives, sometimes rendering them even unhealthier than they were to begin with. It seems the same is becoming true of many products that are advertised as “gluten-free” and “vegan.”

Gluten, one of the most prominent in terms of diet trends, has been thrust relatively recently into the national conversation regarding diet. Gluten is a protein, found mainly in wheat, barley, rye and other grains, that helps these foods maintain their cellular structure. It is also the trigger for celiac disease, which, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation, is a serious autoimmune disorder that occurs in those genetically predisposed to sensitivity. Ingesting gluten leads to damage in the small intestine, which can interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food, causing a host of symptoms. This can lead to other problems such as osteoporosis and nerve damage. Due to celiac disease and other high-profile “scandals” regarding problems with gluten, many people have begun eliminating gluten from their diets, behavior which unfortunately has been driven mainly by misinformation and anecdotal evidence.

With the increasing use of the Internet and medical sites, another fad has arisen – that of “self-diagnosis,” where users make medical decisions based on lists of symptoms on a website or based on what others have said.

paleo-diet-with-meterThe New Yorker reports that self-prescribed diets can often be even unhealthier than the foods they seek to replace; many gluten-free products, for example, replace white flour with ingredients other starches. However, starches, as refined carbohydrates, often release at least as much sugar into the bloodstream as the foods that people have given up.

Another diet that has caught the attention of many recently has been the Paleo diet, which has laid the cause of many health complaints—heart disease and diabetes among them—squarely at the feet of civilization moving away from eating foods that humans were “designed” to eat through evolution, creating a diet based on a Paleolithic human’s average needs. The Paleo diet’s aims include eliminating dairy and grains, which are among other foods added to human diets after the Agricultural Revolution, 10,000 years ago. As much as this diet’s aims seem sensible, the diet is notably lacking in several nutrients found in grains and other foods, according to Admittedly, few studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of the Paleo diet, but those that have have been “inconclusive”, according to

Not all diets are necessarily health-based or dangerous, however. Vegetarians, who do not consume meat, and vegans, who do not consume any animal products at all, are not necessarily motivated as much by health as they are by activism. These individuals often are moved by animal cruelty and thus choose not to continue or support industries that slaughter animals for food. However, like the diets previously mentioned, vegetarianism and veganism are only effective if junk food and other unhealthy foods are completely eliminated and not used as substitutes for meat. According to, some who attempt to become vegetarians often fail because they simply view all foods other than meat to be healthy, and risk consuming more calories or less essential vitamins.

While it is commendable that so many people have attempted to live healthier lives by adopting certain diets, too often decisions are made hastily, especially by individuals who do not have any previous health issues and do not seek proper medical advice or consultation before making changes to their lifestyles. Some have indeed seen marked improvements in their health and fitness after changing their diets, but for the vast majority of people, there is no such change.

Only through education and proper knowledge will consumers be able to make informed choices and not unintentionally create health issues through changing diets without the advice of medically trained professionals.

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