Why it's time to ditch "The Diet"

Barbie holding diet sign
CC BY 2.0 Laura Lewis

Many popular diets are based on poor nutrition science, industry pressure, and politics, which don't necessarily make them good for your body. Perhaps it's time for the "non-diet" diet.

There is a lot more to popular diets than the picture-perfect results they promise. At one point, each diet has been created by someone who believed (or wanted the world to believe) that they had located the single component responsible for whatever makes us unhappy about our bodies, whether it’s excess weight or poor cardiovascular health. There is research, a.k.a. nutrition science, that goes into creating the formulas behind each of these diets, but that’s where the big problems start.

In a fascinating article called “Are some diets ‘mass murder’?," published in The BMJ this past December, author Richard Smith concludes that many popular diets are based on poor nutritional science, which makes them little more than uncontrolled, global experiments with potentially bad results.

Nutritional studies are difficult to conduct accurately, as many associations between diet and mortality are made by observational studies – questioning people about what they eat, which is highly prone to error and/or exaggeration, or by intervention trials – having people adhere to a new way of eating, which is hard to implement. Then there’s the difficulty of converting food into measurements of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

“To make a link between diet recorded over a short period of time and diseases and deaths encountered perhaps decades later is inevitably difficult.”

Much of the science behind diets is faulty, inadequate, and influenced by massive conflicts of interest. All too often there are powerful industries and politically driven policy makers pushing studies in such a way that the results are deeply damaging to people who adhere to the resulting diets.

One example is the low fat/no saturated fat craze of the past half-century, kickstarted in 1952 by Ancel Benjamin Keys, whose “diet-heart hypothesis” met tremendous criticism for its inadequate data. Smith writes, “Keys could have gathered data from many more countries and people (women as well as men) and used more careful methods, but he found what he wanted to find.”

The American Heart Association liked it, too, despite the fact that the biggest test of the saturated fat hypothesis found no reduction in heart disease or stroke, or greater weight loss, in the 49,000 women who participated.

All of these diets have been influenced to some extent by “weak science, strong personalities, vested interests, and political expediency.”

Whether it’s the Paleo diet, the no-grain diet, the romanticized Mediterranean diet, the dramatic restriction of carbohydrates in the Atkins diet, or whether the targeted components are sugar / refined carbs, trans fats (or their new legitimized and yet-to-be-proven substitute, interesterified fats), etc., Smith argues that all of these diets have been influenced to some extent by “weak science, strong personalities, vested interests, and political expediency.” The damage done, the world now needs better quality science and humility among experts more than ever.

As a diet cynic myself, I have difficulty understanding why there is so much focus on nutrition research to find the one “magic bullet” nutrient. Before the industrialization of food production, the incidence of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease was far lower than now. It seems obvious that the diet that has worked best for humans over thousands of years is one comprised of whole foods – real food – that is not factory-processed, is prepared from scratch, and does not contain chemical additives. Why complicate what seems, in my opinion, to be fairly simple?

What works for me? A diet that is grown locally, eaten seasonally, entirely homemade, and includes a variety of foods all eaten in moderation. My family and I are in favour of the “non-diet” diet, a purposeful deviation from prescribed fad diets. I personally don’t want to take the trouble to measure my macronutrient ratio at every meal, since I don’t want meals to turn into an academic exercise. I cook and eat more for pleasure than for sustenance, and my husband vice versa, but neither of us is obsessive about it.

Perhaps more people need to jump off the diet bandwagon in order to get the results they want.

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