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The Dark Side of Eating: When Diets Go Viral and Become Fads, Unintended Chaos Ensues

By Beth Clark • January 15, 2019

My Diet is NOT a Fad!

When diets developed for certain populations or conditions go viral and become fads overnight, unintended chaos can ensue and create challenging fallout for the originally intended group. It can feel like suddenly being surrounded by decoys and finding yourself in a bad TV game show called "Will the Real Celiac Please Stand Up?" We zoomed in on a few 'fad' diets that are actually lifestyles, including gluten-free, vegan, and keto, and came up with some interesting pros, cons, and aftereffects of their mainstream surge in popularity. (And found some excellent guides, cookbooks, and other resources a lot of you will want to put in your carts!)

American Diet Culture

Merriam-Webster defines 'diet' as "a: food and drink regularly provided or consumed, b: habitual nourishment, c: the kind and amount of food prescribed for a special reason, and d: a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one's weight." The word 'diet' has become synonymous with weight loss, and between social media, retail displays, blogs, articles, and infinite ads, it's impossible to avoid exposure to it. American diet culture permeates everything, so savvy companies and advertisers started masquerading diets as 'wellness,' detoxes, cleanses, and other lifestyle programs. You may be 'eating healthy' vs. 'on a diet,' but still engaging in diet culture…same animal, different cage.

Which is not to say that you shouldn't eat healthy or lose weight since pursuing either or both can be imperative and dramatically beneficial if your quality of life or health is being impacted negatively by what you're putting in your mouth. But having an awareness of how the industry has shifted and remembering what drives it (dollars, LOTS of dollars…66 BILLION a year to be exact-ish) can help you choose wisely. We're going to bypass fads like HCG, the lemonade diet, baby food diet, cabbage diet, original Atkins diet, blood type diet, raw food diet, paleo, Isagenix, or…the cotton ball diet. (There's one for the "can't make this stuff up" file.) They may have some merit to them (except the cotton ball diet) but eating only 500 calories of anything will make you lose weight. It can also make your body break down muscle. Diets that make food(s) bad guys* or promise limitless energy or fitness model abs go in the fadwagon. Because (spoiler alert) you won't, though eliminating junk can improve your energy level. As for the abs…they start in the kitchen, but that's a whole other blog. *Except sugar…we could all consume less.

The diets we are going to talk about get lumped in with d, despite the first three being medically mandatory for some. The main reason they become fads is people who don't actually need to hop on the wagon hoping for a miracle and sing its praises, then more people do the same until a diet that's not a fad becomes one. Except it's not a fad for the originally intended group, which causes social and societal backlash and potentially serious consequences of complacency.

Gluten Free

The popularity of eating gluten free, especially to lose weight, tends to perplex the 2 million Americans who actually have celiac disease. Packaged GF products are higher—even double—in sugar, fat, and calories than their glutened counterparts, making them a terrible weight loss choice, and eating 100% GF is challenging. Gluten/Celiac 101: Gluten is a protein also in barley, rye, spelt, semolina, farro, and oats, not just wheat, and celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that destroys the lining of the small intestine, caused by an inability to process gluten. 4% of Americans are allergic to wheat, but they can (usually) eat other grains with gluten. The 1% of the population with celiac disease can't, there's no cure, and eliminating gluten is the only treatment, so this is the group the GF was originally developed for. (It was preceded by the Banana Diet.)

The trend is recent, but the disease is ancient…it was 8,000 years old when it was diagnosed and named by a Greek doctor in 1 AD. On the front end, it's an inability to process gluten. On the back end (no pun intended), gluten triggers an inflammatory response that causes a systemic autoimmune reaction and an attack on the small intestine that destroys its ability to absorb nutrients. Autoimmune = the body wages war on itself. In an otherwise functional immune system, that's a lot of fire power, and it can take months or years for the damage to repair itself. A trace amount of gluten—less than 1/500th of a teaspoon of flour—can trigger a severe reaction, and along with abdominal symptoms, it can cause anemia, muscle cramps, painful joints, tingling, numbness, fatigue, rashes, and tooth enamel loss. Most celiacs prefer avoidance.

The consequence of GF becoming popular so rapidly was that some companies quick to jump on it didn't get the 'trace' memo and downplayed it since 'everyone' was suddenly gluten intolerant. Restaurants played up "gluten-free!" with their marketing but failed to train staff on it. The more popular it became, the more gluten questions were met with an eye-roll and a "A little cross-contamination won't hurt…they'll never know!" attitude. Celiacs knew, because they found out the hard way.

Others impacted are the gluten-intolerant who've been or are being diagnosed by a health professional. The severity varies and may or may not be intolerances to the gluten itself, but while researchers work on an answer, if giving up gluten made it better, you're probably onto something. If you think you have an intolerance or are considering going GF, see your health provider first, just in case. Giving up gluten might make you feel better, but it can mask a problem that needs further treatment. Even celiacs can be misdiagnosed if they've already gone GF because initial blood tests measure the body's reaction to gluten.

If you're going GF because it's trending, you read Grain Brain or Wheat Belly, or you know someone who did, then own it…no explanation or justification. Just don't pretend to be gluten-intolerant if you haven't been diagnosed yet and report things you come across that claim to be or are labeled GF but aren't…someone will thank you. Some GF books:

Celiac Disease for Dummies by Sheila Crowe, MD and Ian Blumer, MD
An excellent starter guide that covers all of the basics and delves into the intermediate.
Celiac Disease: A Hidden Epidemic by Rory Jones and Peter H.R. Green
This book is what happens when the director of the Columbia University Celiac Disease Center and a medical writer with celiac disease combine their powers, with exceptional results.
The Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide by Triumph Dining
8,000 restaurants in 50 states, from 100% GF to GF-friendly, with descriptions for each.
Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook: Breakfasts, Entrees, and More by Elana Amsterdam
A popular food blogger whose GF ingredient of choice is almond flour.
Jennifer's Way by Jennifer Esposito
Esposito struggled through decades of mysterious illnesses and frustration before finally being diagnosed with celiac disease. Her strategies and tips for managing daily life are spot-on.

Dairy Free

Dairy is an allergen with mandatory and optional dairy-free participants on either side and the lactose-intolerant in the middle. It's a still-rising fad among the 'clean eating' camp, and substitutes are all the rage: non-dairy milk alternative sales doubled between 2009 and 2015…to $21 BILLION. Like GF foods, milk substitutes tend to be high in added sugar.

Who does dairy-free make sense for? People with milk allergies, the severely lactose intolerant, vegans, and anyone who's grossed out by it. Personal choice is a valid reason as long as you're getting enough calcium and vitamin B12. Conversely, if you love dairy and you're not having trouble with it, why would you leave your pals Ben and Jerry out in the cold??

Turns out there are a lot of answers to that. The claims are outrageous sometimes, like eliminating dairy resolving all of your symptoms, preventing diseases, and facilitating quick weight loss. If you're allergic or intolerant, obviously eliminating the aggravating food will make you feel better. But as long as it's not The Ice Cream Diet (it's a real thing), there's a lot of research indicating dairy may actually help with weight loss, and it does contribute to bone density. Cutting saturated fat is another answer, but saturated fat isn't actually inherently bad for you. It's not good in gobs and gobs either, but there are lower fat dairy options if that's the concern. Dairy causing acne is one reason that is (kind of) backed by science. Research is mixed, but the consensus is that dairy can impact the severity of acne, though it doesn't conclusively cause it. So, if you're not having problems with acne, that's likely to continue to be the case as it relates to dairy consumption. If you are having acne issues, reducing or eliminating dairy may genuinely help.

Make a dairy-free world yummy:
The Milk-Free Kitchen: Living Well Without Dairy Products by Beth Kidder
The Big Dairy Free Cookbook by Pamela Ellgen
Vice Cream: Over 70 Sinfully Delicious Dairy-Free Delights by Jeff Rogers

Food Allergies

In addition to milk, the FDA's allergen list includes eggs, nuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat. Thankfully, this group of food allergies doesn't get as much grief for being a fad as dairy and gluten do, because for millions of people, avoiding allergens is a life or death thing. Sure, celiacs could die a slow death from gluten exposure over time, but severe food allergies can be lethal in minutes. The overall increase in the number of food-averse (and people who think they are) means that allergies can be met with the same complacency and eye rolls as other intolerances, so allergic people—or their parents—have to be vigilant, act as their own advocates, and ask whatever questions they need. Also, self-diagnosing is unwise…allergy tests are uncomfortable, but confirmation is highly beneficial.

Food Allergies: A Complete Guide for Eating When Your Life Depends on It by Scott H. Sicherer
Allergic Girl: Adventures in Living Well with Food Allergies by Sloane Miller
Dairy Free Keto Low Fodmap Diet by John Williams
GSDF: Gluten Sugar Dairy Free by Michelle DeBerge

Anti-Inflammatory/Mediterranean

The Anti-inflammatory/Mediterranean Diet gets put in the 'fad' category, but really isn't a fad at all. It's one of the rare balanced diets out there that gets a thumbs-up from the Mayo Clinic because it's full of fresh, nutritious foods, including plenty of colorful fruits and veggies, fish, whole grains, dark chocolate, and red wine. The last two make it sustainable long-term…not common in the dietverse. You do have to swap coffee for tea, but you get dark chocolate and red wine! Research supports the theory that whole, unprocessed, mostly plant-based foods can help fight chronic inflammation and counteract stress and environmental toxins, which may lower your risk of heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's. (Did we mention you can have dark chocolate and red wine?)

The Pain-Free Anti-Inflammatory Diet for Beginners by Dorothy Calimeris and Lulu Cook
PEACE of Cake: The Secret to an Anti-Inflammatory Diet by Jenny Carr
Caroline's No Nightshade Kitchen: Arthritis Diet - Living Without Tomatoes, Peppers, Potatoes, and Eggplant! by Caroline Thompson

Vegan

There's no question that most of us could incorporate more fresh plant-based foods into our diets or that some people really do feel better eating a plant-based-only diet and see amazing improvements in their waistlines, skin, mood, energy levels, and digestion. But not everyone does, and it can make a few people pretty sick. Veganism has been a philosophical lifestyle choice made for environmental and ethical considerations, as well as health concerns. For the unfamiliar, vegan = no meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, or animal products of any kind, which can be challenging. A lot of products seem fine but aren't. Beans are plant-based and a good source of protein, but refried beans contain lard…definitely not from a plant. Gelatin, whey, and fish byproducts make their way into a lot of menu items and packaged foods like cereals, jelly beans, condiments, juices, and even beer and wine.

Veganism veered into 'fad' territory the same way other lifestyle diets have: it gained enough traction to pop onto the mainstream radar, and a few influencers, celebrities, and activists turned it into a movement. Anytime marketing calls out something that's always been—like shampoos being labeled as vegan—it's a good fad indicator. What they aren't necessarily is cruelty-free. Vegan = doesn't contain animal ingredients. Cruelty-free is separate.

The 600% increase in vegans in three years means 600% more demand for vegan foods that have to be grown somewhere. As with the GF market, companies that otherwise wouldn't be involved get in on the profits, so researching food sources to make sure they're sustainable matters. Also, foods like soy and wheat are still vegan even if they're not organic, which poses an environmental dilemma: Are GMOs and pesticides worse for the planet than raising animals compassionately would be? It's not that simple, but rapid growth in any market can impact its integrity, so if you're considering being vegan, do your homework and check in with your health provider first. Also, if the books below aren't what you need, we have more!

The Gluten-Free Vegan: 150 Delicious Gluten-Free, Animal-Free Recipes by Susan O'Brien
Vegans Go Shopping by Courtney E. Hufer
A good book for little vegans that's part of a series by Hufer.
Thug Kitchen: Eat Like You Give a F*ck by Thug Kitchen
Thug Kitchen has three NYT bestselling cookbooks, including Party Grub and Thug Kitchen 101. Easily one of the best vegan resources, and hilarious, UNLESS you're sensitive to profanity, which they use freely.
How Not to Die by Michael Greger, M.D. From the physician behind NutritionFacts.org.

Keto

Keto is one of the most scientifically sound, least understood, and oldest diets around. It was developed in the 1920s to treat kids with epilepsy whose seizures weren't controlled by medication. It's still used for that today. Unfortunately, the fadwagon and companies taking liberties with it have made for a lot of misinformation out there. Keto done wrong isn't keto. "Keto" is short for ketogenic, which refers to the ability to stimulate ketone body production as a by-product of fat metabolization, which is triggered by sufficiently low carbohydrate intake that prevents glucose from being available, which triggers your body to create its own fuel from its energy reserves, which is called ketogenesis.

In less science-y terms, when you eat carbs—which all contain sugar, whether it's natural or added—your body converts it to glucose in your bloodstream. The presence of glucose triggers insulin to do its main job: regulating your blood sugar. It does that by telling your body to store any glucose that won't be used right away, which it does by converting the excess glucose to glycogen and combining it with 3 fatty acid molecules, aka, a triglyceride. It stores the triglycerides in your fat cells, which actually have one job, and it's not keeping you warm, it's being your reserve tank.

When glucose isn't available (because your carb intake is reduced), the reverse happens and glucagon—insulin's opposite—tells your body to retrieve the stored fatty acids and turn them into ketone bodies, which it does in your liver. Glucagon is the key to keto success…and weight loss. Keto works when carbs stay low enough to keep your body in fuel-gen mode. Keto doesn't work when carbs are too high, because insulin and glucagon don't play together…your body won't metabolize fuel and store it at the same time because it's smart like that. The worst is being on the carb cusp… teetering between not being low enough to signal glucagon, and not high enough to fuel your brain. The longer you've eaten high-carb, the more patient you'll need to be as your body switches engines…most people experience "carb flu" for about three days and feel great after that.

Ketogenic diets are used for medical conditions besides epilepsy, including metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, PCOS, type 1 and 2 diabetes, some cancers, autism, fatty liver disease, migraines, and Alzheimer's. If you have any of those, especially type 1 or 2 diabetes or high BP, or take multiple meds, DON'T do keto on your own! (A lot of meds have to be adjusted quickly, especially those.) Ketogenic diets ARE sustainable and safe long-term, though obviously your body doesn't need to be in ketosis all the time. How do you do that? By finding the balance on the same cusp that you avoid in the beginning…it's a very different place after you've done keto for a while. Instead of it being a shock to your system that makes your engines choke, it's an easy glide from one to the other.

365 Days of Keto Recipes by Beran Parry
Keto Gatherings: Festive Low-Carb Recipes for Every Occasion by Kristie Sullivan
Easy Dairy-Free Keto by Maria Emmerich

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