Monday 4 January 2016

Are You Falling for Today’s Biggest Nutrition Fad?

If you want greater health, performance and body composition, you want to avoid fat diets. While fad diets are great for selling diet books, they often fail to deliver the results you want. They cause you to focus on less important details and often miss the big picture. In the past there have been many fads such as low fat and low carb eating. Today there is a huge dietary fad and if you are not careful you will fall for it, hurt your progress and make your nutrition way harder than it has to be. 
Image courtesy of Apolonia at

Today’s biggest nutrition fad: Excessive Restriction

I believe today’s most popular diet fads (and one of the biggest problems in the diet industry) is that we take a simple truth about nutrition to an unnecessarily restrictive extreme. This takes nutrition – which is really hard and makes it even harder. Here are some examples based on many of today’s popular diets.

Example 1: Clean eating/Natural foods
Nutrition truth: 
Whole, natural, single-ingredient foods are very helpful for your health, recovery and performance
When most people switch to cleaner eating, they naturally reduce their caloric intake and lose weight

Extreme reaction: 
Eat only “clean” foods

Potential problems: 
  • Can cause people to over-simply nutrition – “just eat clean”
  • Can cause people to ignore important variables such as total calories and macronutrient levels that are critical for attaining body composition goals 
  • Trying to completely avoid treat foods can cause some people to binge on junk after long periods of “clean eating”
  • Can lead to orthorexia (an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating)
  • Can cause people to avoid proven supplements (e.g. whey protein, creatine, vitamin D) because they are not “natural”
  • Can lead the less informed into “mock health foods” (i.e. foods that are marketed as “healthy” but are really just healthier versions of junk food (e.g. organic chips)
Balanced alternative: 
  • Everyone should eat the majority of their foods from whole, natural, single ingredient foods
  • Don’t try to eat 100% “clean” 100% of the time – find a level of “treat foods” that does not hinder your ability to reach your goals but allows you to live a little and stay consistent over the long haul with good eating
  • Don’t buy into the marketing tricks of those mock health food products
  • Add helpful supplements as needed
Related: Cheat Days and Is "If It Fits Your Marcos" Right for You?

Example 2: Paleo 
Nutrition truth: 
Eating whole, natural foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts and meat is a great way to eat. Also, some people do not do well with certain foods such as grains, legumes or dairy.

Extreme reaction:
Go Paleo and try to eat only what people think our ancestors ate

Potential problems: 
  • Very difficult for athletes who need higher levels of carbohydrates to meet these needs
  • You lose out on milk-based protein supplements
  • Miss out on potentially healthy, helpful foods that are not deemed true paleo
Balanced alternative: 
  • Eat meats, fruits, vegetables and nuts
  • Add some grains and legumes if needed and well tolerated
  • Use grains and starches as needed to help achieve your carbohydrate needs
  • Use milk-based protein powders – if tolerated
  • Add helpful supplements as needed

Example 3: Veganism  
Nutrition truth: 
Eating a plant-based diet is very healthy for you. Eating processed meats, charred meats and red meat has been linked with certain cancers (e.g. colon cancer). Studies that compare the average meat eater (i.e. typical North American) to the average vegetarian (i.e. typically a health-conscious person) show that the vegetarian is healthier (more on this in a future post). 

Extreme reaction: 
Go vegan 

Potential problems: 
  • Lack of optimum protein intake, lack of quality protein and lack of key nutrients found only in meat
  • May hinder optimal recovery, training performance (especially in strength/power sports) 
  • May make it difficult to build muscle and get athletic lean
Balanced alternative
  • Eat a tone of fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Avoid processed meats, possibly reduce red meat intake
  • Add healthy, high-quality protein sources (e.g. fish, poultry, eggs, whey protein) as needed to help avoid nutritional deficiencies and help you achieve your performance and body composition goals 

Example 4: Seasonal & local eating
Nutrition truth: 
  • Eating seasonal foods ensures a variety of nutrients and may reduce the risk of developing food intolerances
  • Eating local, season foods increase your risk of complete ripening and thus the nutrient density of the foods
  • Eating local, season foods is usually cheaper 
  • Eating local foods is good for the economy
Extreme reaction: 
Cut out all foods that are not local and/or in season

Potential problems: 
  • Miss out on healthy foods. For example, I love fresh berries in the summer, but I still add frozen berries to my power shakes in the winter.
  • Make nutrition unnecessarily harder than it has to be
Balanced alternative: 
When possible, eat season and local, but don’t go out of your way to avoid other healthy foods because you turned a good idea into a rule

Example 5: Gluten Free 
Nutrition truth: 
  • Some people have celiac disease and should avoid all gluten
  • Some people honestly feel better avoiding certain grains
  • Most people who cut out gluten will lose weight – however this is simply because this almost always results in people eating less, thus putting them in a caloric deficit which results in weight loss
Extreme reaction: 
Eat gluten free

Potential problems: 
  • You may be unnecessarily restricting something you don’t need to
  • You can spend way more money on gluten-free foods
  • You can run into trap of eating all the new gluten-free junk foods 
Balanced alternative: 
  • If you have celiac disease avoid all gluten
  • If you feel better not eating certain grains, then avoid them
  • Try removing just wheat from your diet and see how you feel, then re-introduce it and see how you feel. If you honestly feel better without it, choose other grains instead
  • Try to avoid just using wheat and experiment to see how you feel eating other grains
  • Do not just replace junk food with gluten-free junk food – eat less junk food!

Example 6: Raw food
Nutrition truth: 
Raw fruits and vegetables are very healthy

Extreme reaction: 
Eat only raw food

Potential problems: 
  • Very restrictive
  • Certain foods are not tolerated well when raw (e.g. grains)
  • Certain foods (e.g. meats) can be dangerous to consume raw
  • Some people find certain veggies not as comfortable on their bodies when eaten raw (e.g. raw broccoli) 
  • Cooking releases certain nutrients from foods (e.g. cooking a tomato increases lycopene)
Balanced alternative: 
  • Eat lots of fresh, raw fruits and vegetables
  • See how you feel with certain foods – some may feel better on your body when cooked
  • Don’t be afraid to cook certain foods

Example 7: Fruit makes you fat
Nutrition truth: 
Eating too many calories makes you fat. Fruits contain natural sugars which like any other foods are not healthy if over consumed. If eating a lot of fruit puts you in a caloric surplus, you will get fat

Extreme reaction: 
Stop eating fruit

Potential problems: 
You miss out on really health food

Balanced alternative: 
  • Do you really think fruit is the cause of the North American obesity epidemic? 
  • Avoid fruit juice 
  • Enjoy fresh, whole fruit in moderation
  • If you are trying to lose weight and you eat a lot of fruit, you may benefit from replacing some of your fruit servings with vegetables
  • If you are still eating a lot of refined, processed and/or sugary foods, forget about fruit and deal with this pressing issue first

Example 8: Intermittent fasting
Nutrition truth: 
  • Fasting may have some health benefits (note: a lot of the research is done on animals)
  • If you are trying to lose fat and you restrict how often you eat, it may make it easier for you not to over-eat 
  • Intermittent fasting has worked well for some people
Extreme reaction: 
Intermittent fasting (i.e. restricting your food intake to only a certain amount of time per day)

Potential problems: 
  • Hard for those needing a lot of calories and nutrients to meet their nutritional needs
  • May cause some to over-indulge and binge after the fasting period
  • Hard for those who are busy all day and not have a big chunk of time to feast
Balanced alternative: 
  • What you eat and how much you eat are more important than meal timing and frequency
  • Don’t be a slave to the clock
  • Find a meal frequency that works for your body, your goals and your lifestyle
The Bottom Line: Do what work for YOU!
There are many helpful ideas out there, but ultimately what works for you is what matters. Here are the real nutrition rules that you should follow:
  • Eat in a way that improves your health or allows you to maintain great health
  • Eat in a way that allows you lose body fat or maintain a healthy body fat percentage
  • Eat in a way that allows you to build or at least maintain a good level of lean muscle
  • Eat in a way that gives you vibrant, sustained energy
  • Eat foods that make you feel good after eating them
  • Eat in a way that allows you achieve all of the above and stay consistent with this way of eating over the long haul
  • Start by gradually, but consistently drinking water and eating more vegetables and eating less junk. This is the real secret to better nutrition and is what every successful diet has in common.
  • When a “new” (or recycled) nutrition idea comes out, stop and consider if it may be helpful for you. If you think it might and you are curious, try it out and carefully measure your results
  • Also, if following a popular diet such as one of the ones mentioned here allows you to achieve the above, great, enjoy.
Happy eating! 

As always, I invite you to leave your comments or questions below or on my Facebook Page.


  1. I think an important part to take from this is that it's ok to hop on a diet fad as long as it doesn't rule your nutrition lifestyle. Some people don't know what "eat what's best for you" means, so seeing these trends may be the only thing that motivates them off the junk food diet. But it goes without saying, a little due diligence on whichever path is considered goes a long way.

  2. Nice article, Andrew! Nutrition can be very confusing and frustrating for most people. I've had a lot of success with flexible dieting as it allows people to enjoy the foods they like in moderation as long as they control quantity. This is less restrictive and reduces the risk of binging. Keep up the good work!

  3. I agree with you on many points of this article. Frankly, the food industry (as any), is a monopoly. Even with a health related degree it is still HARD to sift though the constant information over load. Have you done any posts on the movement of Monsanto and Bayer taking over the pesticide industry? It is somewhat of a "hot topic" among the organic and Non GMO food world. I would love to hear your input on both the merger of the two companies as well as non-gmo/organic food vs other options, Please!? :) Marj

    1. Thanks for your comment and suggestion Marjorie and thanks for reading. This is a HUGE issue that I would have to look into a lot more before writing on it. I've added the idea to my list and I'll see if I can tackle it in the future (no promises).