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Don’t believe the clean eating hype, says top sports nutritionist

Eating healthily has become complicated and while the fundamentals have not changed, the rise in the popularity of wellness bloggers means that messages about what and how to eat have become hugely confused.

So persuasive is their branding that the fact these individuals often don’t have a nutritional qualification between them seems to make no difference.

Fads come and go but are generally based around a belief that certain food groups are harmful to our health.

Here are some of the most popular food fads and the facts and the truth behind them.


Renee McGregor is a performance dietitian presently working with GB WCF, of Scottish gymnastics

The Fad: Gluten free

Gluten gets blamed for symptoms such as bloating, fatigue and joint pain.

High-profile individuals have reported health and performance benefits since removing gluten from their diets. Some even credit it with curing illnesses, particularly autoimmune conditions.

They claim that gluten causes inflammation, leading to issues with the immune system attacking itself.

Another claim is that the digestive system finds it hard to break down gluten in food, therefore eating gluten inhibits weight loss.

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Is a gluten free diet really better for you?

The Facts

There is no scientific evidence to suggest that there are any benefits to following a gluten-free diet unless you have a medical reason to do so, for example, if you have been diagnosed with coeliac disease.

Claims that those following a gluten-free diet feel less bloated are probably true – but it’s not necessarily the gluten that’s the problem. If you reduce the amount of processed carbohydrates to within guideline levels (remembering that most of us eat too much white bread and pasta anyway), you will feel “lighter”.

And while gluten can be a more difficult protein for the body to break down, in a healthy body this is not the case. It can break it down, absorb and utilise it as required.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that a gluten-free diet is necessarily healthier than a diet that allows gluten. Gluten-free products tend to be lacking in whole grains which provide B vitamins and fibre – although it’s possible to have wholegrain gluten-free – and also to be higher in fat and sugar in order to make them more palatable.

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Gluten gets blamed for symptoms such as bloating, fatigue and joint pain

The Fad: Sugar free

If there’s one ingredient with the most confusion and misinformation, it’s sugar.

It has become the scapegoat for poor health while sugar-free diets promise clear skin, bright eyes and luscious locks.

Advocates claim that reducing sugar will optimise weight and energy levels, slowing down the effects of ageing.

Those endorsing a “refined sugar-free” lifestyle often promote maple syrup, honey, date syrup and coconut sugar as acceptable alternatives. They claim that these plant sugars are better for us because they not only contain additional minerals but they also release energy at a slower rate than table sugar, thereby stabilising blood sugar levels and helping us stay satisfied for longer.

The Facts

“Refined” simply means the removal of unwanted elements by processing and this doesn’t automatically make something unhealthy.

If you were to eat an apple without its skin, although the apple wouldn’t have all the nutrients possible minus the skin, it’s not suddenly unhealthy – there’s still plenty of worthwhile nourishment there.

Furthermore, it’s wrong to think that refined white sugar is really any different to bottled maple syrup. White sugar is extracted from the sugarcane plant; maple syrup is extracted from maple tree sap. When consumed, the body treats both types of processed sugar in exactly the same way.

The main component of maple syrup is actually sucrose – white sugar. While the body is an amazing machine, it doesn’t have the ability to identify the original source of the sugar in its system – sugar is sugar.

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Refined maple syrup is not that different from refined white sugar

It’s true that maple syrup has a slightly higher composition of magnesium but this is significant for your body only if you are intending to eat 100g of maple syrup rather than 100g of white sugar – neither of which I advise you to do.

Finally there is little evidence to suggest that one food can have a drastically positive or negative effect on appearance. Your overall nutritional intake, as well as your exposure to the sun and your levels of hydration, physical activity and stress – and very importantly your genetic make-up – all contribute to the appearance of your skin.

The Fad: Dairy free

Dairy foods have definitely been on the receiving end of negative press, especially with the rise in popularity of plant-based diets. The increasing availability of alternative plantbased milks such as coconut, almond and hemp, consolidates the notion that there must be something wrong with consuming cows’ milk and dairy in general.

Many health and fitness bloggers demonise dairy, suggesting that it has an acidic effect on the body that causes leaching of the bones.

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Almond milk is little more than expensive water, says the expert

The Facts

If you are on a dairy-free diet, your body is probably not meeting its daily calcium requirements. Over time, your bones become weaker, increasing your risk of stress fractures and even osteoporosis (a bone-wasting disease).

In fact, recent studies by public health bodies have warned that under-30s are at a high risk of developing osteoporosis due to the popularity of dairy-free diets.

Calcium is hard to come by without consuming dairy products. The best option is soya as it is naturally higher in protein and calcium.

However, the increase in popularity of alternative plant-based milks, such as almond, hemp or oat has meant many avoiding soya. The main problem with plant-based “milks” is that if you look at the nutritional labelling, you will see that the majority are little more than expensive water.

Dairy won’t have adverse effects on your health unless you are actually intolerant to it, and not consuming dairy can lead to much bigger problems later in life.

Renee McGregor BSc (Hons) PGDip(Diet) RD PgCert (Sportsnutr) SENr is one of the UK’s top sports nutritionists, advising athletes from amateur to Olympic and Paralympic levels.

She is a performance and clinical dietitian and a specialist in the clinical field of eating disorders, holding the position of Nutrition Lead at the charity Anorexia & Bulimia Care. She is the author of Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Goes Bad (Nourish, 2017, £8.99).


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