low-carb, celery juice, and the truth about health fads
New fad diets regularly crop up, promising healing, vibrancy, and the most elusive, attention-catching of all - lasting weight loss. Before you’ve considered trying one, a new one has appeared, leaving you shrugging your shoulders in confusion. What’s the truth, if each camp claims to be the solution? Who can you trust when each “expert” seems to indicate that the others are wrong?
You should raise your eyebrows when the diet you’re interested in trying has a “trademark,” some previously uncovered “secret” that promises huge benefits. In order to capture attention, a fad diet needs to appear brand new and be billed as a quick fix; it poses as the solution you’ve been waiting for, and it catches fire when endorsed by public figures. Health fads feed off of desperation and insecurity, and though they can be physically harmless, they may also do a lot of damage (see: don’t go on the keto diet). Wherever on the spectrum they fall, their greatest danger is in using kernels of truth to sell a lie, convincing the public that there isn’t a right answer, and perpetuating destructive body image issues.
Take low-carb diets, which have appeared in many, many, many forms under different labels and with subtle tweaks. There are plenty of low-carb diets that don’t advertise the fact that they’re low-carb; their respective trademarks disguise them, but nevertheless, their underlying MO is the same. Variations include the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, the Paleo diet, and the keto diet; they promise rapid weight loss and point to carbohydrates as the source of disease, neglecting to loudly and proactively distinguish between whole food sources of carbs that are vital for health (like fruits, vegetables, and legumes) and processed carbs, and dismissing the role of animal-sourced high-fat, high-protein diets in promoting chronic disease.
What are the selling points of low-carb diets? Weight loss, lower blood pressure, and improved blood glucose control, all of which have been demonstrated to occur in short-term studies. But low-carb diets increase all-cause mortality in the long term (1, 2), and their popularity heavily rests on the promise of an ideal body at the finish line. So it’s not that advantages don’t exist… it’s that they’re minuscule weighed against the unsustainability, harms, and side effects (constipation, bad breath, headache, nausea, and fatigue). This demonstrates how small truths make a shaky, nefarious foundation for larger claims. Incidentally, a medical report obtained posthumously indicated that Dr. Atkins had a history of heart attack, congestive heart failure, and hypertension.
Celery juice is another example, introduced and popularized by Anthony Williams; he promises that it is “truly the savior when it comes to chronic illness,” though there is no evidence to suggest that celery juice consumed on an empty stomach can heal a wide range of illnesses, or any at all. Interestingly, Williams promotes a primarily plant-based diet, which has been demonstrated to arrest and reverse chronic disease. Even though the juice itself isn’t harmful, this is a perfect example of a health fad. It’s couched in a truth (in this case, plant-based nutrition), it has a trademark, and it’s been popularized by celebrities, many of which are listed on Williams’ website.
Who cares, if celery juice isn’t harmful and may have mild benefits? The problem is, it still promises to be a quick fix and rests on a lack of evidence. The more exciting and seemingly miraculous these fads are, the more they distract from evidence-based nutrition that can actually improve and save lives. Many who attempt health fads do so because they’re distressed that nothing seems to work, and fads exploit the hope that something can. There is no superfood panacea, and the quicker we recognize this, the more effectively we can avoid being swindled by dishonesty.
In order to meaningfully advance the conversation about health, we have to be willing to move beyond the gimmicks and recognize them for what they are. We can’t afford to be confused, as obesity rates are climbing and heart disease remains our number one killer. Furthermore, there is such a thing as a diet that everyone can apply to achieve improved health. Dr. Garth Davis says in Proteinaholic, “People who know nothing about nutrition often offer the following statement as unassailable truth: ‘There’s no such thing as a diet that’s right for everyone.’ Where does this firm belief in ‘nutritional relativism’ come from? It’s common sense that people with food allergies and sensitivities should avoid foods that trigger them, but the science is clear and overwhelming that there is a fundamental dietary pattern that has been shown to be superior in every population where it’s been studied.”
So how do we know when health and nutrition advice is sound? First, consider the source. Are they a trained expert? Are there other sources and evidence that corroborate their claims? Do the findings make sense when applied? Asking these questions and understanding what right and wrong answers are can be challenging (and not just for the layperson), but they do act as a barrier to entry. The more we engage with resources, the more we can interpret; the better we understand, the better equipped we are to say no to quick-fix fad diets and finally do right by our health.
Our bodies deserve better than to be treated like testing grounds. I know many of us crave to feel better and lose weight, and reported successes seem as good as evidence. But our physical health will suffer from repeated pummelings, and our mental well-being takes a hit in the process. Every failure feels like an indictment of our worth. Now, more than ever, the world is at a crossroads, and at its center is health and nutrition. It’s high time to dispose of the junk.