Food philosophy: Fad diets

I was in the car returning from a Whole Foods/Trader Joe’s run last week, when the DJ on the radio station mentioned something about a new diet, the “honey diet.”  While I didn’t bother going to the station’s website for more details, the gist was “replace all white sugar with honey, eliminate all carbohydrates one [or two?] days a week, and, whatever you do, don’t. eat. potatoes.  EVER.”

Um, yeah, can you say, “Fad diet?”  Like a string of fad diets before, the “honey diet” picks something to villainize, in this case, the humble potato, along with carbohydrates in general.  Would potatoes be a problem if you’re sitting around all day consuming nothing but french fries (and oil and salt)?  Sure.  But potatoes, especially locally and/or organically grown potatoes cooked with the skins on, can certainly be part of a healthy diet.

I read the phrase “Paleo diet” before I heard it spoken anywhere, and in my head it was pronounced “pa-lay-o,” with the emphasis on the “lay.”  I didn’t realize it was referring to our Paleolithic ancestors, and thus pronounced “pay-lee-o” for quite some time.

My first reaction was, “Haven’t we already [more or less] done this?  It was called Atkins.”

Or, to paraphrase a quote from Zoolander,  “Atkins? Lo-carb? Paleo? They’re all the same [diet]. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.”

The thing is, I agree with some of the Paleo principles, especially those of the “Eat real food” variety.  I also agree that there are benefits from minimizing some of the foods that Paleo says we should minimize or eliminate, like dairy and added sugar.  The diet also talks about eating eggs and meat from pasture-raised animals, another plus.

One of my problems with Paleo is the vilification of whole grains and legumes.  I just can’t get on board with eliminating two major categories of nutrient-packed foods, both of which can be good vegetarian sources of protein.

From an environmental and world-population standpoint, we can’t all eat a diet based on pasture-raised meat.  There were far, far fewer humans on this planet when our Paleolithic ancestors were running around, so it worked then.  Now?  Not so much.

The Paleo diet also doesn’t take into account the fact that the idealized Paleolithic humans had far different lifestyles and energy needs than we do today, nor the fact that few of our Stone Age ancestors lived past the age of thirty, meaning we don’t know how this diet will play out, health-wise, in an age when people are regularly living seventy years or more.

The blog post, Archaeologists Officially Declare Collective Sigh Over “Paleo Diet,” while apparently satirical, and not reflective of a real scientific conference, offers some good food for thought in the midst of an over-hyped fad diet:

What people seem to ignore, he said, was that the fresh fruits and vegetables forming the basis of the Paleo Diet were created by the same agricultural process that produced cereal grains. “Nearly every food item you currently eat today has been modified from its ancestral form, typically in a drastic way, ” he began. “The notion that we have not yet adapted to eat wheat, yet we have had sufficient time to adapt to kale or lentils is ridiculous. In fact, for most practitioners of the Paleo Diet, who are typically westerners, the majority of the food they consume has been available to their gene pool for less than five centuries. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, potatoes, avocados, pecans, cashews, and blueberries are all New World crops, and have only been on the dinner table of African and Eurasian populations for probably 10 generations of their evolutionary history.

“You really want to be Paleo? Then don’t buy anything from a store. Gather and kill what you need to eat. Wild grasses and tubers, acorns, gophers, crickets- They all provide a lot of nutrition. You’ll spend a lot of energy gathering the stuff, of course, and you’re going to be hungry, but that’ll help you maintain that lean physique you’re after. And hunting down the neighbor’s cats for dinner because you’ve already eaten your way through the local squirrel population will probably give you all the exercise you’ll ever need.”

In a world where we’re faced with an overabundance of unhealthy food choices (not to mention other barriers to healthy eating, like lack of time or money to prepare healthier foods), the black and white, “Eat this.  Don’t eat that,” structure of fad diets is seductive.

The trick is to build your own healthy eating plan, whatever that looks like for you, but which can probably include almost all food, in moderation, if most of your calories come from a variety of real, whole, unprocessed foods.  Look any “diet” over with a critical eye, take the good advice (if any), and leave the rest.  Fads come and go; healthy eating habits last a lifetime.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some potatoes to cook.

Next up: “Great Grains,” my approach to carbohydrates.


  1. Deepa says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I think eating in moderation and a healthy life style that includes exercise and less stress is the key. The studies/diets assume a one size fits all which is often not the case.

  2. I agree. I do think that refined sugar is rampant in Western, and particularly American, diets, and I like replacing HCFS with sugar, and sugar with honey or pure maple syrup or other, more natural, options when I can, but find that any diet I have done (count calories, exercise more, cut out X, etc) only lasts as long as I’m on it. I lost 9 pounds in 8 weeks doing calorie counting and fewer refined carbs, and have put 7 of those pounds right back on in the 8 weeks that followed when i went back to enjoying the occasional soda, peanut M&M, or piece of bread.

    My food rules are generally those of Michael Pollan:
    “Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not Too Much.”

    I’m also a big fan of honoring my body where it is supposed to be. I’m a size larger and 5 pounds heavier now than I was at 29, which is a two sizes larger and 10 pounds heavier than I was at 23, but I am active, I eat more “real” food now, and my metabolism is slowing a bit as I age, and I was unhealthily thin (and stressed out) at 23, so all of that matters. I’m naturally petite and curvy, and no amount of calorie restriction or exercise will make me 5’7 and lithe. That’s okay. I’m 35 and one of the awesome things that has come to me in my 30s is working with what I’ve been given and loving it and honoring it and thanking it for what it can do for me (like ride a bunch o’ miles on a bike on a gorgeous day).

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