From sugar being enemy number one to juice cleanses, multivitamins and turning fat into muscle – many “wellness” trends just don’t stack up against scientific evidence. Vogue speaks to the experts to set the record straight.
What health resolutions have you recently made? To give up sugar? Cut out carbs? Target stomach fat with daily crunches?
Well, you may need to think again. According to registered nutritionist Laura Thomas, founder of the London Centre for Intuitive Eating and author of Just Eat It, society’s growing obsession with the pursuit of “wellbeing” is leading us straight into the arms of some very dubious wellness concepts and fads. “I spend a lot of my time myth-busting and explaining the fundamentals of nutrition to try and combat the nutri-bollocks,” she explains laughing. Meanwhile, healthy lifestyle enthusiasts are laughing all the way to the bank – the Global Wellness Institute currently values wellness as a US$4.2 trillion (approximately AU$6.2 trillion) industry.
The stark reality is that many of today’s current wellness trends are scientifically unproven (or worse yet, proven to be scientifically untrue), but still they persist. Often championed by social media influencers or celebrities with questionable nutritional or fitness credentials, these fads remain hugely appealing, grounded as they are in grains of truth and gilded offers of better health/skin/life.
After all, who of us isn’t after a quick fix that promises radiant skin or boundless energy? Isn’t it nice (and easy) to have an enemy to blame, a food group to cut out, rather than adhere to the consistent, boring, approved health advice to eat more vegetables, do more exercise, and understand our bodies and metabolisms are different from one another (and differ throughout our lifespans).
Alissa Rumsey, nutrition therapist and founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, says we need to consider the potential damage these myths can do not only to our physical health, but also our mental wellbeing, calling the wellness industry “a diet in disguise.” She argues that the “demonisation” of certain foods creates a preoccupation around eating that can lead to disordered eating behaviours. Thomas agrees: “I see a lot of food fear that stems from pseudoscience, half-truths, and misconceptions about health and nutrition.” She argues that the elimination of food groups “puts people at risk of nutritional deficiencies and, if untreated, the diseases that result from them (such as osteoporosis).”
Here, we unpack the top 10 wellness myths (and half-truths) to watch out for.
A gluten-free diet is better for your health
While rigidly avoiding gluten is a necessity for coeliac sufferers (approximately one per cent of the population) going “gluten free” has become a popular diet trend across the Western world, with an estimated 10 per cent of Americans now eliminating or reducing their consumption of gluten, despite never having been diagnosed with the condition. Aside from those making (big) money from the diet (the gluten-free market is projected to be valued at US$7.59 billion (approximately AU$11.2 billion) by 2020 – no wonder, since according to Alan Levinovitz, author of The Gluten Lie, gluten-free foods are on average 242 per cent more expensive than their gluten-containing versions), it seems there is little to be gained from giving up gluten. The health promises of weight loss, increased energy, “gut healing” and even curing autism, appear groundless – fuelled by little more than anecdotal marketing, celebrities and media. Around six per cent of the US population have gluten sensitivity (experiencing an autoimmune reaction with symptoms such as bloating, diarrhoea, weight loss or abdominal cramping after consuming gluten or wheat), however this 2015 National Institute of Health study did find that 86 per cent of individuals who believed they were gluten sensitive were not. If you’re unsure then try eliminating gluten for a few weeks and then reintroducing it slowly – your body will quickly tell you. But bear in mind that according to the 2017 British Medical Journal, removing gluten from your diet may increase your risk of heart disease. “This is because gluten is usually packaged with other important nutrients, like fibre and other plant-based nutrients (think wholemeal bread or barley, for instance),” explains Thomas.
Juice cleanses are a steadfast way to detoxify the body
“Despite all the hype and popularity, there is no proof that ‘detoxing’ will remove toxins or make you healthier,” says Rumsey. Tell that to the 5,861 juice and smoothie businesses operating in the US today. Although juicing first became popular in the 1970s, the last decade saw its mainstream ascent, propagated in part by slim, dewy-faced celebrities and bloggers such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Deliciously Ella. Predicted to be a US $250 billion (Approximately AU $369 billion) market by 2025, juice cleanses are said to raise energy levels, boost the immune system, flush out toxins, help improve digestion and even cure cancer. However, aside from possibly increasing the amount of healthy gut microbiome (as found by one study published in Scientific Reports), most purported benefits have been found to be unsubstantiated and anecdotal.
A fresh juice is a great way to add more fruit and vegetables to your diet, but “cleanses are low in calories, protein, and fibre – essential nutrients that our bodies need to function” says Rumsey. “Our liver and kidneys do a great job of cleaning our system on their own.” Indeed, there is no evidence that dangerous toxins accumulate in otherwise healthy livers without specific exposure to very large amounts of chemicals or toxins (eg. alcohol), and in fact a 2013 case report in The American Journal of Medicine suggested that juice cleansing could be damaging for the kidneys. A better cleanse would be to give the body a break from digesting more difficult substances such as alcohol, drugs, meat and highly processed food.
If it’s weight loss you’re after, some find juice cleanses are a great way to kickstart new healthier eating habits as they can help you tune back into your natural hunger signals. However, be aware that the weight loss itself is primarily water and will be gained once you begin eating again. Furthermore, as Rumsey explains: “These plans can leave you feeling hungry and cranky, causing a rebound food binge once you stop the detox. They reinforce the harmful cycle of restrictive eating followed by overeating or binging, which doesn’t help to teach you how to eat in the long run.” Treat an antioxidant-packed juice like a handy supplement to your daily diet, allowing you to swiftly and easily increase your vegetable and fruit intake.
You need to drink eight glasses of water a day to stay hydrated
Despite numerous studies, including one in 2014 in Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation journal, that completely debunks this health myth, still it persists. Dr Rachel Vreeman and Dr Aaron Carroll, co-authors of Don’t Swallow Your Gum: Myths, Half-Truths and Outright Lies About Your Body and Health, believe the source of the belief may be a 1945 article from the National Research Council, which noted that a “suitable allowance” of water for adults is 2.5 litres a day, with the last sentence noting that much of it is already contained in the food we eat. “If the last, crucial sentence is ignored, the statement could be interpreted as instruction to drink eight glasses of water a day,” Dr Vreeman and Dr Carroll explain. Thomas agrees: “It’s important to drink enough fluid, but our requirements can be met from juice and herbal/green teas. If you were to drink more tea or coffee than usual, then the caffeine would behave as a diuretic, but otherwise we build up a ‘tolerance’ to caffeine that allows caffeinated drinks to contribute towards our fluid intake.”
Furthermore, the body absorbs water from all these liquid sources in much the same way (after breaking down, for example, the sugars in fruit juice). Water is vital for life (and the best beverage to consume), but how much you need per day will depend on your age, body mass, where you live and how much you’ve been sweating. Basically drink water when you want to and you’ll be fine.
Eating carbs makes you fat
While we know that completely cutting out carbs can help you lose weight, the reality is that carbs on their own don’t make you fat. “This is a misplaced obsession,” explains Thomas. “No single nutrient or food group can make you fat. In fact, scientists believe about 77 per cent of our weight can be explained by genetics (roughly the same amount as accounts for our height).” This myth is based on the hypothesis that carbs spike or elevate insulin, and insulin (as the “fat storage hormone”) makes us store calories as fat. With just the right amount of science to sound scientific enough, it has spawned a million headlines and celebrity low-carb diets. But as this 2015 National Institute of Health study shows, it’s incorrect – we get fat when we consume more calories than we burn, simple.
Of course most people will lose weight on a low-carb diet as restricting carbs reduces calories by narrowing food options (no pizza or cake!). And sure, while not all carbs are created equal, carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, and eating certain types have been shown to actually help with weight loss, body fat reduction and muscle growth (if it’s good enough for Oprah Winfrey…). Finally, studies published last year in The Lancet Public Health and National Institute of Health suggested that neither a no-carb diet nor a high-carb diet are ideal if you’re trying to live a long and healthy life. So, as always, the answer is balance.
Sugar is the enemy
Sugar is currently dietary enemy number one, with social media feeds and wellness books full of pseudoscience about how toxic it is for the body and mind. We’re told we are addicted to sugar, that it is making us fat, that it causes hyperactivity, diabetes and even cancer. The reality is that none of these claims seem to be backed by much science– see here, here and here. “Just about every carbohydrate we consume – whether is comes from oats, quinoa, beans, bananas or sweet potatoes, gets broken down into the sugar glucose,” explains Thomas. “It’s an essential nutrient for the central nervous system and red blood cells, and is especially important during exercise.”
Furthermore, to your body, all sources of sugar are the same and are broken down in the same way. And while minimally processed sweeteners, like honey or maple syrup, contain more nutrients than highly processed ones, like white sugar, the amounts are so small they are unlikely to have a measurable impact on your health. While a moderate amount of sugar doesn’t seem to be harmful, consuming too much can of course put you at risk of unnecessary weight gain. But so can eating too much pizza, or cheese, or even quinoa. As this 2012 National Institute of Health Q&A on the “toxic” effects of sugar shows, our society has unparalleled easy access to sugar compared with previous generations, and there are unquestionably some individuals who would benefit from eating less. But don’t be scared of the stuff. Be mindful of your intake – cut down on sugary drinks, and watch out for high fructose corn syrup and hidden added sugars in things like yogurt and bread. As always, everything in moderation, as Thomas explains: “While it doesn’t feel great if we binge on doughnuts all day long, we also know that when we are very restrictive of foods with added sugar, that can amp up our cravings and make us feel out of control around these foods.”
We all need to take multivitamins to stay healthy
More than half of American adults take some kind of daily vitamin, but they may just be wasting their money, as there is no strong evidence to back up the belief that taking them makes you healthier if you are already well nourished. Broadly speaking vitamins are a group of substances that your body needs for normal cell function, growth and development. There are 13 in total: vitamins A, C, D, E, K, B1, B2, B3, pantothenic acid, biotin, B6, B12 and folic acid. But most of these are easily obtained through food, and if you are truly deficient in a vitamin it’s likely you’ll have symptoms – vitamin B12 deficiency, for example, presents as fatigue, tingling hands/feet, confusion and memory loss. Rumsey agrees: “Unless someone is on a restrictive diet or suffers from malabsorption disorders, there is typically no need to take a multivitamin.”
There are certain circumstances in which vitamin supplements are recommended: a multivitamin for the over-60s, B12 for vegans and vegetarians, folic acid for women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, and vitamin D in the winter for those living in northern latitudes. Ideally get your vitamins from food, however, if your diet is lacking, then for some a multivitamin may be a good way to make up for nutritional shortfalls. As Dr Shabir Daya at Victoria Health explains, you could view them as an “insurance policy” in case a deficiency exists. And if it makes you feel better…
With the right exercise you can turn fat into muscle
“This is akin to saying you can turn a dog into a cat,” says Hollie Grant, a qualified personal trainer and founder of London’s Pilates PT studios. “Fat and muscle are two completely different substances, with different properties and uses.” Fatty tissue is found under the skin, sandwiched between muscles and around internal organs like the heart. Muscle tissue, however, is found throughout the body. “I imagine this myth comes from the commonly used phrase ‘muscle weighs more than fat’, which gives the illusion that we are merely swapping one for the other,” Grant continues. Muscle gain and fat loss are two separate processes – fat levels reduce when our bodies burn fat due to a calorie deficit, whereby muscle grows from use. They do affect one another though: “Those with higher muscle mass will burn more calories to simply live and this could encourage greater fat loss,” she explains.
Hot water with lemon “wakes up” your digestive system
The most cherished morning routine for every wellness blogger, faux-nutritionist and healthy celebrity has absolutely no scientific backing. The claimed benefits range from stimulating your organs, to awakening your digestive system, balancing the pH in your body and, of course, weight loss and “detoxing”. But, as Rumsey explains, “There is nothing magical about hot water with lemon. If you enjoy the taste of it or it encourages you to drink more fluids, go for it. But none of the hype surrounding it is real.” Of course drinking water is good for you and adding a natural flavour (with the added nutritional bonuses of vitamin C, folate and potassium) like lemon can make you sip more often, but “any water, hot or cold, helps with hydration and aids in digestion,” says Rumsey. Furthermore, hot lemon water can seriously wreak havoc on your teeth, especially when drunk first thing in the morning, as it wears down the enamel. Having said all that, coffee wreaks havoc on your enamel and for many also the digestive system, so if that’s the alternative, perhaps starting your day with hot water and lemon isn’t such a bad idea after all.
You need to be eating a high-protein diet
Since the popularisation of the Atkins diet in the early 2000s, the wealthy Western world’s obsession with protein (the other side of the coin to our fixation with low carb) has shown no sign of abating. While the demand first started among bodybuilders, the cult of high-protein diets is now firmly ensconced in our social media feeds, magazines, restaurants and supermarkets, with everything from chocolate bars to bread enriched with the stuff. Protein is essential for the body’s growth and repair (hence why it’s recommended after exercise) and general overall health, however an excess seems to have a negative impact, with some studies suggesting that it may lead to an increase in the rate of loss of calcium from bones, have adverse effects on pregnancy outcome and may be toxic to people with renal or liver disease.
Furthermore, as Rumsey explains, “Like any diet, a high-protein diet is not sustainable for the long term. While you may lose weight initially, 90 to 95 per cent of people who lose weight with diets gain it back, and two-thirds gain back more than they lost. This type of yo-yo dieting – or weight cycling – can be more detrimental to your health than just staying at a higher weight.” Depending on your activity levels, you should be getting 10 to 35 per cent of your calories from protein, and ideally from natural sources such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts or beans.
You can spot train the body to burn fat
“Abdominal crunches for a flat stomach? Tricep exercises for bingo wings? You’re wasting your time,” says Grant. Spot training is the idea that you can cause weight loss or muscle definition in one area without affecting other parts of the body. This myth is particularly persistent because everyone wants it to be true. Wouldn’t life be easier if we really could get “buns of steel” after a few namesake classes at the gym? Sadly, as these studies (one, two , three) in the National Institute of Health shows, it’s anatomically impossible.
“While you can target a certain muscle, and potentially grow its size and strength, you cannot burn fat from a certain area,” says Grant. Fat loss is “like taking off a layer of clothing; it is removed all over, not in pockets/areas, and you cannot choose where that loss will be. There are areas that may be more stubborn, such as the hips, glutes and thighs on women,” explains Grant. As Joe Wicks, The Body Coach says: “Building strong abs will not give you a six-pack if those muscles are hiding behind body fat.” Furthermore, spot reduction is ineffective as a fat loss method as it targets muscles that are relatively small through exercises that are relatively insignificant in terms of enhancing overall fitness, strength and energy expenditure —and this is what determines your body’s fat-burning ability, not how much you “feel the burn.”