The villianization of foods is not new, and when one evil temptress is not in the spotlight, it is surely because another has captured the media's attention and America's heart.
The most successful attack strategies involve a victim, a villain and a hero. Sometimes the villain is quite real, and there is good science used to justify the attack. But often the attack is misdirected or simply baseless. I often wonder why, when a food is innocent of all charges, supporters take so long to come to its defense? And why so many are willing to join an attack on a food or category?
More often than not, restaurants fall victim to the food fights, having to change recipes or menu items to keep fad dieters as customers.
Carbohydrates have long been the poster child for such attacks. In fact, entire diets have been created to expel carbs from one's daily meal routine. Promises range from weight loss to increased energy. Many a restaurant jumped on the no-carb bandwagon around 2004 when the Atkins Diet, birthed by Dr. Atkins himself, became popular. Remember all those bunless burgers?
How does it work?
The Atkins diet is a broad-based, low-carb approach that actually has weight loss efficacy; however, it's essentially a starvation diet. The brain functions on simples sugars – they are the fuel for the brain. Whether you consume carbs they are metabolized to simple sugars to act as fuel for the brain. Eaten in excess, the body converts carbs in the liver to fat and puts them into storage for later use. The Atkins diet cuts out carbs thereby starving the brain and reversing the metabolic process causing fat to change back to simple sugar to feed the deprived brain. And poof, weight loss occurs.
The downside of the diet however, is that the kidneys don't like high protein diets; therefore kidney failure is a risk. Also cholesterol levels rise which contributes to heart disease, and since you are starving the brain, cognitive function issues arise. The diet has also been linked to higher intestinal cancer and the ketones produced when the fat is converted back to sugar causes brain damage in fetuses.
The adversaries to Atkins included the American Dietetic Association and American Heart Association among others. Their voices simply weren't heard right away – eat steak and bacon and lose weight – who wants to rain on that parade? The Atkins crash was due in part to the efforts of the health experts and because the diet isn't sustainable. Rebound weight gain occurs and secondary health issues arise.
The next cousin to try to steal the spotlight was low-glyceamic index (low GI) which was being touted as the new miracle weight loss diet.
How does it work?
Low GI, however, is a medical diet for diabetics and research showed they were the only population to see weight loss benefit. No blood sugar problems equals no weight loss. Also, the low GI diet is so complicated that dietitians themselves don't teach it to their patients. In the case of the low GI diet the same set of adversaries that aided the crash of Atkins were responsible for low GI's failure.
Now here comes the Gluten Free diet. Gluten Free is essentially another low-carb diet except it only villianizes three carbs – wheat, rye and barley.
How does it work?
Gluten free is also a medically indicated diet specifically for Celiac Sprue patients and has no weight loss or health benefits for the general public. In fact, patients have to be monitored closely because the diet creates a hostile environment for probiotics thereby impacting gut health long term. According to the Celiac Sprue Association, 1 percent of the U.S. population carries the genetic marker for Celiac Sprue. Of that 1 percent, about 30 perdcent have a genetic predisposition , so only one third of the 1 percent will actually manifest the disease. So the popular quote of "1 in 133 people suffer from Celiac Sprue is simply not true. According to the Celiac Foundation, there are only about 300,000 afflicted with Celiac disease in this country, and only another 150,000 are estimated to be undiagnosed.
Since the CDC does not require its tracking by hospitals or doctors there is no way to measure the actual number. Consumer survey research from groups such as Hartman, Mintel and Datamonitor have reported that many people are mistakenly on the diet due to ignorance of its purpose. Some 80 percent of people following the diet don't medically need to.
The three most recent cousins in the spotlight now are the Dukan Diet, the Paleo Diet and the Wheat Belly Diet book.
Dukan, a protein-based diet designed by French nutritionist and dietician, Pierre Dukan, gained brief media attention in the United States after the royal family used it prior to the royal wedding. However, it hasn't gained much traction here due to the many adversarial groups who were successfully able to broadcast the unhealthy nature of the diet.
The Paleo Diet, also known as the Caveman Diet, is even more limiting and unsustainable then Atkins. It bans most carbs and dairy and encourages people to eat only lean proteins, veggies and fruits. Cavemen only lived to about 25 years old; think about that. And finally there is the Wheat Belly diet book. This is a book by Dr. William Davis, who claims that wheat is the cause of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and in general, the lack of world peace apparently. None of the claims are supported by health research. The diet also attacks the Gluten Free diet, calling it an unhealthful diet riddled with processed flours, starches and gums. This book narrows the carb witch hunt to wheat alone.
So Americans have moved from avoiding all carbs, to avoiding specific carbs, to avoiding just wheat, rye, and barley and now to just avoiding wheat. The good news is we have run out of attack angles on carbs. And guess what? Americans are still obese. Shocker.
Suzy Badaracco is a toxicologist, chef, and registered dietitian. She holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Criminalistics, an Associates degree in Culinary Arts, and a Masters of Science degree in Human Nutrition.