With tree and presents put away, it is time to really focus on the new year and once again resolve to keep some worthy resolutions. For many, these resolutions will be focused on health, self-improvement and, in particular, weight loss.
Like fashions and hairstyles, trendy diets come and go and a quick google search can reveal what's going to be "hot" in weight loss for 2016. Apparently, The Nordic Diet is about to replace the Mediterranean as a source of healthy eating inspiration. The plan is inspired by eating habits in Iceland, Sweden and Finland, among others, and emphasises seasonal produce, fatty fish and high protein yogurt. Another big trend is "eating clean," a somewhat loosely defined concept which involves making healthy choices while incorporating juicing, blending and spiralized vegetables. It seems that the Atkins high-protein diet will be making a comeback while detoxing and various versions of intermittent dieting will also remain popular. (These are the clean-eating-with-cheating programs like the 5:2, 80:20 and, more recently, the 3-1-2-1).
It's quite likely that you, and others you know, have heard at least something about some of the above but I wonder, when is the last time you heard anyone announcing that they were following the UK's eatwell plate as a way to weight loss?
The eatwell plate is the UK's national food guide, outlining the government's advice on a balanced and healthy diet. The plate visually represents how different foods can contribute toward this healthy diet and shows how much of what we eat should come from each of the five food groups. The plate model has been extensively tested with health professionals and produced by Public Health England (PHE) in association with the governments of Scotland and Wales and the Food Standard Agency in Northern Ireland. Most of the advice provided in the eatwell plate is echoed in the food guides of Australia, Canada and the United States (though they may prefer pyramids and rainbows as visual aids).
(View the eatwell plate diagram here)
We should have an easy time believing that the government's advice on diet is sound. Government obviously has a vested interest in seeing each of us achieve a healthy weight. But does anyone actually follow the food guide? Does anyone refer to its guidance when looking to slim down? Why do we gravitate toward new dietary mantras over the tried and true wisdom provided by our public health agency?
Part of the reason must be that PHE simply can't get its messages out the way the diet industry does. The humble food plate publication – featuring a pie chart and one smiling child – is no match for a massive marketing machine full of gimmicks and glamour. If PHE relies on simple facts, the diet industry can depend on sex appeal, pseudo-science and celebrity endorsements.
Timothy Caulfield is a professor with the Faculties of Law and Public Health at the University of Alberta and a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy. He's written books with the aim of clearing up confusion over health and wellness, most recently Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything? How the Famous Sell us Elixirs of Health, Beauty and Happiness. Last year Caulfield discussed how and why we're consistently taken in by scientific sounding practices and questionable diet "facts" from the famous.
Take the seasonal cleanse and detox for example, a common accompaniment to many modern diet fads. A cleanse can take different forms but often involves drinking large amounts of water and replacing certain meals with various veggie juice blends. It is presented as a way to clear your body of toxins (the detox) while also helping to reset your metabolism, making you shed pounds. Caulfield says that there's a veneer of scientific legitimacy which appeals. "Detox is a semi-scientific sounding word and it pulls on our instinctive belief in how [our bodies] work. Therefore, it helps to legitimise the idea of a cleanse. Who wants toxins in their body? And it plays to people's fears about pollutants in our world and food, and offers a "solution" to that problem."(1) Another part of the appeal is how simply the diet industry presents all this "science." The explanations are straightforward and easy to understand while real science can seem contradictory by comparison.(2)
Professor Caulfield thinks that the pseudoscientific advice can be dangerous. "It's a noise which distracts and confuses," he says. "It pulls us away from the simple truth of what we need to be healthy…[and often] hurts our ability to be a critical thinking society."(3)
Other sources of noise are the celebrities who partake in diets fads and then endorse them, either officially or unofficially, through blogs and Twitter. And even if we think we're not being influenced by celebrity recommendations, we very likely are. For better or for worse "celebrity culture is our culture," says Caulfield. "It can't help but influence our decisions."(4) There may even be an evolutionary explanation for our copycat behaviour. Caulfield explains that, historically, emulating people with prestige was a very helpful practice. If a person could effectively copy the ways of his group's best hunter, then his hunting skills would improve along with his chances for survival. Caulfield says that the practice is less helpful today – there's no evidence that Gwyneth Paltrow's extreme diets will enhance our longevity – but remnants of the behaviour remain.(4) Many of us look to celebrities as authorities on matters of food and fitness and this can have a less than constructive impact on our health.
So perhaps it's time to put our faith back in the humble food plate. If you haven't seen it since it was presented to you back in grade school, it is well worth revisiting along with the Live Well section of the NHS's website. Far from just a pie chart prescribing what you may and may not eat, Live Well provides a wealth of information on healthy eating, exercise and weight loss. There's a BMI calculator and different allergy assessments. There are healthy recipes and explicit help on comprehending calories. If you are looking to lose some weight there's a 12 week program to download complete with tips, tricks, and exercises, along with food and activity logs to chart your weekly progress. There's a healthy eating forum to discuss the ups and downs with others.
And while it may lack some of the style you'll find in a famous person's Instagram feed, the eatwell plate provides us with comprehensive and consistent advice. It is always relevant, year after year, unlike most fashion, hairstyles or any 2015 diet fad.