Tuesday, February 28, 2017

My Q&A regarding the "anti-sugar" pro-orthorexia movement.

Here's a Q&A I did a little while back with Shanna from the Body Acceptance Establishment about the current "anti-sugar" fad, and why it is so problematic.

The general public is getting a lot of advice from a whole range of sources, often with conflicting information, about what their diet should look like. What's your take on the rise of "experts" giving all of this information?
Well... I could talk about this all day but I'll try to go easy on your readers and cut straight to the chase, which is a bit of a challenge for me as you might be aware!
Here's the thing... in our society, other than in remote areas I guess, we really have access to an abundance of everything we need, as well as everything else that we don't really "need" but might find tempting or appealing.
So really, human nutrition is not something that's incredibly difficult to get right, but at the same thing it is something that's very easy to get wrong.

So the problem you have is that there is all of this conflicting information, which only further confuses people and results in them being less likely to have confidence in their choices, and less likely to establish appropriate and sustainable eating habits. A lot of these self appointed "experts" may have had some personal success via a particular change in habits, and then arrogantly assume they've found the answer to everyone's problems, and that anyone who can't make the same change or doesn't experience the same result is "just making excuses". It is highly problematic. Even more so when unscrupulous types start suggesting the particular diet they sell is the only way to avoid illness &/or can cure disease, dissuading people from following proper medical advice.
The anti-sugar movement has grown massively and you've been quite vocal against it, what is your reasoning for speaking out about it?
I am going to be diplomatic here and say I'm sure (or I'm prepared to consider the possibility) that some of these people started out with good intentions and thinking they were promoting a positive message to help people get healthier. Others though, without question they are just bad people, pushing bad information to exploit vulnerable people. In either case what you have to understand is that these people are marketers, first and foremost.
When you learn marketing, what you're taught is that "if people are prepared to buy it, how can you be wrong for selling it to them? if you don't, someone else will". So if the information is incorrect or inaccurate, the outcomes undesirable, the overall theme problematic... these aren't even concerns that a marketing mindset can acknowledge, it's simply business and if people are prepared to pay money for a product, a service, an approach or a belief... who are you to prevent them from doing so? You're just giving people what they want. You're a good person!

Well I think that's bullshit. A good person... I mean sure, we all need to make a living, but a good person would be in the business of helping and empowering people, by educating them honestly. Not in the business of exploiting people with damaging half truths or outright lies. And make no mistake, absolutely everything about the anti-sugar movement is at best a damaging half truth, and more often an outright, deliberate lie.

What people really need is assistance in establishing eating habits that are appropriate on an individual basis. Choices that suit their individual requirements, tastes and circumstances. An anti-sugar marketer informed me that this idea was "corporate gibberish" earlier last week, because all anyone needs to be told is "cut out sugar". I mean, really?
What is so dangerous about advising people cut sugar out of their diets?
Let's preface this by reminding everyone that ALL of the official dietary guidelines and any recommendation you're likely to get from your doctor or a dietitian include "limit added sugar". The anti-sugar marketers love to suggest that we're actually encouraged to consume loads and loads of the stuff, and nothing could be further from the truth. As I said earlier; outright deliberate lies.

So... let's take an extreme example. Obviously if you're not a very active person and you're in the habit of buying a big packet of lollies every day that you go through over the course of the afternoon at work or study, and then you wash that down with a 600ml bottle of sugar sweetened soft drink... that's way too much and I can't imagine a circumstance where you shouldn't cut that out in favour of some more healthful choices.

Having said that; I always think of an example like say your younger sibling or cousin's birthday party. A child's party. Would a handful of lollies there on that one special occasion do you any harm or be anything to feel guilty about, when you usually have an active lifestyle and appropriate eating habits? Absolutely not. But these are the sort of situations these anti-sugar marketers want you to be afraid of and to feel guilty about later. Well, I say they can jam that.
Here's the real danger though. Your average person who isn't in the habit of eating a lot of lollies and drinking a lot of sugary soft drinks, but maybe they're not feeling their healthiest, they've gained a little weight and being more active doesn't seem to be helping them lose it. They're encouraged to fear "hidden" sugars in normal, everyday foods. So all of a sudden they can't eat fruit anymore, can't eat muesli for breakfast, are encouraged to see other foods as "equivalent to this amount of sugar" based on the energy content. That's very bad, as people might be left with very few options that they're actually able to & enthusiastic about eating. Therefore they're in danger of being under nourished, underfueled in terms of being able to perform at training and produce changes in condition through training... and from there, people reading this are probably already well aware that it's not a great stretch to go from "food anxiety & restriction" to orthorexia nervosa, to binge eating disorder, to bulimia, and so on.

Make no mistake on this; I absolutely am saying without mitigation that these anti-sugar marketers and cult leaders are promoting eating disorder and profiting from doing so.
In your experience, what impact does banning a client from eating a certain food group have?
Well, I've never done it! But what I can tell you is that a lot of people come to me quite desperate for help after being made to cut out any number of quite nutritious, quite normal foods by a previous coach or on a previous diet program. The ones who don't end up with a binge eating problem still do end up failing to see the changes in athletic condition that they would expect from all of their hard work in the gym and sacrifices at meal time.

Let's talk about what happens when you ditch all of those restrictions and start fueling appropriately with the choices of foods that best suit you though! Because that's exciting. That's well worth doing.
What would you recommend instead?
Well I got ahead of myself a little there and spoiled it a little. I do a sports nutrition approach for the active people or the people who are enthusiastic about getting active, based on getting fueled up to meet their individual energy & other nutritional requirements with whatever choices best suit and most appeal to them. So I may have a client who reintroduces bread, cereal, fruit, ice cream, or whatever else... and because they're putting it all together into the context of dietary habits that meet (but do not exceed) their requirements to produce results from training... it turns out very nicely indeed!

That's one approach but it might not be the best approach for everyone. All of the Accredited Practicing Dietitians that I know seem to be very passionate about promoting body acceptance, and mindful, moderate eating rather than restrictive dieting. Although I'm not a dietitian myself and I have a different approach, it really bothers me how the unethical, e/d promoting marketers we talked aboute eariler disparage the dietetic profession and misinterpret their approaches and intentions. It is highly offensive.
What are your thoughts on the media's role in covering stories from high-profile people advocating a certain diet?
It's terrible. Channel 7 has Paleo Pete Evans. Channel 9 recently had Peter Fitzsimons interviewed by his personal friend in the guise of "news and current affairs". All of them stir up controversy, encourage mistrust in the qualified professionals, and promote restrictive approaches tantamount to orthorexia nervosa.

The mainstream media needs to step up ethically, and if they do feature a story about fad diets it needs to be in terms of exposing them as the dangerous scams that they are.
Do you think there is enough focus on the mental impact of advocating certain diets? Why do you think it is this way?
Amongst actual dietitians and qualified nutritionists, I do feel that is a focus. Within the fitness business, not so much. And amongst the anti-sugar, the paleo and assorted fad diet cults... it's the opposite. For some reason grown adults will feel entitled to bully others over their food choices, and see an inability to adhere to their rules as a sign of weakness and unworthiness. Honestly I find it disgusting.
The mental health implications of being made to feel somehow weak, unworthy, undisciplined for not being able to go hungry and omit palatable and nutritious foods that you have access to are a serious concern.
Any other comments more than welcome!
I just want to assure everyone that there isn't just "one way" of eating that means you're a good person who deserves health, happiness and to achieve you fitness & training related goals. Just because someone else finds a particular diet appealing and easy, doesn't mean it will suit you or that there is any reason you should be able to force yourself to follow it. I liken it to trying to force a square peg in a round hole, or swimming against the current rather than across the current. Enjoy being active, and include more of the nutrient rich choices of foods (veg, fruit, whole grains etc) if you can, but don't be afraid to indulge your tastebuds a little as well.

Your food choices, your weight & shape... none of this has anything to do with anyone else and no one has any right to tell you how you should be doing things unless they're a qualified professional who you've actually asked for advice. You don't owe anyone an explanation, justification or a damn thing else.
“Eating clean” doesn’t make you a better person. Being kind and compassionate does. Apply some of that kindness and compassion to how well you look after yourself, too.
Addendum:

Anti-sugar rhetoric is based on assumption about people's dietary habits, rather than data.
Here's what the actual data says according to this study, discussed here on my facebook page:
Adiposity among 132 479 UK Biobank participants; contribution of sugar intake vs other macronutrients.
"Fat is the largest contributor to overall energy. The proportion of energy from fat in the diet, but not sugar, is higher among overweight/obese individuals. Focusing public health messages on sugar may mislead on the need to reduce fat and overall energy consumption."