Five health trends, explained: Have these fads gone too far?
We live in a strange world of cult-like gym obsession and wellness apps on the one hand, and record levels of obesity and abundant processed food on the other. But fitness junkies and couch potatoes alike can all fall for ridiculous health fads that claim to magically unlock health, happiness and hot bods. These are the ones that are trending right now.
5. WATER BARS
Drinking plenty of water? Great. As the NHS (i.e. proper medical professionals as opposed to barely qualified hucksters with a shaky grip on human biology) suggest, you should be knocking back 6-8 glasses a day, and opting for water over sugary soft drinks. Staying properly hydrated is essential for your cells, metabolic reactions, the transport of nutrients around the body, temperature regulation and keeping your system flushed out.
However, this has also led to a vast industry pushing bottled water as a healthier alternative to what comes from the tap. Bluntly, the free stuff you get from the tap in the UK is absolutely fine: as this investigation highlights, 30% of bottled water sold in UK supermarkets is just re-purposed tap water anyway; public tap water is far more closely monitored than its bottled equivalent; and in blind tests as far back as 1997, researchers found no evidence that bottled water was of a higher quality. And, of course, there’s also the issue of bottled water’s vast carbon footprint. Peak lunacy has now been achieved with the news that a water-only bar—called H2O—is shortly to open in Selfridges, allowing punters to ‘enjoy’ various different kinds of water while pretending that they can taste any difference whatsoever. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this trend originates in LA and hopefully ends with the Chinese flag being hoist above Buckingham Palace for our own good.
4. BONE BROTH
A genuine food trend of the last two years, which has appeared on menus from the world’s best restaurants to Pret a Manger, with outlandish claims being made for its health-giving benefits; the book Nourishing Broth credits bone broth with improved joint function, faster healing and collagen regeneration, while others cite it as a treatment for anxiety. Two things: Firstly, bone broth is not new. Most people would simply think of it as ‘stock’, or, in post-war austerity Britain, they’d have been familiar with thin, clear bone soup (i.e. being so desperate for calories that you endlessly boil down a chicken’s carcass to extract every last ounce of meat from it). It was the reason why my grandparents’ house in Liverpool periodically smelled like a meat reclamation plant and it certainly wasn’t a trendy health food.
As to claims of its benefits: We don’t absorb collagen whole, so eating it doesn’t work (the body turns it into amino acids, which are then used wherever needed); while the hot, slow cooking process of bone broth reduces a lot of the vitamins and enzymes in the liquid anyway. Possibly of more concern is the soup’s popularity on pro-anorexia forums. And finally, there is the obscene mark-up in price that you’re handing over for this stuff – just south of ten pounds for a big bowl of “organic beef bone broth with seaweed”.
3. WELLNESS EVANGELISM
#cleaneating and #fitfood are hugely popular hashtags on Instagram, with people extolling the virtues of their monk-like diets. The poster girls for this movement are the Hemsley sisters with their ‘back to basics’ recipes promising to regenerate you by avoiding grains, glutens or toxins.
Which is all well and good, until you delve into the philosophy that inspired the Hemsleys’ ideas. On their publishers’ website, they give pride of place to GAPS, by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride, which they claim “is relevant to everyone”. That’s debatable, given that the dietary regime appears to claim it can help with everything from autism and diabetes to schizophrenia and psychosis, seems to suggest vaccines are to blame for autism and encourages the consumption of raw egg yolks. The Science Based Medicine site dismissed it as “a mishmash of half-truths, pseudoscience, imagination and untested claims." A big round of applause then to Bake Off’s Ruby Tandoh who took to Twitter to loudly denounce this lunacy. As she bluntly stated: “Food is not medicine”.
2. FEAR OF GLUTEN
Gluten is a mixture of two proteins, present in grains and responsible for giving dough its elastic texture. It’s basically been the cornerstone of the European diet for thousands of years. It’s also like kryptonite for suffers of celiac disease—a condition estimated to effect just 1% of the population.
Despite this relatively tiny audience, the UK gluten-free market is forecast to grow by 46% to £561m by 2017, while around one in ten new global food and drink launches are for gluten-free products. However, the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants is explicit about the facts: that no published scientific research exists to show any health benefit for people without coeliac disease, wheat allergy, sensitivity or autoimmune disease cutting out gluten. Interestingly, the latest research suggests the real culprit in most people’s diets may actually be FODMAPs (short-chain carbohydrates present in most foods that contain gluten, and which cause gastrointestinal problems. However, these can be easily cut out without any recourse to expensive, specialist foods.
1. PROTEIN OVERLOAD
Protein shakes used to be the preserve of lumpy blokes who went to serious powerlifting gyms, arrived in tubs the size of a sink and never, ever seemed to taste like what they were supposed to. However, they are now marketed as a ‘lifestyle drink’, sold in supermarkets and part of an £8bn global industry.
Plenty of people need a protein boost in their diet: elite athletes, people lifting large amounts of weight, those recovering from malnutrition. Someone who half-heartedly does some arm curls before padding about on a treadmill for 10 minutes? Not so much. As this overview makes clear, for the vast majority of people who train, you get more than enough protein from your regular diet and really don’t require any magic bottles of chocolate milk. “Combining all the protein timing research together leads to the conclusion that the body likely responds best to regular ‘doses’ of protein throughout the day,” writes Professor Tim Crowe. “I like to call this new muscle growth optimisation protocol ‘regular meals and snacks with a focus on higher-protein foods’. Others may call it eating.”