There are a lot of myths out there about ‘superfoods’ or healthy ‘healing’ foods, as well as the craze for vegan alternatives – but the scientific evidence is lacking. What’s more, having a ‘vegan’ label doesn’t necessarily mean ‘healthy’.
Here are some of the common ‘traps’ when it comes to health food fads – and how to avoid them.
Those who cut out gluten from their diet when they don’t have coeliac disease (an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks the intestine when exposed to gluten) have been shown to have a less diverse range of gut bacteria.
An observational study of close to 200,000 people (without celiac disease) showed that those with the highest gluten consumption had a 20% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, compared to those with the lowest gluten intake. The researchers were able to explain this, at least in part, by the fact that those who cut gluten also tended to eat less grain fibre, which is known to protect against type 2 diabetes.
Researchers (including my colleagues from King’s) have also shown that not only were gluten-free foods 159% more expensive, but they also, on average, contained more added sugar and salt, and less fibre and protein than their gluten-containing alternatives. Long-term food restriction can also be socially isolating and may lead to greater sensitivity to certain foods. I delve deeper into this phenomenon in my new book Eat More, Live Well.
My advice: don’t assume it’s gluten and cut all sources from your diet before considering alternative causes – the 3R Method in my first book Eat Yourself Healthy & Love Your Gut can help you objectively assess food intolerances, just as I would in my clinic.
2. Bone broth
It’s worked it’s way up from a humble cold remedy to ‘superfood’ status hyped up for aiding digestive issues, ‘boosting’ immunity and removing wrinkles… but it’s no magic fix.
The claims are mostly down to the collagen. Collagen is a protein, and protein is important, but it’s not a ‘complete’ protein because it lacks one of the essential amino acids (the protein building blocks). When your gut is breaking it down, it can’t necessarily tell whether the amino acids (which your body uses to build its own muscle) are coming from the bone broth or other protein foods like beans or eggs.
Restricting this fibre long-term (e.g. the ‘bone broth diet’) will essentially starve your gut bacteria – a bad idea for your gut health. We don’t want our GM to go hungry! Many shop-bought versions can also be high in salt, which can contribute to high blood pressure and risk of heart disease.
My choice: go for plant-packed soups instead!
3. Vegan ‘mock meats’
While a vegan diet that focuses on high-fibre whole plant foods can be beneficial, a vegan diet that relies on highly processed ‘meat-free’ alternatives and white grains isn’t going to do your gut health any good.
Take vegan cheeses, for example. ‘Normal’ cheese is fermented by bacteria, which are considered to be beneficial for our bodies. However, vegan cheeses are not fermented and the processing could degrade many of the beneficial nutrients usually found in plant-based foods.
‘Fake’ meat products, from pea protein patties to tofu ‘chickn’, also tend to be loaded with additives, by trying to create the same texture and flavour as real meat.
While preservatives and other food additives have been rigorously tested historically and accepted as safe by the food safety authorities before they’re allowed into our food, their impact on our gut microbes has largely been ignored – simply because we didn’t recognise the importance of our gut back when most of the testing took place.
Updated testing is underway, but there are still many unknowns. Animal studies so far have suggested some additives may not be good for our gut microbes, as they can trigger gut inflammation in those susceptible. This is something my team at King’s is currently exploring a world first Clinical trial. Stay tuned for more research results!