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In a world inundated with conflicting dietary advice and ever-evolving wellness trends, separating fact from fiction when it comes to nutrition can be an overwhelming challenge.
However, there are some diet tips that universally make Registered Dietitians wince. These cringe-worthy pieces of advice not only fail to promote sustainable, healthy habits — but can actually be harmful to your health. Nutrition experts share advice to avoid– and tips on what you should do instead.
This advice makes Kiran Campbell, RD and owner of KCampbell Nutrition cringe. “There is no concrete evidence for this advice yet many people swear by it.” One study, in particular, found no significant weight reduction in those practicing time-restricted eating. Campbell says that while more research is needed, “Intermittent fasting can be a tactic that can be applied to restrict calories and achieve healthy energy balance,” but not necessarily the best strategy.
“There’s so much cringe-worthy advice it’s hard to pick,” says Elizabeth Ward, MS, RDN
Co-author, The Menopause Diet Plan, A Natural Guide for Managing Hormones, Health, and Happiness. However, the one that she dislikes the most, is the misguided advice that you can balance estrogen and progesterone with diet.
Ward says, “This claim is rampant in the online menopause community, which often preys on vulnerable women who are looking for solutions to their hot flashes, sleep troubles, and weight gain. There is no evidence to support the interaction of food and sex hormones, and if it was possible to manipulate them with food, we wouldn’t need hormone therapy during and after the menopause transition.” On the bright side, she notes that “it’s possible to have more normal levels of insulin by eating a higher protein, higher fiber diet with less added sugar. This is important during midlife because declining estrogen levels play a role in insulin resistance, contributing to type 2 diabetes.”
Symptoms like fatigue, weight issues, brain fog, body aches, and lightheadedness are often claimed to be under the false diagnosis of adrenal fatigue. However, as Chris Henigan, MS, RD, LDN of Simple Start Nutrition states, “There is no such thing as adrenal fatigue. If someone is having those symptoms and someone says it’s adrenal fatigue, people could unwittingly accept that diagnosis and miss the real diagnosis.”
This is problematic as most treatments out there for “adrenal fatigue” are adrenal-boosting supplements, a clever profit-and-marketing scheme from many online health coaches and unlicensed professionals. As Henigan points out, “Supplements are not regulated by any governing body. These supplements at best, are a waste of money, and at worst can be harmful. Some contain steroids… which over the long term could lead to adrenal insufficiency.” Unlike adrenal fatigue, Henigan says that “Adrenal insufficiency is a real and possibly life-threatening diagnosis.”
If you think you have adrenal fatigue based on the symptoms listed above Henigan advises you to speak to your doctor, or ask for a referral to an endocrinologist who specializes in hormones.
Another cringe-worthy trend on social media is taking apple cider vinegar (ACV) for acid reflux says Marie Murphy, MS, RDN, CSSD, owner of MEM Nutrition and Wellness. “The myth is that acid reflux is caused by low stomach acid and that by taking ACV, you can increase your stomach acid, and thereby improve your reflux.”
This advice can be harmful to those with GERD, gastritis, stomach ulcers, and other upper gastrointestinal (GI) conditions. As Murphy explains, “These patients have damage to the lining of either the esophagus or stomach or both. When excess acid contacts these damaged areas, it causes pain, further damage, and inflammation.” Rather than taking apple cider vinegar, which can make things worse, those with these conditions should work together with their doctor and a dietitian to ensure that the proper dietary and medical treatments are in place to address their acid reflux.
Registered Dietitian Nicole Ibarra dismisses the idea of how a juicing diet is needed to “detox.” She says, “This is cringeworthy because when you juice a vegetable or fruit, you remove all the good dietary fiber from the whole food.” Fiber is essential for gut health, and juicing removes the beneficial fiber Additionally, Ibarraa says, “we do not need to “detox”, our liver is amazing and does that for us to clean everything out.”
The trend of adding lemon to coffee for weight loss, popularized on social media platforms like TikTok, lacks scientific evidence and a sound rationale. Kristin Draayer, MS, RDN at Nutrition by Kristin says, “while lemon and coffee have some health benefits separately, there is no evidence to suggest combining them has any additional benefits or magical fat-burning effects. The idea that a single ingredient or combination can lead to weight loss is not only inaccurate but also oversimplifies the complexity of weight loss.”
Additionally, while this combination is likely harmless in moderation, it probably doesn’t taste good. And, the acid in lemon can harm tooth enamel and can cause gastrointestinal discomfort in some people.
The real harm, Draayer says, is that “these myths are often promoted by individuals with no qualifications in nutrition and not based on scientific evidence, targeting a young and vulnerable audience susceptible to developing disordered eating behaviors. This is particularly concerning given the prevalence of disordered eating and body dissatisfaction among young people and the potential long-term health consequences.”
Instead, she recommends enjoying your coffee how you like it! Rather than relying on gimmicks or fads, focus on developing healthy habits that support your overall health and well-being.
Contrary to popular belief, all plant foods contain all amino acids, just in differing amounts. As long as enough calories are consumed with a variety of plant-based foods, vegans are able to get the essential amino acids through whole foods alone. Kiran Campbell, RD adds, “compared to animal foods, legumes, black beans, lentils, and other plant-based, whole foods can add all the essential amino acids our bodies need.”
Additionally, Campbell adds that “while animal protein sources do contain a greater amount of protein per calorie, this is only because animal sources contain mainly fat and protein whereas plant-based proteins contain fats, protein, and carbohydrate. Overall, the quality and quantity of protein can be more than adequate in a vegan diet.”
Spurred largely by various modern fitness trackers, many fitness-minded Americans are striving to achieve 10,000 steps per day (equivalent to almost five miles for an average adult). But this goal actually originated from a marketing campaign, not from healthcare professionals.
Christina Badaracco, MPH, RDN, LDN explains, “While it is important to be physically active every day, this particular threshold is not necessary. Further, this step goal doesn’t account for other forms of exercise that are also important, such as strength training and yoga, or speed and level of aerobic exertion.”
It also doesn’t account for other important health factors, such as metabolic health (eg, insulin sensitivity) and mental health, that benefit from physical activity. Baadaracco goes on to say, “For people who are largely sedentary, walking at least a couple of miles per day can lead to long-term health benefits. It’s also important to incorporate both aerobic and non-aerobic activity every week. Moving around the house or yard to do chores is beneficial for health, even if you’re not carrying your smartphone to track it.”
Where to begin with this cringe-worthy advice? Christine Milmine, RDN says, “Animal-based diets, like the all-meat and carnivore diets, are problematic in many ways, including the lack of fiber, cutting out food groups, and high saturated fat content. This diet goes against dietary guidelines promoting a varied eating pattern that includes a variety of plant foods. Not to mention, these diets can be quite unsustainable and expensive!”
Open up Instagram or TikTok and you’ll see plenty of influencers making healthier desserts — but they really aren’t any healthier if they are replacing the same amount of cane sugar with coconut sugar, honey, agave, or maple syrup. According to Alissa Palladino, MS, RDN, LD, CPT, owner of Alissa Palladino Nutrition, “Our bodies don’t know the difference between these sweeteners versus traditional sugar – the impact on blood glucose is the same and they contribute the same amount of calories and grams of sugar. It is misleading to suggest they are healthier alternatives or that using them in recipes leads to a healthier product.”
Of course, that’s not to say that making a healthier dessert isn’t a good option. But if the goal is to create a healthier version, then Palldino advises using smaller amounts of whatever form of sugar you prefer or adding sweetness to baked good recipes with ingredients that offer additional nutrient benefits, such as mashed bananas.
Many health influencers often tout the benefits of a carb-free lifestyle, or at the very least, a grain-free diet. But, this couldn’t be further from the actual truth. Kiran Campbell, RD notes that “Carbohydrates are actually a great source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They are also easy to cook and affordable.” Decades of high-quality research back this claim up. Higher consumption of whole grains is associated with lower incidence of, and mortality from, CVD, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.
Unless it is required to follow a low carbohydrate diet, Campbell recommends consuming minimally-processed, whole-grain sources of carbohydrates. When it comes to grains specifically, she adds that “the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that those following a 2000-calorie per day meal pattern should consume at least 3 servings of whole grains per day and limit refined carbohydrates to 3 or fewer servings per day- hence the “make half your grains whole” rule.”
Online content creators often promote restrictive diets, such as the elimination of entire food groups or extreme calorie restriction, as a way to improve gut health. However, Dr. Shy Vishnumohan, Ph.D. qualified, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Founder of One to One Thousand Nutrition Clinic based in Australia says, “such diets lack scientific evidence and can lead to nutritional deficiencies and other health problems in the long run.” Unless you have been diagnosed with celiac disease, or a diagnosed allergy or food intolerance from a medical doctor/allergist, it likely requires specific strategies for management– not blanket elimination diets.
While a celiac diagnosis does require a strict gluten-free diet, most food intolerances and GI issues can be treated with a wide– not restrictive– diet. Instead, Dr. Vishunomohan says, “Gut and overall health is about inclusivity and getting plant-based diversity across the super six – whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, & seeds.” That’s because “each different plant food contains different fibers and chemicals that feed different gut microbes and having a diverse microbiome is linked to better long-term health.”
#Gutok, the popular hashtag on TikTok for gut health, may have millions of views, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a good place to find health advice. As Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD author of Planted Performance and founder of Greenletes says, “Many ‘gut health influencers’ swear that our bad gut health is causing bloating and low energy levels, and they say you can ‘heal your gut’ by drinking olive oil, going on juice cleanses or eating a $25/jar of probiotic coconut yogurt. Obviously, this is all bonkers and not rooted in any science.”
Social media often promotes the idea that you have to heal your gut, but most people don’t. Amanda Sauceda, MS, RD wants to remind everyone that, “you’re probably going to be a bit gassy after eating broccoli or feel a little bloated after a large meal but that doesn’t mean your gut isn’t working. If you have painful and persistent digestive discomfort then that is when you want to see a doctor.”
Rizzo also points out that treatment for gut health online is really just a mask for weight loss, as many of the posts focus on before and after photos and videos of bloated and then flat bellies. “Gut health isn’t really something we can quantify by how our stomach looks, but you can take simple steps to promote gut health by eating more fiber-rich and probiotic-rich foods.” Sauceda adds, “Eating a wide variety of foods (and food groups), emphasizing fermented foods, and good sleep is just a few gut-healthy habits that make a big difference.”
A trend that became popular online this year was adding protein powder to coffee in the morning. Patricia Kolesa MS, RDN says that “while some people can benefit from increasing their protein intake, some people assumed that ‘proffee’ could serve as a meal replacement.” Neither protein powder on its own nor coffee should be considered a full meal in the first place.
If you’re looking for convenient protein breakfast options in the morning, Kolesa recommends, “having foods like hard-boiled eggs, greek yogurt cups, peanut butter, walnuts, almonds, overnight oats, hummus on toast or tofu scramble on hand.”
From Atkins to Paleo to oil-free, Tori Vasko, MS, RD, CNSC, owner of Easy Chickpeasy, observed that “there seems to always be a named diet or dieting tactic making waves that promise rapid weight loss. While it may be dwindling, it seems Keto continues to dominate diet trends on social media in 2023.”
Whether low fat, low carb, or reducing/eliminating other food groups, Vasko notes that the literature suggests there to be very little difference between health outcomes and long-term weight loss of these diets.
Vasko goes on to say, “It is likely that the thing all of these diets have in common is calorie restriction in some way, shape, or form. If you are trying to lose weight or improve your health, find strategies that work for you.” Which, may or may not be a fad diet. And, as many dietary patterns can contribute to weight loss, it’s a good idea to choose one that also promotes health. The Mediterranean diet, DASH diet, and plant-rich diets comprised of whole food sources are optimal for promoting both weight loss and overall health.
Another annoying phrase often seen on social media is to “only shop the perimeter of the store”. Instead, Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com, and author of Read It Before You Eat It – Taking You from Label to Table prefers to say, “’Make the most of the middle’ while also picking up your favorite perimeter items. Although the produce aisle is my favorite place to spend time…by missing out on the middle you could be missing out on important foods like frozen fruits and veggies, canned beans, nuts, freezer meals, whole-grain pasta, whole-grain bread and so much more.
Scroll through any social media feed, and you’ll likely see suggestions for healthier swaps– like apples or berries for cookies and cake. And while it’s hard to argue against the idea that apples and berries are more nutritious than cookies and cake, positioning them this way can make it seem like cookies and cake are forbidden choices. Caroline Young, MS, RD, RYT, owner of Whole Self Nutrition explains, “There is room for (both of) them in a balanced and varied diet. It’s also unlikely that you will feel satisfied by eating an apple if what you really want is a cookie, and you’ll probably end up eating more overall anyways.”
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