A few years ago, I worked with a woman who was nothing short of obsessed about her weight. She didn’t have a weight problem: quite the opposite in fact. She had a great figure and weighed about 120 pounds at her heaviest. She claimed that she had to keep to a strict diet. However, her strict diet changed with the latest fashionable diet. I told her that she should just eat a balanced diet. Whenever I said that, she’d just look at me with complete bemusement. I also used to say that she was not doing her health any good by playing around with all these fad diets. I used to tell her exactly what WebMD exhorts: Healthy eating, say the WebMD experts,
Will help you get the right balance of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. It will help you feel your best and have plenty of energy. It can help you handle stress better….Healthy eating is one of the best things you can do to prevent and control many health problems…
The big challenge that my co-worker had, and the big challenge that many of us have, is that it is not easy to know what constitutes a healthy diet anymore. It seems that the advice we are given changes so frequently that we can never be sure anymore whether eggs, for example, are on or off the prohibited list or whether carbohydrates have a green light or a brightly glaring red one. Surely, butter and cheese are bad for us? Perhaps not, the latest advice could be that butter and cheese are now positively to be encouraged… until the advice changes again.
And what makes things even more confusing is that the world is always looking for the next miracle food. Miracle foods are what keep advertising agents and journalists in jobs. First of all the media tell us about the latest miracle food; next advertisers create their campaigns, then the media flash warning signs that perhaps it wasn’t quite a miracle food and finally they tell us how we’ve all been misled. No wonder we’re confused. If you think I’m exaggerating, let’s have a look at some of the outlandish claims that have been made for foods in the past.
At the time of writing, sugar is public enemy number one as far as our diets are concerned. Of course, by the time you read this, things may well have changed. But at the moment, sugar has only a marginally better public image than tobacco. Here’s a quote from Victoria Lambert writing in the Daily Telegraph:
Sugar… is the greatest threat to human health, bar none, they [the No Sugar Movement] say….unless we quit en masse, we don’t just risk personal obesity and disease, but national bankruptcy and collapse as the toll our ill health takes on our countries’ economies threatens to destabilize the modern world.
No punches pulled there, then. And yet in the 1950s, sugar was being promoted as something that could help you lose weight. I’ll repeat that because it sounds almost ludicrous now: sugar was promoted as a food that would help you lose weight. The Sugar Association of America paid for a series of advertisements that gave the message that sugar could help dieters lose weight. The obvious question that we will all ask today, knowing what we know about sugar is: how on earth will sugar help us lose weight? According to those adverts back in the 1950s, sugar helped to fill you up better than any other food. Today we know better, as Joy Bauer says:
Sugars are a highly concentrated source of calories that don’t fill you up, so it’s easy to see how a high-sugar diet can promote weight gain. Most caloric sweeteners have no nutritional value outside of supplying calories — that’s why you’ll often hear them referred to as ’empty calories.’
I don’t want you to get me wrong here. I’m certainly not anti-junk food. Although I don’t think it’s a good thing and I do think that in excessive amounts it can be potentially harmful, there can be few of us who have not given in to the temptation of a quick hamburger and fries. However, even with my fairly relaxed view towards fast food I would never advocate it as being positively beneficial, as they did in Australia during the 1980s. An advertising campaign in Australia claimed that “not only are McDonalds meals good to eat, they’re good for you.” Today, we’d be more likely to agree with Ian Johnston writing in The Independent:
While convenient and economical for a busy lifestyle, fast foods are typically high in calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt and may put people at risk for becoming overweight.
I have to confess to being quite partial to the odd glass of pomegranate juice. The reason that I’m quite partial to it is that I like the taste: that’s it; nothing more. I certainly would not endorse the view put about by one pomegranate juice manufacturer that its consumption will help you cheat death.
It is the antioxidant power of pomegranate juice would allow you to cheat death. In the UK, the Advertising Standards Agency received over twenty complaints and concluded that the health benefits were misleadingly exaggerated.
Whilst I would not for a moment endorse the view that drinking the stuff would help you cheat death, was this claim really meant to be taken seriously? Advertisers have always indulged in what is known as advertising puffery. The best way to explain advertising puffery is to say that advertisers make exaggerated claims about their product knowing that people will not take them literally. But, perhaps, that’s the very point of this article: we don’t know any more what we can take seriously.
In conclusion, I’ll just reiterate the points I started with. There are a good many fad diets out there. Often they are dressed up in credibly sounding scientific language. But as the examples above show, there are no miracles when it comes to food. The reality is that there is no diet that is better for you than a healthy balanced one. That may not be a miracle, but it works wonders.