Fad diets and myth busting: Decoding the internet food lies

Understanding nutrition is more nuanced than social media leads you to believe.
12 December 2016

“Carbs, carbs, carbs. I get asked about carbs a lot,” says personal trainer Angela Rey. “Will they make me fat? When can I eat them? Which ones are bad?” Angela is talking about the many food-related questions she hears at YMCA Club, London, where she’s also Studio Co-ordinator.

“There’s a lot of wrong info out there,” she explains. “It’s really confusing because there are so many different kinds of diets. Most of my clients always ask me, ‘how much should I eat and when?’ But not everyone is the same; nutrition is individual. You need to find the best approach for you. One diet does not work for everyone.”

Like many in the fitness profession, Angela lies at the frontline of the nutrition war. And the battlelines are constantly shifting thanks to the media and the internet.

People read something online and don’t then look into any of the evidence behind it – or if they did, how to interpret it.
Adam Williams, YMCA Awards Head of Products and Services

“There’s a lack of understanding as to how to analyse fad diets and nutritional trends – and it’s a big issue outside the fitness sphere,” says Adam Williams, Head of Products and Services at YMCA Awards. “People read something online and don’t then look into any of the evidence behind it – or if they did, how to interpret it.

“I think social media helps speed up the flow of information. It helps validate an existing world view. If someone clicks on a link about a paleo diet then likes it, they end up reading more because other links appear about the same thing.”

Adam has a background in science which he says explains his ability to look into the facts and analyse the information. But not everyone has the knowledge or skills to do this.

“One big thing at the moment is the whole gluten-intolerance issue,” he says, as an example. “Some say that if you’re not celiac then you’re not likely to have a ’mild intolerance’; it just doesn’t exist. You’re either celiac or not. But there’s a massive division over that.

“Another one concerns calories and metabolism. Evidence-based practitioners argue over whether ‘calories in, calories out’ is the most important thing. In other words, if you are consuming more calories than you are expending, you lose weight. But there is another camp that holds onto a different belief concerning metabolism being either ‘fast’ or ‘slow’. That can be true, but it’s complicated. There’s a lot of nuance around that which people don’t truly understand. For example how can you calculate yourself just how many calories you’re burning by talking and gesticulating? How many calories do you burn when you go to gym, but then go home and have a lie down afterwards? It’s impossible to do that.”

If you have a true understanding of the basics it will give you a better position to analyse the current nutritional trends.
Adam Williams, YMCA Awards Head of Products and Services

While it’s true not everyone has the time – or inclination – to learn the subtleties of every nutritional debate, Adam says that in some cases, YMCA Training is stepping in to help bridge the knowledge gap with their range of books and e-learning tools aimed at the general population.

“Our products teach you how to keep a food diary and understand how different macronutrients work physiologically in the body etc. If you have a true understanding of the basics it will give you a better position to analyse the current nutritional trends. That will help you with the info that comes out in the media.”

Angela, who did a PHD in biochemistry and molecular biology before switching to a career in fitness, agrees that understanding the science can help. But luckily we don’t all have to enroll in a postgraduate degree to eat better. Reliable information, such as YMCA Awards’ short online courses and experts like Angela – whose  YMCAfit Level 3 Diploma in Personal Training allows her to decode nutrition for us – are there to help us. Which will come as a relief to those of us with little time on our hands.

Arm yourself with the knowledge to interpret food fads. Download a free nutrition e-book by YMCA Training.

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