Tried the low-fad diet yet? Here’s why a dietitian thinks we should call time on food-bashing and rethink healthy eating

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An anti-diet diet book is something of an oxymoron, but registered dietitian Jo Travers  saw a gap in the market for a healthy eating guide for those that would normally buy the latest diet book, but in reality struggle with the restrictive nature of most regimes. Making basic nutritional principles relevant to everyday eating is the aim of Jo’s game, as is the dispelling of any notion that deprivation, food-shaming and “being on a diet” work (they don’t, either physically or mentally). From unpicking complex relationships with food and  yo-yo dieting  to reassessing concepts of what’s “good” and what’s “bad”, the ethos of Jo's book, The Low Fad Diet , is firmly on helping people to eat food and enjoy it while maintaining optimum health and not obsessing over the latest food fad. Got an appetite for grounded nutritional wisdom? So do we. We asked Jo what ‘low-fad’ really means, and how seeing food for what it really is could benefit everything from our waistline to our mental health.

Get The Gloss: Could you sum up ‘the low-fad diet’ in a sentence?

Jo Travers: A no-nonsense guide to what constitutes a healthy, balanced diet.

GTG: What inspired you to write it?

JT: There are a lot of diet books around and I hesitated to add to this already saturated market, but the need for this book becomes more and more apparent each February when I find myself inundated with clients who haven’t managed to succeed with their latest dieting attempt. Many of them had tried every diet going and still weigh more than they did when they embarked on their very first weight loss scheme. I first decided to put pen to paper and write The low-fad diet when it became clear to me that people will always buy diet books. I felt there needed to be a sensible one out there for people to choose.

GTG: Who might your book help?

JT: I first wanted to help the yo-yo dieters and the people who feel like they are doomed to be “on a diet” for the rest of their lives. And I wanted to help people who hate diets. The idea has, however, evolved since then.

Its scope has expanded in that the low-fad diet is also for people who have a tricky relationship with food. For instance, people who comfort eat and hate that they do it, and people who dread big events because they can’t resist the non-stop nibbles. It is for everyone who wants to stop thinking about food all day.

I’ve written it for those that want or need to lose weight and be healthy but don’t have the time or inclination to follow a complex diet dictated by a guru. At the end of the day most people want a few basic guidelines to help them to make better choices.

GTG: What does healthy eating mean to you?

JT: Healthy eating is getting a good balance of nutrients. That means including all of the food groups in your diet, in the right quantities for you.

GTG: What bugs you most about the dieting industry? Any fads in particular that make your blood boil?

JT: I really hate those adverts that you see everywhere online- “do this one thing and belly fat will be a thing of the past.” This is obviously an enormously attractive idea, but it’s complete nonsense unfortunately.

I also get very fed up with people who are down on bread. A lot of clients come to me in clinic and say things like “I have toast for breakfast, which I know I shouldn’t”. There is nothing wrong with bread unless you have a wheat or gluten allergy. It upsets me that people are made to feel so guilty about the food that they eat. We need to eat all the time in order to survive so if we feel guilty about it it can lead to a very miserable life.

GTG: How can the general public be more aware and informed regarding food fads vs. truth?

JT: Be discerning about who you listen to. Does the person giving out information have relevant experience or a degree in the subject that they’re talking about? Or are they basing their advice on their own life, a celebrity anecdote, a commercial venture or on the basis that they’re getting paid a lot for advertising on their YouTube channel? Find out where people are coming from and if they’re being motivated by external factors before you absorb what they’ve got to say.

GTG: The book has a chapter on 'food and mood'- what's the link between the two in your view?

JT: Food and mood are closely related . Whether you feel irritable because you haven’t eaten or you feel like you need to eat comfort food because you’ve had a hard day, the two things are difficult to separate. We have a couple of things going on here. On the one hand there is the psychological prop of having something comforting, and on the other there is the biological need for nutrients. Both are important.

Your brain tissue is essentially dictated by your diet; chemical messengers in the brain are regulated by the food you eat and the brain’s energy source comes back to what you’re consuming, so if you aren’t getting everything you need then this can have an impact on brain function.

Brain health isn’t the only link regarding food and the mind. Food performs so many functions for humans. Sure, we need it for fuel, but it also has a role in bonding, creativity, celebration, religion and pleasure. On the flip side of that is food as the stressor: am I eating too much, has my child eaten enough vegetables, is my weight okay, is it healthy? There’s a lot of anxiety around being hungry or trying to resist food.

GTG: Any food myths you'd like to bust?

JT: Yes! Carbs are not bad . Our bodies have evolved to use carbohydrate as a primary source of fuel. If carbs were so bad for us, this wouldn’t be the case. Myth busting is quite a large element of my book actually.

GTG: Where do you think that the food industry is headed?

JT: I hope it’s headed to a good place, but I think it will need a bit of help along the way. For example, the industry has managed to do very well in terms of reducing salt and damaging fat in food, but it may not have done that without external pressure. Government policy was required, and the charity sector had to contribute resources to get the word out too. We are starting to see the same thing happening with sugar now, as advertising regulations are forcing manufacturers to reformulate products aimed at children. We do all have a collective responsibility, including consumers. If consumers demand healthier food, then hopefully manufacturers will deliver.

A healthy, balanced diet: the dietitian’s take

“What is this elusive “healthy balanced diet”? We are constantly bombarded with headlines claiming breakthrough research into the latest health trends. The all-hailed superfoods that promise to provide the elixir of health – if you include them in your diet you will lose weight and live longer. Some things I’ve been asked to comment about recently include the health “cheese” that contained no fat (and consequently a whole array of ingredients that are not quite food), the benefits of eating avocado stones, and a “cleanse” that involved eating nothing but potatoes. How do we know what to believe? By its very nature, science is always making new discoveries, and thank goodness – otherwise we’d all still be smoking in order to help our chesty cough. But you need to have a degree in nutrition in order to decode the headlines and that’s where a dietitian’s analysis really comes in useful!”

“There are always some caveats. What is healthy depends an awful lot on your health perspective and priorities, and this is where you will often find contradictions in the advice. If you are trying to gain weight, full-fat dairy products are brilliant. If you are trying to lower your cholesterol, not so much. White bread is a better source of iron than wholemeal bread because the wholegrain part of the flour found in wholemeal bread interferes with iron absorption. So if you are anaemic, white bread is a better choice than wholemeal bread. If you are trying to lose weight and want to feel fuller for longer, wholemeal is a better choice. It’s so important to think about the context of food and nutrients rather than just blanket labelling them good or bad.”

“Some foods are associated with a greater risk of ill health than others though, so what do you do about them? Red meat has been linked with an increased risk of colorectal, prostate and pancreatic cancer, but it’s also a great source of protein, iron, vitamin B12, zinc etc. You can definitely get by without red meat but there is no need to exclude it altogether, unless of course you’re a vegetarian or vegan. By the same reasoning it is perfectly acceptable to eat ice cream as part of a healthy balanced diet. Although ice cream is a source of sugar and saturated fat, it is also a source of energy, protein and calcium. If eaten in moderation these foods are very unlikely to do you harm. Even processed pork, one of the most denounced foods, was recently shown to increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%, but to be in the bracket for that increased risk you’d have to eat more than 50g (about four rashers of bacon or a hot dog) every day. The odd slice of ham in a sandwich is not going to increase your risk by much at all.”

“Having said all this, the choices you make do have an effect on your health. The food that you eat has an impact on whether you lose weight, keep cholesterol down, keep blood pressure within safe limits, develop type 2 diabetes or contract other diet-related diseases.”

“A healthy balanced diet consists of three elements:

What you eat

This refers to the different food groups, which provide all the nutrients necessary for health

When you eat

This is your meal pattern

How much you eat

Your portion sizes from each food group

Without these three elements it’s pretty difficult to have a healthy balanced diet, so that’s where I start with all my clients.”

Extracted from The Low-Fad Diet by Jo Travers, £6.99,  buy online

Follow Jo on Twitter  @LDNnutritionist  and Anna  @AnnaMaryHunter