In an interview with ESPN at last month’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game, Mark Teixeira, first baseman for the New York Yankees, fielded questions about the gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free diet he has reportedly been following since the off-season. Although he nicknamed his set of food rules the “no fun diet,” Teixeira praised his diet for bringing about his return to health and all-star-worthy performance based on his belief that the foods he had eliminated are inflammatory to the body.
Each time an athlete speaks up about his or her fad diet and its associated pseudoscience, life gets a little bit harder for the rest of us. Already, so much of my time with patients focuses on reeducation involving the food myths and misinformation that are so prevalent in our society. The Teixeira interview and others like it add fuel to the fire.
The problem is not that Teixeira has excluded gluten, dairy, and sugar from his diet. This is his body, his career, and his life, and I am in no position to judge him for the choices he makes regarding these entities or for whatever he believes, accurate or otherwise, about food. We all get to decide for ourselves how we want to lead our lives and what we want to believe, and he is subject to the same freedom.
Rather, the problem is how the dietary choices of athletes are framed and conveyed to the rest of us, the incorrect information and insinuations that often come along for the ride, and the bizarre phenomenon existing in our society whereby we put more stock in health advice doled out by celebrities than actual licensed healthcare professionals.
As a general theme, people tend to be more vocal about their dietary successes than their disappointments, which gives us a warped view of reality. Teixeira is not at fault for discussing his diet at the All-Star Game, not when the interviewers made a point to ask him about it. But would his diet be the subject of such conversation if his year was not going so well?
Consider his teammate, CC Sabathia, who lost a bunch of weight (temporarily, at least) after adopting a low-carbohydrate diet a couple of years ago. His diet and its associated weight loss got plenty of media attention back then, but hardly anybody seems to be talking about it now. Perhaps ESPN would have asked Sabathia about his diet at the All-Star Game if he was invited to be there, but as it turns out, he is in the midst of the second worst statistical season of his 15-year career, both of which have come after he went low-carb.
Did cutting carbs and losing weight cause Sabathia’s career to suffer? Possibly, but neither you nor I know for sure. While a correlation certainly exists, causation remains a question mark. Nutrition definitely impacts sports performance, but so does a host of other factors. Regarding Sabathia, elements like age, injury history, and general wear and tear are at play as well, not just his eating and weight.
Just as we cannot scapegoat Sabathia’s diet and lost weight for his poor play, we cannot automatically credit Teixeira’s newfound food rules for his bounce-back season. Perhaps he is simply healthy again for the first time in a long while after undergoing wrist surgery a couple of years ago. After all, except for 2013 and 2014 when he was injured, Teixeira has been one of baseball’s best players for over a decade, and it sure sounds like he was eating gluten, dairy, and sugar during all those years of dominance earlier in his career.
We see these same themes in other sports as well. A televised Novak Djokovic tennis match cannot go by without the commentators throwing in at least one mention of his gluten-free diet, which he credits for catapulting him to the status of number one player in the world. Yet, never once have I heard anybody in the media talk about the eating habits of Roger Federer, arguably the best player in the history of the sport and someone who has continued to compete at an elite level at an age well past when most tennis professionals retire. His diet consists largely of foods like cereal, pancakes, and pasta – in other words, plenty of gluten.
Could it be that Djokovic’s career took off not so much because he cut out gluten, but rather because his years of training, practice, and experience have come together during the window of prime age for a tennis player to produce great results? Similarly, perhaps Federer’s longevity, ability to stay healthy, and years of domination have less to do with pancakes and syrup and are more due to talent, hard work, smart coaching, and efficient mechanics.
If you find yourself tempted to adopt a fad diet because a successful athlete is preaching it, look at the big picture and remember that most of his or her peers are probably not following his or her diet and are also doing quite well for themselves, but their eating patterns are not as sensational and therefore not garnering the same attention.
On a more macroscopic level, challenge yourself to consider how much sense it really makes to be taking nutrition cues from an athlete or any other celebrity. My computer and telephone are essential for my work as a dietitian, and I use them daily, but I only know how to use what I believe works best for me. It would be a mistake to fancy me an IT expert, assume that I really know what I am doing in that regard, and emulate my choices. Similarly, looking to professional athletes and other celebrities as you shape your own eating makes little sense either.
About two months ago, there was a big buzz on the Internet (and news media) that superstar songstress/actress/business mogul Beyoncé had an “amazing” announcement to share with everyone. The plan was for her to make this announcement to all of her fans on the Good Morning America TV show, and it was going to blow everyone away. Of course, the Internet was shivering with excitement. Could it be that Beyoncé and Jay-Z are having another baby? Does Bey have a new album coming out, and is she going out on tour? Has she discovered the cure for cancer? The suspense was killing everyone!
Well, it appears that all she had to tell us was that she has found the secret to losing weight (and keeping it off) and living a fabulously healthy life. How did she achieve this, you ask? Well, by following a diet, of course! Per its website, the “22-Day Revolution” diet is a “plant-based diet designed to create lifelong habits that will empower you to live a healthier lifestyle, to lose weight, or to reverse serious health concerns.” The diet’s author, “world-renowned exercise physiologist” Marco Borges, is on a mission to help his clients find “optimum wellness” by eating a completely vegan diet. According to Borges, by eating “nutrition-packed” vegan foods, people will be able to “transform their lives, bodies and habits.”
Ugh. Can we please just stop the insanity? Every time a new celebrity announces their latest and greatest diet discovery, it makes me cringe. Given that the majority of my patients are those that struggle with eating disorders (ED), I am fully aware that these diets can be the gateway to a life full of pain and suffering, as most EDs start when one decides to diet. Young girls are especially vulnerable to these celebrity diets because they often put these actresses, musicians, and models on an impossible pedestal. Even though most magazine images are photoshopped nowadays, most young girls are not aware of this and aspire to be as lean and slender as Gwyneth Paltrow or as fit and toned as Kate Hudson.
The fact of the matter is that celebrities are not like the rest of us – they are the minority, not the majority. Even if they did not diet like they do, I doubt that their physiques would be much different than they are now. It’s genetics, pure and simple, and they have “won” in the genetics lottery of life. So, even if you go low-carb like Gwen Stefani or Paleo like Megan Fox, it’s highly unlikely that you will end up looking like these celebrities.
These diets or “lifestyle changes” touted by celebs do much more damage than good. Not only do these diets tell us that we cannot trust our bodies’ hunger and fullness signals (and therefore need to follow food rules to be “healthy”), but they also give us a nearly impossible goal of looking like these celebrities if we eat like them. And if someone is predisposed to EDs, each new celebrity diet is like lighting a match and tossing it into a powder keg – nothing good will come from it.
My advice? Whenever you hear about a new celebrity diet that promises to help you lose weight and keep it off, turn back the clock, or magically cure your health condition, please change the channel, toss out the magazine, or click on another website. Celebrities don’t know what’s healthiest for you to eat – only your body knows that!