He Said, She Said: Celebrity Diets

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He Said

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.


She Said

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!

Why Your Self-Diagnosis of a Gluten Sensitivity Is Probably Wrong

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I have a fear of needles. Before my surgery, I went for an MRI and the technician told me she would be using contrast dye. Great. Because even the sight of needles freaks me out, I looked away as she inserted the IV. Although I could feel the IV in my arm the entire time I was in the tube, I managed to never once glance at it, as I knew that would send me into a panic.

As soon as the scan ended, I anxiously asked the technician to please hurry and take out the IV. She looked at me confused, then gently explained that I did not have an IV. She had given me a shot, not an IV, and the needle was long gone before the test even started. The sensation of an IV in my arm during the MRI was concocted by my own imagination based on my belief that such an IV existed.

Our susceptibility to the power of suggestion is not a source of embarrassment or shame. Although I am no expert in the field of psychology, my life experience suggests to me that virtually all (if not literally all) of us experience placebo/nocebo effects in one way or another. Seems to me it is just part of what makes us human.

This element of our nature is a major confounding factor with elimination diets and self-diagnoses of food sensitivities. Your perceived gluten sensitivity is probably off base, just like the sensation I felt in my arm from a non-existent IV, because of your expectations.

Before I continue, I want to interject that despite the Business Insider article that came out recently entitled “Researchers Who Provided Key Evidence for Gluten Sensitivity Have Now Thoroughly Shown That It Doesn’t Exist,” gluten sensitivities do seem to exist. One of our colleagues, for example, was having such terrible migraines that her medical team wondered if she might have a brain tumor, but she came to find out that a sensitivity to gluten was causing the attacks. Since going gluten-free seven years ago, her migraines have completely disappeared.

So while the article’s title is an overstatement, the research study behind it hints at an important point: Gluten sensitivities are much more rare than today’s culture would lead us to believe.

Patients of mine have blamed their symptoms on gluten. After they made an effort to eliminate gluten, their symptoms resolved. Here’s the thing though: They were still eating gluten; they just did not realize it. For example, some patients correctly knew that wheat contains gluten, yet they continued to consume certain wheat-free grains and products not realizing they still contained gluten.

A very common and specific example is Ezekiel bread. Because of the bread’s marketing, some consumers associate the bread with health. Because of misinformation (According to research reported in the October 2013 issue of the Tufts Health and Nutrition Newsletter, 35% of people who buy gluten-free products do so because they believe them to be “generally healthier” than their gluten-containing counterparts, while 27% believe going gluten-free will help them lose weight. Both of these generalizations are incorrect.), they also associate health with gluten-free. Therefore, by the transitive property, they assume Ezekiel bread is gluten-free. But it isn’t; Ezekiel bread is loaded with gluten. The first ingredient is wheat, the second ingredient is barley, and the manufacturer even adds extra gluten, presumably for a protein boost or for texture reasons.

It seems, therefore, that these patients felt better because they expected to feel better or for some other reason, but not because of gluten itself.

If you are concerned that gluten might be problematic for you, make an appointment to see your doctor to discuss your concerns and legitimate methods of testing. In the meantime, continue consuming gluten, as eliminating gluten prematurely can make diagnosing a real gluten issue more difficult.

If it turns out your self-diagnosis was wrong, don’t feel bad. Remember, we all imagine that proverbial needle sometimes.


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Note: This post is a tangential companion piece to another piece I wrote, which you can read here.

Before I changed careers and became a dietitian, I put my math degree to use as an operations research analyst for the U.S. Department of Transportation.  I worked on many projects, one of which was helping to manage a mathematical model of the alternative fuels industry.  When I first joined the project, I wondered why – if energy sources other than gasoline existed – did we continue to primarily use gas for our cars?  Then I learned that all of these alternatives had serious downsides.  Fuel X would reduce tailpipe emissions, but cause massive pollution output at the plant where it was produced.  Fuel Y was so unstable that a simple fender bender could trigger an explosion.  Fuel Z was so expensive that it would price out many drivers.  I still remember one of my colleagues, who had been working in the field much longer than me, saying, “These alternative fuels are alternatives for a reason.”

Alternative medicine isn’t all that different.  If its unusual tests and approaches worked as well as its practitioners say they do, these tests and treatments would not be alternative, they would be mainstream.  I support an individual’s right to pursue the kind of healthcare that feels right to him or her, and I understand that not everybody wants to stick to the mainstream route.  In fact, I am glad there are people out there who question the mainstream, push the boundaries, and try new things, as that is often how progress is made.  My concern is just that alternative practitioners need to do a better job with transparency and disclosure.  In other words, they should be disclosing that a given approach is an unproven hypothesis, if that is indeed the case, not passing it off as a well-documented conclusion.

As an example, consider the plight of one of my best friends from high school, who wrote to me recently because an alternative nutritionist told her she should go gluten-free to help her rheumatoid arthritis (RA).  My friend says she has read on many websites that gluten causes RA.  I suspect that one day we will have a good understanding of the role, if any, that gluten plays in RA development and exacerbation.  That day, however, is not today.  For someone to put it on a website or recommend it to my friend as fact is just, well, in my opinion anyway, irresponsible, unethical, and unprofessional.

Sometimes people feel so poorly and get so desperate for an answer that they will listen to anybody who gives them one, independent of whether that answer is correct.  I do not mean that as a knock against any of the patients, but rather as criticism of practitioners who capitalize on desperate people making emotional decisions when they should instead hit the brakes and help said people make informed decisions.  If, for example, the nutritionist explained to my friend that the gluten-free diet is an experimental approach to dealing with RA and my friend – fully understanding the experimental nature of the approach as well as its potential pros and cons – decides to go ahead with it, then by all means.

These practitioners should disclose that some of their approaches and tests are not terribly accurate and are not widely accepted as valid, but they often do not.  Paradoxically, offering this disclosure would probably give them more credibility, not less.  Remember in school when a student posed a question that stumped the professor?  The professor who admitted “I don’t know” earned trust and respect, while the professor who made up an answer that was clearly BS looked bad even though that is the exact outcome he hoped to avoid by inventing an answer.

Elimination Diets

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“Two separate people told me I should try going gluten and dairy free to combat my arthritis and go off my medicine.  Perhaps that could be another topic: elimination diets to combat various diseases.”

In response to my request for blog topics, a friend of mine suggested the preceding idea.  My response inspired a tangential post to which you can find a link here as well as about two-thirds of the way down.

Before we get to elimination diets, let us first consider some of the various ways in which foods might have a negative impact on us: allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities.

Food allergies involve the immune system and the reactions are rapid and often acute.  Think of somebody who accidentally eats a peanut and has to use his EpiPen to keep his throat from closing.  Doctors can test for food allergies with a high degree of accuracy.

Food intolerances do not involve the immune system.   For example, consider somebody who lacks the lactase enzyme in his system necessary to digest lactose, and as a consequence he experiences symptoms like gas, bloating, and diarrhea in response to dairy ingestion.  We call this lactose intolerance, and doctors can test for it via a hydrogen breathalyzer test.

Food sensitivities differ from both allergies and intolerances.  Symptoms associated with food sensitivities tend to set in slowly, leave slowly, and are more subtle.  The range of associated symptoms is also quite wide, including headaches, fatigue, joint pain, bloating, and nasal congestion, just to name a few.

The current tests for food sensitivities are, to put it kindly, not great.  In fact, there is no immunological society in either the U.S. or Europe that considers today’s food sensitivity tests valid.  One of the problems with these tests is that they can simply reflect exposure to a food.  In other words, if you have eaten a given food recently, it is more likely to come up positive.  Even worse, the results can actually reflect tolerance (yes, tolerance) to the food in question.

The best way to determine food sensitivities is through an elimination diet, a procedure in which somebody cuts out various foods and then reintroduces them in systematic fashion in order to see how his symptoms change in response.  Elimination diets can be slow (think weeks, not days) and tedious, and they require a tremendous amount of discipline on the patient’s part.  Another issue to consider is that the patient is unblinded.  In other words, he knows when he is or is not eating a given food and this can influence the results.  If someone or something has led him to suspect that a given food is responsible for his symptoms, then he might imagine or exaggerate a reaction due to expectation.  It’s sort of a like a reverse placebo effect.  Additionally, other confounding factors exist too.  All sorts of variables exist in our life, so the onset or dissipation of a symptom cannot automatically be attributed to a change in diet.

While elimination diets can yield useful data, the challenges and downsides associated with them understandably leave people looking for alternative approaches [At this point, I went off on a tangent, which I extracted and posted here.], which brings us back to the food sensitivity tests that I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago.  These test results should never be taken literally, but they can be used for the basis of an elimination diet.  For example, if the results indicate that Foods X, Y, and Z are problematic, one can eliminate and then reintroduce these three foods to determine which (if any) of them are indeed problems.

Also remember that cutting out foods can have consequences and should not be done casually.  I know cutting out gluten is kind of the in thing to do these days, but going gluten-free without a good reason for doing so it not such a great idea.  Gluten-free products are often lower in fiber, iron, and some of the B vitamins.  Of course it is possible to get these nutrients elsewhere, but a gluten-free individual has to pay that much more attention to the rest of his diet in order to avoid a deficiency.  Additionally, gluten-free products tend to be more expensive than their traditional counterparts, and potential social repercussions warrant consideration as well.  Unless somebody has cause for eliminating a food and has discussed it with his doctor and dietitian first, cutting it out is probably not the best idea.

Despite all of these potential downsides, elimination diets are currently our best option for determining food sensitivities.  If you are considering eliminating a food (or foods) due to a medical condition or symptom, talk with your doctor and dietitian first.  While elimination diets have their place, they are not always the appropriate first step.  Your doctor may wish to run other tests first.  For example, celiac disease can be more difficult to diagnose if somebody has already begun to reduce his gluten intake.  So, talk with your healthcare team first.  Your dietitian can help you to design the logistics of your elimination diet.  If you are going to put in the effort to do one, might as well make sure you implement it in such a way that will maximize your chances of gathering useful data.  Lastly, if and when you do start an elimination diet, keep an open mind to all possible outcomes and do not assume that a given food is going to be either benign or problematic.