Superfoods and Superfads

Every few months, you can find new articles where nutritionists and even doctors claim that certain foods may cure a disease or improve your health or that you should avoid a particular food group. Sometimes the stories are too simplistic or don’t give the full picture of what new research has actually found and sometimes it’s a plug for someone’s book or supplements they’re selling.

You may be told that eating certain food groups causes a range of symptoms and that by avoiding that food, you’ll be rid of the problems and be healthier. Unless your doctor tells you to cut out a food group, you shouldn’t self-diagnose because any symptoms you may be having could be due to another condition.

I’m the first person to agree that some doctors are appallingly bad at working out food intolerances or complex medical conditions. I used to have a doctor who I jokingly told people was trying to kill me by refusing to take my symptoms seriously. I understand the frustration you may have when you know there’s something wrong but no one is taking you seriously. You may decide to see a nutritionist or nutritional therapist, who may try to sell you a range of products (tests and supplements). My advice is to see a registered dietician. This is someone who has a degree in the science of nutrition. Dieticians will help you to eat a balanced diet rather than take supplements and help you take control of your health.

Do superfoods exist?

To answer this question, think back a few years when blueberries were supposedly a wonder food that could help prevent disease and make you a better person. They undoubtedly contain nutrients that your body needs, but if blueberries were a superfood, why aren’t nutritionists still pushing them at the same rate as before? The answer is there is no such thing as a superfood. There are foods that are highly nutritious and it’s good to know what they are, but you need a balanced diet to stay healthy and no one food is going to give you everything you need to stay young and cure all diseases.

It’s human nature to want a quick fix and if we believe a particular food can give that to us, we’ll buy it. If there really were superfoods, nutritionists wouldn’t be dropping last year’s ones and grabbing hold of a new set every few months. Superfoods are simply a buzz word to get your attention.

Some of the so-called superfoods have similar nutritional properties to the foods you already know about and were probably including in your diet. When an article is written about the latest marvel you absolutely must eat, people rush out and buy it, which forces up the price. Some foods, like kale, are farmed using a lot of water, which isn’t good for the environment. Most of us were perfectly healthy before kale became a thing, so why are we adding it to our diet when it doesn’t really taste that great? Some foods have been a staple part of another culture’s diet and by increasing the price, it can become unaffordable to the people who have been eating it for hundreds of years (quinoa is a good example).

The next big thing is supposedly the Korean dish kimchi, which is seasoned fermented vegetables. Also possibly making it to the new superfood list are coleslaw and other pickled vegetables. Kimchi is supposedly good for digestion and may contain probiotics, the healthy bacteria. It’s likely to be pushed as being a good way to lose weight and boost your metabolism and immune system. While it won’t hurt to add it to your diet if you can tolerate fermented vegetables, it’s not going to be a miracle food that will instantly make you lose weight and never get sick again. That’s just not how your body works.

Should you eat gluten?

Eating gluten free has been gaining popularity and many people think it makes them healthier. If you have Coeliac Disease (an immune system reaction to gluten), you have to remove all gluten from your diet to stay healthy. If you have a digestive reaction to gluten (a food intolerance), you may get diarrhoea, bloating or wind after eating gluten. This isn’t life threatening but reducing the amount of gluten and working out which types of gluten are causing the reaction, can be helpful and mean that you may not have to totally cut it out of your diet.

There are nutrients in foods containing gluten (wheat, barley and rye). If you remove all gluten from your diet, you should try to increase the nutrients you’re no longer getting. Gluten free breads and pastas aren’t going to have wheat or grains in them, so they are low in fibre. Folic acid is often added to cereals and processed wheat products, so you might not get enough of this if you eat gluten free.

I was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance and became a member of Coeliac UK. I don’t have Coeliac Disease, but it has been very informative being a member. There are certain foods that contain such a low amount of gluten that they are safe to eat and a list of these is provided to members. I was surprised to see some supermarket own brand breakfast cereals on the list, when you can buy more expensive gluten free options of the same cereal. I’m sure the makers of the gluten free cereal are well aware that they’re making a product that is unnecessary and overpriced, but if you aren’t well informed, you’ll buy it.

You should also note that just because a product says it’s gluten free, doesn’t mean it’s healthier. Look at the gluten free section in any supermarket and you’ll find pizza bases, biscuits, cakes and ready meals, none of which are healthy.

What happens if you cut out dairy?

There are numerous articles that say you can lose weight and be healthier if you cut out dairy. The completely unproven benefits include eliminating acne, headaches, arthritis pain and sinus congestion, improving digestion and weight loss. There are even claims that it can help reduce behavioural issues associated with ADHD and autism, which is a dangerous claim to make and is not based on any proven scientific research.

Up to the age of 30, your body builds bone faster than it breaks down. After the age of 30, it breaks down faster than it’s being replaced. Your body absorbs calcium from dairy better than from any other food group. If you remove dairy from your diet, you risk getting fractures and osteoporosis.

Dairy products may increase mucous production and cause sinus congestion in some people. Some opera singers shun dairy when they are rehearsing and performing.

If you do have to or choose to cut out dairy, make sure you get sufficient calcium by eating lots of leafy green vegetables and include foods like tofu and sardines in your diet. Taking a vitamin D supplement may help too but make sure you have this with or right after eating a meal as the stomach acid aids absorption.

If you are lactose intolerant, you can now get lactose-free dairy products at larger supermarkets, health stores and online.

What is lectin?

I’m going to predict that the next big thing you’ll be told not to eat are foods containing lectin. Lectin is a protein found in plants, including tomatoes and beans. It looks to me as though there may be a future fad where you’ll be told to avoid whole grains, soya, legumes (i.e. beans), nuts, tomatoes, potatoes and peppers. These are the very same foods we’re currently being told to eat.

The apparent reactions to lectin are the same as those given for other supposed intolerances – headaches, sore joints, adult acne, low energy. These are symptoms that could as easily be linked to other conditions.

One of the problems with fad diets is that celebrities often follow them. Just because someone else apparently avoids a food, doesn’t mean you should too. It’s not going to turn you into them and allow you access to their privileged lifestyle. They may actually be wrong and damage their health or the article you are reading may be untrue. If it’s just a rumour that someone no longer eats tomatoes, why should you stop eating them?

To convince you to avoid foods containing lectin, you may be told that it will make you sick and you’ll have symptoms of food poisoning. Kidney beans, when undercooked, can give you a type of poisoning, so just buy these canned or fully cooked and you’ll be safe because the lectins in them will be inactive.

The science bit is that if you were to eat food with lectins that aren’t totally inactive along with other cooked food, the carbohydrates in the other food would most likely bind to the lectins and deactivate them.

Most people who have lectin poisoning recover fully. I’ve never met anyone who has had lectin poisoning, so I’m not sure how common it is.

There is research that suggests that some lectins may be beneficial for activating parts of the immune system. There are areas in the world where people live to very old age and they have diets that include a lot of foods containing lectin (grains and beans).

In conclusion

Just because someone has written a book on food or nutrition, doesn’t mean it’s accurate or based on science, even if they have MD after their name. By all means follow a celebrity, but on social media, not their lifestyle. You don’t really know what goes on in their houses at mealtimes. They may have a chef cooking well balanced meals, but advocate a different way of eating because their publicist says it’s the next big thing. It could also be that they are eating an unhealthy diet and if you follow them, you may be too. Be wary of the next big thing, be sensible and follow the science.

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Food intolerance testing – the facts

From so-called nutritional experts to celebrities with no qualifications in diet to previously unknown food bloggers, everyone seems to be talking about what you should avoid eating and what the latest thing to eat is. None of this is usually based on science but becomes popular anyway. It’s become the norm for nutritionists/nutritional therapists and other complementary therapists to offer food intolerance testing. You can also buy off the shelf kits that you send away to companies who claim to be able to test for intolerances.

What is the difference between an allergy and a food intolerance?

An allergy is your body’s immune system reacting to something you’ve been exposed to. The part your body reacts to is called an allergen. Your immune system releases histamines which can end up causing anything from a rash, swelling, wheezing, anaphylactic shock or death. The number of people who react to allergens is actually small.

More often, people have what is called non-allergic hypersensitivity, what we usually call an intolerance. Your body reacts to an allergen, but the immune system isn’t involved. It’s not life threatening, but can be uncomfortable.

How do you become allergic to certain foods?

When you’re a baby, you start becoming exposed to different food allergens. Usually, if you’re going to have a food allergy, you don’t react the first time you’re exposed. What often happens is that you become sensitised to the allergen and at a later point, if you are exposed often enough to that allergen, you may get an allergic reaction when the immune system reacts.

What happens inside your body to make you allergic?

While your body is being sensitised to an allergen, your white blood cells create antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). If, after you’ve been sensitised, you are exposed to an allergen again, the IgE antibodies cause an immune reaction.

Can you be allergic and not know it?

Yes you can. You can become sensitised to an allergen but never have an allergic reaction. This is called latent allergy and it’s not dangerous. Most people who have a latent allergy aren’t aware of it, unless they get tested for it using a testing method to test for IgE.

What is a food intolerance?

To digest food, you need the right amount of a certain enzyme to break down food. If your body doesn’t produce enough of this enzyme, you may feel bloated, have wind or get diarrhoea. This is your digestive system reacting, not your immune system. This is called an enzymatic food reaction.

There is another type of food intolerance where you react to certain chemicals in foods, which can be naturally occurring (e.g. caffeine) or food additives (e.g. sulphites). This is called a pharmacological food reaction.

How do you test for an allergy?

Doctors and qualified medical health professionals test you to see if the IgE antibodies are present for the allergen they suspect you may be allergic to. They will take a history from you beforehand to try to work out which food may be causing the problem. This, along with the test, gives them the result. There are two tests that are most often done to check for food allergies. These are the skin prick test and the Specific IgE Blood Test.

If IgE antibodies are not present for a particular allergen, you probably don’t have an allergy. If you do have IgE antibodies, it just means that you have been sensitised to the allergen but are not necessarily allergic. That’s why the doctor will take a full history. The tests can only show part of the picture.

What other tests are there?

This list contains some of the types of testing available from complementary therapists. None of them are based on actual science and have no proven value.

  • Applied Kinesiology
  • Measuring the pulse (also known as Auricular Cardiac Reflex)
  • Hair Strand Analysis
  • Cytotoxic Test (examining the white blood cells)
  • Vega Test
  • IgG or IgG4 blood tests
  • Some therapists truly believe they are providing a valuable and accurate test. For others, it’s just a way to make extra money. Making a living as a complementary therapist is not always easy. There is a lot of competition and, in my experience, most therapists offer a variety of therapies. The lack of regulation in the complementary therapies industry means tests that are not proven to be accurate can be offered by therapists who have completed short courses and who are not health professionals.

    Just because a shiny leaflet has what sounds like a plausible explanation of their testing, doesn’t mean it’s based on proven science. Tests based on unproven theories may end up diagnosing non-existent illnesses. You may be told you have an allergy or intolerance caused by chemicals, pesticides, electromagnetic radiation, preservatives, Candida, medication, hormones, leaky gut syndrome, wheat, yeast, sugar or coffee.

    What’s the harm in alternative testing?

    You may be encouraged to change your diet to exclude certain foods that you are told you have an intolerance or allergy to. The foods you eat contain nutrients and micronutrients that, if removed from your diet, need to be replaced. Often, therapists will tell you this, but then attempt to sell you supplements to replace the missing nutritients or suggest herbal remedies to treat you. If you can’t afford to buy the supplements but remove the foods from your diet unnecessarily, you may end up with a deficiency.

    The main fads right now are gluten free and dairy free diets. Dairy contains calcium and if you cut it out completely and don’t ensure you are getting enough calcium, you risk getting fractures. Cutting out gluten if you don’t have a gluten intolerance doesn’t make you healthier. Again, you may be missing out on important nutrients.

    What is the IgG or IgG4 Test?

    I’ve seen this test being offered quite a lot lately, so I am concentrating on this rather than the others.

    This test measures your body’s reaction to IgG or IgG4 antibodies in foods. There are four subclasses of IgG antibodies, which is why IgG4 is sometimes tested. When you eat, you develop IgG antibodies to allergens, which is a normal response that shows you’ve been exposed to that food but not that you’ve been sensitised to it. What the IgG response does is protect you and stop you developing the IgE allergy by remembering to suppress a response when you eat that food again.

    Imagine your body is like a computer. You eat a certain food and your body makes a little code so next time you eat it, it already knows how to respond. You’ll either get the IgE code if it doesn’t want to accept that food again and then you’ll have an immune response or it will get an IgG code to say, that’s okay, I’ve had that before, I know what it is and you won’t have any reaction to the food.

    The companies selling IgG blood tests and the therapists offering them may tell you that IgG antibodies are linked to delayed food sensitivities and chronic symptoms. They may tell you that IgG-based diets that exclude certain foods will help relieve chronic illness. What they don’t tell is that it’s been shown that having these IgG antibodies is simply a sign of exposure to a food and tolerance of that food, not that you shouldn’t be eating it.

    If you get tested for IgG levels, you may be told the levels are high for certain foods. There is no accepted level, so there is no high, medium or low level. Everyone will have a different level. It depends on various things, like how much of that food you’re eating and possibly how you were fed as a baby. Based on levels of IgG, someone who is perfectly healthy will get the same diagnosis as someone who has symptoms. This makes no sense.

    The most common allergens are wheat and milk. You wouldn’t be having an allergy or food intolerance test if there was nothing wrong with you, would you? So, if you get advised to exclude wheat and milk after an IgG test and you feel better, you will most likely believe the test was correct.

    If I have a food intolerance, what’s the best way to work out what it is?

    Elimination diets have been successfully used to work out what foods are causing symptoms. An elimination diet is done over several weeks where you start with a very plain diet to stop any symptoms and then introduce one new food. If that food causes a reaction, you make a note of it and go back to the plain diet until your symptoms go away. Then you introduce another food. This goes on until you’ve worked out what you are sensitive to. Apart from milk and wheat, eggs, tea, coffee and oranges commonly give symptoms. Make sure you see a registered dietician before starting an elimination diet to make sure you are doing it right and to get proper medical advice.