Don’t lose your January to a fad diet. The bold claims aren’t what they seem

    15 January 2016

    It’s January, it’s a new year, and practically every magazine or newspaper you open this month will have advice on what you should and shouldn’t be eating. If you’re striving for more energy, a leaner, slimmer body, a better night’s sleep, or you simply want to live for ever, there’s no shortage of advice.

    The Times reveals that finally, thanks to the new sirtfood diet, there is a ‘way to lose weight that involves eating and not going hungry’, and if that news isn’t music to your ears then take heart, because the sirt diet includes chocolate and red wine and other foods that are claimed to ‘turbo-charge’ weight loss.

    The Independent tells us that sirt-rich foods work by ‘activating proteins in the body which regulate biological processes such as ageing, cellular death, inflammation and metabolism and protect cells from dying when they are under stress’.

    The Telegraph tells us we can ‘Spice our self slim’ while the Daily Mail has a feature on Gwyneth Paltrow’s new detox diet, which promises to ‘reboot your body and help you lose weight’. Gwynnie’s diet involves cutting out gluten, red meat, dairy, soya, caffeine, alcohol and added sugar — but the actress and queen of green says you won’t feel deprived.

    Having a buff body and a pretty face does not make you a nutrition expert, but that doesn’t stop the ever-growing band of wellness gurus and personal trainers from bombarding us with advice about the latest superfoods, detox or miracle diets. Newspapers and magazines are only too happy to provide them with a platform to wax lyrical about how cutting out gluten or eating an alkaline diet has changed their life. But is there any credible science behind any of these new diets?

    The truth is that no one seems to care. The papers can’t get enough of them because they are new and quirky, and we love them because we’re looking for a quick fix — something that promises big results with very little effort is hard to resist. The problem is that when it comes to nutrition and diet it can be hard to sort the fact from the fiction and it’s easy to be duped by shrewd marketing and half-truths cleverly packaged to look like proper science.

    Agnotology is a term coined by Robert N Proctor, a Stanford University professor specialising in the history of science and technology, and it’s defined as the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt resulting from the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data. When it comes to nutrition, agnotology is a much-used ploy to promote sales of a supplement, new book or diet trend.

    Our interest in food and nutrition has grown exponentially in the last few decades and it seems that many of us just can’t get enough of it. Newspapers and magazines are only too happy to satisfy this need and for many people the media is the most important source of information on diet and nutrition. Unfortunately, many magazines and newspapers are quite content to base their reporting on conjecture rather than fact, giving publicity to faddist, fashionable theories linking diet and disease with no concern for the quality or quantity of research behind them.

    The fact that the title nutritionist is not protected by law in Britain means that anyone can become an ‘expert’ without any qualifications whatsoever, but if you do want a qualification they’re not hard to come by. If you Google ‘get a nutrition degree on line’ you will see a plethora of dubious institutions offering dubious qualifications. This situation was highlighted by a brilliant stunt in 2007 in which Ben Goldacre, the author of Bad Science, bought membership for his dead cat, Hattie, to the American Association of Nutrition Consultants for $60.

    If you started a new regimen on January 1, then by the end of January there’s a good chance you’ve already abandoned it and decided that a diet of sea vegetables and bone broth or a Pegan eating is not for you. But if you are still tempted to give the latest holy grail diet idea a try, please remember: if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.