8 Controversial Nutrition Topics of 2021


In spite of the countless rich and complex cultures that humans have cultivated on this earth, we all have the same basic biological needs. These include water, air, warmth, and food. 

Food can be a universal unifying experience, just as much as our convictions about food and nutrition can be dividing and sometimes polarizing. Discussions about numerous controversial nutrition topics take place in the classroom, in the coach’s office or clinic, and online. As nutrition and wellness coaches, it can feel natural to feel like you have to “choose a side” in these debates, especially when coaches ask you for your opinion. At the same time, it is always useful to understand the logic behind both sides of the debate to respectfully and knowledgeably engage in discussions with your clients. 

In this article, we give you a general overview of eight of the most controversial nutrition topics of 2021. The article doesn’t argue for one side or another but rather provides information about the following: 

  1. What it is
  2. Why it is controversial
  3. What those who are for it say
  4. What those who are against it say

Make note that in the sections that discuss why people are for or against a certain topic, we do not make claims as to the scientific validity of the arguments, though we may link to another article where you can learn more about the subject. Instead, we summarize some of the most popular arguments on each side. 

To engage in the debate and learn more about the topic, aim to stay up-to-date with your wellness and nutrition knowledge with these tips

 

Anti-Diet Culture

What Is Anti-Diet Culture

To understand the anti-diet culture, it is vital to understand diet culture. 

According to dietitians at the University of California San Diego, “diet culture is a set of beliefs that values thinness, appearance, and shape above health and wellbeing.” It does so with a restrictive approach to eating—restricting calories, nutrients, or certain food groups and labeling foods as “good” and “bad.”

What Those Who Are For It Say

Anti-diet culture, or an anti-diet approach, believes that diets and diet culture prioritize profits over peoples’ health. It demonstrates that many professionals who promote diet culture also benefit from the dependency that individuals develop on their services to maintain a certain weight or body shape, pointing out that this approach is inherently unsustainable. 

Anti-diet culture aims to decouple food restriction from health and points at the gaps in the research around the connection between restrictive diets and health. It is also closely tied to the fat liberation movement, which is a social movement that aims to change anti-fat biases and the stigma of obesity in society by raising awareness about the experiences, and especially the obstacles and inequities, that fat people face.

While promoters of anti-diet culture don’t prescribe to another dietary philosophy, many dietitians feel that it pairs naturally with intuitive eating, which holds the same principles and allows people to reject diet culture while providing the tools to adopt a mindset that does improve health. It is also often linked to a Health at Every Size (HAES). Both intuitive eating and HAES are discussed below. 

What Those Who Are Against It Say

The medical, nutrition and fitness professionals who are against anti-diet culture (or still favor the adoption of diets after being aware of the anti-diet approach) may be so for multiple reasons:

  • They may believe that people’s minds and bodies must be trained to learn what to eat to meet their body’s needs and that diets are an effective way to do so. 
  • They may point to research and data that supports the effectiveness of specific diets on health.
  • They believe that being overweight or obese is inherently bad for a person’s health.
  • They note that achieving certain body shapes or compositions is a science, and protocols, including diets, are the best way to achieve these desired body shapes. 

Intuitive Eating

What Is Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating is an anti-diet approach that was made popular by registered dietitian nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch in the book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach. It is an approach that stems from the belief that humans do not need to restrict our food intake with diets, go hungry, or see foods as inherently “bad” for us. Instead, it champions the idea that learning about our nutritional needs and tuning into what our body is telling us is the best indicator of what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat. It is centered on the belief that to feel our best, we need to heal our relationship with food. 

Unlike most other dietary approaches, intuitive eating doesn’t have a “formula.” It is based on ten core principles that do not discuss specific foods or food groups but instead aim to help us connect with our bodies and heal our relationship with food. 

The intuitive eating approach often goes hand-in-hand with rejecting diet culture and with believing health can be achieved at every size when we don’t assign value to weight. 

What Those Who Are For It Say

Intuitive eating has only recently been on many nutritionists’ radars. Those who are champions of the lifestyle approach, however, argue that intuitive eating has been the natural go-to eating approach throughout much of human history and that restrictive diets are an invention of the diet industry and arbitrary and idealized body types. 

Those who are champions of intuitive eating believe that restrictive eating leads to hunger, body dysregulation, and a greater desire to eat foods perceived as “bad.” 

By implementing the principles of intuitive eating, mental health and physical health are reestablished. Not only do intuitive eaters have greater confidence, but they also trust in their hunger cues and honor their nutrition. 

Intuitive eating nutritionists believe that intuitive eating can be adopted by and beneficial to all people, regardless of health status. 

What Those Who Are Against It Say

For many, intuitive eating is a radical approach to satisfying our nutritional needs. Even after understanding the principles of intuitive eating, some people do not think that trusting our intuition leads to healthy eating habits. Some people may be against intuitive eating if it means that they might gain weight if they believe that weight is an indicator of health.

Additionally, others may be against the intuitive eating approach if they believe that people must train their bodies to eat through food restriction. This may include knowledge related to the influencing power of the food industry on our minds. 

Others might accept that intuitive eating could be a useful approach for generally healthy people, but they may feel that it is not relevant or applicable to people who are living with metabolic diseases, like type 2 diabetes or thyroid disease, since hormonal and hunger signaling pathways are impaired.  

Health at Every Size (HAES) Movement

What Is the Health at Every Size (HAES) Movement? 

The HAES movement is an approach that states that all people, regardless of size or weight, can be healthy. It highlights that body ideals, including shape, size, and weight, are cultural, and, in the West, they are made persistent by diet culture and those who benefit from people spending money to achieve a specific body ideal. The HAES movement is closely tied to the Fat Liberation Movement

What Those Who Are For It Say

People and professionals who are supporters and proponents of the movement are firm believers in the HAES principles to close gaps in access to healthcare, build an inclusive and respectful community, and support people of all sizes in finding ways to take care of themselves in a way that makes sense to them. 

Those who promote the HAES movement believe in the HAES principles. These include: 

  • Respecting body diversity and honoring differences in size, age, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, class, and other human attributes. 
  • Being critically aware of scientific and cultural assumptions that connect weight and size to health status. 
  • Promoting compassionate self-care, including finding joy in a variety of movement types and supporting flexible eating that values pleasure and honors appetite, satiety, and hunger, while also respecting the social conditions that frame what is available to eat. 

HAES promoters point out that many of the measures of health connected to body weight and body size in adulthood are not relevant or based on principles of causality. This applies to BMI and waist circumference, which HAES promoters believe are poor and arbitrary measures of health status. 

In other words, it points out that there is limited to no evidence to point out that body weight is a cause of common health problems. In this sense, one cannot assume that a person in a larger body is unhealthy or that a person in a smaller body is healthy. 

Proponents of HAES also demonstrate how damaging it can be for individuals in larger bodies seeking care when health professionals assume that weight is causing the health problem without looking at labs that actually indicate health status (gaslighting). 

What Those Who Are Against It Say

Many of those who are against the HAES principles or movement are not convinced that a person’s health cannot be determined by their size or body shape. They may also be against HAES for many of the same reasons they may be against intuitive eating and anti-diet culture approaches, including: 

  • Believing that people’s bodies and minds need to be trained to eat in a certain way through prescribed restrictions. 
  • Pointing to research where weight loss did result in improvements in indicators of health, like blood pressure, triglyceride, insulin, and even subjective measures of health and wellbeing. 
  • People feel inspired or motivated by external changes they see as a result of dietary changes they make. 

Intermittent Fasting

What Is Intermittent Fasting? 

Intermittent Fasting (IF) is a dietary protocol that focuses on the timing of meals. People who fast intermittently cycle between periods where they abstain from eating and others where they eat. Popular IF protocols include: 

  • The 16/8 method, where people fast for 16 hours and have an 8-hour eating window 
  • Eat-Stop-Eat, where people fast for 24 hours once or twice a week, then eat regular meals the rest of the week 
  • The 5:2 method, which restricts calorie intake to about 500 calories two days of the week, but the other five days, people can eat normally 

It differs from fasting for religious or cultural reasons and instead boasts the health reasons why people should fast intermittently. 

What Those Who Are For It Say

Proponents of intermittent fasting highlight the health benefits of abstaining from eating for at least 12 hours, but up to 20 hours a day. The benefits they point to include: 

  • Improvements in workout results
  • Weight loss
  • Staving off emotional eating
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Extended lifespan and healthspan
  • Simpler eating plans, thus a greater likeliness of sticking to them for longer 

What Those Who Are Against It Say

People who are against intermittent fasting often argue that: 

  • There is limited evidence to show its benefit for most of the health claims, or most health claims are based on animal trials.
  • It is unsustainable.
  • It could be dangerous for people with metabolic disorders. 
  • It leads to disordered eating.
  • It ignores hunger cues.
  • It can lead to bingeing during “eating windows.”

Intermittent fasting is restrictive, and it may present a significant change from the way people are accustomed to eating. Many experts believe that intermittent fasting is not sustainable in the long term for most people. 

The Ketogenic Diet

What Is the Ketogenic Diet

The ketogenic diet, or keto diet for short, is a dietary regimen that is high in fat, moderate in protein, and very low in carbohydrates. It is based on the physiological principle that restricting the intake of energy from carbohydrates will push the body to enter ketosis, a state where it breaks down fat and uses ketones for energy instead of using the readily available and easily accessed carbohydrates. 

In general, it promotes the consumption of foods high in fat, including oils and animal foods, and it may or may not limit the source of fats (saturated versus unsaturated fats). It does, however, severely limit the consumption of foods that provide significant carbohydrates to the body, namely most fruits and grain-based foods. 

The keto diet is boasted for claims to benefits to metabolic health and weight, among others. 

What Those Who Are For It Say

Those who promote or follow the keto diet do so to achieve a certain body shape or size, to lose weight, to improve energy levels during training, to improve brain function, and to help people fight sugar cravings. 

Many people may follow the keto diet to help treat or manage chronic health conditions, such as epilepsy, type 2 diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.  

What Those Who Are Against It Say

People who are against the adoption of the keto diet argue that it promotes an unnatural or unhealthy eating pattern and goes against our biological need for carbohydrates. They argue that the “keto flu” deemed normal is the body’s way of crying for help and that there are few studies in healthy populations that demonstrate its benefit and safety in the long term. 

Some people accept that keto diets be beneficial as part of a disease management protocol in people with specific diseases. However, they do not believe that it is a sustainable or healthy way to access the other benefits, like blood glucose management and weight loss, that it claims. 

Organic vs. Non-Organic

What Is Organic Food?

Generally speaking, organic food is grown or raised without most commercial pesticides (for plants) or hormones (for animal products) and isn’t genetically modified or doesn’t use genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the production process. Many organic food certifications also require production or manufacturing companies to adhere to a series of ethical guidelines with workers to promote a healthy working environment and to conditions that promote humane environments for animals. 

Different countries have varying definitions and guidelines, but most countries require food producers and manufacturers to adhere to strict regulations and pay certification agencies in order to market their products as organic. 

What Those Who Are For It Say

People who choose to eat organic food may do so for numerous reasons, including:

  • The belief that organic foods are inherently healthier or more nutritious
  • Aiming to avoid the consumption of antinutrients and pesticide residues
  • Promoting sustainable food production practices 
  • Not knowing enough about the long-term effects of eating foods with pesticides on health 

What Those Who Are Against It Say

People who are against or indifferent to the consumption of organic food may believe that: 

  • There isn’t convincing evidence that organic food is healthier or more nutritious.
  • There isn’t evidence to show that conventionally grown food is detrimental to health. 
  • Organic food is often more expensive and thus out of reach for most people and inherently classist.
  • It is possible to make environmentally responsible food choices without necessarily eating organic. 
  • Organic labels can mislead people to think they are making healthy choices; non-nutrient-dense foods can also be labeled organic. 

Superfoods

What Are Superfoods? 

Superfoods are those that have one or more nutritional or health benefit that is perceived as “better than the average food.” It may be due to elevated nutrient density, the presence of a particular nutrient that has a role in preventing or managing disease, or due to its role in a functional nutrition approach. 

Those For Them Say…

Promoters of superfoods may argue that the label is an easy way to help people make healthier food choices. Highlighting specific foods and their nutritional benefits help people learn about the roles of nutrients in their body while also learning about nutrient density.

The argument is simple but consistent and far-reaching. Highlighting superfoods raises awareness about them, and, when given a choice between the superfood and a similar option, people will be more likely to choose the superfood. 

Those Against Them Say… 

People against the term “superfoods” usually are not claiming that they aren’t healthy or nutrient-dense. Instead, they may argue that the use of the term superfoods is arbitrary. Superfood claims follow trends based on market trends rather than on studies of nutrient density. 

They may also argue that consuming one or two specific foods, without regard to frequency or portion, doesn’t ensure improvements in health. Instead, it is more beneficial to focus on food groups or types and eating patterns as a whole rather than on certain foods. 

Often, superfoods are those that are not locally grown but instead have a new and “exotic” feel in the market. In this sense, especially in the West, it often results from co-opting cultural foods and elevating them not for their cultural significance but rather for their nutritional value. This can be problematic when market trends push people to desire the superfood, making them more expensive and less accessible to the populations and communities for whom they are both nutritionally and culturally important. This was the case with quinoa and chia, for example. 

Plant-Based Diets

What Is a Plant-Based Diet?

A plant-based diet is one where most of a person’s nutrition comes from plant-based foods, like fruits, vegetables, and grains. 

What Those Who Are For It Say

The biggest promoters of plant-based diets often claim that it is the best way to ensure a sustainable future for our environment and a healthier future for people. 

Many individuals and professionals choose to eat a plant-based diet for the health benefits it can offer, including:

  • Helps to prevent and manage diabetes
  • Helps manage hypertension and lower cholesterol levels
  • Increases fiber and phytonutrient intake
  • Anti-inflammatory benefits

Since one of the primary arguments against a plant-based diet is that it cannot meet protein needs, supporters point to numerous studies that demonstrate that it is possible to meet most nutrient needs on a plant-based diet.  

What Those Who Are Against It Say

Some of the arguments against a plant-based diet point out some of the nutrient shortcomings it may have, including protein and vitamin B12. 

They may also argue that well-balanced plant-based diets tend to be expensive for individuals to follow when compared to conventional diets. Some people may also feel that eating a plant-based diet means that they will have to cut out cultural foods. 

Others also argue that a plant-based diet isn’t synonymous with a healthy or well-balanced diet; for example, plant-based diets do not necessarily rule out ultra-processed foods.

Main Takeaways

This article provides general information about these topics and provides an overview of the debate on these topics as they stand in 2021. Keep in mind that the information was presented in a polarized manner (against and for) for simplicity’s sake. However, not all nutrition and wellness professionals sit entirely on one side of the fence in each of these debates. Many professionals may take on a much more nuanced approach and recognize that both sides have their merit. 

We encourage nutrition professionals to continue to keep their knowledge up-to-date and engage in conversations with other professionals with different opinions with the aim of providing the best and most relevant information to their clients. 

 

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References

  1. https://recreation.ucsd.edu/2021/01/diet-culture-social-media/
  2. https://www.ucdavis.edu/food/what-makes-superfood-so-super
  3. https://www.usda.gov/topics/organic
  4. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13679-018-0308-9
  5. https://haescommunity.com/
  6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0305750X18302419
  7. https://www.cbi.eu/news/what-future-african-chia 

 





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