Over my career as a health seeker, I've seen a lot of nutrition and fitness trends come and go. Back in the day, it was bran muffins, ankle weights, and Lean Cuisine. This year, it's oil pulling and green juice (both of which I'm into, by the way). Next year, who knows?
It's kind of funny how inclined we humans are to seek the novel and interesting and, for better or worse, to hop on various bandwagons as they cruise on by.
Of course, this is also true of fitness fashion. Leg warmers and sweatbands -- two phenomena I saw come and go the first time around -- are now apparently back in a big way. Cute.
What's not so funny or cute, though, is the confusion and ennui a lot of us feel as an endless stream of supposedly healthy trends are foisted upon us.
Often, that foisting happens courtesy of the media. Always on the prowl for something new, sensational, and exciting to report, both print and digital media have made an art form of spinning attention-getting (and sometimes misleading) stories out of little or nothing.
Evidently, the headline "What Makes Us Healthy Now Is Pretty Much the Same Stuff as It Has Been for All of Human History" just doesn't grab a lot of eyeballs.
Still more trend-pushing comes courtesy of commercial interests who benefit from manipulating what we buy and how much of it we consume.
They've been known to manufacture skewed studies, infiltrate blogging communities and social networks, buy off or intimidate journalists, and even invade public school systems in an effort to establish the trends they think will best serve their bottom lines. (If you haven't read about this in Michael Moss's Salt Sugar Fat, John Stauber's Toxic Sludge Is Good for You, or Ryan Holiday's Trust Me, I'm Lying, please do. And check out our health media feature "Decoding Health Media.")
I've certainly experienced my share of frustration and bewilderment trying to separate the nifty from the nonsensical over the past 25 years or so. But I've also developed a good nose for which trends have merit, and which don't.
Here, off the top of my head, is a list of just some of the trends I could happily see pass into the great beyond, never to return:
- Calorie and gram counting
- Low-fat diets; the pushing of skim milk and reduced-fat cheese and fat-free yogurt as great for health and weight loss
- Diet soda and zero-calorie drinks sweetened with chemicals
- Fat-free cookies, muffins, cupcakes, crackers, and chips
- The proliferation of "healthy" extruded food products made of paste-like ingredients (refined flours, starches, sugars, industrial oils, and flavorings) formed into puffs, polygons, disks, sticks, Os, clusters, nuggets, and so on.
- Misleading "heart-healthy!" and "healthy choice!" labels on unhealthy processed foods that happen to contain some "whole grains!"
- Long, boring treadmill workouts that focus primarily on calorie burning
- The chasing of thigh gap (don't get me started)
- The overprescription of statins, antacids, and other symptom-suppressing meds that can have serious health-undermining side effects
So those are some trends I'll be happy to see die. On the other hand, there are also plenty of nascent trends I'd like to see gather more steam:
- Rediscovery of whole, unprocessed foods as the basis of a healthy diet (check out Whole30.com)
- Re-embracing of healthy fats (including coconut oil and grass-fed butter) for health and pleasure
- Growth and increased accessibility of organic, biodynamic, local, heirloom, and non-GMO foods
- Recognition of sugar, flour, and trans fats as primary culprits in heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity
- Increasing awareness of gluten, dairy, and food-additive sensitivities
- The redefinition of kale, chard, collards, and other dark greens as staple foods; sweet potatoes, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts as comfort foods
- The return of sustainably and humanely raised pastured meats, eggs, and dairy
- The rise of super greens and fatty-acid supplements
- The growth of functional, integrative, and P4 medicine (www.p4mi.org)
- Emphasis on sleep, rest, and relaxation as key health requirements
- Appreciation of meditation and mindfulness as tools for body-mind health (check out Headspace.com)
- Women with real bodies rebelling against idealized-body media obsessions (check out Weirdlyshaped.com)
- The rise of health coaches
- People focusing on fitness and strength vs. "skinnyness"
- Use of elimination diets to identify food intolerances, clear up chronic inflammatory conditions, and break food addictions
- Activity-based communities (yoga, Zumba, boot camp, circuit-training, cycling, athletic events, etc.) becoming central social gathering places
- Support for self-powered transport (walk, bike, skate, etc.)
- Expansion of the definition of "health" to include environmental considerations like air, water, soil, food supply, ecosystems, and climate stability
There are a great many more trends I could list in both categories, of course, but you get the idea.
The challenge, naturally, is sorting the beneficial trends from the pointless and harmful ones. Because while the mere fact that something is trendy doesn't mean it's smart or good for you, it doesn't necessarily mean it's stupid or bad for you either.
My advice: Consider whether the trend in question works in sync with or against the natural order of things. Notice whether it appeals to or offends your most basic sensibilities, and whether it makes you happy or angst ridden. Connect with some well-informed resources you can trust to help you parse the confusing stuff.
When in doubt, you can also try out an appealing trend to see whether or not it works for you.
Last time I ate some "healthy" extruded snacks, I found them yummy (addictively so) -- and then felt sick and hungry for hours afterward. And the first time I tried Zumba, I thought I would hate it, but I found it was actually pretty fun. You just never know.
Above all, don't be afraid to launch a trend of your own. If something is working for you, notice that. Tell the world about it. Recruit some followers. Who knows -- you might just start the next Big Thing.
The Other Drug Problem -- The prescriptions we take to regulate cholesterol, blood pressure, and stomach acid are supposed to make us healthier. But could they be doing us more harm than good?
6 "Healthy" Eating Choices to Rethink -- It's time to investigate whether your current food choices are as wholesome as you've been led to believe.
Back to the Future: '80s Food Trends Debunked -- Your neon tights, parachute pants, and leg warmers are long gone, so why are you eating like it's 1985?
A Big Fat Mistake -- New research shows no causal link between saturated fat and heart disease. Refined carbs and sugars pose a much greater danger.
Pilar Gerasimo is a nationally recognized healthy-living expert, author of A Manifesto for Thriving in a Mixed-Up World, and the creative force behind the 101 Revolutionary Ways to Be Healthy. She serves as senior vice president of Healthy Living for Life Time, the Healthy Way of Life Company, and is currently working on a book about the art of being healthy in an unhealthy world. Learn more about Pilar's work and connect with her via social media at PilarGerasimo.com.