June 17, 2015 3:33 pm
Updated: June 24, 2015 4:54 pm

Reality Check: Superfoods, organic food, paleo and gluten-free diets

Chris Jeri, Global News
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TORONTO — There’s no shortage of buzzwords or foods and fad diets that promise to be your answer to better health. To help separate fact from fiction, we turned to the experts.

SUPERFOODS

WATCH: Are “superfoods” really any better? Mina Rhee helps separate truth from hype.

What is it: According to Saskatoon-based registered dietitian Brooke Bulloch, there isn’t actually a formal definition for superfoods. Or much research behind them. But acai, goji berries, kale and quinoa are among the foods that tend to get elevated to the ‘superfood’ pedestal.

The hype: A lot of superfoods seem to achieve the ‘super’ status because of their high anti-oxidant level,  Bulloch explained.

The amount of antioxidants in a food is measured with what’s called “oxygen radical absorbance capacity” (ORAC for short).

“For example, goji berries rate really high on that ORAC scale, higher than blueberries.”

What registered dietitians say: 

“Will goji berries over strawberries benefit our lives that much more? No, there’s no research of that,” Bulloch said.

She thinks the term ‘superfood’ is more of a marketing buzzword than anything. Edmonton-based Dietitians of Canada spokesperson Lalitha Taylor also isn’t a fan of it.

“It tends to elevate one food above another. It can put pressure on those with limited budgets to buy expensive ‘superfood’ produce or products,when less expensive local options are equally or even more nutritious.”

READ MORE: Five normal ‘super’ foods at your local grocery store

Don’t forget a good, old fashioned apple or orange is still packed with nutrients and antioxidants. So is spinach and broccoli.

PALEO

WATCH:  What began as the “Paleo Diet” has exploded into a full caveman movement.  

What is it: The Paleolithic (Paleo) diet is based on the ancestral hunter and gatherer (i.e. caveman) diet, which was high in the protein and fat department and low in carbohydrates. It includes lots of meat, fish and eggs; plenty of fruits and vegetables; plus good fats like nuts and avocados (which our caveman ancesters likely weren’t eating).

The diet leaves out dairy, grains and legumes. So no gluten, no refined sugars, no refined oils and no processed ingredients.

The hype: Weight loss is common due to the elimination of “empty calories” in the diet, intake of fewer calories, and less processed food, according to Taylor.

What the registered dietitian says: 

She added, though, that there are no large studies to prove that the Paleo diet is effective with long-term weight loss.

She points out that high consumption of red meat in particular has also been linked to certain types of cancer. Plus, if everyone started eating more meat because of the Paleo diet, this would be pretty taxing on our environment.

Going Paleo isn’t cheap either. Nor is it easy to maintain.

“Would I recommend this diet? No.”

“I like aspects of this diet, including minimizing processed foods, eating lots of fruits and vegetables. But I am a huge fan of good quality whole grains and legumes. There is a lot of evidence supporting the inclusion of these foods in one’s diet to promote health and prevent chronic disease.”

GLUTEN-FREE

WATCH: Does going wheat-free really offer up any health benefits, or is gluten-free eating just another fad?

What is it: Gluten is found in grains, such as wheat, barley and rye. Gluten-free diets swap those out for flours made with rice, soy, potatoes, or tapioca.

The hype: The gluten-free craze took off in recent years. In the U.S., gluten-free food is a $10.5-billion industry.

READ MORE: Gluten-free tops Canada’s hottest food trends for 2014

Those who’ve jumped on the bandwagon often believe they’ll lose weight, improve digestion and feel healthier.

What the registered dietitian says: This diet is intended for people who have Celiac disease. This is an autoimmune disease where your intestinal lining becomes damaged due to the presence of a protein, known as gluten, which is found in certain grains. Symptoms may include abdominal pain, cramping, diarrhea, constipation, skin rash and fatigue.

“Many people associate a gluten-free diet as a healthy way of eating; when in actuality, it could be the exact opposite. Many gluten-free products are made from rice and tapioca, which are low in protein, iron and fiber,” Taylor said.

“Gluten-free products are often high in calories and could even lead to weight gain.”

READ MORE: Gluten-free for weight loss? You’re doing more harm than good: study

They’re also expensive. So much so that if you’re diagnosed with Celiac disease and have to buy gluten-free products, you can claim a tax reimbursement.

READ MORE: Is your gluten intolerance real? Study says gluten sensitivity is fake

Taylor recommends anyone who believes they have a gluten sensitivity to talk to their doctor first about getting tested for Celiac before cutting out gluten.

ORGANIC

WATCH: Is buying organic worth all the extra money? Registered dietitian Lalitha Taylor weighs in.

What is it: Organic foods are grown and harvested without the use of synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizer, growth hormones or antibiotics, irradiation, additives, and are void of genetically modified organisms, Taylor said.

In Canada, in order for a product to be deemed organic — at least 95 per cent of that food product must contain organic ingredients. There are strict organic production standards that are followed. Foods in Canada that are organic are identified by bearing the “Canadian Organic” logo.

The hype: Many people believe that since you’re cutting out most pesticides with organic fruits and vegetables, they must naturally be healthier.

What the registered dietitian says: Taylor’s bottom line? Buying organic is a personal choice.

“Is organic food more nutritious? The simple answer is no.  There is not enough scientific evidence to say that organic foods are healthier or more nutritious than non-organic.”

Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whether they’re organic or not, is a good idea. Adults should aim to include at least seven to 10 servings per day and remember to always follow these food-handling processes:

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds under warm running water
  • Wash and rinse all produce to reduce pesticide, bacteria, and dirt
  • Discard the outer leaves on lettuce
  • Scrub-thick skinned produce like potatoes
  • Remove visible fat from meat, poultry and fish (some pesticides are stored in animal fat)

The infographic below goes through which fruits and vegetables are considered the best bang for your buck if you’re going to buy organic.

infographic-organic

With files from Carmen Chai, Global News

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