A nutritionist sounds off on cauliflower crust, zoodles, and low-calorie ice cream.
Nutrition trends are like the mosquitoes and gnats I experienced while camping over the long Memorial Day weekend: Just when you think you’ve got them all, a new swarm comes in and bites even harder. Don’t get me wrong, I love avocado toast just as much as the next New Yorker, but so many dietary fads these days lack scientific evidence to back up various health-related claims. In the age of social media, these trends spread like wildfire and can be promoted by anyone with opposable thumbs and the ability to hashtag. Sifting through the opinions not based on actual science, anecdotal stories, and the unfounded vilification of various foods and food groups is hard for me too—and I’m an expert in the field of nutrition.
While the legitimate trends are great and help shape the future of my practice (see: the popularity of probiotic-rich fermented foods or the performance benefits of beetroot juice intake before an endurance event), some may do more harm than good if we get too caught up in them. Those I just can’t get behind, for myself and my clients, are almost always touting the restriction of one or more nutrients or food groups, often with an in-your-face hashtag such as #grainfree #lowcarb #highfat #fatfree #sugarfree. The list is endless, and the common denominator always seems to be the removal of something to make food “healthier.” Athletes with an eye on performance enhancement are very susceptible to taking these trends and running with them (pun intended), but instead of leading to a personal best, they could be embarking on a slippery slope of deprivation and a serious performance rut.
Let’s talk about the removal of grains or gluten or the restriction of carbohydrates as a whole. This is not something an athlete, especially an endurance athlete, can get away with for long without feeling the effects. Physiologically, the body needs carbohydrates for energy, body functions, and to fuel athletic activity. Without them, training and performances can suffer and you may start to feel sluggish and flat. It's not exactly a recipe for a big PR or breakthrough season. For example, a few trends of late are big vegetable bowls with a lean protein like eggs, chicken, or tofu or cauliflower pizza crust or zucchini “noodles.” While packed with a huge variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, these meals often do not provide the amount of complex carbohydrates necessary to fuel for or refuel after a tough workout that say, a sandwich, normal pizza crust, or bowl of pasta would.
The solution is a two-parter. First, know that there is no one food or nutrient that is “bad” or “good” and that in reality, there is no medical reason for most healthy people to avoid gluten, grains, or carbohydrates. Second, it’s possible to incorporate quality carbohydrates into your trendy nutrient-dense meals. Make a grain-based salad, put cauliflower and kale on top of your (regular) pizza, or sauté some zucchini and broccoli to add to your (regular) pasta. This is a great way to reap the nutritional benefits of certain “it” foods but not skimp on your pre- and post-workout fuel.
Take fats away, and you jeopardize your body’s ability to synthesize and transport hormones, absorb and transport fat soluble vitamins, provide structure for cell membranes, keep warm, and provide satiety after meals. For athletes, it’s also a lot harder to feel satisfied after meals or snacks that are consistently very low in fat, especially if you’re looking to quell your post-workout hunger. While all the rage lately, low-calorie versions of popular desserts (that are also typically lower in fat and replaced with artificial sweeteners) like ice cream (Halo Top), and cookies, yogurts or peanut butter are often a lot less satisfying than a small portion of the real deal and will just leave you wanting more.
My point here is that before latching on to the latest nutrition craze, think first about what you might be missing beyond just the buzz words. And you can always ask a registered dietitian. That’s what we’re here for.
Kelly Hogan, MS, R.D., is the clinical nutrition and wellness manager at the Dubin Breast Center at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.