Food trends: help or hindrance?


In Women’s health: insights from the past illuminating the future I wrote about a presentation by Professor Julie Byles. Julie has devoted her life to studying issues around the aging of Australian women, interacting with different age groups of women across Australia.

From the data she presented that day it was clear the younger generation, while smoking less, are heavier and suffer more chronic disease. This in turn points to more diabetes, more heart disease, more arthritis, more asthma, more health care in twenty years’ time. So, in a subsequent email exchange I asked whether Julie had come across dietary trends between the study’s different age groups. Julie very kindly responded with a breakdown in responses between the age groups relating to fizzy drinks, with the comparisons between the groups nothing short of extraordinary.

*Age group A (aged 62-67) Age group B (aged 34-42) and Age group C (aged 20-25) were asked:

“Over the last 12 months, on average, how often did you drink the following: Cola drinks/not diet (e.g. Coke)”

                                                                A                             B                             C

  • Never                                             71.3%                    51.5%                    31.8%
  • Less than once per month           19.3%                    26.2%                    29.8%
  • 1-3 times per month                      4.4%                      9.3%                      16.7%
  • 1 time per week                              1.9%                      3.9%                      7.6%
  • More than 1 time per week           2.3%                      6.0%                      10.4%
  • 1 or more times per day                0.8%                      3.1%                      3.7%


This data alone suggests it is no wonder younger generations of women are becoming heavier than their mothers and grandmothers. It made me think of other food trends we have witnessed over the past forty odd years: “Fat free” “Sugar free” “Gluten free”.

Food labels echo the nutritional mantra of their time, but did these recommendations improve our health or just help the food industry to get us hooked on products like fizzy drinks that research now suggests are a risk to our health?

Fat free:

As the low-fat craze took hold over thirty years ago, food producers cut out fat in their products. Unfortunately, fat was often replaced by sugar and sugar substitutes for flavour, while we also started eating more refined carbohydrates such as white pasta and bread. Now it is appreciated that eating less fat does not necessarily lead to weight loss or even help with weight management, while eating foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates have led to an increase in diseases such as type 2 diabetes.

Sugar free:

The carbohydrates that pose the greatest threat to health are the simple, refined ones, especially sugar. High-sugar diets have been linked to a higher risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, even in people who are not overweight. One of the big contributors has been sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas, energy drinks and sports drinks. With sugar taxes coming into force in several countries we will watch with interest as sugar is replaced with substitutes. Unfortunately, research suggests that while sugar free soda may not have the same calorie count, their impact on our bodies leaves us craving a sweet hit from other sources. Sugar free doesn’t necessarily mean healthier, while recent research suggests it may even contribute to increasing the risk of serious illness.

Gluten free:

A small percentage of the population are gluten intolerant, but many more people believe that a gluten free diet could improve their health. However, for this group, the opposite is more likely. For one thing, gluten free processed foods may have more sugar, fat and salt than their gluten counterparts, while a recent Harvard study also found that people who avoid gluten may eat fewer whole grain foods. This could represent a problem as whole grains are a good source of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. For anyone with gluten intolerance or with celiac disease good alternatives are quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat and oats.

Always consult with your doctor first before excluding any food or adopting supplements, otherwise a diet made up mostly of real food, with variety and balance across core food groups the best thing to adopt. A real food diet high in fruit, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains can help:

  • boost the immune system
  • improve cardiovascular health
  • increase energy
  • reduce the risk of developing diabetes, stroke and certain cancers

And when it comes to fizzy drinks – diet or otherwise, its better to follow the example set by Australian grandmothers!

*Thanks to Professor Byles, Global Innovation Chair in Responsive Transitions in Health and Ageing and a Director of the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health School of Medicine and Public Health, The University of Newcastle, Australia.


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Iris is the founder of No Targets Just Routine. She has researched food since 2009 and believes “Happiness is real food shared with loved ones.”

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