Helping people find their way through the endless stream of nutrition information is something I feel strongly about. There are so many things out there that it would be impossible to fit all of it in this one article. What you will read below is facts about three of the most popular nutritional fads in recent times: the carnivore diet, the keto diet, and placenta pills. Before I start, don’t forget to check out the write-up on alkaline water, which is an interesting one to be aware of.
Let’s start with the carnivore diet. Just when I thought no one would disagree about vegetables being good for human health, in comes the carnivore diet, where veggies are a no-no! It was made popular by Mikhaila Peterson. This diet caught public interest when she put her father Jordan Peterson, a well-known clinical psychologist on the diet. Her claim is that the diet has cured her from severe arthritis, depression, chronic fatigue, and many other symptoms she was experiencing.
The thing with this diet is that the only evidence we have is anecdotal from people who claim this diet has worked wonders for them. A few of these folks are making quite a noise on social media with fancy names like Liver King, CarnivoreMD, etc. Currently, evidence is lacking to support any health benefit from this diet. I would definitely tread with caution considering there is no variety and plenty of missing food groups – take the case of the missing vitamin C (from fresh fruits and vegetables) that your body needs to receive on a daily basis. Bleeding gums due to a vitamin C deficiency is an example of a symptom one can experience after a while.
Fibre will be another ‘nutrient’ that you will struggle to get on this diet – and we all know how important fibre is for our gut health. Forget constipation; you may not even poo at all! Yikes. Interestingly, I have seen a few proponents of the carnivore diet peddling supplements to the gullible while saying the diet is the best. Why would you need supplements if this diet is the best? Something for us to think about. So why are people, albeit a few, claiming that the diet has done wonders for them? It’s not fully known, but it’s possible that the restrictive diet may have inevitably provided relief via cutting out foods that someone was intolerant or allergic to. We would not know for sure as this is a drastic and non-methodological way to eliminate potentially problematic foods.
Takeaway: This is a very extreme and restrictive diet with very little evidence to support its use.
Next up is the keto diet. This usually requires people to consume less than 20g of the nutrient carbohydrate per day, and the carbs removed are replaced with fat. Unlike the carnivore diet, the keto diet is something we practitioners were aware of from nutrition and medical textbooks. Basically, it is a medical diet often prescribed to children with an epilepsy condition that does not respond to medication. More recently, it got revived in the fitness industry for fat loss. It is also being looked at as a potential treatment for people with Type 2 diabetes.
I will try to simplify the mechanism. Reducing the carbohydrate intake to very low levels will put our body into ketosis, which is a metabolic state where you burn fat as your main source of fuel. The exact reason why this is helpful for people with epilepsy is poorly understood. However, proponents of this diet narrows it down to the reduction in insulin from low carbohydrate intake.
Evidence is there to show that a ketogenic diet can help reduce seizures in children with epilepsy. A recent, very well-conducted, randomised controlled trial also showed that it may be an effective way for ‘some’ people to manage Type 2 diabetes. I say some because this diet is exceptionally hard to follow and, even in study situations with plenty of support, people found it extremely hard to stick with – this is something to be mindful of. Also remember the same effects can be done with a balanced diet, where you don’t need to cut out any food group.
The risks are many, especially when doing it on your own without giving much thought to the finer details. Notable ones include low blood sugar as well as vitamin and mineral deficiency. And in children, it may cause stunted growth, heart abnormalities, and gut problems like constipation. We also do not know the long-term health effects of following this diet, so that’s something you want to keep in mind.
Takeaway: Another extremely restrictive and hard to adhere style of eating. For some people with medical conditions, it may be worth the difficulties and risks, but I would strongly advise people not to follow a diet like this without medical supervision. There are many meal-delivery companies offering the keto diet that’s been worked out by qualified nutritionists, but then again, not everyone can afford it. Best to bear these, take an informed decision, and not blindly jump on the keto diet as a quick weight-loss option.
Sorry if this makes you feel squeamish, but placenta pills are trending. In fact, there are quite a few celebrities out there who’d vouch for it. Incidentally, the ‘science-y’ name for consuming one’s placenta is called ‘placentophagia’. What is a placenta, you ask? Well, it is an organ that develops in the womb during pregnancy and its main job is to provide oxygen, hormones, antibodies, and nutrients to the growing baby. Plus, it removes waste products from the baby’s blood.
Although non-human mammals (rabbit, cow, rats, etc.) have eaten their placenta for years, it has not been common amongst humans until recent decades. It is either eaten raw (as an ingredient in a smoothie), cooked (as a meat substitute), or most commonly dehydrated, powdered, and made into pills. The belief is that ingesting the placenta provides increased energy, decreased incidence of baby blues, rapid recovery from pregnancy and delivery, and improved maternal bonding. Proponents believe that these benefits are due to the micronutrients, like dietary iron, that are present in the placenta.
If you are to look up at the websites of some placenta encapsulation clinics, you will see them citing results from human studies that are based on mothers self-reporting their experiences with placenta pill consumption. Be wary of these as this type of evidence is anecdotal, biased, and not considered high quality under scientific standards. For example, one study that analysed the nutritional composition of 28 dehydrated placenta samples processed to be made into pills found that the recommended daily allowance of the placenta pills would only provide a modest source of some micronutrients – not the nutritional powerhouse it’s often touted to be.
There was also a small, but rigorously designed pilot study that compared the iron levels of mothers consuming their own dehydrated placenta pills versus a placebo pill (dehydrated beef). Findings indicated that the placenta pills did not significantly improve the mothers’ iron levels. This is an important finding in the sense that we would not want mothers who are deficient in iron to wholly depend on placenta pills to correct a deficiency because of the hype around it. We would need more research to see what happens to women who rely on placenta pills as their sole iron supplement, but as of right now, it does not look promising.
One issue with the process of encapsulating the placenta is that it is not standardised or regulated (although measures are being made to do so), which means the treatment of one placenta may be different to another. This is a worrying health and safety concern since we are handling human tissue here.
Takeaway: Celebrity endorsements are to be taken with a pinch of salt. The truth is that there is no robust evidence (not yet) that eating the placenta post-birth provides objectively demonstrable benefits for the mother beyond a placebo effect. I would definitely recommend balanced meals that are heavily leaning towards whole foods rather than placenta pills.
I am a huge advocate of gentle nutrition, and this is acknowledging the fact that there is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ diet or food. Accepting and acknowledging gentle nutrition will help you to honour your health without getting into crazy fads and trends.
Lovely Ranganath is a licensed clinical dietician in Dubai. Visit @good.food.guru for more information.