The Nuance

Your Diet Is Becoming Radicalized

Immoderate approaches to eating — fueled by social media and misleading nutrition research — can put your brain and body at risk

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
6 min readOct 13, 2021

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Photo: Toa Heftiba / Unsplash

Every year, U.S. News & World Report assembles a panel of doctors, dietitians, and other nutrition experts and asks them to rank the best overall diets for human health. This year, the Mediterranean diet topped the panel’s list — as it did in 2020 and 2019.

The Mediterranean diet is a moderate and nutritionally balanced approach to eating. It emphasizes vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, olive oil, whole grains, and seafood. A little alcohol is permitted. Red meat and sweets are mostly discouraged, but you can eat them now and then.

The same U.S. News panel also weighed in on ketogenic diets, which are in many ways the antithesis of balanced Mediterranean-style plans. Keto heavily prioritizes fats and, to a lesser extent, meat or other sources of protein. Carbs, including fruits and vegetables, aren’t verboten, but they’re severely restricted.

The expert panel ranked the ketogenic diet almost dead last in terms of its overall healthfulness; keto slotted in at number 37 out of the 39 diets on its list. Supporting this take, a 2020 review of the research on keto diets found that they may lead to an elevated risk for heart trouble and other long-term health issues, while any benefits seem to be transient.

And yet, according to Google search data and public surveys from YouGov, keto is one of the most popular diets in America. It has been for years.

The ongoing keto craze is just one example of our increasing willingness to adopt extreme or immoderate approaches to eating — and to health in general. Many of us seem to want to turn our dials to 11 — to go big or go home — in an effort to “optimize” ourselves. But more often than not, these tendencies get us into trouble.

“For centuries, we have known that balance and moderation are what matter, but we continue to aim at extreme or unrealistic solutions,” says Oscar Franco, MD, PhD, an adjunct professor of epidemiology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine at the…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.