Nothing winds up my anti-diet nutritionist guest Tara Leong more than the influencer-led anti-sugar movement. She is in FITS of rage – to the point of goosebumps – about the mountains of misinformation being spread as liberally as nut butter. She’s LIVID about harm being done to innocent people who are being told that they’ll risk giving their kids cancer if they eat bananas. She is OUTRAGED by the misleading tactics being used by these for-profit companies who aren’t able to print the truth on their nutrition labels. She is f***ed off about fructose. And don’t even get her STARTED on the fruit pyramid! Join us for a much needed discussion about the anti-sugar movement, Tara’s attempts to reach out to Australia’s anti-sugar guru Sarah Wilson, and Sarah’s foray into mental health advice. This is one hell of a conversation!
- My guest is Tara Leong from The Nutritionist & The Chef, and she is fired up to the point of GOOSEBUMPS about the influencer-lead I Quit Sugar (IQS) trend!
- Sugar is definitely public enemy #1 right now, and this global sense of fear is impacting everyone, from all ages and all walks of life.
- We’ve seen various foods demonised over the years, from fats, to carbs, and now sugars. And leaders of these food fad movements have historically been weight loss gurus or medical professionals. But the anti-sugar trend seems to be dominated by “influencers” spruiking their lifestyle brands. There have been some medical professionals – like Dr Lustig who loves to crow about sugar.
- But in Australia, the shiny beautiful people, like Sarah Wilson, are really heading up the anti sugar movement. Tara commends Sarah for raising awareness about how we can take care of our bodies, but the messages put out via her “I Quit Sugar” social media channels and in the book “I Quit Sugar” are not based on science and are destructive, especially with regards to the impact these messages have on people’s relationship with food.
- The whole Sarah Wilson/“I Quit Sugar” phenomenon traces back to 2011. Sarah is a journalist and was the ex editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, back then she was a judge on the first season of Masterchef. After that she moved to Byron Bay and began to freelance, writing articles for newspapers. She literally didn’t have a topic for an article one week, and had read David Gillespie’s “Sweet Poison” book (Gillespie is a lawyer). So she did an experiment quitting sugar, wrote about it, and the “I Quit Sugar” machine was born. She started to sell e-books and from there it became a massive empire.
- She caught the Zeitgeist – just at the start of the anti-sugar climate. Plus, she’s pretty and can write well, and is well connected.
- This also came at the tail end of the low-fat movement, when research began to recognise that fat wasn’t actually a villain – so we needed a new villain. Enter sugar!
- Wellness industry 101: 1. Find the villain, 2. Find very vague modern health symptoms like ‘brain fog’ or ‘bloating’, and blame this on the villain, 3. Use your own vague health symptoms to glowing health story as ‘proof’, 4. Sell people a rule-based program to rid themselves of aforementioned villain.
- I Quit Sugar (IQS) requires people to stop eating any added sugars for 8 weeks.
- This was beautifully skewered on “The Katering Show”, 2 comedians with a parody cooking show who did a great job of showing, through comedy, just how awful it is to quit sugar.
- Modern influencers are using this tactic of telling their own stories, of sharing their own tales of ‘recovery’ from vague health symptoms, to sell their ideas. Influencers use their humanity, their accessibility, they are friendly and you feel like you know them.
- Whereas health professionals are discouraged from sharing their own stories with clients as it is not seens as ‘professional’, especially in psychology where the space is created for the client, not the psychologist.
- Influencers use their stories as aspirations, as hope – and of course, thinness!
- “If you eat like me, you’ll end up being like me as I eat zoodles on my $20000 table!
- Some of the claims in IQS are quite strange. Sarah talks about having Graves disease, and then later on, Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, which pricked up Louise’s ears, as she has Hashimotos’. She is of the understanding that this condition is largely genetic, and no-one is really sure as to why it switches on.
- As someone with the condition, Louise has to take a pill every day and has blood tests every 3 months. It is not an easy condition to control – it is something that is always changing.
- Louise knows that what you eat has bugger all to do with developing Hashimotos’. But on IQS Sarah implies – strongly – that quitting sugar will cure it.
- Sarah’s claim that a change in her sugar consumption ‘cured’ it ignores the fact that she also takes medication to control it. This is a confound – you cannot claim that autoimmune disease can be cured by not eating sugar if you’re taking meds at the same time.
- If you want to promote eating in a way that makes you feel good, there’s no issue. But if you want to demonise one thing – ie sugar – there’s an issue!
- Tara also recognises the wonderful array of nutrients that can be excluded when you promote something as stringent as IQS.
- A while ago, Tara found a very fancy looking ‘fruit pyramid’ which was presented in a similar way to the old ‘food pyramid’ which used to be promoted as a way to eat. A pyramid is where foods on the bottom are ‘eat lot’ and foods on the top are don’t eat’, or ‘eat very little of’.
- So the team at IQS developed a fruit hierarchy, and at the top there were bananas! And the fruits you can eat ‘every day’ are berries! Raspberries, lemons & avocados.
- Now Tara needs to unpack this. Firstly, avocados are not a fruit. Botanically, yes, but not nutritionally – they don’t provide carbohydrates, they provide more fats.
- Who’s going to slice up a lemon for a tasty snack?!
- “I really struggle with the ethics of telling people they can only eat raspberries”.
- Tara calculated that for a family of 4, in order to meet nutritional requirements, a family of 4 would spend around $250 per week on raspberries alone. This is privileged, ridiculous nonsense. To not have even thought of things like expense?
- And the comments from people thanking IQS for telling them that bananas were dangerous. Tara had a heartbreaking message from a mum who was having a huge panic attack because she was so worried she’s given her kids cancer.
- The no. 1 pathway into an eating disorder nowadays, for Louise’s clients anyway, is this huge fear of foods and what are considered ‘healthy’ foods.
- The pro-IQS community really seem to disregard the risk of eating disorder development. Like it’s ‘not a thing’.
- In preparation for this podcast, Louise has been reading Sarah Wilson’s latest book “First, we Make the Beast Beautiful”. This is her story and she really is open about her lifelong mental health struggles.
- In it she reveals she had a childhood diagnosis of severe anxiety and insomnia, in her teens severe OCD, and then bulimia, and then bipolar disorder.
- Louise admires Sarah for writing such a raw and real book about the reality of living with severe mental illness. She is clearly a very intelligent person. But you can see the anxiety in the pages. You can see the pressure of the bipolar.
- So here is the ethical question – should authors with diagnoses such as these be giving full disclosure before giving out ‘dietary advice’? Especially when one of the diagnoses is an eating disorder?
- So here we are in the land of the ‘influencer’. Sarah is a journalist who has gone & obtained a health coaching ‘credential’ with the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in New York.
- Tara has something to say about this Institute. This Institute looks pretty impressive. On their website it says you can study for 6 months and get the health coaching certificate. But you don’t study physiology, chemistry, or anatomy. You just study all the different types of diets out there and whether or not they’re ‘good’.
- “If I was running an Institute where I’m comparing diets I’d be like – let’s close, because none of them work”!
- So the degree should be – everything doesn’t work. Here’s your piece of paper! Go out & tell everyone why your diet won’t work – how good would that be!
- Tara has found that the IQS people always claim that it’s not a diet.
- They always claim that it’s not restrictive. But Tara cannot fathom how telling someone to cut out a whole food source for 8 weeks is not restrictive?
- Modern diet culture tells people, if you’re not counting calories it’s not a diet.
- The recipes are interesting, often full of rice malt syrup, which is of course, sugar.
- For a while, Louise remembers seeing a whole row of IQS baking products – cakes etc – in the supermarket. And they got in trouble for not being honest on their labels about how much sugar was in them. They only wrote down the sugar content before the rice malt syrup was added, which is of course totally misleading for consumers.*
- Tara finds this highly unethical & wonders how this was able to happen according to Australian laws surrounding nutrition panels.
- Rice malt syrup is sugar derived from rice. It does not contain fructose, but it is definitely still sugar.
- Louise went into a book shop to read IQS. There was a whole page on why you have to quit sugar: because of fructose. So what’s the deal with fructose?
- Fructose is found naturally in fruit. In the USA, it is manufactured from corn, resulting in what is called high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). This is a highly concentrated version of fructose. This is put into soft drink, in the USA – not in Australia. We use sugar cane syrup, so the fructose is at much lower levels of concentration.
- Research on the health issues linking consumption of HFCS has been done mostly on rats and mice, and they have been exposed to mega-doses of HFCS in these experiments. So we cannot say that the health problems are happening because of the HFCS or just the mega dose. We could all develop health problems if we mega dosed on broccoli!
- We also can’t generalise rodent studies to human health.
- So the problem we have is someone not trained in physiology reads these studies and jumps to enormous conclusions.
- Just because some American rats OD’d on high fructose corn syrup doesn’t mean we shouldn’t eat bananas!
- Most of the people spouting the IQS ideas are not adequately qualified or trained in the science of nutrition. There are some medical people talking about it, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Many influencers are not reading the research thoroughly or just cherry picking research that supports their ideas, which is not in the spirit of science!
- Nutrition science is hard, and complex. The relationship between our health and what we eat is confounded by many factors. One important aspect which is never spoken about by these influencers are issues like poverty, oppression, and even the impact of dieting itself, and the anxiety and food guilt created by such nervous attention to food.
- What Tara doesn’t like is when a professional such as herself speaks up – in a calm manner – to enquire about the harm being potentially done – and they don’t engage.
- So with the fruit pyramid issue, Tara politely enquired if the IQS people could share with her the research to support the pyramid. They responded by saying there is ‘lots out there’, but also said that the IQS program is not based on science but a “gentle experiment”.
- This is mind blowing – telling people they can’t eat bananas, telling them to eat only expensive fruits, charging people $99 for this program, making promises to reduce weight and depression – but none of it is based on science? Tara cannot fathom how that is ok to do that to people.
- “You can’t give a rigid rule and then call it a gentle experiment” – that’s gaslighting.
- This is modern diet culture. Everything’s exactly the same. We’ve still got the rigid rules, we’ve still got the ‘this is the way to diet’. Except we’re no longer allowed to call it a diet, or pursue weight loss. We’ve got to talk about wellness or healing really ill defined things. And then use the language of self compassion to turn this into something loving and gentle. And its really not!
- So, IQS is huge – it has made millions of dollars. Last year Sarah decided to shut the IQS company and move on. She’s very much into the environment etc, reducing food waste. And she’s written the book, First, we Make the Beast Beautiful, a very detailed account of her complex mental health issues. And the question is, should she have disclosed this while she was selling IQS? Louise can understand why she wouldn’t have, this is very personal and private information.
- But if someone has a history of severe mental illness and an eating disorder, jumping on the food advice bandwagon is, in Louise’s opinion, of concern.
- In a recent article from the UK, Sarah was interviewed by a reported who had an eating disorder background herself, and the interview did not go well for Sarah. Through the reporter’s eyes, Sarah presented as someone who still had eating issues. And the interview did claim that Sarah had given up on quitting sugar, a claim which Sarah has since vehemently denied.
- Sarah has claimed she was misquoted, and IQS has done an interview with Sarah to present her side.
- Tara contacted Sarah on social media to ask her if she had quit the IQS movement, and also put some questions to her regarding the potential harm that IQS has caused.
- Sarah then posted that she had been bullied by Tara, and by the journalist. She also said that someone with mental health issues should never be bullied.
- Tara then apologised, and asked for clarification about what Sarah felt had been misquoted in the article. She offered Sarah the opportunity to detail what was wrong about the article and said she would share this with her followers in order to clear it up. She gave Sarah her phone, email and other contact numbers. But she did not respond, and actually went offline for a couple of days.
- Tara can see how this would have been hard for Sarah – being questioned in public, on social media, about your philosophy, is not easy.
- Tara gets it: she has her own lived experience with PTSD, and close family members are experiencing severe mental health issues. But Tara does not think this means it is ok to hide accountability behind. She believes it may be a reason, but not an excuse.
- This has not been easy for Tara either – many in her profession have commended her for having the guts to speak up, some have questioned her. But she doesn’t do it for ‘reputation’ – she does it for her clients. When you see such large numbers of people being harmed by the IQS messages, it’s impossible to stay quiet.
- It’s not about herself. It’s about all of the people out there who are suffering, and using her voice to stick up for them.
- “Sometimes I feel like I have an ethical duty to speak up for the general public”.
- In the book, it is clear that Sarah has a big heart, and a big brain. She is genuinely trying to help people, and herself.
- It’s not easy to live with bipolar disorder, severe anxiety, OCD. But in the book Sarah also talks about being diagnosed with an eating disorder – bulimia – and for that, she has not had treatment. She has had all kinds of treatment for her anxiety. But not for the eating issues, which are very much absent from an otherwise very thorough exploration of her mental health.
- Louise is a biased too, with her eating disorder hat on, but surely that aspect of mental health has to come into this too? Understanding anxiety is important, and an eating disorder for many people is a way of controlling anxiety by controlling food.
- Sarah talks frequently about her anxiety as a constant grasping at things to give her a sense of safety in the world.
- So you can see how controlling what she eats, and having clear lists of foods to eat, could control her anxiety.
- This kind of connection is not made in the book. And for Louise, it’s a missing piece.
- People writing self help books are in a position of power. It’s not ok to put responsibility back into the lap of the consumer!
- Tara has copped criticism for calling Sarah out on this topic, even from fellow health professionals. But she asks: where do we draw the line? Do people have carte blanche to just say anything they like, and then withdraw responsibility by citing poor mental health?
- We’re grappling now with this question, if someone has a mental health issue can they say anything, cause harm, and that’s ok?
- Trump’s feelings are also potentially hurt, but people are much less upset about it! Is this a gender thing? What would have happened if it was Paleo Pete coming out with a history of severe mental health issues!?
- We don’t have the answers, but it is important to have this conversation. Tara has reflected and learned a lot from this experience. Maybe Sarah Wilson has, who knows?
- Tara’s hope is that if a nutrition professional reaches out to an influencer, they’ll at least listen and have that conversation.
- If Tara was told that some of her advice had caused harm, she’d be concerned and working at understanding the situation and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
- But we don’t see this with influencers. The Paleo Pete disaster when he wanted to publish a book with a ‘bone broth’ recipe for babies that was so dangerous it could cause death. Pete was contacted by hundreds of health professionals and organisations pleading with him not to do harm. So he self published the book anyway!
- Wouldn’t you at some stage check in with yourself? Or just blatantly double down?
- It reflects the strength of these people’s belief in their nutrition camps.
- Throughout Sarah’s book is peppered this assumption that sugar is bad. She even tells people that in order to fully recover from anxiety, you definitely need to quit sugar!
- And that’s not an interpretation, it’s down there in her book, in black & white.
- “You need to quit sugar. Down to 6-9 teaspoons a day”. That’s not a gentle experiment!
- This is written in a book for people who are living with anxiety. Because this comes from her belief system, in which anxiety is either caused or worsened by fructose, the book has all of these ideas which are very damaging and could ultimately increase people’s food anxiety.
- That fear of sugar will create or exacerbate the anxiety which the book is apparently all about alleviating. No-one with an eating disorder can read this book. Also, no one in a larger body can read this book – it’s very fat phobic.
- There is research on gut health to show that plant foods with lots of fibre can improve our gut health, and that can be linked to mental health. When you quit sugar, you likely eat more plant foods, and that increase is what’s responsible for any improvements, rather than the absence of sugar per say.
- In intuitive eating, it’s all about adding foods, not taking them away.
- What’s annoying is this increasing normalising of sugar as a bad thing across our society. Kids are picking up on it. Tara’s 5 year old daughter did a lesson in class on how much sugar was in a can of coke! She’s 5!
- The world that Tara & I live in – we work in the intensive care ward for eating concerns – and we are seeing people flood in, casualties of the anti-sugar crusade.
- Sugar is the “devil right now’, and as health professionals it is ok that we are concerned.
- We’re not picking on any 1 person, we’re talking about figureheads of a movement. We need to remember who we’re trying to protect. It’s our kids.
- Tara hopes that the influencers can see that nutrition professionals are genuinely helping people – we see genuine concern, genuine problems. Tara is not just a schill for Big Sugar!
- Tara was asked by “The Conversation” to write an article about the dangers of sugar. Instead, she wrote an article about the dangers of always talking about sugar in a negative way. It ended up being one of the most read articles The Conversation had ever published.
- Tara was blasted by anti-sugar people for ‘giving people diabetes’. All because she used her scientific knowledge to suggest a much less extreme approach to sugar. And of course people suggested she’s been paid off by “Big Sugar” to write the article. She wasn’t!
- Good things can happen when people push back and ask questions – for example at the end of last year, the Dietitians Association of Australia stopped taking funding from big food companies.
- But this absolute demonisation of one food group is just ill advised and short sighted.
Find out more about Tara Leong, including her fabulous anti-diet merchandise, here.
The wonderful Katering Show & its wonderful IQS satire
The bizarre IQS Fruit Pyramid:
The now-closed “I Quit Sugar” empire, which still sells the books etc.
Sarah Wilson’s book “First, we Make the Beast Beautiful”
*Here is the article about the misleading food labels on the IQS range – note that the products were not actually removed from shelves, but they were discussed as misleading.
The Daily Mail article by Eve Simmons claiming that Sarah Wilson had quit quitting sugar (strongly contested by Sarah Wilson)
Paleo Pete & his baby killing bone broth
Tara’s amazing article in The Conversation about the dangers of talking about sugar as the new devil