Every January since forever, after having been positively encouraged over the festive period to consume everything food and drink, we have been offered an array of fad diets, detoxes, magic bullets and alleged superfoods. Currently this outdated concept seems more cynical and irrelevant than ever, although that does not mean plenty are not still trying to keep this worn cliché going.

The end of fad diets and detoxes?

Fad diets and detoxes have always been about deprivation. Maybe as we’re already being deprived of going out, socialising, hugs, holidays and just about everything else in lockdown, people do not want to be deprived of anything more. Whether it’s a reflection of the zeitgeist and it would seem frivolous or insensitive to talk about ‘New Year, New You’ whilst in the midst of a pandemic, or people are putting health before looks (or looks lower down the priority list), the paradox is clear. What we need now is public health, social care and self-care, not exploitative luxury wellness consumerism with its glossy social media and promises of magic bullets and health halos.

This New Year though, is the ‘New You’ different? In an Ipsos MORI poll[1] conducted recently, more than 4 in 10 (43%) Britons say they are trying to lose weight but interestingly, half of British adults surveyed say they are eating healthier but not dieting. Is the tide finally turning and things are moving on from the stranglehold of the January fads we’ve been subjected to for decades, or is the D word (diet) now seen as pejorative and ‘wellness’ is just a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It should be about making it easier for all consumers to make and sustain healthy behaviours rather than exploiting being perfect.

The latest UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey Data published in mid-December showed the average number of portions of fruit and vegetables eaten was 4.3 per day for adults (aged up to and including 64 years), 4.5 per day for older adults (aged 65-74 years), 3.9 per day for older adults aged 75 years and over, and only 2.9 portions per day in 11-18 year-olds. Only 33% of adults, 40% of older adults aged 65-74 years, 27% of older adults aged 75 years and over, and 12% of 11-18 year-olds met the 5 a-day recommendation.

The impact of Covid-19 on habits and behaviour

The pandemic has made us rethink many of our habits and behavioral patterns, both positive and negative, for better and worse. Earlier last year, IGD research reported[2] in Lockdown 1, the majority of consumers adopted new food behaviours such as cooking more from scratch and spending more time preparing meals. Many of these new behaviours also had a positive impact on people’s diets, including eating more fruit and vegetables. A second report published in December[3] identified significant barriers still around habit, cost and confidence with eating more fruit and vegetables. To this end, IGD identified a series of practical actions that businesses can take to help encourage consumers to eat more fruit and vegetables. These include:

  • Using positive language and imagery to market plant-based meals and meals containing extra vegetables
  • Creating striking displays of local and seasonal fruit and vegetables, in-store and online
  • Inspiring consumers to swap ingredients in their favourite recipes
  • Using online meal planners, giving shoppers the option of adding ingredients to an online basket as they go

The rise of plant-based 

According to its organisers, a record half a million people worldwide signed up to the 2021 Veganuary (Vegan January) challenge to eat only plant-based foods for a month - double the number in 2019, with one quarter of the total (125,000) being in the UK. This is not just about caring for ourselves, but caring for our planet too. Another trend that continues apace.

A vegan diet is not automatically healthy or better – as with any eating pattern it depends on what that diet consists of and how much, and how often foods, are eaten. With careful planning, variety and necessary supplements such as vitamin D and vitamin B12, it can be balanced and healthy. Fad diets often involve cutting out whole food groups and alarm bells have been rung about going vegan as a legitimate cover for disordered eating and eating disorders due to permitted restrictions, associated moral superiority and aspiration. In some circumstances, it could be viewed as clean eating and all its negative connotations by another name.

There has been an explosion in plant-based offerings on the back of the trend and many such products are an illustration of the health halo effect - when a food that has some healthy attri­butes is perceived as being virtuous in all respects. For example, plant-based meals are often a source or fibre but may also contain a lot of salt. Whilst anything that encourages UK consumers to eat more fruit and veg has to be a good thing and these foods can be part of a balanced diet, labelling something ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’ does not make it necessarily healthy. Consumers still need to read food labels and be aware of the ingredients in the product (and have the knowledge to do this effectively) and brands need to make this information clear and easy to access.

The dry stuff 

Similarly, despite another lockdown, or maybe because of, a record number of people (6.5 million) have signed up to the official 2021 Dry January challenge, run by Alcohol Change UK. This reflects a 67% rise compared to last year. Dr Richard Piper, the charity's chief executive, reports one in four of us plans to cut down on alcohol in 2021. The Waitrose 2021 Food and Drink Report[4] states that many of us used lockdown to drop our alcohol intake, and 18% plan to continue trying more low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks or mocktails to reduce alcohol consumption. Low alcohol and no alcohol sales at Waitrose are up 22% on the year. An Ipsos MORI poll[5] conducted recently also reported 25% of British adults surveyed say they are drinking less alcohol. This year will see the launch and expansion of low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks making it easier for consumers to make and sustain this behaviour.

Avoiding weight bias

Weight is an easily exploitable health and social concern. Any dialogue about it should consider and avoid weight bias, avoid fad diets, gimmicks, looks and perfection, encourage lifelong healthy habits, build self-esteem and reflect that health comes in all sizes, shapes and ages. The aim should be to prevent eating disorders and weight problems, not create or foster them.

Nutrition is only one part of the core contributors to being and staying well and should not be viewed in isolation or just for January. Sleep and rest, managing stress, being active and healthy relationships are part of the daily mix too. Despite what you may read, there really are no magic bullets – well, only on Instagram!

[1] https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/more-4-10-britons-are-trying-lose-weight-focusing-dieting-and-exercise

[2] https://www.igd.com/charitable-impact/sustainability/healthy-and-sustainable-diets/appetite-for-change-how-have-consumer-attitudes-to-healthy-and-sustainable-diets-changed-in-the-wake-of-covid-19

[3] https://www.igd.com/charitable-impact/sustainability/healthy-and-sustainable-diets/appetite-for-change-how-to-apply-behavioural-science-shortcuts-to-encourage-fruit-and-vegetable-consumption-in-the-wake-of-covid-19

[4] https://www.waitrose.com/ecom/content/inspiration/at-home-with-us/more-stories/waitrose-food-and-drink-report

[5] https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/more-4-10-britons-are-trying-lose-weight-focusing-dieting-and-exercise

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