Healthy eating & dieting trends have evolved

By / Food / May 23rd, 2018 / 9

I read an article recently that claimed that healthy eating — and the way we approach dieting — has changed. Gone are the stodgy, guilt-inducing diets; instead, it’s all about eating what you want, and living a healthy lifestyle. I was sceptical, as I am with everything I read online. So, I reached out to experts on trends to see if this shift in food culture is real — or just clickbait.

“There are some new definitions of what is considered healthy food,” says Kara Nielsen, Vice President, Trends and Marketing at CCD Innovation in San Francisco. “For the most part, healthy is being defined by nutrient density … kind of beyond whether it’s paleo or gluten-free, low calorie or low fat.”

“Everyone knows that no one enjoys being on a diet; even the people who are selling diets do try to focus on the lifestyle benefits,” says Dana McCauley, food trends tracker and Associate Director for New Venture Creation at the University of Guelph. “But I think most people still gravitate towards a change in their eating habits because they want to lose weight.”

Trends are constantly in flux. They change as more information is introduced, or long-term beliefs are debunked — as our culture changes, so do our needs and wants. “Trends get more popular because they meet consumer needs,” explains Nielsen. “Consumers’ values change by overarching social forces … these big macro trends … cause people to start shifting their thinking. If you think about global warming, green living or eco-consciousness … people are much more interested in buying things that reflect their values.”

A macro trend that has been on the rise for the last 10 to 15 years, and one that has inspired “healthy as lifestyle change,” is the concept of customized, well, everything. “We are experiencing a cultural shift that … started with ‘have it your way’ at Burger King and really started to grow with Starbucks’ customized drinks,” McCauley points out. “And now we just expect customization everywhere.”

“Millennials have brought in a notion of customized everything,” Nielsen adds. “Society and technology have all catered to [it] …. We’ve recognized that dieting — calorie-in calorie-out — doesn’t really work. We’re learning that it gets more complex and confusing because now there’s so many different things that could be considered healthy. Everything now is catered to you, and that now applies to how you eat and what is healthy for you.”

There are a lot of different trends floating around out in the health food sphere. Nielsen and McCauley provided some insight, letting me know which trends will hold fast and why.

Fat is our friend

Dana McCauley, food trends tracker

Dana McCauley, food trends tracker

Fat has been evil for as long as I can remember. Now, science proves that there are good fats and bad fats. People are incorporating good fats into their diets to help them with weight management and more.

“What’s really changed is that now fat isn’t the enemy,” McCauley says. “The diets that are most popular right now in Canada … are all about reducing carbs and working towards using fat as a tool for weight loss.”

“There’s been a lot of backlash to the low-fat movement in the last 30 years,” Nielsen adds. “Much of that research has been debunked. We’re really looking at good fats now. We also think about avocados and almonds and their helpful oil. Millennials are smart about nutrients themselves, more so than earlier generations. So, they really understand whether something has antioxidants or omega fatty acids, or whether it’s high protein or low in actual sugars — those types of things.”

Sugar is the enemy

“Sugar is a big thing this year; people are really cutting back on that,” states Nielsen. By cutting back, the trend is to replace white sugar with natural sweeteners like honey, coconut and dates.

Here’s the thing. Sugar was added to processed food items to keep the fat content down. “The government said ‘low fat’ or ‘light’ must have less than 10 percent of the calories come from fat,” McCauley explains. “If something had quite a bit of fat, then you can add sugar to make the fat look proportionately smaller.”

By removing these high-sugar items, we end up eating better. “We’re trying to get rid of our processed food habit and have new versions of processed food that are made with organic ingredients, like a good-for-you mac and cheese,” adds Nielsen.

“You are taking in food that’s less processed. And in many cases, it’s more local — particularly if you’re using maple syrup,” McCauley says. “There’s a benefit to it for our economy and sustainability imprint.”

Protein from plants

Meat replacements and protein alternatives are found in more than just nuts and chickpeas. Science and technology has developed new meat-replacement options that allow people with any dietary restriction to enjoy high-protein foods.

“The really interesting part is the lab-grown aspect of it,” McCauley mentions. “Things like ‘The Impossible Burger,’ where we’re literally doing something new with science to create a substitute for meat. They get heme, the same thing that gives hemoglobin its red colour, out of plants, so that when you open up this piece of ‘meat,’ it actually oozes the red juices.”

“In the last year or two, we’ve been hearing a little bit more about plant-based foods in part because there’s a lot of high-tech vegan foods that are coming out to the marketplace that have millions of dollars of investment behind them,” Nielsen mentions. “Not everybody’s eating that way, but there are certainly way more choices for plant-based foods that have a protein sourced from a plant.”

Microbiomes and a healthy gut

Our guts are a fun place for scientists who love studying diverse microbiomes. “What I like about this trend is that it’s growing and developing, and is routed in really good science,” McCauley states. The microbiome health trend includes foods like kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented foods. “All the things that have to do with us getting our inner ecosystem in good shape.”

“People are making their own pickles, lacto-fermented pickles, so that they have of these good bugs — in part for the probiotics, in part for the flavour,” says Nielsen. “It connects to a healthy digestive tract. But then there’s indigestible fibres that actually cause some people a lot of problems. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.”

Having a healthy gut also affects our overall well-being — and can prevent illness and disease. “Only the Western diet has been limited. Our diversity, our bodies, our human ecology is so much less than a tribal group in the Amazon,” states McCauley. “They have so much more diversity in their bodies and digestive systems, and interestingly, are much more resistant to disease.”

Spices can be super too

Superfoods were a big thing the last couple of years — big leafy greens, fruits and berries from exotic places that are said to promote health and keep us energized. Now spices have found their way into the super category.

“[Superfoods are] not so much about berries and fruits now,” explains McCauley. “It’s about things like turmeric, cinnamon, ginger. You know these spices … instead of not just being for flavour — they generally are fairly flavourful — but also for their newly understood, or newly believed, health effects. That’s a big one.”

Smart snacking

Kara Nielsen Trends Expert

Kara Nielsen, Vice President, Trends and Marketing at CCD Innovation

Eating throughout the day is a common part of many diets. Snacking keeps your metabolism up, which means you’re burning more calories (or carbs, or whatever) throughout the day. “Snacking has really replaced meals,” Nielsen mentions. “People want to have better-for-you snacks so that they can feel good about eating them, but it’s also kind of how they’re eating.”

The trick is to snack on good, healthy foods, like the ones with good fats or high nutrient density. This trend is, in a way, a combination of all the other trends listed here.

Will these trends last?

Trends can be fickle. They need to run parallel to what consumers want. According to Nielsen and McCauley, the focus on customized diets and healthy lifestyles designed for the individual will most likely hang around for a while, especially if they’re convenient.

“It’s always evolving a little bit,” Nielsen adds. “We have so much education; there’s a lot of science being done. We deepen our understanding all the time. There’s always marketers who are trying to sell something new. It’ll always evolve as our world changes, in how we relate to it and what we’re trying to do.”

“We’re better educated. We’re more aware,” explains McCauley. “Science isn’t finished. We don’t know everything there is to know about how our bodies work … the science that told us fat was the enemy was current. But now, that science has evolved. We know more about how we metabolize things, burn fat and all that stuff. There will be new discoveries and we’ll continue to learn more about our bodies, new foods and food combinations. And processing techniques will be developed. Some of them will be beneficial. Some of them won’t.”

The Little Trend That Could (or at least, tried to)

Mushrooms, specifically irradiated mushrooms, are high in Vitamin D, something many people in Canada need — a lot. This isn’t a new fact, though. Irradiated mushrooms as a trend has been trying to emerge for years.

“Canada has, I think, if not the highest, very close to the highest rates of multiple sclerosis in the world. And that’s been linked to Vitamin D deficiency,” McCauley states. “This seems like something that everybody should just be clamouring for — like when we started putting riboflavin into cereal. This should be really important news.”

“We’ve been talking about it now for a few years and I don’t see it going anywhere,” she continues. “I’m trying to figure out why the mushroom thing isn’t already big, because we’ve known how to do it now for at least five years and it’s not big yet.”

A trend like these mushrooms seems like it fits with social values, but the trend hasn’t taken off. This could be because some people don’t like mushrooms (myself included). It could also be that it just hasn’t found the right marketing niche. Or it could simply be due to the disjoint between intention and action.

“Anytime you get a press release and people say, ‘nine out of 10 consumers say they want more X and that’s why we’re launching this.’ Well, you know what, not necessarily 90 percent of people are going to buy it,” explains McCauley. “But that’s the bias in that type of research. It’s much better to find out what people’s problems are and then come up with solutions to them and then test that kind of appeal. We don’t know what we need, we just know what our problems are.”

“Certainly,” she continues, “[mushrooms] are — although I know they’re polarizing — I think very delicious and being low calorie is another big benefit. But I haven’t seen anyone really succeed with using that as a marketing claim in a very significant way.”


A freelance writer and editor, Lisa Hoekstra loves learning and trying new things. She can be found with her nose in a book or multiple tabs open on her browser as she researches the latest and greatest in the world of food, style and everything in between.

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