When it comes to diets, Americans are fickle, fanatical, and not always well informed. And athletes are no exception—we have a tendency to view diets as a magic bullet, the missing link between us and a podium spot. Curious to see the evolution of popular diets, we ran a Google Trends search on four of the most prevalent ones among athletes—Paleo, gluten-free, raw, and ketogenic. Then, to make sense of it all, we talked to sports dietitian Christine Rosenbloom, who taught nutrition at Georgia State University for 30 years and authored a 2014 paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrition Today on popular diets and athletes.
“For nutrition, this is the best of times because people are so interested in it,” Rosenbloom says. “But it’s the worst because there’s so much hype and bad advice.”
While top-level competitors tend to know what works for them and thus avoid the hype, it’s your everyday athletes—coeds trying to make the starting team, adults vying for age-group honors—who tend to favor trends, Rosenbloom says. “They read about these supplements and diets and think, ‘Maybe if I do that, I won’t be riding the bench.’”
We can see that the Paleo diet’s popularity skyrocketed in 2013, after, NPR suggests, a slew of pro athletes, actors, and musicians touted its effectiveness. And again after the book Paleofantasy came out in April of that year. It’s a fad that’s stuck around, Rosenbloom believes, because of its popularity among CrossFitters. They linked it to their box-based way of life and in doing so, kicked off a larger trend among today’s diets. “Every diet is now positioning itself as a lifestyle,” Rosenbloom says.
Gluten-free is a prime example of that. It’s transcended the typical January spike-then-slow-decline path of faddish diets like Paleo, and the less-flashy raw foods diet, but its popularity is still closely tied to celebrity endorsements. There was an uptick in searches last July and August after GF tennis pro Novak Djokovic won Wimbledon, then ate the court’s grass in celebration.
But even that diet is on the outs among athletes, Rosenbloom says, for one reason. “There’s been research now that shows unless you have a real reason to be gluten-free, it’s not going to help your performance.”
Though still nowhere near GF’s popularity, the ketogenic—or low-carb, high-fat diet—overtook Paleo in search popularity sometime between August and September of last year. “Keto” is still on the rise, partly thanks to the ultra-endurance crowd, Keto” is still on the rise, partly thanks to the ultra-endurance crowd, Rosenbloom says, who want to adapt their bodies to burn fat more efficiently.
The biggest diet trends to look for in the future, Rosenbloom says, are ones you’ve already heard of: organic, non-GMO, local, grass-fed, and farm-to-table, all of which fit into the larger growing trend of diet-as-lifestyle. Of those, farm-to-table is most obviously on the rise, while interest in organic food seems to be slowly waning.
The takeaway from all of this, Rosenbloom says, is simple. “There’s no one best diet...It’s marketing and it’s money,” she says. “There’s a lot of money to be made and endorsements” that’ll keep the new diets rolling in. “Like I said, best of times, worst of times.”