5 Food and Fitness Trends: Healthy or All Hype?

Health experts analyze gluten-free diets, seven-minute workouts and more.

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We're about a month into the new year, and many of us are probably test-driving new or growing fitness trends in search of weight loss, better health or even six-pack abs. Even if you aren't going to extremes to look and feel your best, chances are you're wondering if the steps you're taking to achieve your personal health and fitness goals are all they're cracked up to be. To help you figure it all out, I got expert opinions on five popular food and fitness trends.

Elisa Zied
Elisa Zied
Giving up grains

The ever popular Atkins-type diets and new best-selling books such as "Wheat Belly" and "Grain Brain" lead many people – especially those looking to lose weight – to skimp on or totally ditch grains like wheat. But should eating a typical sandwich or bowl of pasta make us feel like we should sport a scarlet letter "W" on our chests?

Here's how registered dietitian Samantha Heller refers to the anti-wheat sentiment among those who don't have a medical need to avoid it: "A bunch of hooey wrapped in clever PR, preying on consumers who are looking for a simple solution to obesity or poor health."

Registered dietitian Jenna Bell agrees, saying there's a lack of evidence to support wheat-eliminating diets for weight loss or health. In fact, there's moderate evidence that eating whole grains like whole wheat are linked with lower body weight and reduced cardiovascular disease risk. Some research also suggests whole grains may help reduce the incidence of Type 2 diabetes.

Going Gluten-Free

According to a new report by the market research firm Packaged Facts, sales of foods and beverages made without gluten – the common term used to describe the special proteins found in grains including wheat, rye and barley – continue to soar, reaching $4.2 billion in 2012. The firm projects that sales in the United States will spike to more than $6.6 billion by 2017. According to Packaged Facts, some drivers for the rise in gluten-free sales include consumers' beliefs that these products are generally healthier, as well as increasing diagnoses and growing awareness of celiac disease and food allergies. The survey also suggests some go gluten-free to support loved ones who have to exclude gluten out of medical necessity.

"The gluten-free diet started as a critical and lifesaving intervention for those with celiac disease," says Roberta Anding, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, adding that this restriction does not apply to those without the disease. She says gluten is a protein – not a poison. "I have seen this restriction used more and more for weight loss, increased focus and concentration and athletic performance," Anding says. "But removing gluten doesn't cause dramatic weight loss, make you smarter, increase your concentration or shave time off of your 400 meter sprint."

[Read: Gluten-Free Diet Overview.]

Some people who don't have medical reasons to avoid gluten say they feel better while they're gluten-free. To this, Heller says, "They may think they feel better – not because they're gluten-free – but because they have cut out many processed foods, as well as refined carbohydrates such as white bread, cookies, white rice and nutrient-poor junk foods."

For those who truly need to ditch gluten because of celiac disease, gluten intolerance or an allergy to gluten or wheat, many dietitians are happy to see more gluten-free packaged foods and restaurant menu options. But, as Anding points out, "a gluten free doughnut is still a doughnut."

Moving Toward Organic Food

According to the Organic Trade Association's 2012 Organic Industry Survey, the U.S. organic industry grew by 9.5 percent overall in 2011 and reached $31.5 billion – $29.22 billion of which was in sales was from organic foods and beverages. The OTA projects that sales of organic food and non-food items will continue to steadily climb. Anding predicts the organic trend will continue in part because of the desire to elucidate the unknown effects of pesticides and other similar compounds in foods, and because consumers want to eat in ways that leave less of a carbon footprint.

[Read: Is Organic Food Better?]

Registered dietitian Lisa Young supports the idea of choosing organic, especially when it comes to foods that typically have the most pesticide residues, including the "Dirty Dozen," published by the Environmental Working Group. But she also says, "Just because a food is organic doesn't mean it's healthier. At the end of the day, organic cookies are still cookies." She and Anding agree that it's important to spend organic dollars where they matter most, and that the benefits of eating any produce – especially for those who can't afford to buy all or any organic produce – outweigh any risks.

Saying No to GMO

In recent years, there's been a push to remove genetically engineered foods from the food supply, or to at least require them to have a label. Genetically engineered foods, also known as biotech foods or foods from genetically modified organisms, are defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as those from genetically engineered organisms. Despite the trend away from these foods, a report by the World Health Organization suggests that genetically modified foods that have been in our food supply for about 20 years are not likely to present risks for human health. Despite this finding, safety concerns have led to the creation of the GMO Evidence project, which, according to its website, is a "one-stop resource for information about research and information from scientists and the general public on genetically modified foods and their associated pesticides." The Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization, was also created to educate consumers, preserve and build the non-GMO food supply and provide verified non-GMO choices.

[Read: GMOs: A Breakthrough or Breakdown in U.S. Agriculture?]

Although Connecticut and Maine passed GMO-labeling mandates last year, the laws won't take effect until four other states with a combined population of more than 20 million implement similar measures. Similarly, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents major food and beverage companies, created a proposed bill that would call for the FDA to develop a voluntary – but not mandatory – labeling standards for genetically modified foods.

Heller believes genetically engineered foods should be labeled so consumers can make informed choices about what they are eating. However, registered dietitian D. Milton Stokes disagrees. "As a dietitian and nutrition professor, I do not see the need for one more piece of information on food labels. Consumers are already overwhelmed with food labels with health claims and various icons touting one benefit or the other," he says. "Furthermore, the option for food without genetically engineered ingredients – organic food – already exists. I see labeling as potentially driving up the price of food in a time when most families don't have extra money to spend."

Working Out in Seven Minutes

The concept of getting an effective workout in as little as seven minutes with hardly any equipment struck a chord with those who are time-crunched but still want the benefits of exercise. I first learned about – and started to incorporate – the seven-minute workout when I read about it in the New York Times Magazine. Created by researchers from the Human Performance Institute in Orlando, the seven-minute workout includes 12 high-intensity exercises performed in rapid succession for 30 seconds each (with 10 seconds of rest in between). But is such a workout really all it's cracked up to be?

"One can benefit greatly – both physically and mentally – from high-intensity interval or circuit training," says Amie Hoff, a personal trainer certified with the National Academy of Sports Medicine. "You can get great cardiovascular and weight-loss results in less time and get on with your day. Who wouldn't love that?" But to add variety and keep the body challenged, Hoff also recommends that clients do more than seven minutes at a lower intensity when they have a little more time. Hoff advises those who want to add a high-intensity interval or circuit training (sometimes called HIIT or HICT) workouts to slowly increase to the level of intensity required to give the body time to adjust, prevent injury and recover.

Vonda Wright, an orthopedic surgeon at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says there's great evidence that high-intensity interval training shows effective results with less workout time than you traditionally think of. "These high-intensity interval workouts are truly high-intensity and get your heart rate up towards its maximum with each interval," Wright says. Because our bodies are designed to move, and because any amount of mobility is great for our health, Wright says the positive stress of high-intensity workouts can really get you in shape when time is of the essence.

Elisa Zied, MS, RDN, CDN, is the founder and president of Zied Health Communications, LLC, based in New York City. She's an award-winning registered dietitian, nutritionist and author of the new book Younger Next Week, along with three other books, including Nutrition At Your Fingertips. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, Zied inspires others to make more healthful food choices and find enjoyable ways to "move it or lose it" through writing, public speaking and media appearances. She writes the twice-weekly blog, The Scoop on Food, for Parents.com. You can connect with her on Twitter (@elisazied) and through her website: www.elisazied.com.