Is criticism of Beyoncé’s “dangerous” 22-day diet justified?

Jack Woodfield
By Jack Woodfield
12th August 2019
In Depth
 
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by Jack Woodfield and Tara Kelly

You probably know Beyoncé as the US pop singer, wife of Jay-Z and all-round feminist and musical icon. But in recent weeks her star has shone within the dietary community, and it’s been met with cloudy resistance by nutritionists, fans and journalists.

A backlash has met her launch of Beyoncé’s Kitchen, the dietary plan she followed in preparation for a gig at the 2018 Coachella festival, her comeback appearance having had twins in 2017.

In a video posted to YouTube last month the singer revealed she embraced a plant-based diet comprising “no bread, no carbs, no sugar, no dairy, no meat, no fish, no alcohol”. Her plan, which she followed for 44 days (she completed a 22-day plan twice in a row), also involved many hours of physical training per day.

Beyoncé’s trainer Marco Borges, a New York bestselling author, is the founder of 22 Days Nutrition. Following criticism of the so-called ‘crash diet’, Borges spoke out and said Beyoncé was “mindful of the importance of proper nutrition and exercise”.

You don’t have to peruse the internet for long to uncover a number of dietitians who have spoken out against the diet, concerned about the low calorie intake and elimination of so many food groups.

On Thursday 8 August Daniel O’Shaughnessy, a nutritionist for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire Programme that the diet is “dangerous” and could lead to “nutritional deficiencies”.

But is the furore over the diet justified? Is this actually just a typical vegan diet? There are lots of important questions that the majority of media publications haven’t explored, and while it’s easy to slam Beyoncé for embracing a perceived extreme diet, it’s far more significant to analyse the diet in greater detail.

Tara Kelly, a Specialist Dietitian, has sought to answer these questions and elucidate whether the diet is indeed something to be feared or whether there may actually be some benefit to it.

What can you eat?

One of the first questions about the diet worth exploring is: what exactly can you eat?

The 22 Days Nutrition diet is plant-based, which means focusing extensively on vegetables, grains and legumes – replacing meat or animal products as the core of your meals.

A cursory look through the meal plans reveals that – contrary to Beyoncé’s ‘no carbs claim’ – carbohydrates are permitted, including grains, beans and squash. This is one such meal plan:

  • Breakfast: sunflower seed butter and strawberry toast, almond spiced pear crisp
  • Lunch: jalapeno pumpkin soup, black bean and butternut squash millet bowl
  • Dinner: red lentil dal with crispy toast, Indonesian tempeh with brown rice
  • Snacks: cashews, unsalted pistachios.

Let’s focus firstly on the positives. There is a lot of plant-based fat and protein in this meal plan – which is ultimately comparable to a vegan diet – and the benefits of plant-based diets have been explored in a variety of studies.

In some studies, plant-based diets have been associated with a 23% reduced risk of type 2 diabetes; emphasised as a means of type 2 diabetes prevention; linked with improved insulin sensitivity in adults without diabetes; and could improve diabetes-related complications such as atherosclerosis.

However, there are standout negatives from this meal plan. Firstly, the high carbohydrate content from the bread and rice means that blood glucose levels will raise higher compared with eating more healthy fat or protein instead (this is because carbohydrate is digested faster in glucose in the body than fat or protein) and for this reason may not be a great option for people with type 2 diabetes. Secondly, the void of nutrients that derives from eschewing so many food groups. And thirdly, there is no guidance on servings or how many meals or snacks can or should be eaten during the day.

When you exclude all animal products – as the 22-day diet does – this means that vital nutrients derived from foods such as vitamin B12, iron or protein have to be replaced. While the 22-day diet offers a range of protein powders and energy bars to compensate for energy levels, no supplements are advocated on the 22 Days Nutrition website.

Tara says: “If people wish to follow a plant-based or vegan diet they would need to ensure they are getting a variety of plant-based foods in the diet – which is certainly achievable.  Some supplements such as B12 are recommended as this is not found in a plant-based diet. A variety of plant-based protein sources such as tempeh, tofu, legumes, nuts and seeds would need to be included to ensure complete amino acid profiles are being met.”

But Tara questions the point in adopting a diet that leaves you hungry. Instead, she says, it makes more sense to follow a diet which satiates you and keeps you full. “Aiming for a certain weight via a semi-starvation diet which leaves you hungry is unlikely to be sustainable and likely to result in weight regain in the long term.”

Essentially, the food content of the 22-day diet is similar to what vegans eat. And while vegan, plant-based diet can lead to health improvements, ensuring vitamin supplementation is important.

Significantly, for people with diabetes, eating higher-carb foods within the construct of a plant-based diet can lead to blood glucose swings. Given the lack of portion sizes and lack of supplementation recommended within the 22-day diet meal plans, there is a lack of balance that makes this incompatible as a diet for people with diabetes.

Why follow a diet that leaves you hungry?

One of the criticisms aimed towards Beyoncé was her admission in the YouTube video that she was “hungry” on the diet.

This criticism can be analysed two-fold: firstly, the debate over whether it’s suitable to follow a diet that leaves you hungry. And secondly, for Beyoncé advocating going hungry in order to achieve weight loss goals. She says in the video that weight is “every woman’s worst nightmare”, promoting a negative relationship with food and essentially recommending starving yourself to look good.

It should be stressed that the diet is intended for 22 days only. Yes, Beyoncé did it 44 days, but this is not a diet that is sustainable in the long-term. It may serve as a placeholder diet before transitioning onto another diet or lifestyle.

But Tara questions the point in adopting a diet that leaves you hungry. Instead, she says, it makes more sense to follow a diet which satiates you and keeps you full. “Aiming for a certain weight via a semi-starvation diet which leaves you hungry is unlikely to be sustainable and likely to result in weight regain in the long term.”

The 22-day diet bares resemblance to intermittent fasting (IF), in some ways. Also known as time-restricted eating (TRE), IF typically involves eating little to no calories over a specific time period, ranging from nine hours to seven days. Fasting has been reported to help men at risk of type 2 diabetes improve their blood glucose control and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by preventing pancreatic fat build-up.

A 22-day fast is not sustainable, but this very low-calorie plant-based strategy could be used for fasting days if you practice IF or TRE. For example, if you’re trying to eat less than 500 calories one or two days per week, then eating lots of low calorie vegetables might be helpful, Tara says.

With regards to the criticism of Beyoncé for her comment on weight, Tara notes that not only does this project a negative image, but it also simplifies the drive for weight loss as being more important than holistic health improvements.

Tara says: “For a prominent female role model to say a certain weight is every woman’s nightmare is very unhelpful. I would urge women, and men for that matter, not to focus only on weight but to focus on overall health, energy levels, how they feel.”

Is the criticism of the diet justified?

“I think there are some points which can be taken – i.e. focusing on real foods, plant-based diet – as long as there is a variety of protein foods and healthy plant-based fats such as avocado, nuts and seeds,” Tara adds.

“Cutting out processed foods and alcohol will more than likely have positive health benefits – however, a diet which leaves you hungry is a diet which should be avoided.”

What’s the take-home message?

There are plenty of diets out there and people should find a diet which works for them in the long term. Many diets such as low carb, ketogenic, plant-based diets have one thing in common – they generally promote real food and a reduction in ultra-processed foods.

Diabetes Digital Media’s Low Carb Program has shown that through eating a real-food diet containing healthy fats leads to one in four people putting type 2 diabetes into remission, with many more reducing their medication dependency [1].

It is possible to eat a healthy diet, plant-based or not, and achieve health benefits. But maintaining muscle mass and not feeling consistently hungry is important. The 22-day diet may have worked for Beyoncé, but she is an international star with swarms of nutritionists, physical trainers and health experts at her beckoned call to provide her with advice.

If you don’t have a health entourage, staying away from hard-to-follow diets that don’t offer portion sizes, advice on nutrient supplementation is probably the safest call.

 

References:

[1] JMIR Diabetes. 2018. JD – Outcomes of a Digitally Delivered Low-Carbohydrate Type 2 Diabetes Self-Management Program: 1-Year Results of a Single-Arm Longitudinal Study | Saslow | JMIR Diabetes. [ONLINE] Available at: https://diabetes.jmir.org/2018/3/e12/. [Accessed 12 August 2019].

What do you think?