A journey towards a healthier you does mean making better choices, but does it have to mean totally avoiding entire food groups or ingredients like the ones suggested in the CRAP Food diet?
We’re here to put the C.R.A.P diet, a recently popularized diet focussed on eliminating particular foods and chemicals, under the microscope.
Is it based on any evidence or just another fad?
Let’s take a look at the science..
In this article, we’ll talk about “CRAP” Foods according to this diet, whether it makes sense to completely avoid them or are they just lazy, blanket recommendations?
- The C.R.A.P Food Diet is well-intentioned but resorts to extreme, often scientifically invalid or cherry-picked dietary advice
- It may be helpful to some people to have such strict limitations imposed, but for most, it will be unsustainable and simply not fun
- The advice doesn’t teach the important foundations and building blocks of a healthy, effective and sustainable diet
- May work for some, but I’d avoid. There are more sustainable and evidence-based nutritional strategies out there
What Is C.R.A.P. Food?
C.R.A.P. is an acronym which stands for:
- Refined Sugar
- Artificial Sweeteners
- Processed foods
The “CRAP foods” theory is that these ingredients contain “empty calories”, are unnatural, unhealthy and may rob your body of much needed vitamins and nutrients (I’ll provide some specific examples, a bit later).
The official PDF tells you explicitly to “avoid” these foods.
The word “avoid” and “eliminate” are problematic in the context of the sustainability of a diet, but again, more on this issue later.
In general, empty calories aren’t necessarily zero-calorie foods, (though some of the things on that list are zero calorie).
People often refer to foods that contain high amounts of calories but don’t provide your body with many nutrients for their calorie count, as “empty”.
This is because they often don’t contain much nutritional value besides energy from the calories.
So far, so good, right? But the diet doesn’t offer much in the way of guidelines or clarity into the most important components of a diet.
Let’s dig a little deeper and get into the specifics (or lack thereof) of the CRAP diet:
Crap Foods Acronym Recommendations
The below are the recommendations that the CRAP acronym and diet consists of:
The “C” in crap means avoiding chemicals.
The above chemicals are given as examples, and most diet guru’s even go one step further with the blanket advice of “don’t eat anything you can’t pronounce”, which is pretty insane.
Check out the ingredients of this organic apple:
Can you pronounce half of these “chemicals” in an apple? No? Guess we should stop eating apples then?
To push home the absurdity of avoiding chemicals further, how about dihydrogen monoxide or DHMO? Sounds awfully dangerous..
That’s one of the chemical names of water. I doubt we’ll be stopping the consumption of water any time soon..
After all, did you know it accelerates rust and is found in cancer tumors! That can’t be good to put in our body..
Hopefully, you see the advice to “avoid chemicals” is one that is simply steeped in scientific illiteracy and should be ignored.
While the advice is good-natured, there aren’t any helpful reasons provided to avoid these specific chemicals.
Let’s look at one of the specific ingredients on the CRAP list to avoid – soy isolate. This is a bizarre inclusion when you consider the evidence.
I assume the advice to eliminate Soy comes from the myth that it is part of a group of plant compounds known as anti-nutrients (phytates, that are supposed to reduce bioavailability of minerals like zince, iron and calcium) or that it is a phytoestrogen that disrupts your hormones and causes imbalances..
Both theories have been debunked with studies showing that absorption of minerals are comparable in these plant foods to animal-based foods (1).
In fact, there is evidence that shows anticancer effects of phytates (4).
Is this to say you should eat all of these ingredients willy-nilly?
No; the poison is always in the dose, for any ingredient and there are things on that list I’d certainly limit, such as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is a trans fat.
But it certainly isn’t worth creating hysteria about them and eliminating them completely. Overall, the blanket statement to avoid chemicals in general doesn’t make sense.
The “R” in Crap means refined sugar.
Under this crap foods category are high fructose corn syrup, refined sugar, and white flour.
I don’t think it’s bad advice to limit added sugars in processed foods, but to eliminate them is, again, throwing the baby out with the bathwater and pretty extreme advice.
The best example of this above is to eliminate “anything ending in “-ose””, which I find quite absurd.
You can find some of these ingredients in baked pastries, muffins, cookies, yoghurt, cereals, cakes etc. The good stuff, basically.
If you find any of these refined sugars included in the ingredients, the CRAP diet recommends ditching them and, again, eliminating these foods.
Your menu is getting smaller and smaller..(are you seeing a sustainability issue with this diet yet?)
I have to assume this advice is given due to the prevalent, but misguided, theory that one of the leading causes of today’s obesity epidemic is sugar.
This study looking at trends in availability of food groups from 1909-2007 actually concluded that major contributors to increasing energy intakes in the last century was due to increased fats/oils, meats, cheese and frozen deserts (5).
That’s not to demonize the above food groups either, but more to dispel the myth that added sugar has been solely responsible for increased obesity and downtrends in health.
You can also download publicly available data on a spreadsheet that shows sugars and sweeteners have actually DECREASED as a percentage of our total calorie consumption from the 1970’s to 2010.
Added sugars decreased from 18.1% to 15.8% of of our total calories.  (you can download the spreadsheet at the bottom of the page when you click the link. It’s called “Nutrient Availability” and go to the “food groups” tab)
The same data also shows an increase in overall total calories consumed in those thirty years.
At the same time, a study  comparing lifestyle choices from 1988-2006 showed a decreasing trend for exercise (10% decrease) as well as decreases in fruit and veg consumption (16% down) and increases in moderate alcohol consumption (11%).
Combining these statistics paints a pretty clear and bleak picture for what’s responsible for our ailing health and increasing size. It’s not one thing in isolation and certainly not just sugar.
These are commonly found in confectionaries, such as candies and sweets, processed dessert foods, carbonated drinks, juices, some sugary cocktail mixes and other alcoholic drinks.
Artificial sweeteners, flavors and colors are also to be flat-out avoided, according to the CRAP guidelines.
Unfortunately, this falls into the “chemical” bucket where the recommendation falls foul of the “appeal to nature” fallacy.
In fact, there are plenty of naturally occurring things that can harm us, for example, ricin, a potent poison comes from castor beans and would be harmful when consumed 
The other argument about artificial sweeteners is that they may disrupt the gut microbiome but this has mostly only been found in animal or in-vitro (petri dish/test tube) studies
This analysis of the clinical data on artificial sweeteners  shows that the impact of them on glucose control is non-significant, as is their affect on body weight and fat.
This is contrary to the belief of many, that artificial sweeteners make you hungrier  or heavier.
In terms of gut microbiome, the same study shows most sweeteners have a minimal impact, specifically acesulfame, aspartame, with only saccharin and sucralose having minimal potential to impact the microbiota.
Either way, it’s difficult to tell exactly what effect this has.
Dr Layne Norton rounds up the debate well with his tweet below:
Artificial sweeteners are proven to damage your gut microbiome…— Layne Norton, PhD (@BioLayne) June 30, 2021
If you are a bacterial cell culture in a petri dish getting insane doses applied directly 🤷♂️
Or a rodent getting 100-1000x normal dose
In normal doses in humans it doesn’t appear to do shit to the gut microbiome
Preservatives do what they say on the tin. They are an additive used to preserve many processed foods.
This part of the CRAP foods acronym refers to heavily processed foods where food manufacturers often use the above ingredients.
- cured deli meats
- ice creams
- processed party foods
and other similar foods.
The irony with sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite is that they’re actually naturally occurring and there isn’t much in the way of negative effects in the scientific literature.
The old theory that it was a carcinogen was found to be false, with no association with dietary nitrate and cancer found.
In fact, there were some studies to show the opposite and that it lowers blood pressure .
I have no issue with the recommendation to limit the other ingredients which are closely related or used together. (propyl gallate, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA which converts to TBHQ in the body), and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT).
These ingredients do have safety limits, and the FDA regulates the amount that can be added to foods, and this makes it sensible to limit your intake where possible .
Overall Review of CRAP
Let’s summarize and look at the pros and cons of CRAP:
- In general, following the guidelines will likely lead you towards more nutrient-dense (but potentially also calorie-dense) food choices.
- Eliminating certain ingredients might be helpful for some people to follow.
- The crap diet doesn’t educate on the most important aspects of a diet; there is no mention of calories, macronutrients, micronutrients, sustainability strategies etc.
- It focusses only on what to “avoid”. This is just as unhelpful for those seeking optimum health. It would have been much more helpful and effective to provide additional health advice about what to consume, rather than just what not to.
- It completely misses the big rocks and foundations of a healthy, effective diet in favor of the pebbles. It majors in the minors.
- It’s likely to be unsustainable and creates unwarranted fear or anxiety of certain food groups and ingredients.
- It has no real scientific evidence behind it. At best, it cherry-picks from animal, observational and short term studies.
Ultimately, even though it’s free advice and well intentioned, it’s absolutely not a diet I would recommend for most people who want a sustainably healthy diet.
It massively misses the mark on educating the population on what the building blocks of a healthy diet are. The focus is on elimination and that’s not helpful. There is no “why”.
While it’s always good to be conscious of the foods we’re eating and choose “healthy”, nutritional foods where possible, anyone who wants to lose weight, maintain health, or shift to a healthier lifestyle doesn’t need to necessarily avoid eating these foods.
What Diet Should I Follow to Be Healthy and Hit My Goals Instead?
Exercise and eating a nutritious diet are key to being healthy.
Which diet you follow doesn’t matter as much, so long as it is evidence based, fits your lifestyle and is sustainable in the long-term.
The image below by Eric Helms, is my favorite visual about prioritizing a nutritious diet. Pay particular attention to the bottom three sections of the pyramid:
I’ve had great success personally and with clients using a flexible dieting/IIFYM approach but that too might not be for everyone.
It’s about finding a way of eating that works for you that prioritizes the sections of the pyramid above.
A few tips to get you going:
- Eat your maintenance calories daily if you want to maintain weight.
5-10% below if you want to lose weight
or 5% above it if you want to build muscle. If you’re unsure, use my macro calculator
- Eat 0.7-1g of protein per lb of your body weight daily
- Meat eater: eat leaner cuts of meat for protein and to save on calories from fats i.e. fresh chicken breasts or thighs, leaner cuts of beef or ground beef etc
- Eat 0.35-0.5g of fat per lb of your body weight daily
- Fill the rest of your calorie allowance with carbs
- Aim for 4-6 servings of fruit and veg per day
- Drink 2-4L of water daily
- It’s ok to substitute full sugar juices (even if made from actual fruit) or drinking carbonated drinks with their artificially sweetened, diet counterparts to beat sugar cravings and hunger. They’re especially helpful to mix with your alcoholic beverage or spirits to limit calories.
- Minimal cured deli meats
- Eat junk food minimally
- Minimal intake of foods high in added or refined sugar
- Eat fried foods minimally
- Minimal processed food intake
- Try not to drink too many calories
- Limit alcohol intake
You’ll see above I haven’t recommended you avoid foods or drinks, but minimize them in the context of your whole diet.
They can still exist in a healthy diet, but shouldn’t make up the majority of it.
Follow the 80/20 or 90/10 rule, while eating within the calories ranges for your goal and you won’t go far wrong.
Focus On Essential Nutrients
As well as calories, put a focus on the essential nutrients that make up your diet:
- Carbohydrates (while not an essential nutrient, it’s a very helpful one to most people)
- Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals)
If you’re following the guidelines and targets I added to the “DO’s” section above, you’ll likely be getting enough of all of the above essential nutrients without any worries.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
You might find the answers below if you have additional questions about CRAP foods and your own diet in general.
How Do I Stop Eating Junk Food?
Junk food cravings can be due to a number of factors:
- Junk food is almost always very hyper-palatable (tastes good)!
If you crave junk food often and plan to stop or reduce this habit, there are a number of strategies you can follow:
- Don’t shop while hungry: one of the few things you can do to shift to a healthier lifestyle is to stop going for groceries when you’re hungry. This can stop you buying junk foods while you’re craving them.
- Allow yourself at least one or two junk food meals per week, and maybe one small “junk” treat daily or every other day (small bar of chocolate, for example). This is a much more sustainable and less restrictive way to diet.
- Keep yourself hydrated and add a serving of vegetables to each meal. This can help add volume to your meals, curb hunger and cravings.
- Keep junk out of the house or plan for it. The fewer decisions you need to make, the better. If junk isn’t an option, you can’t reach for it and don’t need to use will power.
Not many people have come out on top when trying to eliminate junk foods entirely, and that’s perfectly fine…because you don’t need to.
If 80-90% of your diet consists of nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods, then you can include your favorite treats or meals, within a calorie controlled and healthy diet.
Remember, health isn’t just physical, but also mental and your diet should not detract from that.
I get the feeling the CRAP diet would hurt many people’s mental health and potentially cause disordered eating or feelings about foods.
There is no need to “Cut the C.R.A.P!” completely.
The CRAP diet’s advice is well intentioned, but ultimately, well…crap.
Yes, eating many of the foods that are attached to some of the ingredients mentioned in this diet will usually mean consuming calorie dense, nutritionally lacking foods which can lead to rapid weight gain, but eliminating them completely isn’t a realistic solution either.
The diet does nothing to educate the end user on what the building blocks of a healthy and effective diet are (calories, macronutrients, micronutrients etc).
Not knowing these fundamentals could just as easily lead to weight gain and poor health when following this diet.
When trying to achieve optimal health, both mental and physical, eating a well-balanced diet and combining it with an effective exercise routine is the ultimate recipe for success.
The CRAP diet, isn’t it.
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