Welcome to Ask A Dietitian, a new series where Yahoo Canada digs into food trends and popular nutrition questions with registered dietitian Abbey Sharp.
This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.
New health and weight loss trends make the rounds on social media every few months, while some old ones keep resurfacing.
To see what's currently trending, Yahoo Canada checked in with registered dietitian Abbey Sharp. With more than 240,000 followers, the dietitian and YouTuber gets hundreds of comments daily asking for advice on trending health hacks.
She gave us the scoop on three recently most-asked questions:
Are seed oils actually bad for you?
Is 'leaky gut' real?
Is organic food better than non-organic?
Read on to find out what the expert has to say about each.
Are seed oils actually bad for you?
Seed oils are pressed from oil-rich seeds and are often used in highly processed foods.
Influencers and wellness gurus often claim seed oils are bad for you because they contain linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid. One TikToker, Thomas Foster, recently said they cause "inflammation in your body and over time can lead to many health problems."
Experts say research has shown there are health benefits to seed oils.
What are seed oils, and what is linoleic acid?
Dietitian Abbey Sharp says the main seed oils we see in our food system are: Seed oils are canola, sunflower, grape seed, cotton seed, corn, safflower and soybean oils.
Seed oils are typically "inexpensive and they have a higher smoke point," she explained.
"They can basically withstand a whole bunch of different cooking preparations without spoiling, so that is why we tend to see a lot of them in our highly processed food system."
Linoleic acid, an omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid, is the main component of seed oils. It's also an essential part of the human diet.
Are seed oils worse than other oils?
According to Sharp, some studies have pointed to the potential inflammatory properties of too much omega-6 in the diet.
"However, the larger body of high-quality evidence actually suggests that omega-6 fats do not significantly affect inflammation," she explained.
"When 2012 systematic review assessed the effects of omega-6 linoleic acid on a variety of different inflammatory markers in the body... they found no strong association to suggest that increased inflammation."
Some research even found reduced risk of cardiovascular events with rich omega-6 intake, Sharp added.
According to Sharp, the real problem is the imbalance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3s are generally found in fatty fish — which many people don't eat often, she explained.
"Most North Americans are getting about a 20-to-one ratio of omega-6 to omega-3.
"The ideal ratio for reducing chronic disease and inflammation is actually somewhere in the neighborhood of four to one, or even one-to-one."
Is it recommended?
According to Sharp, every fatty acid "has its unique role," and she's hesitant to say there are "bad oils."
She advises Canadians to focus more on their overall diet, rather than cutting out certain oils completely.
It's not the omega-6 in isolation that's the problem -- it's actually the overall diet.Abbey Sharp
The expert also pointed out canola oil seems to have "really bad PR," but she wants to remove some of the stigma. "To me, that's really misinformed because canola actually has a very favourable two-to-one ratio of omega-6 to omega-3," she said, adding that as a dietitian, it's her favourite of the seed oils.
Sharp's recommendation is to choose olive or avocado oil when cooking at home. Those are high in monounsaturated fats that will "help to tip the balance a little bit away from the omega-6" in processed foods.
Is 'leaky gut' a real thing?
"Leaky gut" is based on the idea that damage to the gut creates small gaps in the tight junctions of the intestinal wall. The gut becomes susceptible to toxins getting from the gut into the bloodstream.
Some influencers will claim "leaky gut" is the root cause of a variety of symptoms, like food sensitivities, depression, acne. Some even link it to autism and ADHD.
The official term for "leaky gut" is intestinal permeability.
What is the problem with 'leaky gut'?
According to dietitian Sharp, "we have very few scientific studies that even mention the words 'leaky gut.'"
She explained it's a colloquial term, but the medical community does recognize the term "intestinal permeability," associated with inflammatory conditions like celiac and type 2 diabetes.
"At least at this time, intestinal permeability has scientific evidence of its association with specific clinical conditions, while leaky gut is essentially the same concept but is arguably a lot more sensationalized — and not always evidence-based."
The symptoms of leaky gut are literally everything, allegedly.Abbey Sharp
When it comes to claims of "leaky gut" causing conditions of neurodiversity, Sharp said there's "no good data on this" as of now.
The claim "centres on the fact that the health of the gut is essentially central to the health of everything else in the body, and this is true."
In studies with mice, Sharp referenced, the rodents exhibiting behaviours similar to ADHD will have an altered gut microbiome. "The hypothesis is that leaky gut may be allowing substances to pass into the bloodstream that then can harm the brain."
However, Sharp emphasized that as of now, "we know neurodiversity is actually a result of a very complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors," and bone broth isn't going to fix it, she added.
The issue with the concept of "leaky gut," according to the dietitian, is we don't know whether it's the cause of a disease, or is it a symptom.
"Right now we can see correlations, but we do not know what came first in most of these cases... Most of the medical community does believe that leaky gut is more likely a symptom," she claimed.
Advice to those with gut concerns?
Sharp advises caution when self-diagnosing based on what influencers say.
"The unfortunate thing about the 'leaky gut' content online is that the symptoms of leaky gut are literally everything, allegedly," she said.
"These are such generalized symptoms that we can almost all see ourselves in this situation."
Though she advises caution, she also wants people to know their symptoms could be a legitimate concern. In that case, they should speak to a doctor or a gut health specialist.
Is organic food better for you than non-organic?
"Organic" refers to a way of farming, governed by regulations for ingredient and production methods.
Organic food is typically pricier, and is often thought to be a "better" choice for produce.
What does 'organic' and 'non-GMO' really mean?
In Canada, federal guidelines on "organic" food address soil quality, raising practices, animal feed, pest and weed control, use of additives and more.
According to Sharp, there's a common misconception that organic food is farmed without any pesticides.
"Organic food doesn't necessarily mean pesticide free, but rather they have to use natural pesticides only," she explained.
GMO stands for "genetically modified organism." Sharp explained this is a plant, animal or microorganism that's genetic makeup has been modified using genetic engineering techniques.
"Non-GMO is not necessarily organic, but organic has to be non-GMO," she added.
Is there a difference in food quality?
Whether organic food is better than non-organic, Sharp suggested "no," in short.
"We see slightly higher levels of some antioxidants in organics, slightly higher omega-3s when we're talking about grass fed dairy, or grass fed organic meats, but the actual differences are marginal in the context of somebody's overall diet and health."
She also added we don't necessarily have evidence yet that natural pesticides are healthier than synthetic ones.
I think people associate naturalness with healthy, and anything that's manmade with a lot of distrust.Abbey Sharp
When it comes to GMO specifically, Sharp said the distrust often comes from a lack of understanding of the technology and processes.
"In some cases, GMOs make foods more nutritious. And I really wholly believe that GMOs are going to be essential for making food more affordable and accessible long term," Sharp added.
Is organic preferred?
According to Sharp, the preference for organic food is often a marker of financial privilege.
When it comes to whether it's actually healthier, Sharp isn't convinced.
"There's interesting research that has shown... those folks that do choose organic as having better health outcomes. People will see studies like that and think, 'Oh, see, that means organic is healthier,'" she claimed.
"But this is super confounded by the fact that people who tend to buy organic tend to have more money, which means they've got more access to health promoting activities, and more access to fruits and vegetables in general."
Sharp said buying organic makes sense if "you feel like the farming practices better align with your values." But, she added it shouldn't come as a financial burden.
"I would much rather see people buy and eat more conventional produce than buying less organic produce because there are budget constraints."