Spoiler alert: Whole 30 made the list!
With so many diets to choose from, it's often hard to determine which ones are good, which are bad and which are just downright ugly. Here's what you need to know about some of today's most popular diet trends:
The Ketogenic Diet
What it is: Prescribed in the 1920s as a treatment for epilepsy, this very low-carb, high-fat diet forces the body to use fat instead of carbohydrate for energy—ketosis—to reduce seizures.
Pros: Outside of some improvement in lab values, almost none when used for weight-loss purposes.
Cons: Carbohydrate intake is severely restricted to less than 5-percent of daily calories. Virtually eliminates all fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes. Impossible to meet nutritional needs without a heavy dose of vitamin/mineral supplements.
Bottom line: A diet prescribed to treat a medical condition should never be used for weight-loss purposes. Health improvements seen in ketosis occur any time the diet is dramatically changed and calorie intake is significantly reduced, so don't believe this is a keto-specific effect.
The Whole 30 Diet
What it is: No sugar, artificial sweeteners, dairy, grains, legumes (including peanuts and peanut butter) or alcohol for 30 days. Aims to "heal the body from inflammation" caused by these foods. If you slip up, you start the 30 day cycle all over again.
Pros: Plenty of fruits and vegetables. Calorie counting and weighing are discouraged to shift focus to healthy eating benefits outside of weight loss.
Cons: Lifestyle must be completely altered to accommodate this diet. No long-term maintenance plan for keeping the weight off—or so-called inflammation away—after the 30 days.
Bottom line: 30 days is not nearly enough time to make you healthy or change your lifestyle. This diet is restrictive to the extreme...and what happens when the 30 days are over?
The Fast Diet
What it is: Sometimes referred to as the 5:2 diet—or more generally known as intermittent fasting. For this diet, calories are restricted for two days (around 500-600 calories) and "normal" eating is allowed on the other five days. The idea is to trick the body into thinking it is experiencing famine, which will switch it from storing fat to burning it.
Pros: I'm hard-pressed to find any.
Cons: Little guidance for what or how to eat, particularly on non-fasting days. Severely and unnaturally restricts intake for short periods of time. Eating patterns like this are strongly correlated with a higher BMI and greater body fat mass.
Bottom Line: Restriction and deprivation will always result in overeating later. Always.
What it is: Proponents say to eat like our cavemen ancestors to be healthy because our reliance on today's highly processed, convenience food is to blame for all health problems. I wrote at length about the Paleo Diet in an earlier article.
Pros: Packaged, convenience foods are eliminated. Focus is on whole foods: plants and lean meats.
Cons: Two entire food groups are missing—whole grains and dairy. "Open meals" allow you to cheat as often as needed.
Bottom line: We don't hunt, fish or gather our food the way we did in Paleolithic times, and there is literally no food available today that even closely resembles what was eaten 10,000 years ago. Any diet that recommends "cheating"—or allows you to nosh on cinnamon rolls, fudge and other junk food disguised with a healthy-sounding title—is fooling you.
The diets above are the verb sense of the word—short term, quick fix, extreme ways of eating with restriction and elimination at the core. They don't address the root of our eating and food issues. In contrast, the diets below are the noun sense—long-term, sustainable ways of living without deprivation.
The DASH Diet
What it is: Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) was originally created to treat and prevent heart disease. Focuses on balance, moderation and nutritious foods.
Pros: Responsibly limits red meat, sodium, high-fat, high-sugar treats. Promotes consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, nuts and legumes. Slowly evolves diet over time. No off-limit foods. Natural, moderate and sensible approach to addressing health and weight concerns.
Cons: Eating out can be difficult due to typical large, heavily salted, high-fat restaurant choices.
Bottom line: Weight loss is a common side effect of eating a well-balanced, nutritious and natural diet like this one. The best part is this way of eating is sustainable—you can healthfully follow these guidelines forever.
The Mediterranean Diet
What it is: Based on the diet and lifestyle practices of those living in the Mediterranean region. These people tend to live long, healthful lives, and it's widely accepted that their diet and active lifestyle play a key role.
Pros: Fresh produce, whole grains, fish, legumes, nuts and other healthy fats form the base of each meal. Alcohol in moderation. Red meats and sweets reserved for special occasions and eaten in small amounts. Calorie intake is based on physical hunger and activity level.
Cons: None. Many restaurants have Mediterranean options that are paired with a large salad or side of veggies. You'll be just fine!
Bottom line: Of all the healthful ways of eating this is one of the best. It's sustainable, based on intuitive principles, with whole, nutritious foods at its core.
While there is no one diet or way of eating that is right for everyone, any diet that restricts, deprives or otherwise approaches eating in an unnatural way should not be followed. Living a healthy lifestyle doesn't require "cheating," isn't determined by a specific number of days or calories, nor should it be focused too heavily on one nutrient over another. A healthful diet is balanced and hunger-based and complimented by regular physical activity and appropriate self-care.
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