A lot of us made resolutions this year to eat healthier, lose weight, or both. To accomplish these goals, some of us may have turned to the latest trending diet, or maybe even adopted extreme diets that promised quick results.
If you spend any time on social media or around a water cooler, you have no doubt heard of diet buzzwords like Vegan, Paleo, Keto, or Whole30. While some diets, like Veganism, attract followers who have strong ethical reasons for adhering to them, other diets, like Keto, attract followers because they make big promises about the kinds of results you can expect.
Let’s look at some of these popular diets and how they work, as well as some less trendy diets you may have missed.
Keto, or the Ketogenic diet, aims at getting the body to rely on fat for energy instead of carbohydrates. Typically, the number-one source of energy for your body comes from carbohydrates. As a very low-carb diet, Keto eventually puts your body in a state of ketosis, which just means that your body is burning fat for fuel very efficiently. While this can give dramatic weight loss results, it can also be very difficult to sustain. Diets like Keto can be hard to keep up because they involve eliminating many foods and doing lots of extra work, like counting how many carbs you eat in a day. Additionally, on Keto, all that extra animal-based fat and protein (like meats and cheeses) that your body must process can put a strain on your kidneys, lead to extra fat in your liver, and create kidney stones.
While many studies suggest that Keto has health benefits , unfortunately, most experts rank it at or near the bottom in every category. If you are considering the keto diet, or currently attempting it, talk to your doctor about it first to make sure it’s a good strategy for you.
Paleo, or the Paleolithic diet, has been around for a while (as its name suggests). The idea here is that if the caveman version of yourself wouldn’t eat something, neither should you. Some adherents may call this a primal diet, but whatever the name, the idea is to back away from modern food wizardry and eat closer to the ground—hunter-gatherer style. For example, on Paleo you cut out refined anything, like grains and sugars. You also cut out all dairy products. A Paleo diet consists of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, meats, and fish. Natural sweet sources like honey are allowable, and you would be amazed what you can make with grain-free flours.
The good news is, since this style of eating has exploded in popularity, there are more and more Paleo or Primal food brands that have developed ready-to-eat sauces, meals, desserts, and more. Some Paleo restaurants even exist.
According to the Mayo Clinic , the Paleo diet may have some real health benefits, and even help you lose weight; however, there is just not enough long-term research to demonstrate true benefits or risks associated with this diet.
This fad diet was originally designed to be a nutrition reset, and not a long-term way of eating. While the diet focuses on healthy food sources like fruits, veggies, nuts, and a variety of animal proteins, it still restricts many foods. However, those restrictions clue you in to the fact that it was not meant to be a forever diet. On the Whole30 plan, you cut out things like grains, dairy, alcohol, and all sugars. This includes honey and any sugars that sneak into foods (like bacon) or condiments (like ketchup). And you may find yourself spending as much time reading labels as you do washing dishes, since you certainly have to make most of your food at home.
While the focus on whole foods and getting in touch with your body’s hunger signals is a very positive strategy, Whole30 can be a daunting program. However, Whole30 has a huge online community for support with recipes or group challenges. The key with this diet is to go into it with a short-term mindset. Whole30 is often used to help identify a food that might be upsetting your body, as foods are reintroduced slowly as the diet goes on. A Whole30 diet can be a great way to kick-start some healthy changes, but as a long-term plan it ranks pretty low with health experts— 35 th out of 40.
Other Diets to Consider
The following diets have been around, in some form, for quite a long time (not as long as the paleolithic diet, of course). The key to each of these diets is balance and sustainability.
The Mediterranean Diet
Time and again US News and World Report ranks this as the top diet. The idea behind this diet is to adapt and reflect more Mediterranean eating habits. This diet aims for more modest portion sizes of fish and animal proteins and focuses on everyday nutrient-dense options like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. You’ll eat red meat and sweets very rarely, but you can still enjoy that glass of red wine.
Originally created by a pair of biochemists after visiting the region, this diet has gained recognition by plenty of health experts. In the ‘90s, the WHO and the Harvard School of Public Health teamed up with nonprofit Oldways to create a helpful Mediterranean diet pyramid.
The Mediterranean diet is consistently ranked as one of the easiest diets to follow. It is friendly to people who want a mostly plant-based diet, or anyone trying to manage a health condition like diabetes.
The DASH Diet
DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. So, it’s no surprise that researchers funded by the National Health Institute (NIH) created this diet to prevent and treat high blood pressure. Originally designed in the ‘90s , this diet is still routinely praised by health experts and recommended by doctors–it usually ranks in the top 3 of the US News and World Report diet listings. The most notable feature of the DASH diet is that it greatly reduces sodium intake. Actually, it pushes you to get your sodium intake to about where the Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest: 2300mg.
Users of this diet eat whole grains, vegetables, fruits, lean meats, nuts, legumes, and low-fat or non-fat dairy products. The biggest servings come from the first three items on that list, and the other focus falls on reducing fats and sweets. The primary goal of DASH is keeping your portions on target, and not fully eliminating any food group. If you focus on reducing sodium intake and follow the suggestions of the diet protocols, DASH is pretty easy to follow, and allows room to still have treats occasionally.
The balanced approach of this diet makes it sustainable for anyone who wants to try it as a weight loss strategy, as well as anyone who wants to manage a related health condition.
The Flexitarian Diet
This diet is sometimes called the Semi-Vegetarian Diet, or Mostly Vegetarian. Of course, a vegetarian does not eat meat, but a Flexitarian might eat meat every once in a while. On this diet, users consume mostly whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. However, a few days a week you can enjoy eggs, red meat, or poultry.
Interestingly, this diet does not ask you to jump right in. The idea is to ease into the reduced animal-based food diet by starting with 2 vegetarian days a week. After you adjust to your two days, you can up it to three or four days a week, with the ultimate goal being five full vegetarian days a week. Of course, on the two “flex” days you don’t eat all the meat you can find. On your flex days you’ll keep your meat to about 9 ounces. Fish can be added in as you see fit. Some adherents might treat fish like other meats, while some might allow fish on any day.
This diet is younger, from around 2009, but its mostly plant-based approach allows room for flexibility. Though you can eat animal-based foods, the majority of the flexitarian diet comes from plant sources. This helps you reap many of the benefits that come with a vegetarian diet like a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. You can learn more about this flexible diet here.
It’s Not You, It’s the Diets
Any diet that tells you to go super low or super high on one nutrient is likely not sustainable long-term, and worse, may be detrimental to your long-term health, no matter how much weight you might lose. For example, a diet that is too low in carbs may be too low in fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, vitamin A, and more. A diet too high in protein sources may use too many fatty sources.
The bottom line is that the best diet for you is the one you can stick to. Usually this means a diet that works with your lifestyle or one that mirrors the lifestyle and eating habits you want to be part of your routine going forward. Perhaps it is best for you not to stick to one particular diet, but focus more on mindful eating, as we’ve described in an earlier article. If you are struggling to stick to that diet you resolved to follow in 2022, it might be the diet that’s the problem!
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