With so many diets to choose from, it’s often hard to determine which ones are good, which are bad and which are just down-right ugly. Here’s what you need to know about some of today’s most popular diet trends:
The ugly: The Ketogenic Diet
What is it? 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 and 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 significantly reduced, so don’t believe this is a keto-specific effect.
The ugly: The Whole 30 Diet
What is it? 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 bad: The Fast Diet
What is it? 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 them.
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.
The bad: Paleo Diet
What is it? Proponents say 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.
Pros: Packaged, convenience foods are eliminated. Focus is on whole foods such as 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.
So, what about the good?
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 is it? 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 and 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. Is a natural, moderate and sensible approach to address health and weight concerns.
Cons: Eating out can be difficult due to typical large, heavily salted and 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. This way of eating is sustainable – you can healthfully follow these guidelines forever.
The Mediterranean Diet
What is it? 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 is consumed only in moderation. Red meats and sweets are 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 and 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.
SWEET POTATO FAJITAS
Makes 4 servings
2 large bell peppers, any color, seeded and thinly sliced
2 medium onions, sliced
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and thinly sliced into strips
1 large Portobello mushroom, sliced
1 medium jalapeno, seeded, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2-3 Tbsp. fajita seasoning
2 cups fresh spinach
8” flour or corn tortillas
Suggested toppings: salsa, avocado, shredded cheese*
In large skillet over medium heat, add oil, garlic, peppers and onion. Sauté 5 minutes. Add sweet potato, mushroom and jalapeno. Cook until veggies are soft, not mushy. Add fajita seasoning. Mix to combine. Remove from heat.
To serve: place spinach on tortilla and top with fajita veggie mixture. Finish with desired toppings.
Nutrition analysis per two fajita serving: 350 calories, 11 g fat, 10 g protein, 54 g carbohydrate, 5 g fiber, 430 mg sodium
Note: Suggested toppings not included in nutrition analysis
PIZZA PASTA SALAD
Makes 4 servings
½ lb. dry pasta (rotini, penne or farfalle)
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
¼ cup green olives, drained and sliced
¼ cup pepperoni slices
¼ cup shredded cheese
For the dressing:
¼ cup olive oil
3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
Cook pasta according to package directions. In small jar with lid, combine dressing ingredients. Shake to combine, set aside. In a large bowl, combine cooked pasta and remaining ingredients with enough dressing to coat lightly. Toss. Reserve remaining dressing. Refrigerate one to two hours before serving, if possible. Add remaining dressing, toss and serve.
Nutrition analysis per serving: 460 calories, 24 g fat, 12 g protein, 47 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber, 390 mg sodium