There are so many fad diets trending that I’m getting whiplash trying to keep track of them all. I have heard of extreme diets where people only eat one type of fruit for extended periods of time or delegate the majority of their daily caloric intake from animal protein. I am going to assume that you can red flag absurd diets like those as concerning, but I do want to discuss the potential consequences and benefits of some of today’s most popular diet trends.
I also want to note that I believe in a lifestyle, not a diet. Whatever method of consumption that you choose, ask yourself “Can I make this a lifestyle?”. If the answer is no, it’s probably not the program for you…
The Paleolithic Diet, or Caveman Diet, is a current trend in which people consume only foods presumed to have been eaten during the Paleolithic era. There is some variation in how people note the details of the Paleo Diet, but, in general, about half of the day’s calories are split between seafood and lean meat and the other half is split between fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
There are two huge issues I have with the fundamentals of this diet right from the get-go. First, modern humans are extraordinarily anatomically different from Paleolithic era humans, whom existed around 3.3 million years ago. Our digestive systems simply are not the same as they were back then, so we cannot assume that the foods that were optimal for people during those times are ideal for us now. Second, there is still widespread debate over what foods were actually eaten millions of years ago. How can we expect to put our trust in a diet that is based on assumptions?
My concerns extend beyond just the principles of the Paleo diet. I am a firm believer that the optimal diet is at least majority plant-based. I would never recommend that any of my clients get over 50 percent of their daily calories from any meat source, which this diet promotes. I am also extremely careful about what kinds of meat I put into my body. I am a fan of organic, free-range and antibiotic-free lamb and Alaskan, wild-caught salmon, but I would never recommend red meat to anyone. And eating too much fish, especially farmed fish, can be toxic for humans. I also think we should limit our egg intake, which the Paleo Diet does not denote. The rules of Paleo also encourage people to avoid legumes, which I do not think is beneficial for most people.
I love that the Paleo Diet bans dairy, added salt, added sugar and most grains. Most human beings have at least a mild sensitivity to both gluten and dairy and the rates are continuing to grow at an alarming speed. Most of us benefit from cutting back on both of those kinds of foods and replacing them with plant-based protein and fiber sources instead. Today people also eat way too much sugar, and it literally feeds disease growth. It is also great that the Paleo Diet eliminates processed foods, since most of it provides no benefit to us.
Whenever my clients tell me that they want to experiment with a vegetarian or vegan diet, I let them know that this form of eating is actually not considered a diet if done correctly. Being vegetarian or vegan can be viewed as more of a lifestyle than a diet. It should not be restrictive and is a more sustainable way of eating that can last for months or even years rather than other diets, which are only feasible for shorter amounts of time. Vegetarian refers to someone who does not eat any meat (including fish) and vegan is a term used to describe a way of living without any animal products at all – this includes dairy, eggs and honey. I, myself, practice a flexitarian diet, which consists of about 80 percent vegan food and 20 percent high quality animal products like lamb, wild-caught salmon, ghee and collagen.
I have seen a number of people who want to try vegetarian or vegan eating but end up replacing animal products with carbohydrates or other processed foods. This is counterproductive and can be very unhealthy. Do not fall for the healthy-looking vegan labels – just because a food is vegan, does not make it healthy (Oreos are vegan, after all). I also have some clients who went vegan, did not eat enough calories each day, as a result felt super restricted and bounced back to their original unhealthy habits. Make sure you prepare ahead of a transition to a veg diet, so you know which plant foods are best to use as replacements for animal foods.
I have seen countless benefits of people switching to a more plant-based diet – a decrease in blood pressure, lower levels of cholesterol, reduced acne, lower levels of stress, weight loss, lower blood sugar levels, and an increase in sex drive, just to name a few. I whole-heartedly believe that if everyone strived to eat more vegetables and fewer animal products, we would all be significantly healthier. I encourage all of my clients to limit their meat and dairy intake.
In terms of restriction, a pegan diet is pretty high up there. As you likely guessed, it is a blend of paleo and vegan eating. This means that someone practicing a pegan lifestyle must avoid most meat and all dairy, whole grains, legumes, alcohol, coffee, oils and more.
A big concern of mine with the pegan diet is deprivation. More than likely, someone is going to struggle with finding the appropriate foods to eat and end up feeling starved and rebound to be unhealthier than they were prior to their pegan phase. Plus, I find no problems with legumes and some whole grains. I do not think lectins need to be feared, as some people in the health community will have you believe.
The positives of this diet are a blend of the benefits that come with both a paleo and vegan diet – no dairy, limited processed foods, no gluten, etc. But, for me, they are not sustainable, and I recommend passing on the pegan diet.
The Ketogenic Diet has brought about debate within the nutrition community. It is a diet so low in carbohydrates that you begin using fat instead of sugars for energy – a process known as “ketosis”. Ketosis refers to the release of ketone bodies into the system as a by-product of the fat burning cycle. Many ketogenic dieters will actually measure ketones in their urine to ensure that they are in active ketosis. The diet involves a high fat ratio of 75 percent fat to 20 percent proteins and only 5 percent carbohydrates. Clinically, it was developed as a dietary treatment protocol for children with Epilepsy, but it has surged in popularity over the last few years.
There is evidence to suggest that some people have experienced increased levels of cholesterol in the beginning of a ketogenic regimen. The keto diet can also be hard to follow, and people often end up eating significant amounts of red meat and other processed foods, which is extraordinarily unhealthy. We also do not know much about the long-term effects of a ketogenic diet since it has proven so difficult to maintain.
Some people have experienced great benefits from a keto diet, some of which include improved weight loss, increases in insulin sensitivity, and enhanced mental focus. Some say that it may also be anti-cancer. There is evidence to suggest that most cancers feed off of glucose. By starving your system of glucose and running on fats instead, you may be effectively starving cancer cells. Even just a day or two on a ketogenic fast could potentially mitigate the threat of cancerous cells.
This is technically an elimination diet, that urges participants to avoid foods that are often linked to sensitivities, cravings and low energy, and then they are slowly introduced back in. The diet’s founder, Melissa Hartwig, says that the purpose of Whole30 is a 30-day experiment to teach you how the foods you commonly eat are impacting how you feel and your overall quality of life. Foods included in the diet are vegetables, fruits, nuts and some organic and sustainably/ethically raised meat, fish and eggs. Not allowed on the menu is sugar, alcohol, legumes, dairy, grains and sugar.
My concerns about the Whole30 are similar to those of the pegan diet. I do not advise people to eat most meat, even if it is organic and sustainably grown (I also try to avoid the term “ethically-grown” when it comes to animal protein, since, if I am being honest, there is no such thing as ethically-grown meat). As I mentioned previously, I am also a fan of legumes and think they have been given an unfair reputation based on some shoddy science over the years. It also requires significant time and planning, and you will need to avoid most restaurants during your 30-day experiment. Just like other diet fats, weight loss from Whole30 has not proven to be long-term for most people.
I am a big fan of elimination diets for people who experience regular gastrointestinal discomfort. I love that Whole30 removes sugar and other processed foods and I do like that it at least specifies that any meat consumed must be organic and sustainably-raised, which is a big step above pegan and keto. Any diet that encourages more vegetable consumption gets at least a partial thumbs up from me.
The Mediterranean Diet emphasizes foods that were commonly eaten by people in Spain, Southern Italy and Greece in the 1940s and 1950s. It encourages mostly plant-based eating with a focus on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts. On the Mediterranean Diet, people avoid butter and instead use healthy fats like olive oil. Red wine drinking is allowed while on the diet and regular water consumption is encouraged.
It is easy to overdo it on fats in the Mediterranean Diet, so it is important to be mindful of that. I do not love that red meat is allowed, even in moderation, since I think the focus should be on omega-rich fish and lean animal protein. Dairy is included in this diet, but I think it should be limited. I also worry about the fact that grains are encouraged. While I am a fan of whole grains to some extent, I know most people do well with limiting their gluten intake so grains should be eaten in moderation.
The Mediterranean Diet is definitely one of my favorites. I love that it is significantly less restrictive than keto, paleo, Whole30 and pegan and, thus, more likely to be sustained. I also love that water is a major focus of this diet, since most of us are not drinking nearly enough each day. I am happy to see that refined oils, refined sugar, refined grains and trans fatty acids are removed from the Mediterranean Diet along with highly processed and fast foods.
For so many years, we were all taught the importance of eating a big breakfast. In retrospect, I realize it was likely all based on the agendas of breakfast brand behemoths trying to sell us sugar laden cereals and yogurts. For me, a big breakfast never worked. It always made me feel more hungry, grumpy, or tired. When I skipped breakfast, however, I always felt great. Over the last few years, I realized that I was not alone in this when intermittent fasting rose in popularity.
Simply put, intermittent fasting is the practice of condensing the timeframe in which you ingest food down to a six to eight-hour window. Rather than spreading out your three meals a day or snacking consistently, the idea is to give your system clear boundaries and time to recover. Typically, foods within an intermittent fasting protocol include high quality, nutrient dense, whole foods and starchy carbs tend to be limited.
While intermittent fasting is not meant to restrict the number of calories you eat in a day, it does restrict the times at which you eat them. Restrictive eating of this kind can lead to overeating or binge eating during the allotted hours. Some people complain of low energy levels during the first part of the day. For this, I recommend a little healthy fat in the morning like adding MCT oil or collagen powder to your morning coffee. This makes it a lot easier to hold off until lunch.
There have been quite a few reported benefits with intermittent fasting. Some of them include enhanced mental function, increased insulin sensitivity, resetting of hunger hormones and improved ability to burn fat. For those of us who feel nauseous forcing down a big breakfast, it also makes the mornings more enjoyable.
Ultimately, I have found that extreme dieting in general does not work. With my clients, I have seen time and time again that if they feel deprived, they will maintain whatever diet they are experimenting with for a limited time but will often fall back into unhealthy habits and may even gain weight when they inevitably fall off the wagon. Plus, yo-yo diets, or those that lead to rapid fluctuations in weight loss and weight gain, are associated with increased mortality. Everyone is different, so what works for one person may not work for another. It is important to experiment with different foods and see what feels best for you. At the end of the day, I advise most people to follow an overarching lifestyle that consists mainly of foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and water. Limit your intake of grains, meat, dairy, eggs and alcohol. As always, I recommend checking in with a doctor before trying out a new kind of eating.