Are diets trendy? Or is there truly one diet that trumps all as the perfect way of eating? It seems that every few years, the spotlight is on the new, miracle diet that will change your life and make all of your troubles go away forever. Nutrition is powerful without a doubt… but can one diet be the best?
How do we weed out the bogus information and figure out what’s right for us? We do need to learn a bit about different approaches so that we can make educated decisions about the foods we eat and the diet we choose to adopt, if any at all. So which diet is right for you? Do you really need to follow one?
What does “diet” truly mean?
The word “diet” has a few different meanings. We most commonly know it as a fixed eating plan where the amount and type of food consumed is aimed at achieving a specific goal, often weight loss. We usually associate diet with deprivation, hunger, and strict rules.
However, the fundamental meaning of “diet” is simply the way one eats!
It’s not tied to any specific guidelines. This means that your diet can really be anything you want it to be!
Of course, we want our diets to be healthy, and enjoyable. And we probably want to reach specific goals. This is often where confusion about specific diets comes into play. Let’s explore some of the most popular ones (starting with the Paleo, Zone, and Ketogenic diets) to determine their pros and cons as well as similarities and differences.
The paleo diet (also often called a “primal” or “ancestral” diet) is aimed to be one that mimics that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In essence, paleo avoids highly processed and refined foods, focusing on those whole and nutrient-rich. The belief is that we evolved to eat this way, and our bodies (especially digestive and immune systems) are not meant to consume certain foods that have become such a huge component of the modern diet.
The basic paleo prescription is comprised of meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Highly processed foods like hydrogenated oils, grains, dairy, legumes, and sweeteners are avoided.
Such modern foods, especially today’s versions, are actually fairly new additions to the human diet. For example, today’s grains are highly refined and often genetically modified. Today’s dairy comes from factory-farmed cows fed unnatural diets and is pasteurized, ridding it of healthy bacteria and nutrients.
However, some interpretations of paleo do include some of these “off limits” foods—certain unrefined sweeteners like honey and maple syrup, some dairy foods like fermented yogurt (kefir) and grass-fed and/or raw dairy, and “pseudo grains” like quinoa. Other interpretations of the diet have additional exclusions, such as the autoimmune paleo diet, which also avoids foods like eggs, nuts, and certain vegetables.
Therefore, what is confusing for many people is that although it seems that way, there really are no black and white rules when it comes to the paleo diet. There is no one true paleo diet. But this is actually pretty true to life. Our ancestors each ate a very specific diet, created by their lifestyles and what was available to them in their specific geographic location.
Research done by Dr. Weston Price in the 1930s showed that the diets of indigenous cultures around the world varied greatly. Some groups lived off dairy foods, while the diets of others were comprised mostly of seafood. Some ate primarily vegetables, while others ate little to none! Yet all of these groups displayed amazing health, strength, and vitality, especially compared to groups nearby who adopted more processed, modern foods. These individuals showed more deformities, weaknesses, and diseases.
Photo Copyright © Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation®, All Rights Reserved, www.ppnf.org
However, many similarities were found between different diets that gave them their health-promoting properties. Such traditional diets were high in essential fats and fat-soluble vitamins and were extremely mineral-rich. They contained no refined or denatured foods such as sugars, hydrogenated oils, or homogenized dairy. These groups also all consumed some form of animal food and consumed the whole animal. Fermented foods rich in enzymes and bacteria were also consumed. Grains, nuts, and seeds were soaked and sprouted so that they were more easily digestible.
What this shows us is that there is no one perfect diet for everyone. Just as these native groups varied greatly yet were all still very healthy, different versions of paleo can work for different people.
Each person needs to find their own specific shade of paleo that works best for him or her.
Fortunately, following stricter version of the paleo diet can be a great tool to use as an elimination diet—a way to find specific food intolerances and refresh the digestive, immune, and endocrine systems. From here, foods can be added back in and the overall diet can be customized to what works for each individual.
The paleo diet has endless benefits. People who have success credit this way of eating for their improved energy, decreased cravings, clearer skin, fat loss, lessening or even disappearance of symptoms of certain health issues, especially digestive and immune conditions, and much more. Nutrient intake and absorption improve immensely with a paleo diet, since less processed foods are more nutrient rich and also supportive of healthy digestion.
Some disadvantages of paleo (often due to misinformation) are ignorance to food quantity and a tendency toward being very strict with what one eats. Often times, people believe that since a food is “paleo,” they can eat however much of it they want (this is common with high fat foods, like almonds and coconut butter). This can stall weight loss, and even lead to weight gain. On the contrary, sometimes people get wrapped up in the rules of paleo and can become too rigid with their diets, not enjoying what they eat or having any flexibility.
In addition, since paleo is free of grains, legumes, and sugars, it has a tendency to be a lower carb diet. But for those highly active and/or have performance or muscle gain goals, this can be problematic. Paleo does not necessarily mean low carb, and this is where personalization coms into play.
Paleo is an amazingly health-promoting diet, when done right. Food quality is number one, but quantity can’t be neglected. Research and experimentation is also crucial for customizing the shade of paleo that works for you. With a little personalized modification, the paleo diet is a very realistic approach to long-term nutrition.
Learn more at:
The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain
The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf
Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo
Developed by Dr. Barry Sears and popularized in the 1990s, the Zone diet is centered on promoting a healthy hormonal response to food as well as lessening inflammation through diet. Dysregulated blood sugar levels, high insulin, and chronic systemic inflammation are direct contributors to most chronic diseases, including obesity as well as rapid aging and degeneration.
Zone aims to moderate blood sugar to ensure healthy insulin levels with a balanced proportion of the three macronutrients in each meal and snack: 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat.
Image source: http://www.zonediet.com/the-zone-diet/
Macros are accounted for in “blocks” in order to compose these meals to the right proportions.
In terms of foods allowed, the Zone diet specifically promotes consumption of high quality foods and especially low glycemic, high fiber carbohydrates. Grains and sugars are discouraged. Since insulin is a storage hormone, excessive amounts of carbohydrates (especially those highly processed and refined), will contribute to fat gain and a resistance to weight loss, and negatively affect health. High quality lean proteins, non-starchy vegetables and fruits, and healthy, natural fat sources (particularly monounsaturated) are also emphasized. Zone also promotes eating every few hours to promote balanced hormonal responses.
While many people use the Zone diet for weight loss and performance reasons, it is first and foremost a diet aimed at promoting overall health. Zone is much more than a short-term diet fix for weight loss. The benefits of getting into “the Zone” (the sweet spot of inflammation and insulin) include losing excess body fat, clearer thinking, increased energy, and improved performance. Controlling insulin and inflammation is a means to prevent chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, heart disease, and more. Also, by focusing on quality, whole foods, micronutrient intake is high.
The Zone system is definitely one that has a learning curve, and some people prefer it, while others do not. Some choose to be extremely specific with their meals—weighing and measuring foods in order to have the exact block portions at each meal. Others choose to be a little more lenient, simply aiming to split their plate 1/3 lean protein, 2/3 low-starch vegetables and/or some low sugar fruits, and then adding a little fat. Even following Zone fairly loosely can have many benefits.
For some people, keeping up with Zone as a lifestyle can be challenging. Like other real-food diets (such as paleo), Zone is much easier when you prepare most of your own food. If not, figuring out portions and blocks can be tough to do. Secondly, the Zone diet promotes eating 5-6 small meals/snacks each day to keep blood sugar levels balanced. For those with very busy lifestyles, eating so often throughout the day can be difficult to do.
The Zone diet is also slightly calorie restrictive, which can be problematic especially long-term, leading to issues like increased hunger and cravings, low energy, and decreased recovery. Since the focus is not necessarily on calories, but more on blocks and portions of food, it can be tough to troubleshoot this unless one is actively logging their food intake. Lastly, some individuals may not do well with a 40/30/30 split of macronutrients, such as those who are very sedentary.
Zone does provide a little more variety of foods than paleo, but does not really address personal food intolerances, which can also lead to inflammation in the body. This, again, is where experimentation is ideal. What Zone does prove is that getting the body healthy and functioning better will automatically lead to improved performance, energy, and body composition—the things we all chase, but maybe in the wrong ways.
Learn more at:
The Zone Diet by Barry Sears
Enter the Zone: A Dietary Road Map by Barry Sears and Bill Lawren
The ketogenic, or “keto” diet has become very popular in recent years, but it has actually been used for decades as a treatment for epilepsy. It’s currently being explored for its therapeutic properties for other health issues as well as for weight loss. There are numerous studies showing the benefits of keto for a multitude of uses.
The ketogenic diet is one that is very high in fat (roughly 75% of calories), moderately low in protein (around 20% of calories), and very low in carbohydrates (about 5% of intake).
The goal is to get the body into ketosis—a state where there is no available glucose (which comes from carbohydrates and can also be made from proteins) for the body to use as fuel.
Therefore, the body turns to ketones, byproducts of fat digestion produced by the liver. Ketones are more efficient sources of fuel for the body. By changing the body’s fuel source, the keto diet turns the body into a fat burning machine.
To ensure you are actually in ketosis, you must test your body’s ketone production. Common and simple ways to test at home include breath tests, finger-prick blood tests, and urine tests. Urine tests are especially helpful for initial transition, but may not be reliable as the body becomes more efficient at using ketones for energy.
There are different interpretations of the ketogenic diet including the a cyclical version that works in carb reefed days, a targeted keto diet which allows carb consumption around workouts, and intermittent fasting keto, which involves consuming the majority of ones calories within certain windows of time.
Maintaining ketosis is key for this diet, and therefore, eating can be fairly restrictive in terms of types of foods one can consume. All grains, legumes, and sugars must be avoided, as well as high starch vegetables such as root veggies and sugary fruits like peaches and bananas. Full-fat dairy is allowed, but low fat and processed dairy are not favorable for ketosis. Alcohol and sugar alcohols also need to be avoided as they can take someone out of ketosis.
Although it can be mentally tough to transition to a keto diet, many people love it due to the unrestricted amounts of fat-rich foods. Fat makes foods taste good, after all, so most people don’t complain about getting to eat more foods like eggs, butter, cream, cheese, red meat, bacon, nuts, coconut, and avocadoes! Low-starch vegetables and small amounts of low-sugar berries can be included, as well as certain condiments like salt, spices, and herbs.
Not only does the ketogenic diet include a multitude of delicious high-fat foods, studies show that it is an effective way to lower risk factors for disease.
A ketogenic diet can lower insulin resistance, improve blood lipid values, and slow tumor growth.
Keto can also assist with weight loss, particularly without the need to measure and track food or deal with undesirable symptoms like excessive hunger. In fact, proponents of the keto diet often praise its abilities to make food cravings disappear. By being able to use fat for fuel, you are able to go much longer without eating and avoid blood sugar dips that can cause fatigue, shakiness, and mood changes. This is also very helpful for athletes, especially endurance athletes like marathon runners. Fat is a longer burning source of fuel, and is an efficient source of energy for aerobic training.
In addition, since the brain can also use ketones, brain health and function are said to improve vastly with implementation of a ketogenic diet. This is one reason why keto is used for epilepsy treatment as well as being explored for use with other neurological diseases. Mental clarity and mood also improve when one follows a keto diet.
There also is promising research starting to come out about the benefits of keto for management of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, neurological disorders, and autoimmunity. Perhaps the most enticing research being done is by Dr. Terry Wahls, who is conducting clinical studies on the therapeutic effects of the diet on Multiple Sclerosis.
There are some drawbacks of a ketogenic diet for specific individuals. For one, avoiding certain foods that are normally extremely healthy and nutrient-rich may also not be the best bet in the long run. In addition, keto is a great fat loss diet, but its unclear how effective is can be for muscle gain and maintenance. For those who have issues with restriction, keto may not be a good option. Lastly, eating out and maintaining a social life while implementing a keto diet can be tricky, unless you’re willing to go out of ketosis from time to time.
While many people have great immediate success with keto, others struggle, especially in the beginning. This can often lead to people giving up, without giving the diet a real chance. One reason for lack of success is the transitional period, which is often referred to as “keto flu.” Some people experience negative symptoms when adopting the keto diet, since their bodies take more time to get accustomed to it. Symptoms include fatigue, brain fog, sleep issues, and digestive discomfort such as nausea or bloating. Transitioning more slowly would be a good option for these individuals.
Since ketosis causes more water loss from the body, a drastic change in mineral balance in the body is also a common side effect. Ketosis can deplete the body’s minerals rapidly, and replacement may be necessary to avoid symptoms such as muscle cramps, heart palpitations, and dizziness. In addition, keto can be problematic for those with suboptimal digestion. Especially if the gallbladder and liver are not working efficiently, fat digestion is stalled and the removal of toxins from the body is halted.
In recent years, there seems to have been an explosion of ketone products on the market. Marketing of these exogenous ketones claims to put your body into the state of ketosis almost immediately. But is this just another magic pill? A quick fix? A gimmick that tricks people into thinking they can’t follow a ketogenic diet without them? Exogenous ketones can be helpful in certain cases, especially if someone is struggling to get into ketosis. However, if you do your research and properly change your diet, getting into the state of ketosis is fairly easy. And utilizing these supplements as a crutch without actually making true dietary changes truly defeats the purpose of the keto diet.
A big question surrounding the ketogenic diet is sustainability—should it be followed long-term? There’s no one answer and research is still fairly new. For most people, this answer will be different. It is clear that keto can be used successfully short-term, as a therapeutic diet to control specific symptoms and reset the body to a healthy, resilient state. For certain conditions, it may be ideal to follow longer-term. Keto can also be used cyclically to help meet specific goals that change from time to time.
With any diet, it’s important to learn, experiment, and become more self aware to find what works best for you! It’s also crucial to give it a chance, especially getting through the initial period, in order to learn best how it’s working for you. For those with any medical condition, especially diabetes, it’s crucial to be under the supervision of a medical professional!
Learn more at:
Keto Clarity by Jimmy Moore
Stay tuned! Part 2 will discuss Flexible dieting, IIFYM, and Weight Watchers.
Disclaimer: There are pros and cons to every diet and way of eating. The information in this blog series is meant to serve as informational purposes only and should not be misconstrued as diagnosis or treatment. Before you choose any diet, we recommend evaluating all benefits and drawbacks, and speaking to a health care provider or qualified nutrition professional if you have any questions of concerns.