The World of Diets

Image: Vidmir Raic

If you are anything like millions of people around the world, weight has always been an issue. I once had someone describe themselves as “fluffy,” which I thought was an excellent way to express oneself when your body shape did not follow the statuesque model shapes constantly promoted in the media. After all, we can’t all be supermodels; quite frankly, that’s a good thing. People have put too much emphasis on unrealistic physical appearance. Each of us is shaped differently with different features that make us just as beautiful as the next person. The fact is, we need to emphasize health more than appearance.

That brings us to diets. I’ve never been a fan of dieting. Quite frankly, I love eating far too much (thus why I can now describe myself as semi-fluffy). As we age, our bodies don’t bounce back as quickly as they used to when dieting. It used to be that we could cut back for a week and see a noticeable difference. Not so much now.  My nephew is a physical trainer. He tells me that exercise alone will not help you maintain a healthy weight; the amount you consume is as significant, if not more, than the workouts. So how do you figure out what helps keep that intake to a healthy minimum? The truth is that it is different for each person. If you plan to diet, then you should know all the facts.  

Why Diet?

When I started looking at diets, I was astounded at the vast number of dieting ideas.  People’s eating choices are often affected by ethical or religious beliefs; others are just from a need to lose or control weight.  Not all diets are healthy – some pose significant health risks and minimal long-term benefits.  Before starting any diet, you should talk with a nutritionist or doctor, especially if you already have some health issues.

Improving your diet clearly has a significant impact on lengthening your lifespan and dramatically decreasing the risk of most chronic diseases.  Much research continues on dieting, but one common factor is that eating patterns that include less processed and more natural foods are proven beneficial to health.  Dr. David Katz at Yale University’s Prevention Research Center concluded in his studies that “a diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention.” These diets include not just fruits and vegetables but whole grains, nuts, and seeds.

Let’s Talk Diets

It seems so simple. We need food to supply nutrients for our bodies. Those nutrients provide energy that fuels all our daily activities. Our bodies tell us when our fuel reserves are low – this makes us hungry, and we eat food until we feel satisfied. The problem is that we are not always eating the food that is good for us or an amount that is good for us. Fats serve as reserves to guard against lean times, so we tend to eat foods that will keep us full for longer. Sugars give us a quick energy boost that may seem good at first but, in the long run, have detrimental repercussions on our overall well-being and health. Enter diets. Approximately 45 million people go on a diet each year, with a market value for weight management of over $288 billion.

Diets fall into seven categories: belief-based, weight control, crash, detox, fad, or vegetarian. Belief-based diets are religious-based and include such diets as Islamic dietary laws that consist of eating only halal foods or Buddhism vegetarian eating practices based on the Five Precepts (system of morality for Buddhist people.)  Weight control, crash, detox, and fad diets are all based on reducing or eliminating certain foods, sometimes at certain times. Finally, vegetarian diets are all based on plant-based eating – some extreme and some that are more semi-vegetarian, including foods from other groups. For this blog, I will focus on a few popular diets and some crazy ones.

Image: Steve Buissinne

Diets Designed to Control Weight

Intermittent Fasting: I’ve already talked about this diet in my blog, Intermittent Fasting: Is It Worth Trying?, so I won’t go in-depth to discuss this one. In a nutshell, it involves an eating pattern that cycles between periods of eating and fasting. It does not focus on what you eat but rather when you eat it.

Ketogenic Diet: Go to your local grocery store, and you will see keto products on many shelves. What exactly is it, however? Keto (short for ketogenic) prioritizes fat (65 to 75 percent of your daily calories) with moderate protein consumption (20 to 30 percent) and very few carbs (5 percent). The goal is to keep your body in a near-constant state of ketosis – a metabolic state where the body creates ketones from fat to use as energy instead of sugar from carbs. Typically, your body uses sugar from carbs you consume as an energy source. With this diet, weight loss comes from the type of calories you consume versus the calories you expend. Unfortunately, many studies have shown that this diet is no more effective in weight loss than any other diet1.

If It Fits Your Macros: Yes, this is an actual diet, and surprisingly it makes sense. It is a more flexible approach to eating. You can eat whatever you want as long as you don’t eat over your specific limit (each person is different.) The diet includes pre-determined protein, carb, and fat targets. There are even apps available to help you track what your maximum should be (https://www.myfitnesspal.com/) and calculators to help you figure out your maximums (https://barbend.com/best-macros-calculator/). The only downside to this diet is it expects that you will not cheat.

Image: Ana Segota

Fad Diets

Sirtfood Diet: Recently, the Sirtfood Diet has become popular because of celebrity endorsements from people like Adele and Pippa Middleton. Created by nutritionists Aidan Goggins and Glen Matten, it focuses on foods high in sirtuins, a group of proteins found in the body that regulate metabolism. Foods included in this group are red wine, dark chocolate, walnuts, Medjool dates, arugula, coffee, capers, and extra-virgin olive oil. So far, so good. The Sirtfood diet requires a two-phase approach. In Phase 1, you can only drink three sirtfood green juices and eat one full meal rich in sirtuins for three days, which amounts to only 1,000 calories consumed. Your caloric intake for the next four days increases to 1,500 calories. According to dietary guidelines, women need approximately 1,600 o 2,400 calories per day and men 2,000 to 3,000. Already there are red flags. The recommendations are (depending on the individual) that you cut between 500 to 1,000 calories daily for weight loss. This one removes a lot more than the recommended decrease. Phase 2 lasts two weeks with three sirtfood-rich meals and one green juice daily. A little better, I’d say. Unfortunately, there is very little scientific evidence that this one works – unless you look at Adele.

Atkins Diet: Created in the 1960s by cardiologist Robert Atkins, it became popular in the early 2000s, some 30 years after his book was published. At the height of its popularity, one in eleven North American adults claimed to be on this low-carb diet. Dr. Atkins felt that carbohydrates, not fat, were responsible for health problems and weight gain. His diet focused on eating plenty of fat, some protein, and very few carbs. The problem with his diet is that it cuts out many perfectly healthy foods that are good for your body. In Phase 1 of the diet, only 20 grams of carbohydrates are allowed with a limited intake of foods like fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Overall, clinical trials have shown that this diet does work. Over the short term, 9 out of 10 participants demonstrated significant short-term weight loss. Over a more extended period (12 months or more), six out of eight trials showed weight loss. No studies have researched the long-term impact of the limited intake of certain nutrition-rich foods. Still, many variations of this diet have resurfaced over the decades. Regardless of the interpretation, they all restrict processed foods, sugar, refined carbohydrates, and starchy foods (like bread, pasta, rice, and starchy vegetables like a potato.) Again, nutrition guidelines do not recommend cutting out whole food groups unless there is a medical reason. Whole grains, starchy vegetables, fruits, and legumes are all part of a heart-healthy diet.

Image: Wow Phochiangrak

WW Diet (Weight Watchers): I include this diet in the fad category as they are a dieting brand marketing the idea of weight loss. What they do right is that they base the diet on individual needs and scientific analysis to ensure healthy, nutrient-rich options. In their plan, foods are worth different points, with a limit to the daily intake with each individual’s goal in mind. The calories, saturated fat content, sugar, and protein all play a part in the points assigned to each food. In addition, there are also “zero-point” foods of which users can eat unlimited amounts – like salmon, beans, peas, corn, eggs, skinless chicken breasts, turkey breast, and even lobster. It is unlikely that someone will overeat any of these foods, and most do an excellent job filling the stomach. Members are typically assigned 30 points per day and varying points based on height, weight, and gender. A clinical trial at the University of North Carolina found that 152 participants lost weight. The only downside is that there is a weekly fee to use the service, and it can become cumbersome to keep track of every item you consume.

Image: Michael Wave (Beyond Meat)

Vegetarian Diets

Veganism: Veganism is one of the fastest-growing movements in eating, and most that follow it, don’t consider it a diet but rather a lifestyle choice. A few years ago, vegans would only eat beans, legumes, grains, egg-free pasta, fruits, and vegetables. But technological advances have introduced vegans to a wide variety of alternative products. To give you an idea of its reach, meat alternatives such as Beyond Burgers will reach a value of over $140 billion US over the next decade. 

One study followed 250,000 people and their eating habits. They found that vegans had a 25 percent lower risk of heart disease and an eight percent lower risk of cancer than those who ate animal products2. On the downside, vegans are at a higher risk of deficiency in essential vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, Vitamin D, calcium, B12, and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which are vital to everyday health. Therefore, if you follow this diet, you must ensure to supplement vitamins and minerals. Overall, a vegan diet does seem to help people lose weight. It is low in fats and high in fiber content, making you feel fuller for longer. One 18-week study showed that participants lost more weight than those on a control-type diet where all food groups were consumed3. Another recent study examined different plant-based eating patterns and how each impacted health. As it turns out, a strict vegan diet produced the highest levels of healthy biomarkers (biomarkers measure diseases such as heart disease.) The least favorable were non-vegetarians who had higher unhealthy markers in their samples6.

Pescetarian: Pescatarian diets are vegan-lite. This diet excludes all animal products except seafood, fish, eggs, and dairy. Since these foods are rich in nutrients, this removes some concerns about nutrient loss found with strict veganism.  

Vegetarian: Vegetarian diets are another form of vegan-lite. They restrict the consumption of all meat and poultry; however, they also restrict seafood. What they do allow is certain products from animals, such as eggs and cheese. Because of the inclusion of some nutrient-rich foods, vegetarians do not have to supplement vitamins such as B12. Studies done regarding vegetarian-style eating habits are mixed. One study followed 267,180 people for six years and found no difference in health or mortality compared to non-vegetarians4. Another followed 96,469 people and found that they had a lower mortality risk5. None of the studies focused on weight loss but instead on the effects on one’s overall health and longevity.

Flexitarian: This diet is often referred to as “semi-vegetarian” as it includes eggs and dairy. A flexitarian may also consume small amounts of meat, poultry, fish, and seafood, but the primary source of nutrition is beans, legumes, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Very little research has occurred on this type of diet.

Image: Vika Imperia

Diets That Aren’t Really Diets After All

Carnivore Diet (Zero Carb Diet): This diet is the antithesis of veganism. You only eat animal-based products: meat, cheese, milk, and eggs – no grains, no vegetables, and no fruits. It is, in essence, a version of the Keto diet that prioritizes fat and protein over carbs. Its followers claim that it can fight inflammation and prevent nutrient deficiencies. Scientific research shows that there is simply no benefit to this diet. It is a proven fact that limiting your meat intake can extend your life and improve cardiovascular health. This diet may lead to an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and overall risk of death because of its limitations7 8. On the upside, however, it may lead to weight loss since proteins increase the body’s thermic effect (the energy it takes to digest food).

Paleo Diet: The Paleo diet is the cousin of the Carnivore Diet. In addition to meat, you can eat fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. You must avoid grains, dairy, processed foods, beans, legumes, and sugars. Studies have shown that including these additional foods is effective in weight loss and, at the same time, improves blood markers and drops blood pressure9. Others argue that not including whole grains in a diet will result in chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.

Dessert with Breakfast Diet: This has to be my favorite one that I came across. Who doesn’t love eating something sweet any time of the day? Surprisingly enough, a 2012 study found that people who ate high-carb, high-protein meals that included dessert lost more weight (and kept it off) than those who did not10. On the other hand, sugar is addictive, and we all know too much is not healthy for you. The more you eat, the more you crave, and the more fluffy you become.

The Diets You Should be Following

DASH Diet: The DASH diet is specifically patterned to help normalize blood pressure and prevent hypertension. Recommended by the National Institute of Health, this clinical-trial-based diet found that blood pressure lowered and the participants’ cholesterol (lipid) profile improved when they ate plant-rich, low-fat foods. The diet emphasizes daily intake of fruit and vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, lean meat, low-fat dairy, poultry, and fish. It keeps salt, saturated fat, and sugars relatively low. Participants must limit their eating quantities, and positive results are only possible when people stick to the eating plan.

Mayo Clinic Diet: Everyone has heard of the Mayo Clinic – a renowned health care company that provides education, healthcare, and research. They run what is one of the best hospitals in the United States and employ thousands of scientists and healthcare professionals. Suffice it to say they are a trusted source of information. Regarding dieting, they encourage restricting refined grains, sugary foods, and processed meats. Their diet focuses on eating to a particular caloric intake rather than what you eat. Each individual’s need determines the meal plans and example meals. You can find information on their weight loss program on their website and sign up for a free diet assessment here; however, there is a cost – the plan costs $65 for the first 13 weeks of access.

Image: Galina Afanaseva

Mediterranean Diet: Now, I’m not just promoting this diet since my family comes from the Mediterranean area. In reality, there is no real diet called a Mediterranean diet. It’s just a term that came about when talking about the eating patterns of the people in the Mediterranean area who have the longest life expectancies in the world. Clearly, they are doing something right. This way of eating is rich in heart-healthy foods. They focus on fresh, whole foods with a high intake of fruits, legumes, nuts, olive oil, and vegetables. Meats, poultry, and seafood are kept to a minimum, as are sweets. Dairy intake is moderate in the form of yogurt and cheese. It is important to remember that although this eating style does improve health markers (blood pressure, cholesterol) and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, eating is not the only thing people in this region do differently. They also tend to spend a lot of time outdoors and walking from place to place, which also plays an essential role in one’s health. Exercise aside, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a Mediterranean-style diet can reverse symptoms of diabetes and cardiovascular disease11.

Nordic Diet: Like the Mediterranean region, the Nordic countries have specific eating habits that are just as healthy. They focus on home-cooked foods, and the intake of processed foods is limited. The diet includes fruits, legumes, meat, nuts, seafood (particularly oily fish), seeds, vegetables, whole grains, herbs, and spices. Much research has been done on the Nordic diet, finding an improvement in blood cholesterol and blood pressure markers. If adhered to, randomized controlled trials showed that the participants did lose weight.

The Final Word

One thing has become quite clear in reading about diets – it all boils down to what and how much you consume. Research consistently shows that your health markers improve when you eat natural, plant-based foods. A well-balanced eating pattern will lower the risk of various diseases, including heart disease and diabetes. Choose whole and unprocessed foods to help with overall weight management. In addition, eat moderate amounts and do not overeat.

Nutrition isn’t a perfect science; it does not have everything figured out. For example, many diets recommend eliminating certain foods high in things like saturated fats, yet yogurt and cheese (both high in saturated fats) are good for you in moderate amounts. What is important is that you talk with a nutritionist or doctor to figure out what is best for your body and the goals you want to achieve. Don’t forget that it can be challenging to separate fact from fiction regarding diets. What works for one person may not work for you. No two individuals are the same, and no two individuals will respond to one way of eating in the same way. Find what works best for you, but focus on what food groups nutritional health experts recommend. The most important thing is to be healthy – whatever size: fluffy, not-so-fluffy, or other.

1 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16685046/

2 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26853923/

3 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23695207/

4https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1710093

5https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0091743516304479?via%3Dihub

6 https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/149/4/667/5320848?guestAccessKey=e5c18e47-598e-420e-9853-d74da51189dd

7https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23736950/

8 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14525683/

9 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2724493

10 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0039128X11003515?via%3Dihub

11 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28278309/

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