Q. I keep hearing great things from people who follow diet trends like paleo, vegan, low-carb or gluten-free. How do I know which one is best?
A. You’ll probably find that proponents of every single trendy diet are convinced that their diet is the best and that there is no other way to eat. Those of us who do not follow their eating plan are essentially heathens in need of saving.
Take it from someone who has the word ‘diet’ in her job title (dietitian): for the average person, there’s no need to follow a special diet. Of course, some people have valid medical reasons for avoiding certain foods, such as allergies, limiting consumption of potassium for those with kidney trouble or monitoring carbohydrate intake for those with diabetes, just to name a few.
But for the most part these trendy diets, while they may be healthy, can also be needlessly restrictive and can increase the risk of nutrient deficiencies. Not to mention the risk of alienating friends and family with special requests every time you eat a meal together.
I could just stop there, but since you asked what each of these diets is all about, I’ll give you a quick run down and point out potential concerns to be aware of with each one.
I’ll start with the paleo diet, as it is one of my favourites to poke fun at. The paleo diet insists that since our paleolithic ancestors were healthier than us (despite the fact that their average lifespan was about 50 years shorter than ours) we should eat like them. Where it all goes wrong is that the 21st century version of a paleo diet is quite likely not very close to what our ancestors actually ate. A paleo diet of today incorporates lots of vegetables, meat, fruit, fish and coconut. Foods to avoid on a paleo diet include: dairy, grains and legumes. Our ancestors, on the other hand, probably did eat grains. They probably ate bugs, too.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with consuming plenty of those whole foods, there’s also no good basis for eliminating healthy foods like yoghurt, oatmeal, and lentils. There’s no ethical reason to go paleo. Nor is there any scientific support for it.
It’s also gotten pretty ridiculous when you see recipes for things like ‘paleo brownies’ or ‘paleo energy bars.’ If you’re going to adhere to this diet, one of the main benefits is cutting out highly processed packaged food. When you start including ‘paleo’ treats and convenience foods you’ve pretty much defeated the purpose.
If you do end up trying out this diet, make sure you eat plenty of vegetables to get the fibre you need, as you won’t be getting it from grains or legumes. Calcium and magnesium may also be nutrients to think more about, without dairy or legumes in your diet.
A vegan diet excludes all animal products. That means, obviously, not eating meat, poultry or fish, but also dairy or even honey. The vegan diet has merit in that research suggests it’s a healthy diet, and it’s good for the environment and, of course, for animal welfare. It’s a lot easier to follow than the paleo diet in that the restrictions aren’t as arbitrary. Any plant foods are fair game, including grains and legumes. Nutrient deficiencies to be concerned about on a vegan diet include vitamin B12, protein, calcium and vitamin D.
Most people following this diet do so to lose weight. Generally people lose some water weight at the start of this diet, which encourages them to continue despite unpleasant side effects such as headaches, irritability, bad breath and fatigue. Weight loss may continue after a person enters ketosis, and/or because food options are limited. Anecdotally, protein generally helps you feel full for longer than carbohydrates, so you may tend to eat less. Foods to avoid on a low-carb diet include: grain products, root vegetables, alcoholic beverages, fruit and juice, milk, legumes and sugary treats. Meat and other animal products (especially eggs) are fair game, as are leafy green vegetables and protein shakes.
This diet can be extremely difficult to maintain over the long-term, as it is so restrictive. Because there has been limited long-term adherence, little is known about potential long-term risks of following such a diet. Another issue, is that because it’s usually only followed for a short time, once people stop following the diet any weight lost is generally regained (often with extra).
If you follow this approach, be mindful to get enough fibre, vitamins (such as vitamin C, folic acid, and some B vitamins), and minerals (such as calcium, potassium and magnesium).
People who have celiac disease must follow a strictly gluten-free diet to stay healthy. Unfortunately for them, this diet has also been co-opted by many trendy eaters, which can put people with celiac at greater risk for being ‘glutened’ when they go out to eat. It’s understandable (but unfortunate) that many eating establishments don’t take requests of gluten-free seriously when they have customers who ask for gluten-free meals and then nibble on bread or order a beer.
There’s no evidence that eliminating gluten is particularly beneficial for people who don’t have celiac disease. Sure, many of us could benefit from consuming less bread, fewer baked goods, and a greater variety of grains. But that doesn’t mean gluten is necessarily causing us harm. Some people do see weight loss when they cut out gluten, as they’re cutting out extra calories, and some do feel better overall when they eliminate gluten. However, that’s usually because they’re eliminating less healthy processed foods, not because they cut out gluten.
Because there are so many gluten-free packaged foods available these days, following a gluten-free diet can actually be less healthy than eating a balanced diet. Gluten-free baked goods often contain more calories, sugar and fat, and less fibre, than their gluten-containing counterparts. Ready-to-eat packaged foods should be considered a treat on both gluten-free and gluten-full diets. Nutrients of concern on a gluten-free diet include: fibre, and other vitamins and minerals if processed gluten-free products are being relied on.
Considering the recent news that the average American gets 60 per cent of their calories from ultra-processed foods, I want to point out that most people are probably at greater risk for nutrient deficiencies than anyone who follows any of the aforementioned diets.
Pretty much any diet has its pitfalls. As a dietitian, the biggest concern I have with most diets is that they have an end date. If you want to see sustained changes in your health you need to make sustainable changes to your diet. Generally, the best things you can do are to consume more vegetables and cook more of your meals yourself. You don’t need to place complicated restrictions on what you eat.