As a verb, “diet” implies a short-term effort intended to drop a few (or many) pounds. Paleo, ketogenic, gluten-free, clean eating…it seems like there is a new one every week, each promising to make shedding pounds quick and painless. One thing that they all have in common is that they frequently come at the cost of “diet” as a noun. Taken that way, “diet” is your long-term relationship with food. As with other types of relationships, the bar for a “quick fix” is considerably lower than that for a lifelong partnership. It’s important to be clear about expectations and consequences to avoid disappointment.
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is a key component of overall wellness, but it’s certainly not the only consideration. It’s perfectly plausible to be at an appropriate weight and not be healthy at all. Diets that focus on weight loss tend to be nutritionally incomplete and unsustainable. I have a friend who gives the Cabbage Soup Diet a whirl nearly every spring. He loses a few pounds, but that soup gets old after a day or two and the weight loss never sticks. That’s an unfortunate and very common trait of any weight loss diet. A restrictive menu makes sticking to the plan difficult, and any progress is temporary and often offset by binges once the diet has ended.
Let’s look at three of the “trendy” diets out there in the spring of 2018.
The paleo diet holds forth that humans are, by nature, hunter/gatherers and not farmers. The paleo diet is primarily composed of meat, with nuts and certain fruits on the side. Dairy, grains and legumes are to be avoided. Because this diet is naturally low in calories and carbohydrates, it will definitely help with weight loss. However, severely limiting carbohydrates will almost certainly result in fatigue and headaches, and the link between heavy consumption of red meat and heart disease is well established. There are some healthy, paleo-friendly food choices, but the limited list of acceptable fruits and vegetables makes this diet restrictive and seriously imbalanced.
Originally developed to help control the weight of pediatric epileptics, “keto” appeals to those who overindulge in fats more so than sweets. The macro split on this plan is 75% fats, 20% protein, and only 5% carbohydrates. After about four days of inadequate carbohydrates for fuel, the body enters a state of ketosis and begins burning fat instead of stored glucose to produce energy. Given that it lauds foods that are often demonized in other diets, keto’s attraction is readily apparent. Satiety is enhanced by the high fat content, making it seem like less of a sacrifice. As with paleo, this diet is sorely lacking in fiber. Digestive issues and constipation are common. It’s reliance on animal products also makes it a poor source of several key vitamins and minerals.
Nearly every mainstream grocery store now has a section devoted to gluten-free products. It’s easy to get the idea that gluten is the dietary evil hiding in our midst. The truth is that gluten is simply a protein found in wheat, barley, or rye. Those with celiac disease have long been advised to avoid gluten, and with just cause. A theory has taken hold in recent years that it is possible to be sensitive to gluten, yet test negative for celiac disease. There isn’t a lot of evidence to back that claim, and neither test nor definition for “gluten sensitive”. From the weight loss perspective, while gluten itself is a protein, it arises in conjunction with carbohydrates in foods such as bread and pasta. Reducing carbohydrate intake is a cornerstone of any weight loss plan. Reducing carbohydrates by avoiding gluten seems more like good marketing than good sense.
At the end of the day, any diet plan is going to help more with weight loss than having no plan, simply eating anything at will. Who really wants to yo-yo back and forth between on a diet and not on a diet? Doesn’t it make more sense to look at diet (noun) as an integral part of life rather than diet (verb) as an occasional fix? It’s certainly a healthier perspective.
I can hear it now, “but I’m not an athlete”. Just because you don’t aspire to run marathons or play a competitive sport doesn’t mean you aren’t an athlete. It’s as much a state of mind as anything. Conscious attention to what you eat and what you do. Maybe you’d like to try a “Couch to 5k” just to see if you can do it. Or perhaps you’d like to just not be winded after a bike ride in the park. What you eat and what you do go hand in hand to create the healthy body needed to enjoy whatever you do in life.
Become a conscientious consumer and “eat clean”. Focus on whole foods and avoid processed or artificial ingredients. Read nutrition labels, understand them, and use the information to make better choices. It doesn’t have to happen all at once, and it doesn’t mean you can never have another potato chip. It’s all about balance.
I’m a huge fan of the If It Fits My Macros plan. All foods are composed of some combination of macro-nutrients (macros). These are fats proteins, and carbohydrates. The ratios will vary depending on your metabolism and lifestyle, but here is an article with some solid information to get you started. The real value in this plan is twofold. There are no lists of foods that you must or must not eat. That makes the whole undertaking much easier to follow as there is no need for drastic or forced change. Secondly, by reading the nutrition labels and understanding the impact of your choices, you will begin to make better selections. Rather than losing a few pounds that will likely be back in a month or two, you are developing a habit that will keep you from ever needing to resort to a quick fix again.