Defining Popular Diets: From Fads to Therapeutic
| by Kate Daugherty, MS, CNS, Functional Nutritionist |
There are so many popular diets that range from ‘fad’ to ‘therapeutic’. Here’s my take on defining the parameters from a nutrition perspective.
The world of ‘diets’ is WILD. There are so many eating patterns available; some with too-good-to-be-true promises and many with wonderful health benefits. As a nutritionist, I find merit and therapeutic usefulness in many ‘diets’ depending on your symptoms and concerns. I’m not here to tell you ONE diet is right for everyone.
Instead, I’ll help break down some popular diets and their ‘rules’ so you can make an informed decision about the best nutrition strategy FOR YOU.
There is no established optimal diet for humans; but eating choices can drive us closer or further from health.
HERE’S A LOOK AT SOME POPULAR DIETS AND EATING PATTERNS:
Anti-inflammatory: A primarily plant-based diet used to address chronic inflammation and associated health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. An anti-inflammatory diet typically includes large amounts of phytonutrients and antioxidants. This is considered a sustainable long-term eating pattern.
Gluten-free: A therapeutic diet adopted by individuals with celiac disease or gluten intolerance that excludes all gluten-containing grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. This may be a lifelong commitmentfor those who have a reaction to gluten. Due to cross reactivity, those who follow a gluten-free diet may also adhere to dairy-free, corn-free, and soy-free choices.
Mediterranean: A traditional diet common among individuals living in the Mediterranean region that consists of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and whole grains. The Mediterranean diet has a lot of similarities to an anti-inflammatory diet. It has been greatly studied due to the long life expectancy and health of people native to the region.
Ketogenic (keto): A high-fat, very low-carbohydrate diet used to promote weight loss and address neurological conditions such as pediatric epilepsy. The keto diet doesn’t necessarily restrict any categories of foods, but requires food choice based on macronutrient ratio. Some individuals thrive on a ketogenic diet, while others don’t do as well. For women, a cyclical keto approach may be a better option.
Paleolithic (paleo)/ Primal: A dietary pattern inspired by the diets of hunter-gatherers of the paleolithic era that consists of lean meats, fish, healthy fats, vegetables, and certain fruits. The Paleo movement gained traction in the Crossfit community. It has since evolved, with some paleo proponents changing the ‘rules’ around things like legumes.
Carnivore: An extreme version of the paleo diet that focuses on ONLY animal-based foods. This means all meats, eggs, fish and shellfish, and some dairy. The carnivore diet is more of a therapeutic diet in that in limits all potential anti-nutrients from plants. It is actually quite simple, and with proper planning, does supply adequate nutrition.
PLANT-BASED: A blanket term that may or may not mean a diet built exclusively from plants. The choice to eat plant-based may come from moral and ethical reasons as much as health. Often, a plant-based diet falls within one of these subcategories:
Pescatarian: A primarily plant-based diet that eliminates most animal sources of protein except for fish and shellfish
Vegan: A strictly plant-based diet that restricts all animal-sourced foods and products
Vegetarian: A dietary pattern that restricts meat, poultry, and fish but allows other animal products such as dairy, eggs, and honey
Macrobiotic: A vegetarian diet based on the principles of Zen Buddhism. This diet is rich in whole grains, legumes, and seasonal produce thought to balance the elements of yin and yang within. In studies, this diet has been shown to be unsafe for children (and nursing mothers!) and can result in nutritional deficiencies.
BREAKING DOWN THERAPEUTIC DIETS:
Most of these popular diets are used on a short-term basis (2-9 months) for healing specific conditions. After the initial restriction, new foods are added in to resume a more balanced approach to food.
Elimination: While there are many iterations of an elimination diet, most will limit the top allergens (dairy, eggs, wheat, and soy) followed by a systematic reintroduction to better understand how each food group affects physiology.
Whole30: An elimination diet over a 30-day period that focuses on whole, unprocessed foods and minimal additives. The Whole30 has a psychosocial component, helping participants to break unhealthy eating patterns, stop stress-related and comfort eating, and reduce emotional food attachments.
Autoimmune Protocol: An advanced elimination diet that restricts all grains, seeds, nuts, nightshade vegetables, legumes, dairy, and eggs. The AIP Diet has been studied as a treatment for Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, and other autoimmune conditions. It closely mimics the Wahls Protocol, developed by Dr. Terry Wahls for the treatment of MS.
Low-FODMAP: An elimination diet that limits fermentable carbohydrates. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligo- Di- and Mono-saccharides and polyols. This diet was developed at Monash University as a therapeutic intervention for IBS, SIBO, and other functional bowel disorders.
Low-Histamine: A diet that limits high-histamine foods. This diet is helpful for those with reactions to histamines (allergies). True histamine intolerance affects only about 1% of the population. However, this diet can be helpful for taming an overactive immune response.
Specific Carbohydrate: A grain-free, sugar-free, lactose-free diet first developed by Dr. Sydney Haas for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). This diet is meant to help rebalance the gut microbiome and increase oral tolerance.
Anti-Candida: An elimination diet that limits simple sugars and other carbohydrates that feed the yeast species, Candida Albicans. This diet is a short-term intervention paired with anti-fungals to eradicate systemic yeast infections.
OTHER POPULAR DIET FADS & TRENDS:
Here are a few other diet trends you may have heard about…
Celery Juice – The ‘Celery Juice Diet’ is really just a morning habit of drinking 16 ounces of fresh celery juice every morning. Introduced by The Medical Medium, and popularized by the likes of Goop and Well+Good, this trend claims to yield weight loss, lowered inflammation, and ‘restored health’. It’s nothing short of a miracle potion! My take? Celery juice probably helps you stay hydrated first thing in the morning and isn’t doing too much harm, but lots of raw celery can be too high in oxalates for someindividuals.
Intuitive Eating – This eating pattern is about tuning into your internal cues for hunger and cravings. You’ll learn to naturally regulate calorie-load and food choice based on how foods make you feel. This goes hand-in-hand with mindful eating (awareness of when/what foods to consume).
Macro Tracking / IIFYM – Macronutrients are proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Each provides energy (calories) necessary for normal body function. Macro tracking involves keeping a log of all the food you eat and aiming for certain numbers in grams of each nutrient. Most individuals keep the same range day-to-day. “IIFYM” is a subcategory of macro tracking that stands for If It Fits Your Macros: meaning any food is ‘allowed’ on the diet so long as it is within your daily numbers. This was popularized in the bodybuilding community where tight control of intake is necessary for body composition changes in a short period.
Intermittent Fasting – An eating pattern that controls WHEN you eat. Intermittent Fasting can be done on different schedules of food avoidance, most commonly 16:8; meaning eating only during an eight-hour window in the day. This is typically done by delaying the breakfast meal until later in the day. Fasting has profound benefits for some people by decreasing inflammation and increasing autophagy; but it’s certainly not right for everybody.
I find the labels helpful in that it defines general trends in eating strategies. However, what works for one person may not be suitable for everyone. (!!)
<<Related: The Food-Mood Connection>>
Whether you choose to follow the ‘rules’ or adapt a bit more fluidity in your food choice, here are some tips to optimize YOUR diet:
Eat Balanced Meals. This means consuming appropriate portion sizes as well as ratios of the five major food groups. Aim to consume meals that balance proteins, fats, and carbohydrates according to your goals. You may prefer fewer, larger meals or more frequent, smaller meals. Regardless of your strategy, make sure your daily calories are appropriate for your physiology.
Minimize Processed Foods. If it comes in a package, it has been processed in some way. Read nutrition labels carefully and ensure you understand what you are consuming. Do you recognize the ingredients? Are there added sugars or artificial ingredients? Are there any highlighted allergens?
Cook at Home. When you are responsible for the preparation and cooking of your meal, you have a much greater control over consumption. When you eat at home, you are likely to eat more nutrient-dense foods than when eating at restaurants (particularly fast food).
Limit Refined Sugar. One thing in common with almost any healthy eating pattern is limited amounts of highly-refined foods. Sugar is one of the most ubiquitous foods in a typical American Diet; and one of the most unhealthy. Refined sugar in particular is linked to chronic disease and increased risk of all-cause mortality.
While I see the merits of following an eating plan with certain restrictions in place, my biggest advice is to continue to eat foods that make you feel good. The healthiest diet is one that is sustainable, individual, and nutrient-dense: and that fits ALL of the popular diets listed above.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kate Daugherty, MS, CNS serves as Functional Nutritionist at The Facility in Denver, CO. She sees patients in-person and via Telehealth to get to the root cause of dysfunction and restore a state of well-being using nutritional intervention, supplementation, and lifestyle change.
Want to work with a functional nutritionist to personalize your diet? Struggling with hormone imbalance, IBS, weight gain, mood changes? Let's look at FOOD FIRST. Read more about Functional Nutrition at The Facility here.
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The Elimination Diet is really a chance to get to know yourself better, to develop personal nutrition, and address lingering symptoms. I believe that nutrition is so individualized. MY diet is going to look very different than your diet, and very different from our friends' diets. They may all be 'healthy'! To get to that point, you've got to put in the 'hard work' of being intentional with food choices and ultimately finding more freedom.