I’ve said it once. I’ve said it a thousand times. There is no one diet that fits everybody… otherwise we would all be eating it. Each and every one of us should be listening to our bodies every day to try to find our ideal diet. It is my personal philosophy and approach as a doctor that the way our bodies react to a food is the most important piece of information we can use when choosing our diets. An example of a group of people who commonly make dietary decisions based on external sources is vegetarians. Yes, it’s nice to say that you are morally opposed to eating meat and won’t eat it because of your love for the animals… But what about the love for yourself? If you don’t like the taste or meat and/or feel better when you don’t eat it then by all means, don’t eat it. The point here is not to outrage my vegetarian readers, but to make a point. We as a species need to re-learn how to listen to our own bodies and treat our body’s opinion with the utmost respect and consideration. When choosing a dietary pattern to follow there is no outside force that should hold more weight than your body. And yes, that includes me and my blog.
Here is a brief summary and my professional opinion about some of the most common diets.
Weight Watchers. I’m not a big fan of good ol’ ww and I’ll tell you why: too much math. Seriously, guys, food shouldn’t involve this much long division. I like that they attempt to assign a hierarchy to food so you can get a lose grasp of how good or bad something is, but they make it too friggin hard. Yes, you might be able to keep this routine up for a few months, but once you start leaving the calculator at home it’s all down hill. I have mixed feelings about the fact that you eat normal food (as opposed to mail-away programs). On the plus side, it teaches you a little bit more about how to eat normal food once you’re off the diet. On the down side, the point system allows for so many loopholes one could easily eat a cookie or something bad each day and still be A-OK according to the point system. Skip the math lesson and find a different way to lose weight, guys.
Mail-away food and pre-made food programs (Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, Lean Cuisine) are, in my opinion, are the scourge of the nutritional world. These programs lure you in with pictures of luscious chocolate cake in their infomercials, only to let you down when you see the size of the portions you get when you receive your order. I’m not a huge fan of calorie-restrictive diets anyway, but my main beef with this type of diet is the mail-ordered meals. These programs might work while you’re on them, but leave the person hopeless and alone in a world full of super-sized meals when they are done. The result? Weight gain like you wouldn’t believe. Don’t become a mail-away food junkie. These programs teach you exactly zilch about how to eat in the real world.
Medifast has been around for a long time, and as far as I can tell it’s basic premiss hasn’t changed much. They operate by the 5-1 plan, five 100 calorie shakes throughout the day and 1 protein and vegetable meal. Aside from the fact that this one will totally leave you starving and hypoglycemic throughout the day, this program has some serious health concerns. I have heard numerous doctors say that patients who have done Medifast (especially more than once (yo-yo!)) tend to have gallstones. I don’t know the mechanism, but apparently the program does a number on your gallbladder and liver. Doesn’t that sound like something the FDA should have banned long ago? Yeesh. My other big issue with Medifast is, like the mail-away plans, it teaches you next to nothing about how to eat real food. Sure, you can lose weight when you starve yourself with their shakes, but the weight will go right back on as soon as you go back to eating “normal” food.
South Beach Diet has been gaining popularity in the last 10-20 years, and from what I can tell it seems pretty solid. They emphasize “good carbs” and “good fats” to replace the bad ones, and the whole diet sounds similar to the Mediterranean diet, which is a really good over-all pattern and starting point to model how you eat. I don’t know much more about South Beach than that, but from what I have read this one sounds pretty decent.
Vegetarian… Ahhhhh they are an interesting group of people. Before I say more, I must admit that I was one for about 12 years, and have known and even lived with many others. The biggest issue with our veggie friends isn’t the protein, but the fact that they often think they are far healthier than they actually are. It’s like they all have vegetarian blinders on or something. When I was a vegetarian I think I survived on cereal, pasta, stir fry, pizza, frozen veggie burgers and baby carrots and you know what? I would have told you I was the healthiest eater I know. If you don’t want to eat meat, you’ll do great if you do it right, just don’t become another self righteous junk food vegetarian. The vegetarian diet is great if you actually eat a lot of vegetables, but the way that I and so many others approach(ed) this diet is all wrong.
Vegan. Even though vegans take it only one or two steps past vegetarians in the foods they eliminate, they tend to be much healthier than their veggie friends. Maybe it’s because virtually every processed food has milk or egg in it somewhere. Maybe it’s because you have to be a special kind of health freak to go full-blown vegan. In either case, I think that the vegan diet is a good one, but not one that I personally choose to follow. One probably unintentional plus side to going vegan is the avoidance of two common, potent food allergens: Dairy and Eggs. Just avoiding those two will bring your inflammation down a few notches!
Raw food vegan (also simply called Raw) is yet one step further than simply going vegan- they don’t eat anything that has been heated past 115 degrees. Another often unintentional plus of this diet? Raw almost always means no gluten (who eats plain flour? yuck.), which is the most serious and common allergen on the market today. I personally eat a lot of raw and minimally cooked veggies, but this has it’s pros and cons. Raw eaters and critics go back and forth arguing which is best, cooked or uncooked, but I think this is a moot point. One is not inherently better or worse- they are simply different. Your body will react differently when you eat cooked vs raw broccoli. One will have more of vitamin X, one won’t have broken down and released enzyme Y. Some foods are better cooked, such as tomatoes. Cooking tomatoes releases their lycopene and makes it more bioavailable. Garlic is best eaten raw, as the allicin in it is released when the raw, crushed garlic is exposed to oxygen. I think the best approach is to eat a wide variety of cooked and raw veggies every day to ensure you get a little of everything.
Juice fasting is what I believe to be the last step in the veggie diet spectrum, and has been getting a lot of attention lately. I think juice machines are a great way to make your own juices at home- I would love to not buy bottled carrot juice for my green smoothies and just make it from fresh carrots. I would say that I am a fan of juicing, but not long-term juice fasting. I could see juicing as part of a meal or even as one meal per day, but the idea of only consuming juice for weeks and months at a time doesn’t sound healthy. The two big benefits of doing a juice fast are that you’re avoiding all processed chemicals and junk (Have you ever found red dye #3 in a carrot? Didn’t think so!), and the act of juicing is supposed to make vitamins and nutrients more available to the body. Keep in mind that one could also adopt a raw food diet to accomplish the first objective. Now here’s why I’m still leery of the juice fasting idea. Taking out the insoluble fiber, the “meat” of the vegetables does two things to digestion. First, it allows for super fast absorption. This is a good thing when you’re talking about the vitamins, but that also means that the sugar (which is abundant in a lot of veggies such as carrots) gets absorbed very quickly. This blood sugar spike and dump will leave you feeling “blah”, at least until your body has gotten used to the roller coaster ride. Also, removing the bulk from the veggies takes most of the work load off the GI tract. Again, juicing advocates will say this is a good thing because you are resting your GI tract, but I also see it as a decrease in the stimulation to this group of organs, their muscles, and the nerves and parts of the brain that normally control them. Lastly, I will say that juice fasting is by far the healthiest version of the diets that don’t teach you how to eat in the real world, but the reality is that it doesn’t teach you anything about how to eat in the real world! Sure, it’s better than medifast and Jenny, but once you ween yourself off the juicer what skills and practical knowledge have you gained? Not a lot. Good luck going from a juice fast back into navigating restaurants, busy schedules, and non-juiceable food. Now, I have to say this- there are a lot of people (including one friend of mine) who have done great things for their bodies by juice fasting for a few weeks or months, so I’m not writing this one off entirely. At this point, I am a fan of juicing (or better yet, green smoothies that let you keep some of the fiber), just not juice fasting.
Atkins/ Low Carbohydrate diets don’t sound so fun, but they work. Unfortunately, we in this country are quick to label anyone who wants to take away our IHOP as a quack, and Dr. Atkin and his diet certainly earned that reputation. Atkin was a little extreme for even me- a little too much counting and math and, as I recall, the counting of carbs that are in vegetables, which I think is absurd. The modern Atkins diet is essentially the Paleo diet (see below), which tends to emphasize more veggies when done correctly. To learn more about why low-carb diets are great for losing weight, check out Gary Taubes .
Paleo, the so-called caveman diet operates on the premise that we should eat what our bodies were designed to eat. The idea is that our genes and our bodies haven’t had a chance to evolve as quickly as our world. It takes hundreds of thousands of years to make even minor changes in our bodily structure and function, yet our world has changed drastically in the last 200 years. Paleo generally means the avoidance of all grains, legumes, beans, refined sugar, and processed foods. This diet has a heavy emphasis on healthy (humanly raised, grass-fed, cage free, organic, etc) meats and eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables. Think of it as the anti-junk food vegetarian diet (which tends to be high in grains, dairy and processed foods). I think that Paleo is the closest thing I’ve found to working for most body types and having the best philosophy behind them. That, and the food tastes great, so you’ll literally never get bored doing this diet. Just be careful to not go too meat happy and this one gets the Nikki seal of approval. Bonus: aside from the eggs, this diet avoids many of the major food allergens that cause so many people grief and inflammation.
Gluten-Free (or other allergen-free) is great if done correctly. The gluten free market is booming in 2012 and it is now possible to find any food you ever wanted sans-gluten. Gluten free is only marginally healthier than the baseline Standard American Diet (SAD) if it consists of gluten free pastas, cereals, canned soups, and breads on a regular basis. However, there is something to be said for avoiding foods that irritate your gut and your immune system, and this diet should be a piece of everyone’s diet… Just don’t let it end there. No, gluten free is not a fad, and it’s not going to go away- I think it is going to continue to grow for many years to come. See my previous posts about gluten and leaky gut for more information.
Dosha Dietary patterns are truly fascinating. The basic gist is that foods have certain properties (heavy, damp, heat, astringent, cool), and different body types exhibit different properties and characteristics. Vata tends to be more cool and airy, and will be aggrevated (become more prominant) if one eats foods that are similar in property (cool, astringent, airy). Pitta tends to be warm, damp and heavy, so this body type benefit from eating things that pacify (decrease) pitta and keep it in check. For example, dairy (phlegmy, thick) tends to not agree with pittas, but something dry and airy like popcorn would balance this dosha. Kapha is the cool, damp dosha, and should avoid foods such as dairy, which would exacerbate the kapha’s already damp, phlegmy nature, but do well with warm, astringent foods such as warm tea or spices such as ginger and turmeric.
Lastly, I leave you with the ultimate dietary strategy: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Michael Pollan sums it up beautifully [3,4]! Don’t let your diet rule your life- Enjoy what you eat, don’t do too much math, and just eat real, healthy food and you should be well on your way to a healthier tomorrow!
Learning every day,
Nikki Cyr, D.C.