Debunking Diets & Exploring Eating Lifestyles
For the longest time, humans configured their diets according to one universal food pyramid, but the reality is that we all have different metabolisms and genetics. Some have dietary restrictions, gastrointestinal issues or hypertension, which is greatly impacted by the food we consume and the diets we follow. For others, the word ‘diet’ itself can be pretty triggering, especially if you’ve hopped from one fad diet to the next for most of your life or suffer from body dysmorphia. Needless to say, diets don’t follow a one-size-fits-all concept.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of following food trends/radical diets without doing research or consulting a registered dietician – this is especially vital for those with underlying health conditions. We explore some popular diet lifestyles and weigh the pros and cons of each.
Also known as the stone-age or caveman diet, paleo is one of the most followed lifestyles. It’s largely modelled on eating habits of people during the Paleolithic era (2.5 mil– 10 000 ya), before farming and food processing existed. The idea is to follow a more ‘ancestral’ diet – Paleo means ‘ancient’. There’s much research to be done, but the assumption is that people led healthier lifestyles during this era, which is possible as they had longer life spans.
People often mistake low-carb diets for no-carb diets and think of paleo as a LCHF (Low Carb, High Fat) diet. The main aspect is reducing the intake of processed food groups and carbohydrates like pasta, refined bread/ processed and hydrolysed foods, but this doesn’t include carb-heavy vegetables.
Focused food groups include vegetables like white potatoes, lean meat, nuts, seeds, root vegetables and tubers. The goal is to eat simpler foods, that haven’t been stripped of nutrients. Another thing that’s important to note is portion control, as palaeolithic humans likely rationed their food. While this lifestyle excludes dairy products and carbs, some people might choose to include cheese, milk and sweet potatoes in their regimen. Legumes and grains aren’t part of the model paleo diet, but recent archaeological findings purport that palaeolithic humans relied on ancient grains and legumes for sustenance.
Objectives: might improve cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, triglycerides and insulin. Potential weight loss.
Considerations: avoids the consumption of dairy products and processed foods, as well as grains, and legumes. Although nutritious, most paleo diets exclude grains and legumes.
*We recommend watching archaeologist, Christina Warinna’s TED Talk on Debunking the Paleo Diet if you would like to learn more.
Another popular diet is the gluten-free diet. Despite being rather popular, the term ‘gluten’ is misunderstood, as not many people actually know what gluten actually is. Just like any recipe or dish contains many ingredients, so do grains. Gluten is one of them; they’re a collective group of proteins found within grains like wheat, barley, rye and triticale.
A common misconception is that a gluten-free diet means a carb-free lifestyle, but this is not true. To accommodate this lifestyle, many products don’t contain gluten and are gluten-free.
Previously, people following a gluten-free lifestyle simply avoided eating bread altogether, as they had coeliac disease, wheat allergies or a gluten-intolerance – the inability to properly digest gluten, which could lead to painful bloating and other associated symptoms. In more recent years people have started following gluten-free lifestyles for the purpose of having a better gut microbiome and weight loss.
Objectives: improved gastrointestinal distress and gut health.
Considerations: A gluten-free diet is a viable option if you don’t want to eliminate carbs from your diet, but find that your body generally struggles to digest bread containing gluten.
This diet basically means eating like you’re on holiday in the Med, and is based on Grecian, Italian and French and Spanish cuisines. Originally created in the 1960s, a Mediterranean diet incorporates foods rich in antioxidants like fresh tomatoes, fresh herbs and leafy greens and generally plant-based foods, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and olive oil.
People have long known about the benefits of following a Mediterranean diet. This lifestyle might be a good choice if you want to reduce your intake of processed foods and incorporate more plant-based meals into your diet without avoiding meat. If butter is your weakness, it might help reduce your intake by using olive oil instead. While Mediterranean diets typically welcome wine, the idea is not to go overboard, but rather drink it in moderation. Although some studies have shown that a glass of wine can be good for the heart, drinking too much wine isn’t good for the liver.
Objectives: might reduce the risk of chronic ailments or diseases, potential weight loss.
Considerations: Fresh vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts and olive oil are focus foods; while fish, poultry and red meat are consumed in lower amounts.
One of the lesser-known diets is the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This type of lifestyle is best suited for those looking to lower their hypertension/blood pressure. One of the risks of this diet is the aim to naturally lower one’s blood pressure without the assistance of medication, which isn’t recommended in severe cases of hypertension. This might be a lifestyle worth considering if you don’t have chronic hypertension, but your blood pressure spikes from time to time.
Those who do have severe cases of hypertension could follow this lifestyle in conjunction with prescribed medication. The diet itself calls for alterations to your standard diet and includes eating fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as whole grains. Products consumed should be fat-free and low-fat; this includes dairy products, meat, nuts, legumes and vegetable oils. Foods that are highly saturated in fats and sugar should be also limited.
Objectives: lowered blood pressure, improved heart health and potential weight loss.
Considerations: Although the aim of this diet is to lower blood pressure through dietary changes, it should be assisted with medication if necessary (consult a physician).
The lectin-free diet is based on the book by American physician, Dr. Steven R. Gundry, which details a diet free from lectins – a type of protein found in wheat, grains, legumes, lentils, nightshade plants (tomatoes, eggplants, etc.) and a bunch of other nutrient food groups. The diet has been scrutinised by numerous health experts and doctors. Although the founder is a credited cardiologist, some of the claims have been reported as ‘dangerous’, as not much research has been done to support claims that form the basis of a lectin-free diet.
The lectin-free diet eliminates food groups that have high amounts of lectin. Lectin is a protein found largely in legumes, wheat and grains and many fruits and vegetables. The protein is thought of as an ‘anti-nutrient’, meaning that it doesn’t facilitate the absorption of nutrients by the gut, thus limiting bioavailability.
The diet itself isn’t strict regarding portion control and caloric intake. Low-lectin foods allowed are fish, grass-fed meat, cruciferous vegetables like Napa cabbage, Brussels sprouts; buffalo, goats or sheep’s dairy products; almond or coconut flour; sweet potatoes, dark chocolate and certain nuts and seeds are also allowed.
Limited research has been conducted to support the benefits of the lectin-free diet. While the theory has been tested on animal subjects, there are conjectures regarding its benefits for humans. Additionally, the diet limits the intake of multiple food groups, and those permitted might be costly for most people. Low-carb diets may also lead to fatigue and migraines. The diet may benefit those with chronic inflammatory diseases, IBS, and ‘leaky gut’ – a similar approach is used in FODMAP diets. Since lectins are an anti-nutrient, decreased consumption might mean better nutrient absorption for those with GI issues.
Lectins can be removed from legumes and grains, in fact, most lectins found in canned beans are removed once cooked and placed in brine. Dry beans, chickpeas and lentils are also soaked, rinsed and cooked to rid most of the lectins, before being consumed.
Foods that are high in lectins such as grain-fed meats/poultry and nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, eggplant and peppers) are avoided. Other foods containing lectin include most fruits, except for seasonal berries, cow’s milk dairy products, soy and sweetened foods.
Objectives: decreased intake of lectin-rich foods; elimination of processed foods.
Considerations: Strict regimen, little research evidence, very little fibre intake with the removal of legumes, grains and most fruits, which could lead to constipation.
The Ketogenic Diet
The keto or ketogenic diet has seen an enormous following over the past two decades since the health and wellness boom. In recent years, it’s become widely debated. Although popular, the ketogenic diet was initially created in the 1920s by physicians to treat seizures within epileptic child patients. The connection is not completely understood, but it’s believed that the low sugar and high-fat levels decrease excitability within the brain, thereby improving the severity of seizures.
The term ‘ketogenic’ derives from the word ‘ketones’, a chemical produced by the liver during the breaking down of fats. Ketones act as an energy reserve during periods of fasting or strenuous exercise, when the body’s carbohydrate levels are low or depleted.
A build-up of ketones in the bloodstream is normally an indication of increased blood sugar levels. This could lead to DKA or Diabetic Ketoacidosis – a life-threatening condition which occurs as a result of the body not producing enough insulin for blood sugar/energy uptake by the cells. This is especially critical for those with type 1 diabetes. Signs of DKA include fruity breath, excess energy or fatigue, frequent urination and increased thirst.
Keto is macro-based, with a split between mostly healthy fats, moderate protein and very few carbs (mostly derived from vegetable sources). Your macro split will be dependent on your goal (weight loss/maintenance). There are also different variations of keto, often termed ‘clean’ or ‘dirty keto’. Dirty keto will allow you to eat whatever fits within your macros, while clean keto will focus more on achieving this through whole, unprocessed foods and less or no dairy.
The ketogenic diet falls under the category of low carb, high fat (LCFH) with a moderate protein intake. Instead of burning carbs, the body burns fat – a process known as ‘ketosis’ – making it a popular diet for weight loss.
Depending on where you sit on the keto spectrum, common foods can include sources of healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds, if you are including dairy then butter and cheese. Proteins like fish, eggs, pork, poultry and red meat are eaten in moderation; while high-carb groups like legumes, grains, and starchy vegetables (potato, sweet potato, squash, etc.) are avoided. Keto-friendly vegetables and fruits that have a low-carb count are allowed. Dried fruits, alcohol and sugary items are typically not permitted.
Objectives: weight loss, a medical diet for epilepsy treatment, may help reduce inflammatory illnesses and cases of insulin resistance.
Considerations: short-term weight loss; consult a dietician before following this diet.
The Banting diet is another popular lifestyle. The diet was founded by William Banting (1796-1878) who created an outline of a diet plan that gained popularity and the term ‘banting’ became a synonym for ‘dieting’. The diet was re-popularised by Tim Noakes’ Real Meal Revolution, which was largely influenced by Banting’s plan.
The Banting diet is a low-carb, high-fat, sugar and gluten-free diet which excludes grains, added sugars, and certain cooking oils. The diet is centred around improving gut health, and creating awareness about how certain food groups impact you.
The Banting diet is a sugar and gluten-free, LCHF diet. The body enters a phase of ketosis during which the body burns fat – similar to a ketogenic diet.
There is no limit on protein intake such as poultry, beef, pork, eggs, seafood and fish – the key factor is that these foods should not be processed. Beans and legumes are permitted in smaller quantities and only during certain phases of the diet. Dairy products are allowed, as well as milk alternatives, with the exception of soy milk. Fermented foods, except for kombucha, form part of the diet. Gluten-free carbs like pasta, bread and grains are welcome, but should be eaten in moderation – the same goes for starchy vegetables.
Objectives: Although an outline is provided, the diet also encourages intuitive eating, depending on what your body responds to well. The main objective is to eliminate processed foods from the diet.
Considerations: Similar to a keto diet, the Banting diet might help with short-term weight loss, but isn’t recommended for long-term use. The diet is high in fat, and those with underlying health issues like cholesterol and cardiovascular conditions should consult a physician before implementing this diet.
Flexitarians are basically omnivores when you think about it. This type of diet focuses on following a largely plant-based diet, allowing meat and other animal-based foods in moderation. It’s flexible compared to vegan and vegetarian diets, as meat consumption is permitted while still aspiring toward a plant-forward lifestyle, hence the term ‘flexitarian’.
There’s no strict outline on what can or can’t be consumed according to the flexitarian diet.
It’s more experimental and suited to an individual’s dietary habits, with plant-based food and proteins as the foundation. If you want to incorporate more plant-based foods into your daily diet, but don’t want to forgo meat, the flexitarian diet might be a good option.
Objectives: decreased meat consumption, limited sugar intake, eating less processed foods.
Considerations: might help maintain weight and cholesterol and blood pressure. If you are considering this diet, consume enough plant-based sources of magnesium, zinc and iron.
*The diets/ lifestyle types above are strictly examples; there is always the option of following a lifestyle/diet tailored to your personal dietary and physical needs. Please consult a registered dietician or physician before changing your diet, especially if you have any underlying health conditions.
Read more about the debunked myths of vegan protein sources.
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