So you want to start a new diet for the New Year? Not surprising, about 1 in 5 Americans try some new form of dieting or effort to being healthy around this time. Some want to lose weight. Some have specific issues they’re wishing to combat. And some just want to be healthier in general.
Now, it seems like fad diets are the American pastime. Having risen to prominence in the 1990s, a new one seems to appear every year. Maybe you’re one of those 20% of people who have decided to make a dietary change for the good of your family, but with so many diets come and gone, what do you choose?
I’m a former Whole Foods hippie employee, but I also have a degree in Biochemistry certified by the American Chemical Society. I’m very interested in what people eat and what food does to their personal health. With healthcare costs continuing to grow 10-15% every year (and many of those costs associated with preventable disease), I have a pretty vested interest in making sure everyone gets healthy. That’s aside from the fact I really do just want you to be healthy and feel healthy.
My tenure at Whole Foods introduced me to nearly every diet under the sun, after which I hit my textbooks to identify the biological basis. Today, I’d like to walk you through the popular diets of today so you can get a little bit better grasp of what’s actually going on with your body. That way, you can make a better decision of what’s right for you as you launch headlong into the new year.
To put it simply, vegans and vegetarians don’t eat animals. Maybe it’s because they’re concerned about the ethical welfare of the animals or maybe they’re concerned about the dubious practices of meat production. In either case, vegetarians consume no animal flesh while vegans take it a step further. Vegans consume no animal products at all meaning most poignantly no milk, no cheese, no eggs -sometimes even no honey.
The biggest benefit of vegan and vegetarianism is that you get to save the animals! You also are (hopefully) eating lots of healthy veggies which is also great for you. The downfalls are that you have to be careful with your protein and vitamins. Protein is essential for maintaining muscle mass. It can be difficult to ensure you get enough protein, let alone the mixture of amino acids you need with just plants. Iron is another element that can be difficult to reap under these diets. Men don’t have to be quite as watchful as women in this regard given they don’t need some iron replenished every month (ahem). The big hitter is Vitamin B12. B12 is an incredibly important vitamin involved in producing your body’s energy, and it’s only found naturally in animal products. Sorry everyone! We really did evolve as omnivores and got pretty dependent on vitamin B12. You could drink a lot of craft brewed beer to get it from the yeast, but I’m not sure that could be considered a healthy alternative.
The Paleo diet gets its name because it’s supposed to mirror the diet of the paleolithic man. The paleo theory is that it was the switch to agrarian lifestyle and grain dependence that causes many of our health issues. By only consuming things the paleolithic man ate, we can best serve our bodies.
The modern interpretation of this is kind of funny sometimes though. The large helpings of spaghetti squash my Paleo friends enjoy probably weren’t on the menu in paleolithic times, but hey! It’s the fiber and low-carbohydrate base that counts! Paleo followers will eat meat and fish as well as vegetables, fruits and nuts. They primarily try to stay away from high-carbohydrate grains and processed foods.
Meat and fiber! That’s the paleo way. The popular Whole 30 diet is a derivative of the paleo diet with even more restrictive rules on sweeteners, natural or not. In both cases, the diverse mix of proteins and vegetables gets you all your vitamins and protein no problem. One downside that could present itself: too much protein intake can lead to painful diseases like gout or increased cholesterol.
The Keto or ketogenic diet is similar to paleo but with a different base. Keto also stays away from carbohydrates focusing more on high protein and fat instead. But especially the fat. Ketogenesis is the state in which your body converts fats to glucose instead of the predominantly used carbohydrates. By starving your body of carbohydrates, you burn fats. This is especially helpful for weight-loss. Yes, it’s weird but it’s possible.
But buyer beware! Many a person has utilized Keto to lose weight then, with their weight goal met, resumed their previous diet. And went straight back to their old weight. Color them surprised. In maintenance, Keto can work wonders for you, but convert back to carbs and you’ll likely convert back yourself. Still, with a mix of proteins and vegetables, you’re getting the nutrients you need. Same deal as paleo with the potential for gout, and there can be an uncomfortable transition called the Keto Flu where you will kind of feel like you’re dying from all the fatigue and nausea of the transition.
Finally we have the ever prevalent Gluten-Free diet. Gluten is a protein found in wheat. Certain people with Celiac’s disease or wheat allergies can’t tolerate gluten either because they can’t digest it or their bodies have an allergic reaction to it. So gluten for people with Celiac’s or wheat allergies is definitely bad.
But how many people is that? Well for Celiac’s, only about 1-2% of the world’s population. While the number affected by wheat allergies is uncertain, it’s certainly not most of us. And what about the rest of us after all? How do we tolerate gluten? We tolerate it fine. If you catch the running theme of these other diets, carbohydrates often take the “bad diet” blame these days. The biochemical mechanisms of this are too much for me to go into, but carbs=sugar and too much sugar=fat so it’s not entirely an illogical progression. But does gluten deserve most of the blame it’s given? Of this I am not so sure.
Which One Rules Supreme?
What diet to choose? Which is best? Your body has things called enzymes that break down different components -proteases for protein, lipase for lipids or fats, amylase for sugar and so on and so forth. We have a lot of protease. It’s the primary enzyme produced in your actual stomach with the other enzymes occurring elsewhere in the chain. We don’t have cellulase, the enzyme needed to digest plants that a cow would have, but we did evolve eating “roughage” to sweep through our guts and keep things clean. So really, your body has everything it needs to break down just about everything you eat or at least push it through.
A personal story: I have high cholesterol. Thanks to a German heritage, it’s genetic. No matter what I eat or how much I exercise, my cholesterol will always be above average. Despite my family history, I didn’t expect this, but once I learned, what can a scientist do but experiment? For the next couple of years after my initial test, I tried different diets in the months leading up to the testing. One year, I did vegetarian, ensuring I consumed no cholesterol bearing items. The next, I did paleo and stacked up on steak and eggs and all other fatty foods. The results? In both cases my cholesterol went down by about 10 points. Really? One diet with no cholesterol and the other full on cholesterol and both caused a decrease? Maybe that decrease was actually ensuring I ran my 5K. Or that I did the hour on the elliptical during the week instead. (Exercise really is the best medicine for cholesterol.)
The only real answer I have for you about diets is to experiment and be strict about it. Try one thing for a period of time. Define your metrics for when you’ll start and stop. Plan what you’ll eat. If you’re inconsistent, you won’t know if its working or not. Some of us have genetic mutations that let us drink milk all our lives. Some of us can’t eat gluten. Or maybe we don’t want to eat meat. Pick what you want, and try it out. Tweak it until it works. As for me, I like Michael Pollan’s rules from his famous book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” What should we eat? “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”