The new year is here, and like many people you are probably thinking about getting healthier in 2023. How we eat tends to be one of the biggest, and most impactful ways to improve your overall health. Choosing the right eating pattern should not be complicated, but with so much information on how and what to eat available on the internet, it can be tough to know what is good advice and what is useless, ineffective, or even dangerous.
In this article, we will provide you with some guiding principles for selecting an eating plan, and help you understand some of the key differences between some of the most popular diets. With that information, you should be able to choose the diet that will work best for you and your lifestyle.
Before diving into meal plans and recipes, it is important to zoom out and understand what really matters to you. Quick fixes and fad diets often oversell and under-deliver, can be complicated or overly-restrictive, and are usually not sustainable (or safe) over the long term. If you are looking for a healthy lifestyle change that you can actually live with, it is best to start by considering a few key factors:
- Do you have any health conditions that impact how you eat or require you to restrict or limit certain foods? This could be chronic conditions such as diabetes, celiac disease, or food allergies. You may want to talk to a doctor or dietitian before changing your diet.
- What are your personal preferences and needs? For instance, if you love pasta and breads, a low-carb diet might not be something you can stick with. Likewise, vegetarians might find it challenging to follow a high-protein paleo diet.
- How will this diet affect your lifestyle? Do you like to cook, or do you prefer eating out? How much time do you have each week to prepare food, shop, or plan? Before you commit to a diet, think about how much effort it will take to maintain it and if you are willing and able to give that time.
Understanding Different Diet Types
One of the most common high-protein diets is the paleo diet, which focuses on eating foods that are (assumed) to have been eaten by early humans. This diet incorporates a lot of meat, vegetables, and nuts, but excludes dairy, grains, oils, and sugars. Proponents claim that eating as our ancient ancestors did can lead to better body composition and health. But further research has shown that cavemen diets were far more varied than once thought, and this diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies and other side-effects over the long-term.
There are several popular low-carbohydrate diets, and similar to high-protein diets these eating plans include a lot of meats, nuts, and vegetables with the addition of dairy. However, carbs, even from whole grains and root vegetables, are severely restricted and this can lead to negative health impacts over time.
One of the most popular high-fat diets is the “keto” or ketogenic diet. This is a high-fat and low-carb diet that forces the body to burn fats instead of carbohydrates for fuel. Originally developed as a treatment for hard-to-control epilepsy in children, this diet has become a fad among those looking for a quick way to lose weight. However, it can be hard to maintain and could lead to nutritional deficiencies.
Reducing fats can be very beneficial in managing high cholesterol and heart disease, but maintaining an extremely low-fat diet over time can be very difficult. And, some fats are healthy and necessary for the body to function.
More common among body-builders and fitness enthusiasts, a “macro diet” is one that focuses on hitting very specific goals for daily intake of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Followers calculate macronutrient needs based on body weight, physical activity, and other factors and use apps to track food intake down to the gram. While it does provide balanced intake, this diet can be difficult and tedious to maintain, especially if you are not able to access accurate nutritional information for every food you eat.
Gaining in popularity, intermittent fasting is emerging as a way to control weight and improve health conditions like high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease. With no food restrictions, followers simply eat during specified time periods, and then completely fast (except for water) in the interim. For example, fasting for 16 hours and eating only within an 8-hour window. (i.e. skipping breakfast or dinner every day). This does take some adjusting, but can be sustainable once you adapt. Speak to a dietitian if you are interested in trying this approach.
Unlike intermittent fasting, a very-low calorie diet (typically less than 800 calories per day) is a form of fasting used for very short periods of time. These diets are typically used with medical supervision only and should not be continued over the long term.
The Mediterranean diet is an eating pattern that focuses on lean proteins, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and healthy oils. While processed foods and sugary desserts are limited, no foods are off-limits, and the focus is on lifestyle change rather than weight loss. This can be a very healthy diet, is easy to maintain, and can lead to weight loss and improvement in key health factors.
Vegetarian / Vegan
Vegetarian and vegan diets are an integral part of many cultures. Avoidance of meat is central to this eating pattern, and the vegan diet completely eliminates any animal products including eggs, dairy, and animal-based food additives. This diet can be extremely healthy and balanced, and has the added benefit of being good for the environment. However, transitioning to a vegetarian diet requires a bit of learning how to maintain adequate protein intake and, for vegans diets especially, vitamin supplements may be needed.
What Diet is Right for You?
Generally, the best diets are those that are nutritionally balanced and sustainable. Any diet that eliminates an entire macronutrient category, such as carbohydrates, is not recommended for long-term health. Additionally, diets with severe restrictions and limited flexibility are going to be hard to stick with, especially when eating out, dining with friends and family, and over the holidays.
The best way to figure out what will work for you is to consider your own preferences, limitations (such as time and budget), and lifestyle. You may also need to consider your family and make choices that everyone can follow. When reviewing diets, check out reputable sources, such as the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics (eatright.org) for advice.
If you want more personalized guidance, the registered dietitians at CoreLife are happy to help! Learn more and see if CoreLife is right for you at CoreLifeMD.com