Diets make me crazy!

I have a pet peeve and it’s the word diet. I feel like fad-diets are thought of as ways to help you ‘hack’ your life and end up thin, popular, rich, and healthy. Fad-diets to me are just temporary band-aids by which ‘doctors’ or ‘experts’ take money from those of us who just want to be healthier and feel good. And who wants to be throwing money at someone who almost always makes us more confused about what is healthy? Based on looking at the number of books in the Food and Health section of your local bookstore, healthy fats, minimizing carbohydrates, eating only meat, taking pills, juicing or fasting, cheat days, ketosis or doing all of them at the same time is the way to a healthier you. There is no possible way we can keep up with the myriad of information bombarded on us and make any sense out of it at all. It becomes insanely confusing, made worse only by the fact that marketing and branding sends us mixed messages about…well, everything.

Fad-diets are temporary. They are usually restrictive and they are 100% not fun. They can even be exceptionally unsafe. Eating healthy foods and getting rid of the rest of the processed crap has been shown to promote health in so many ways I don’t want to list them here. That’s not a diet. It’s a life choice that is possible and fulfilling in the long term.

I wrote this post due to a situation that happened to me a few months ago. I went out for lunch with two of my bosses at a restaurant of my choosing. One of my bosses knows my predisposition for plant-based eating and is understanding because his girlfriend is vegetarian. My other boss, however, does not know this about me. We sit down and pretty early on my male boss asks me if I’m still vegan. I say yes and my female boss looks at me, smiles and says, “Does that mean you don’t eat gluten?” I didn’t know what to say. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I know that people out there just eat food they think is good for you (or not) and don’t try to understand or learn about nutrition. Totally fine if that’s the world you want to live in. However, what really got me was that now that I’ve been immersed in being nutritionally conscious, I forgot that there are people out there that don’t care or don’t know about alternative ways to eat. This post is for those of you who want a refresher on diets, want to learn what different diets are, or just don’t care but will read anyways.

As an initial statement, I wanted to put in perspective the current state of fad-diets. In a study by Katz and Meller (2014), major diets of the day were compared to see if one came out on top: low carb, low fat, low glycemic, Mediterranean, mixed/balanced (DASH), Paleolithic, vegan, and elements of other diets. What they couldn’t conclude was that there was any best diet, however, they did state that “a diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention.” The researchers also noted that nutritionally-replete plant-based diets are supported by a wide array of favorable health outcomes, including fewer cancers and less heart disease.

Below I have explained a few of the more common diets. In some cases I have added notes about when care may be necessary regarding a diet, but feel free to eat in a way that works for you.

Vegan

The first thing I’d like to clarify is that veganism is an ethic, not a diet. It is an entire lifestyle choice and does not revolve solely around what is or is not being eaten. Vegans are best described as not eating animals, animal products, or animal secretions (which just sounds incredibly disgusting). This includes: meat, eggs, dairy, honey, and gelatin. Other less obvious foods include some sugars (those made with bone char), many candies with shiny coatings (which are made from the resin excreted by the lac bug), some red-pigmented foods (those with cochineal, carminic acid, or carmine listed which are made from a female cochineal insect), soy cheese (some have casein, a milk protein added to them), peanuts (some use gelatin as an additive), refried beans made with lard, orange juice that is fortified with omega-3s derived from fish, and many beers and wines. The list is a long one, so to be vegan means in many cases, making your own food or being very diligent about checking labels (or eating at vegan restaurants – which are usually delicious!).

In addition to not consuming foods that exploit animals, this also extends to the use of products that may exploit animals. This list is extensive but includes various items such as leather, lotions, cosmetics, clothing, shoes (surprising it’s commonly the glue in shoes that is derived from animals), paint/paintbrushes, and many vitamins and supplements.

There are many reasons that people choose to live their lives as vegans. The most common that I am aware of include: 1. living their lives with compassion towards animals and to prevent the unnecessary suffering of animals, 2. for their health, and 3. to prevent environmental degradation.

A while ago I probably had the same feelings about vegans as most non-vegans. I thought they were too pushy about their beliefs and many of them came across as hacky-sac playing hippies (no offense). More recently I’ve learned that although I still don’t appreciate the pushy vegans, I completely understand their message and have chosen to live my own life similarly. I have met many, many wonderful caring, quiet, humble, fun and fashionable vegans who don’t want to push anything on you, but just want to live their lives as they choose.

Living as a vegan isn’t necessarily easy and you do need to put in time to ensure you are fulfilling all of your nutritional needs, but it has been shown to promote many health benefits as well as weight loss.

Whole Foods Plant Based

This diet is exactly as it sounds. It emphasizes eating whole foods (meaning not processed) that are plant-based (similar to being a vegan). Therefore, it tries to move away from what is considered ‘vegan junkfood’ such as tofu, tempeh, ground-round, and other meat-like alternatives that have been processed, to whole foods such as vegetables, legumes, fruits, and grains, that are minimally or not processed at all. Some plant-based eaters are vegans but just don’t want the hassle of being labeled a vegan.

Side note – A very interesting and motivational whole-foods plant-based athlete, author, and podcaster is Rich Roll. He is a very well known athlete (running, biking, swimming), motivator, and podcaster. I recommend checking out his site here (http://www.richroll.com/) to read about his journey, how he came to eating plant-based, and listening to his podcast.

Vegetarian

Ask any vegetarian what they eat and you will probably get a different answer from each one. Some don’t eat meat, some don’t eat fish (like fish is any different than meat), or eggs, or dairy, or radishes. It’s like they become a class of diet because they don’t have defined limitations on foods they will or will not eat. They become the IBS of the diet world: a catch-all due to their non-specific food restrictions. If you actually look up the definition of vegetarian, you’ll find that they are “a person who does not eat meat, and sometimes other animal products, especially for moral, religious, or health reasons”. Wikipedia says that vegetarianism is the practice from abstaining from the consumption of meat (red meat, poultry, seafood and the flesh of any other animal), and may also include abstention from by-products of animal slaughter. See here all Vegetarians – by definition, meat includes seafood. IF you eat seafood, you are called a pescatarian. IF you eat eggs and dairy, you are called a lacto-ovo-vegetarian (lacto means milk and ovo means egg in Latin). IF you don’t eat radishes, then you’re totally normal because I think radishes taste awful. Although, most other people don’t care what type of vegetarian you are, I do find specific terms useful, since cooking for a ‘vegetarian’ can be like a game of Russian roulette.

Gluten-Free

Gluten is a protein composite found in various grains and wheat. It gives dough elasticity and breads a chewy texture. The protein gliacin, which is found in gluten, is the culprit behind the crappy, bloated feeling you can sometimes get after eating foods with gluten in them. Taking things to the extreme, people who have been diagnosed with Celiac disease are gluten intolerant because eating gluten will physically damage their small intestines.

Dr. Perlmutter in his book Brain Maker, explains how gliacin acts to increase the permeability of your gut. This increase in permeability is known as leaky gut and occurs in almost everyone who eats gluten. Wheat eaters, even if you feel fine, be aware!! (For even more specifics on this topic, read his book Brain Grain, which is about how eating gluten affects the body). Leaky gut occurs when the tight-junctions between cells in your gut let through compounds or molecules they shouldn’t. In response, your immune system attacks the unknown invaders and an inflammatory response occurs. Long term and chronic inflammation within the body can cause serious health consequences (I will write about this issue in a separate post).

The problem these days is that gluten is hidden in many foods, including very surprising items, and sometimes it takes an expert to figure out if it’s in something or not. Many people are sensitive to gluten, so if you feel like you’ve tried everything to feel better after eating, maybe you should remove gluten from your diet for a while and see how you feel. There’s no harm in trying.

Paleo

Oh-Paleo. How much I’ve heard about you lately. This diet feels like it has taken over North America, especially in the cross-fit community. The Paleo diet is based on eating similarly to a Paleolithic person who lived during the Paleolithic era (approximately 2.6 million years ago to approximately 10,000 years ago). This pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer period is distinguished by the development of primitive stone tools. The Paleo diet of today emphasizes high protein intake in the form of animal products, lower carbohydrates with lower glycemic index values such as non-starchy fruits and vegetables, high fiber, moderate to high fat intake, high potassium and lower sodium. Sounds pretty reasonable…However, when I’m around Paleo dieters, I’m always shocked at how much meat they eat as a proportion of their total meal. After looking on the paleodiet.com website, this becomes less surprising, as they state “Protein comprises 15% of the calories in the average western diet, which is considerably lower than the average values of 19-35% found in hunter-gatherer diets”. Whaaat?!? This means that with all of the meat consumption in the “average” western diet, we’re still supposed to actually eat MORE to be Paleo??? That seems like a lot of meat. And from my understanding it’s supposed to be organic and grass-fed. I can tell you right now that this type of diet is not going to be sustainable for our world now and moving into the future unless the organic and grass-fed meat that is eaten is a vastly smaller amount of our total food consumption.

If you currently eat a Paleo diet, please be very careful and understand what you’re putting into your body and understand that there is controversy regarding this diet. Don’t just do it because everyone around you is. This diet has not been proven to confer health benefits in the long term.

Side note (here comes a rant!) – I’ve never quite understood how a diet claims to represent a time period of over 2 million years. That is a freaking long time!! I mean, even in the last 200,000 years there has been two big ice ages. The world is a dynamic place and I can only imagine how vegetation and animals have changed in spatial extent and composition throughout 2 millions years. How do we condense 2 million years of eating to what is now known as the Paleo diet? I also don’t understand how thinking that eating like someone from prehistoric times is supposed to promote health in people of today. The world is a completely different place! One example I get frustrated with is the argument that Paleolithic people didn’t get cancer or arteriosclerosis or dementia, ergo, the Paleo diet must be good for us. The average life span of a Paleolithic person is estimated as only 35 years for men and 30 years for women. These people weren’t necessarily old enough to have had time to develop these types of diseases! Additionally, they most assuredly exercised more than we do, having to actually hunt for food and potentially migrate throughout the year. In conclusion, we can’t currently make claims that Paleolithic people were in any way more healthy than we are in the long term, with the exception that at least their foods weren’t covered in pesticides or originated from GMO crops.

Mediterranean Diet

I actually tried this diet in my youth when I came across the Blue Zone book because I was extremely inspired by the number of centurions (people who live to be 100 years old) alive who ate a Mediterranean style diet. It is based on the traditional living habits of people from Mediterranean countries such as Italy, France, Greece, and Spain. The Mediterranean diet varies by region, but emphasizes plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and fish. Olive oil replaces butter and herbs and spices are used to flavor foods instead of salt. However, ensure you realize that although you may be eating like a Mediterranean, they are very active people, often walking many miles a day and living off of what they grow themselves.

Glycemic Index

The glycemic index (GI) is a measurement carried out on carbohydrate-containing foods and their impact on our blood sugar. The lower the GI value, the less it impacts blood sugar and insulin levels. A low GI diet claims that you’ll digest food slower so you’ll eat less because you’ll remain full for longer.

It’s probably not surprising for you to hear that low GI foods include vegetables, certain fruits, legumes and beans, and minimally processed wheat or starchy products such as breads, cereals, and pastas, and dairy. Apparently, meats do not have a glycemic index because they do not raise blood glucose levels.

This seems to be an older fad-diet that is still emphasized a lot for diabetics due to the problems they face with blood glucose. I still think that this diet allows for far too much starchy food, regardless of the GI, and doesn’t emphasize eating non-processed foods.

Raw Foods

So this diet is an interesting one to me. I’m actually glad I had to read about it, because apparently I didn’t know much of what it means to eat as a raw foodie. I assumed it was basically a vegan who only consumed raw and non-processed foods. Although this is a subset of Raw foodism, it is not the whole story. Raw foodism is far more expansive than I had originally thought. There are four main types: raw vegetarians, raw vegans, raw omnivores (eating both plants and animals), and raw carnivores (those who eat primarily meat).   Food isn’t heated about 40°C and is eaten fresh, dehydrated using low heat, or is fermented.

I have been to a number of raw food restaurants and am impressed that people can eat that way for the majority of their diet. Not that the processing is an issue, it’s more that I don’t feel satisfied when all of my food is raw and either cold or lukewarm. I love cooked mushrooms. Same goes for broccoli and cauliflower. In fact, I love many vegetables cooked over raw and I think I would miss more than anything the physical heat of cooked foods. Who doesn’t relax when you first taste a bowl of hot soup, or have a sip of tea or coffee that’s close to burning your mouth?

There is a lot that is still unknown in the realm of cooking foods versus eating foods raw (Subramanian, 2009), with my conclusion being that you should just eat veggies and fruits regardless of if they are cooked or not. Eating a broader range of these items, both cooked and/or raw, exposes you to the greatest number of good-for-you compounds that will keep you as healthy as possible.

Side note – want more information about a raw vegan diet? I just heard about Fully Raw by Kristina in one of Rich Roll’s Podcasts and really fell in love with her spirit and devotion to the raw and vegan lifestyle.  I visited her site and her food looks amazing!! Opening a not-for-profit co-op with local farmers contributing makes me wish we had more here in Vancouver.

Fully Raw Kristina and for some awesome recipes you can watch her YouTube channel Fully Raw Kristina YouTube Channel

References:

1. Katz, D., & Meller, S. (2014). Can we say what diet is best for health? Annual Reviews , 35, 83-103.

2. Subramanian, S. (2009, March 31). Fact or Fiction: Raw veggies are healthier than cooked ones. Retrieved June 21, 2015, from Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/raw-veggies-are-healthier/