The Skinny on Fad Diets

Will any of these diets help you lose weight and get healthier? Which ones will actually work and are realistic?

Quite frankly, if it seems too good to be true, it most likely is! And even if a fad diet has some good points, how do you separate the wheat from the chaff (or the gluten-free equivalent)? Many trendy diets eliminate whole food groups, which can also keep you from getting important nutrients such as calcium or B vitamins.  Let’s take a look at the most popular diets these days, and how they can hurt or help you.

Paleo Diet

Marketed as the caveman-type diet, this diet's goal is to eat the kinds of food our human hunter-gatherer ancestors might have eaten, such as lean meat (the wilder the better), nuts and berries.

What works: This plan steers folks away from salt, processed foods and refined sugars.  It promotes fish, seafood, fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and healthy oils (olive oil, canola oil, sesame oil) .

What to watch: Don't cut out too many whole grains, legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils) or dairy for the long term, unless you have an allergy or intolerance to any of them.  Make sure you are getting enough calcium (1,000mg/day for men and women ages 19-50 years old, and 1,200 mg/day for men and women 70 and older) from other sources such as fortified alternative milk products (like almond milk), green vegetables (like spinach or kale) or almonds.ought

Gluten-Free Diet

This diet eliminates all foods with gluten, a protein found in barley, rye, and wheat. The gluten-free diet is a necessity for folks who are gluten intolerant, such as those with those with Celiac Disease. It is also a good idea for folks who may not have Celiac Disease but are sensitive to gluten, and react to it with stomach problems or skin conditions.

What works: Many snack foods and junk foods are made with wheat, so avoiding gluten may automatically help some people eat fewer processed snack foods and nutrition-less carbs. There are many whole foods that are naturally gluten-free and healthful, including all fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans, potatoes, quinoa, rice, milks, most yogurts and cheeses, and most fish, poultry and meats.

What to watch: Eating gluten free does not necessarily equal weight loss.  A new selection of gluten-free junk food is now available on most grocery store shelves.  Just because something is labeled as "gluten-free" does not make it healthy:  a chocolate bar has always been gluten free. Some "gluten free" foods are still high in sugar, fat and calories.

High-Protein, Low-Carb Diet

This diet is like the paleo diet, but allows you to eat different types of protein and is more likely to leave out important sources of fiber.

What works: Carbohydrates are found in milk, yogurt, fruits, starchy vegetables, beans and starches such as grains and cereals, and also found in sweets. These are the foods we tend to overindulge in, so limiting some of these foods may help us eat fewer calories.

What to watch:  If you avoid carbs altogether, you may not get enough fiber, calcium and important phytochemicals (nutrients that come from plants). And you might not have enough variety in your diet to fuel your body for daily activity and exercise (carbs are our primary source of fuel)—or to stave off boredom.

The Whole 30

Intended to be a "total reset" for you digestive system for an entire month (i.e. 30 days), this diet advises you to remove all foods and beverages which might be "inflammatory" and eat three "clean" meals a day.

What works:  Inflammatory foods to avoid include: dairy, grains, added sugar, alcohol and legumes.  Cutting out sugar means that you will lose weight by avoiding empty calories in desserts, baked goods, and alcohol.  This diet may be helpful for people suffering from unidentified food allergies or intolerances.  Many people like that this diet focuses on helping you to feel better and does not advise calorie counting, in fact, you are instructed to step on the scale only once before starting the plan and then not until the end of the 30 days.

What to watch:  Many people are not sensitive to dairy, whole grains, and legumes and these foods can be important healthy sources of good nutrition when eaten in moderation.  This plan also promotes meat consumption, can be high in sodium, low in calcium and could encourage eating too many foods that are high in cholesterol.

The 5:2 Diet (Intermittent Fasting Diet)

This diet instructs you to fast on alternate days, meaning that you eat normally for five days a week and then restrict your calorie intake to only 500-600 calories for two days a week.  These two days of restrictive eating allow you to reach an overall lower calorie consumption for the week, leading to weight loss over time.  The two fasting days must have one non-fasting day in between them, but otherwise you can pick which days you prefer to fast.

What works:  This diet does not require you to avoid certain foods, but instead instructs you when to eat.  Alternate day fasting may be better at protecting against the loss of muscle mass that can sometimes happen at the same time as you lose weight.  Intermittent fasting has been shown to reduce blood sugar and cholesterol levels which could be helpful for people at risk for type 2 diabetes or heart disease.

What to watch: Alternate day fasting diets have not been shown to cause any greater weight loss than standard diets with calorie restriction (generally this is calculated to be about 1500 calories per day for the average woman and 2000 calories per day for the average man to lose one pound of weight per week).  Many people have trouble maintaining this strict pattern of eating over the long term.

So which diet should I choose?

The bad news is that there really is no single diet that will magically help you lose weight or stay healthy in the long term. The good news is that you can adopt a healthful approach to eating that fits with your life and food preferences. Some of the specific recommendations and lifestyle modifications that help you improve cholesterol, blood sugars, or blood pressure will also help with losing weight (or maintaining a healthy weight), improving energy and often improving mood.  Some of the fad diets may help with weight loss initially, but working on long-term behavior and lifestyle changes is what will lead to longer-term success.It is perfectly reasonable to take bits and pieces from different diet recommendations and fit them into a plan that can work for you. Watching portions, increasing physical activity and practicing moderation are the keys to losing weight, maintaining weight and staying fit and healthy.

Still have questions? Consider meeting with a registered dietitian in your area to talk through a plan that works for your life and helps you reach your goals.

The health educators at the Learning Resource Center are happy to help. They provide trusted & reliable health information and connect people to local resources in the community. Connect with a health educator today! Be well, be well informed.

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