This is probably the biggest time of the entire year for the weight loss and fitness industry. Summer is another big time, but the start of the new year always has people trying to capitalize on starting new healthy habits and losing weight, so it’s not surprising that I’m seeing way more commercials for fitness and weight loss equipment and diet plans.
The sad part is that everyone really wants to improve their lives and health but most of those who try will give up by the end of February. Not because they aren’t sincere, but because they are frustrated and overwhelmed. They are trying to change too much too soon, usually and it’s not surprising that they lose focus and start feeling like a failure. Elizabeth Benton (Primal Potential) usually compares this to teaching a child to read: she says you start with the alphabet, not The Iliad! I usually think of weight lifting: you don’t walk into the gym on the first day and load up the bar with 150 lbs! You start with maybe 10, or just the empty bar! You know you can’t deadlift 150 lbs- you’ll hurt yourself! But when we start new fitness/ eating plans, we do the equivalent of 150 lbs and then we wonder why we failed: “what’s wrong with me?!” There’s nothing wrong with YOU– it’s your method! I recently did a post on New Year’s resolutions and how to succeed at them (Making a List and Checking It Twice: Those Nagging New Year’s Resolutions). This post is about what healthy eating plan you want to do!
There are a lot of diets out there and new ones coming out every day. The truth is everyone is different and your way of eating for optimal health is not going to be like anyone else’s. This is why the weight loss industry is pretty much always booming: people try to fit into someone else’s diet and when it doesn’t work- or work fast enough- they drop it and start shopping for another one! The key to success with healthy weight, healthy nutrition and fitness is to find your own diet! Easier said than done, but that’s what this post is going to help you with! Once you find what works for you, you’re there. You just have to keep doing what you’re doing. Little tip: if you aren’t happy doing what you’re doing, it isn’t the right plan for you! Anyone can lose weight eating chicken breast and steamed broccoli 365 days a year but if it makes you miserable, you won’t keep doing it (and even if you stuck with it, you didn’t get ‘healthy’ so you can be miserable!)
There are a variety of healthy eating plans or Ways of Eating (WOE) that don’t require you to buy pre-packaged foods or attend meetings or do anything other than maybe download a list of foods or a short outline of the plan. Having tried a few of the other more restrictive eating plans (buying their packaged foods from a service), I personally think these less restrictive WOEs are a better option: you can buy the food anywhere and they are a lot more flexible if you run into an unforeseen situation. Some of the healthy eating plans I considered are: Mediterranean diet; ketogenic/ keto diet (not really flexible); High Fat Low Carb (HFLC); Atkins; Whole 30; Whole Foods; Paleo/ Primal (what I eat); Intermittent Fasting (IF); and vegetarian (& related forms); vegan;. There are also the various diets put out there by certain professionals such as the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP); the Wahls Protocol; Dr. Hyman’s Eat Fat Get Thin diet; Dr. Ludwig’s Always Hungry? diet; and Elle Russ’ Thyroid Solution diet. (Some of these are obviously trying to fix health problems other than just weight, but that might be part of why you’re looking to improve your health.) Some of these diets are really similar and it’s only the details that matter, but it’s the devil in those details that can make all the difference!
The more generic diets (diet here means “foods an individual habitually consumes”) tend to be a little more flexible than the “sponsored” diets. I think that’s because these are the ways communities ate for generations and someone finally noticed and wrote a book about it! For me, that lends a little more credibility to them since generations of people ate that way and remained relatively healthy. [Disclaimer time:I am not affiliated with anyone but me and I make no money off of any of these diets/ WOEs. I am not a health professional: just another informed consumer!]
The Mediterranean Diet: As the name implies, this is the diet consumed by communities around the Mediterranean and its big focus is on fruits, veggies, grain & grain products (breads, pastas), legumes, olives & olive oils, and nuts/ seeds. It also advocates eating fish and seafood a few times a week, dairy and eggs in moderate amounts more often/ daily and meats and sweets the least. The focus is on whole unprocessed foods and limits red meats, emphasizing proteins from seafood and even though it does advocate eating pasta and grains, the idea is that they are not a big portion of the diet and are to be balanced out by the vegetables, legumes and proteins.
High Fat Low Carb (HFLC): In a lot of ways, this is kind of a freestyle version of the more regimented Atkins diet. It promotes exactly what it says: you eat high amounts of healthy fats, moderate to high amounts of proteins and keep your carbs low. The trick here is “healthy fats.” Generally, there are still a lot of people out there who are afraid of saturated fats from red meats. Healthy fats are foods such as avocados, coconut oil/ butter, olives/ olive oil, and fats from proteins like fish, meat and eggs. The prevailing thought is that if it’s a naturally occurring fat, it’s healthy in the right proportions. Man-made fats like trans fats and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) from crop oils (soybean, corn, canola, safflower, etc) are generally unstable and cannot be used by the body or expelled, so they are there inside you forever doing nothing good. This is what scares most people away from this diet, but in healthy amounts, I don’t think they are harmful: it’s the “healthy amounts” again that are the issue. I tend to keep my fats higher than my carbs and protein in my diet by a small margin, and I do this by eating only natural fats and I limit the saturated fats from red meats. By keeping the carbs low (and hopefully limiting them to complex carbs from vegetables), you can maximize your weight loss and nutrition.
Atkins diet: This is again much like the HFLC diet described above except it’s broken down into 4 “phases” in which you limit your intake of the macros (fat, protein, carbohydrate). For those of you who don’t know, this diet was created by the late Dr. Robert Atkins. It starts you off by severely limiting your carbs, and then you begin phasing in more carbs from vegetables and nuts. The bulk of your calories come from healthy fats and proteins. This is a “sponsored” diet with a website, community and a line of packaged foods following the diet protocol. Initially, this diet took a lot of abuse for advocating high fat at a time when fat=death, but studies continue to bear out Dr. Atkins’ findings.
Whole 30: This is a WOE that obviously focuses on eating whole natural foods. The term Whole 30 is actually another sponsored diet (see Whole30.com) with a list of rules for their eating program, focusing on whole foods (minus certain foods like sugars/sweeteners, grains, alcohols, dairy, legumes, etc) and it’s “30” because it’s a month long program. This program has had a lot of success, and like the Atkins site, it offers books, communities and support to help you succeed. It also has rules like no measuring, no weighing, and no analyzing body composition during the program (but it’s okay to do before and after.)
Whole foods: A less stringent version focuses simply on eating whole foods. (This has nothing to do with the grocery store chain of the same name!) Basically, you eat foods that are as close to their natural state as possible before you prepare them. For example, when you eat sweet potato fries, you buy the sweet potatoes and cut them up into fries yourself; the flash frozen bag of sweet potato fries is not a whole food. Apples are a whole food; applesauce is processed. The point of this WOE is that you are not getting any (hopefully) of the chemical additives, preservatives and PUFAs that come in processed foods and are getting more of the natural vitamins, nutrients and fiber that comes in the unprocessed foods naturally. This WOE isn’t focused on the macros but more on the natural state of the foods, and it also emphasizes organic and non-GMO foods. This WOE is focused on nutrition, which is a good thing!
Paleo/ Primal: This is the WOE that I follow, so it’s the one I know best! Paleo gets it’s name from the supposed diet eaten by Paleolithic (hunter-gatherer) peoples, so it focuses on whole natural foods, but it initially took a lot of heat because it’s low carb and specifically avoids grains (including rice & corn), grain-products, legumes (including soy & peanuts), starchy vegetables (white potatoes, taro), refined sugars, dairy, and crop oils (canola, corn, vegetable). This WOE focuses on vegetables, proteins (meats, eggs, seafood, poultry), good fats (coconut, olive, avocado), and nuts, seeds and fruit in moderation. The big difference between Paleo and Primal is the dairy: Primal allows it. Other than that, I have not found any differences. The focus of this diet is to avoid grains and processed foods in general. Like the Whole Foods diet above, if you want sweet potato fries, they enter your house as the raw tubers from the produce section.
Ketogenic/ keto diet: This diet is not very flexible and I have to say some people have a lot of difficulty with it, but those that manage to stick with it have had some fabulous results with weight loss, nutrition, energy levels and insulin resistance especially. Keto is extremely low carb, and by that I mean like 20 grams or less. By comparison, on Paleo, my carbs are generally around 100 grams per day, so keto has you eating almost no carbohydrates at all, either simple (bread) or complex (ie spinach). The idea is that the body turns carbs into glucose which is used as fuel, but our bodies can also use ketones which are made from fat, so if you don’t eat carbs/ glucose, your body is forced to use fat/ ketones, either from what you eat or your body fat. Most of the calories on the keto diet come either from fat or protein and you need to be careful not to eat too much protein because your body can turn protein into glucose (gluconeogenesis) which will be used as fuel. When you stop eating carbs/ glucose, your body will go into a state called ketosis, which means it’s burning fat. Sometimes you hear people talk about “sugar burners” and “fat burners.” If your body is using mainly glucose & carbs, you are a sugar burner; if it’s using mainly ketones, you’re a fat burner and if you can go back and forth between the two, you’re metabolically flexible (way too much terminology for me!) FYI: sometimes this diet gets confused with ketoacidosis, which is a dangerous condition for diabetics. It means your blood sugar and ketones are high and you need to get to a hospital ASAP. This diet is really great for people who are reversing type 2 diabetes since it drastically reduces your blood sugar and increases your sensitivity to insulin (kind of the opposite of diabetes). People have difficulty keeping away from carbs, increasing their fat intake, and when you first start reducing your carbs that low, you generally feel pretty awful for the first couple of weeks (they call it “keto flu” because it’s so similar). Personally, I have MFP friends who love this way of eating, but I have never been able to 1) keep my carbs that low; and 2) make it past the keto flu.
Intermittent Fasting (IF): This is not so much a diet about what you eat but about how you eat. It’s fairly similar to Paleo/ Primal/ Ketogenic in that it’s great for reversing insulin resistance. Just like it says, you fast for either several hours or several days. The idea is not to starve yourself or drastically lower your calories (which can tank your Basic Metabolic Rate- think Biggest Losers who gained it back). Apparently, when you fast, your body switches to burning fat like in ketosis. There are studies which show IF has quite a few health benefits besides increasing insulin sensitivity and proponents say that instead of being tired and hungry all the time, like people would expect, the opposite is true: they have more energy and aren’t hungry. When you fast, you do need to increase your water intake and also your sodium and electrolytes (they get flushed out with the urine at a higher rate). You can fast for either a few hours (12 hour eating window and 12 hour fasting is usually the starting times) or you can fast for a few days or longer. Proponents also state that the first two days of fasting are the hardest and after that, your body has made the transition and it’s pretty easy. It is advisable that you don’t try IF unless you are in reasonably good health, not suffering from any illnesses and definitely not if you are pregnant.
Vegetarian/ Vegan diets: These diets, while also about health and nutrition, usually have a moral component as well. Most people who follow these diets do so not only out of a desire to be healthier but because they don’t believe in eating animals (vegetarianism) or using products from animals (veganism). There are a lot of health benefits to a plant based diet, especially when it comes to reducing saturated fat and some of the less than positive attributes of meat. There are some different types of vegetarianism, such as people who only eat fish (pescetarians) and people who eat eggs and milk (lacto-ovo vegetarians) and other forms. Vegans don’t use anything that comes from an animal: no milk, eggs, leather, or gelatin, etc, if it uses parts of an animal or is produced by an animal. I do want to caution that there can be health concerns with this diet, as one of the essential vitamins we need is B12, which is very hard to get in sufficient quantities from plants alone. Those of you who have read past posts may recall I spoke about a college student who ended up in the ER because she was B12 deficient. This deficiency can kill you since you need the B12 for your body to use oxygen: no B12= no life= no you! If you do elect a vegan/ vegetarian diet and are not already taking a B12 supplement, you may want to consider it. There are possible other concerns, as with any WOE, so be sure to research all eating plans thoroughly and if you can’t find the answers to your questions, please see a nutritionist or dietician.
As for the remaining “sponsored diets,” they tend to run from the fairly complex and regimented (designed help you recover from a specific condition) such as the Autoimmune Protocol to the mildly structured such as the Always Hungry diet. Most of these have books and websites, like Atkins and Whole30, to help guide you through them. Dr. Ludwig’s website has a lot of free info. I have read Dr. Ludwig’s Always Hungry? book and it offers a great comparison with the Atkins and Mediterranean diets. Almost all of these ways of eating have books or websites available to you. Some of the sites I like are Primal Potential (site & podcast with more free info), Paleo Leap, Dr. Jason Fung’s Intensive Dietary Management blog, Jimmy Moore’s Living La Vida Low Carb (site & podcast). Some of the books I like in addition to Dr. Ludwig’s are Living Paleo for Dummies, Vegetarianism for Dummies, Mediterranean Diet for Dummies, Keto Clarity by Jimmy Moore, The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung and The Complete Guide to Fasting by Dr. Jason Fung and Jimmy Moore. These are only a few of the books and websites available. A note about the Dummies books: I like them because they assume you know absolutely nothing about the topic. Even if you are familiar with it, it doesn’t hurt to at least review what you think you know, because I have come across info that was new to me, even though I’d already researched the topic. It turns out I was less thorough than I thought!
It’s important to be an informed consumer and learn about a diet/ nutrition/ fitness plan before you start (remember the vegan college student!), but don’t get so caught up in learning “everything about all of them” that you don’t start any of them! It’s also not a one-shot deal: if you start Whole30, decide it’s not for you and you want to try IF, you don’t have to wait until next year or the end of the month or any date in particular. Give it a fair test run (remember keto and IF take a few days to get through the “flu”) but if you don’t like it, try something else! Also, don’t let anyone tell you what’s right or wrong for your way of eating and lifestyle. Unless it’s something horribly unhealthy (like starving yourself, bingeing/ purging, etc), you are the one who knows yourself best. My only requirements are: 1) does it provide a solid nutritional foundation?; and 2) is it something I will enjoy doing long term? If the answer to either of those questions is ‘no,’ then I would keep looking. If you have any questions, you can leave a comment here or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.