Breaking through the Buzz: Are Trendy Diets All They’re Cracked Up to Be?
As we make our new year’s resolutions, going on a diet is always a popular choice. But, which diet? With so many trends filling our newsfeeds and Pinterest boards, we asked the experts at the Memorial Weight Loss & Wellness Center to separate fact from fad fiction.
The Paleo diet
Is it the life-saving wonder its denizens claim? Or is it something that should have been left in the Stone Age?
According to Angie Sebree, registered dietitian with the Memorial Weight Loss & Wellness Center, the Paleo diet does offer many benefits. The general premise of the diet is to eliminate processed foods and opt for foods that hunters and gatherers of the caveman time period would have found.
Some examples of acceptable foods on the Paleo diet include meat, poultry, seafood, fresh fruits and non-starchy vegetables (those that are not corn, peas, potatoes and winter squash), seeds, eggs and unsaturated oils.
Foods that are eliminated while on the Paleo diet include grains, beans, dairy products, soy products, savory snacks, sugar and high-fat meats.
Sebree notes Paleo’s many benefits, including weight loss (because of the dietary restrictions), improved satiety from meals given increased protein and fiber intake, more omega-3 and 6 intake from seafood protein sources, as well as decreased sodium intake.
The drawbacks, she notes, include increased risk for bone disease due to restricted dairy and soy milk, increased grocery budget as most Paleo foods are more costly, and general dissatisfaction with omitting all starchy carbohydrate foods and sweets.
“I think in the end we must ask ourselves, is it feasible to never eat another chocolate chip cookie or brownie ever again?” Sebree said. “If not, it may be wise to pick another method.”
Could kale, blueberries and chard take you from zero to hero and make you – as the name would indicate – “super”?
The term “superfood” generally refers to a food that is higher than most foods in nutrients. Some nutrients boasted by these superfoods include vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, phytonutrients and healthy fats.
According to Sebree, the benefits to eating superfoods include the increase in vitamins and minerals, fiber, and other nutrients found within these foods.
The biggest critique of relying solely on superfoods is that most believe if they eat kale at one meal they can eat less healthy at another meal. In general if you were to eat generally nutritious foods throughout each day, you would likely get more nutrients than if you were to eat one superfood per day and less nutritious foods otherwise.
Can it cure cancer, arthritis and a whole host of other diseases as claimed? Or can it actually be harmful?
Kombucha is traditionally made by brewing black tea, adding sugar and then fermenting with special yeast or kombucha yeast.
Kombucha is said to help hair growth, arthritis, memory loss, aging and more. When looking for scientific evidence of how and why kombucha helps these ailments, there is not a lot out there to support any of these claims.
A great deal of the literature states cautions of use; kombucha is not pasteurized if not properly cultured and could cause harmful side effects like metabolic acidosis. “The warning given by the scientific community when researching kombucha seems to be, ‘drink at your own risk,’ ” Sebree said.
Hemp and chia seeds
Are the omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants found in these tiny seeds the secret to a healthy life? Or are you better off just eating some salmon?
“When it comes to hemp, chia and flax seeds, a little goes a long way,” Sebree said.
All of these seeds per tablespoon boast quality protein (up to 3 grams per tablespoon depending on type of seed), both soluble and insoluble fiber and high levels of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. Just one tablespoon per day can take you a long way in helping to decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease, given the amount of fiber and omega fatty acids they contain.
“Great ways to add these seeds into your diet are to add some into yogurt, oatmeal or cream of wheat in the morning to give your breakfast more bang for your buck,” Sebree said. “Adding these seeds into a healthy diet can boost the quality of your diet even more.”
“However, don’t get stuck in the ‘superfood thinking’ that if you add these seeds, the rest of your food does not have to be nutritional,” she adds. “Superfoods will not take the place of eating healthy—they only add to an already healthy diet.”
Detox diets, cleanses and juice fasting
Do these actually clean your body of the dangerous toxins found in junk food? Or do they just help you temporarily shed water weight and cause nutritional deficits?
Cleansing is a diet method where you make and drink a solution of various items like lemon juice, water, teas, different spices and herbs. These cleanses tend to be very low calorie and provide little nutrition but boast an ability to get rid of toxins found within the body.
Juice fasting is where multiple servings of fruits and veggies are blended together and are substituted for meals throughout the day.
Juice fasting and cleanses for some are a way to jump-start weight loss and get out of unhealthy eating habits and behaviors. The repetition and specificity provided through these diets will give those who use them structure and a starting point to making changes.
Neither cleanses nor juice fasts provide all of the nutrients that are recommended on a daily basis. For people who have conditions like diabetes, kidney disease and nutritional deficiencies, fasting and cleanse diets can be quite harmful.
For instance, if you are a diabetic on a cleanse, you are at risk for low blood sugar; if you are anemic, you’re at risk for aggravating the anemia as you are not taking in adequate amounts of nutrients needed to correct the deficiency.
“On another note, juice fasting can be very expensive as the juice requires a lot of fruits and vegetables to make just one serving of the juice,” Sebree said.
She adds, “Another thing to consider is that on a diet with such extreme restriction and little to no solid food you make the desire and cravings worse for more unhealthy choices.”
Finally, there’s the big clincher: Little research exists to prove that either of these diets actually “cleanse” harmful toxins from your body.
Just give it to us straight. Is gluten as bad as people say?
Gluten is the protein found in wheat, as whey is to dairy. Gluten gives dough the ability to stretch and flex.
Gluten-free diets are beneficial for people who have celiac disease, where the body’s immune system attacks the intestines when gluten is consumed. People with celiac disease report a variety of symptoms including gassiness, bloating, vitamin/mineral deficiencies, etc. People with multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune disease may benefit from gluten-free diets as well; however, there is little research to support this claim.
“Generally speaking, a gluten-free diet may help to reduce caloric intake by limiting the amount of starchy or sugary foods consumed. By decreasing calories, you would likely lose weight,” Sebree said.
That said, going gluten-free isn’t the only way to decrease the calories you’re eating throughout the day and, like fasting or cleansing, may make cravings worse.
Ultimately, are these trends the answer to all our health problems? Or is it really as simple as we’ve always heard—that eating healthy and incorporating daily physical activity is all it takes?
Which leads us to the big question:
When people see the health benefits of these lifestyles and items, is it actually about the item or diet itself, or is it a halo effect of just eating less or healthier?
“I think that most people trying to lose weight on any strategy would see only the benefits and maybe not the drawbacks if they were losing weight,” Sebree said. “It is important to note that weight loss does not always equal health.”
To see healthy results, including weight loss, Sebree recommends:
- eating regular meals,
- drinking adequate amounts of fluid,
- exercising frequently and
- increasing your fruit and veggie intake.
“For weight loss itself, we need to look at energy balance. Simply put, you must create a deficit of lower calories in versus calories out to lose weight,” Sebree said.
For sustainable, real-life diets, Sebree recommends low-fat diets, Mediterranean style diets, and Zone or South Beach-type diets. Each of these strategies encourages you to take in fewer calories and a variety of nutrients.