Our diets are constantly falling victim to the same arbitrary whims as other parts of American culture: the inescapable phenomena of fads. Yet, deciding to wear skinny jeans probably won’t have any long-term affects on your health. The way we eat, on the other hand, is essentially the way we fuel every aspect of our lives, so it’s important to get it right!
This begs the question: what is the best diet? This Thursday we look at the most popular diets out there today and our Medical Director, Dr. Murdoc Khaleghi, weighs in on the pros and cons of each.
The Zone Diet follows a formula of 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 30% fats, to be followed at every meal. Some consider this to be the “perfect diet.”
Murdoc’s take: The Zone does a good job of increasing protein intake, which contributes less to fat storage and more to tissues and muscles. It also decreases the relative portion of carbs and fats in meals, which contribute more to fat storage and are the more typical sources of excess calories. The ratios are recommended for each meal to avoid the insulin spike of an excess carb meal that can promote fat storage, as well as excess fat intake that also gets stored as fat. However, its restrictiveness can lead to decreased compliance.
The South Beach Diet was originally developed for overweight heart patients. Studies found that the diet, however, improved weight loss in addition to overall health.
Murdoc’s Take: The South Beach Diet increases intake of healthier forms of carbs and fat, replacing insulin-spiking processed carbs with low-glycemic complex carbs. It exchanges artery-clogging bad cholesterol (LDL) with artery-clearing good (HDL) cholesterol by promoting unsaturated fat. While this overall goal is good, its initial restrictiveness can lead to decreased compliance, especially because the sudden switch to much lower carbs (both in amount and glycemic index) can be difficult for some to tolerate.
While many people have been able to control weight by taking on a low-fat diet, more and more research suggests caution.
Murdoc’s Take: Out of the macronutrients, fat is most easily and directly stored as fat in our bodies or in our blood vessels. This knowledge leads many to believe that eating low-fat is the answer to weight gain problems. The fact that a gram of fat has more than double the calories of a gram of carbohydrates or protein only lends more to this argument. Finally, when people have a lot of fat in their diet, much of that fat tends to be less healthy saturated or trans-fat. The weakness of the diet is it does not discriminate between healthy and unhealthy fats, just the reduction of all fats. So, in theory, one could become deficient in good fats. In addition, this diet does not take into account the insulin-spiking, fat/LDL-producing potential of simple or excess carbohydrates.
In sharp contrast to the low-fat diet, Atkins proposes that eliminating carbs is the secret to weight loss.
Murdoc’s Take: Atkins basically tries to eliminate its primary source of energy (carbohydrates) to put the body into a state of “starvation” and shift its energy source to stored fat. The Atkins diet can lead to significantly fewer calories consumed overall, especially among those who normally eat excess carbohydrates. In addition, by metabolizing fat directly you start getting rid of fat quicker than most other methods. While people tend to lose a lot of weight quickly through Atkins, many health practitioners are concerned that the body was never intended to be in this “starvation” state for an extended period of time. Such a state increases the body’s acidity which can be harmful to the kidneys or other organs.
Vegetarians eliminate meat, fish, and poultry from their diets. A vegan excludes all animal products, including eggs, dairy, beeswax, and honey.
Murdoc’s Take: These diets tend to be motivated by philosophy more than health goals, but they are considered to have benefits. Most saturated fats come from animal by-products, so avoiding these can cause a natural decrease in bad cholesterol. Some also believe that we were not meant to consume dairy products from other animals or past a certain age (because our dairy digestive enzymes decrease) and that such consumption can cause certain allergies and/or worsen overall health. In general, it is recognized that vegetarians and vegans tend to have lower incidences of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and a longer lifespan. However, there are also many incidences where they suffer from nutritional deficiencies such as iron and B12, nutrients usually found in animal products. If one were to follow this diet they should take certain supplements.
Raw foodists consume plant foods in their most natural state – uncooked and unprocessed – and believe this practice is the most wholesome for the body. The diet is typically made up of 75% fruits and vegetables.
Murdoc’s Take: The main advocates of this diet believe that we should eat food in the purest form that nature has provided for us with absolutely no level of processing. Not only is there the notion that this is how our bodies evolved to eat, but also that by cooking food you inactivate many of the nutrients. Since there are only so many foods one can tolerate raw, this diet often forces you to make lower-fat, healthy fat, and complex carb choices. Technically, though, the diet does not make these fat and carb discriminations. Combined with its obvious restrictions, it has its weaknesses.
The DASH diet was created around the theory that nutrients like potassium, calcium, protein, and fiber are crucial to fending off or fighting high blood pressure. It emphasizes whole foods such as fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy.
Murdoc’s Take: The DASH diet is focused on reducing the biggest “silent” killer, high blood pressure, but the nature of it has many other benefits as well. It emphasizes moderate amounts of complex carbs, healthy fats, lean protein, and nutrients, which also improve cholesterol, blood sugar levels, etc. This diet probably has the most researched evidence and is not overly restrictive, which is why it consistently receives top ratings on many measures of success of certain dietary lifestyles.
The paleolithic diet is one of the newer kids on the block. Modeled after how our paleolithic ancestors were thought eat, the diet focuses on fish, grass-fed pasture raised meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots, and nuts, and excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, potatoes, refined salt, refined sugar, and processed oils.
Murdoc’s Take: The idea is that genetically we evolved to thrive on certain foods that were the primary source of the human diet prior to mass industrial farming and other changes to our food supply. The theory is reasonable and plenty of evidence supports the correlation between human genetics and food. An example is the frequency of gluten and lactose problems among certain ethnicities that didn’t have as much as that food for most of history.
Critics argue that we only evolve to increase reproductive lifespan, and many of the diseases Paleo activists claim the diet fights (metabolic and cardiovascular, for example) mostly affect how long we live after we are no longer able to reproduce. In addition, the notion of eating higher amounts of certain meat and fat contradicts some scientific evidence of what diseases these foods can contribute to.
People in the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea live longer and suffer less than most Americans from cancer and cardiovascular ailments. Looking at the diets prevalent in these areas, we see low levels of red meat, sugar, and saturated fats, and high levels of produce and healthy fats like nuts and olive oil.
Murdoc’s Take: This is similar to the DASH diet, without the discrete focus on blood pressure. Similar to how many diets emphasize eating how we have evolved to eat, most ancient societies were near the sea and it was only as our transportation methods became more advanced did we move inland. It is also recognized that many of these current sea-bordering societies have long lifespans and less disease. The diet tries to capture all aspects of their lifestyle, including more unsaturated oils, fish, being active etc.
The traditional American diet usually consists of a lot of “convenience foods”; i.e. red meat, lots of white sugar, highly processed foods, fast food, vending machine snacks, frozen meals, and a small amount of produce.
Murdoc’s Take: Pretty much everyone agrees this is the unhealthiest diet out there. It’s full of saturated fats, simple carbs, and processing. It has been consistently shown to increase disease and shorten lifespans.
The Verdict – So What’s Best?
Each of these diets has its pros and cons. Even if a stringent study were to name an official champion, it still might not be the best diet for you. As much as we are alike, each individual is unique and will respond to certain foods in different ways. The DASH diet, for example, may make the most people healthy but it doesn’t mean much if it causes you in particular to have higher levels of inflammation, cholesterol, and blood sugar due to incompatibility.
Thankfully WellnessFX allows members to track several biomarkers and consult with a trained health professional to determine what is the best diet for their lifestyle, genetics, and priorities. So what’s the best diet? You have the power to find out. We’re excited to help you along the way.
The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.