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Vegan or paleo? Gluten-free or whole grain? Whole food or fat-free? What you should eat gets a lot of press. Wanting to eat healthily is a great first step, but when it comes to aligning with a particular eating style, there are many factors to consider.
People are often confused about which dietary approach to choose in order to obtain optimal health and vitality. Each of the approaches below comes with specific health benefits and characteristics that may help you navigate what to put on your plate.
1. Whole Food
The whole food diet is the most basic and simple way of eating. It means eating food in its whole form with minimal processing. In 2011, the Harvard School of Public Health created one formula for a whole food diet: The Healthy Eating Plate, a simple and thorough guide to creating healthy whole-food meals.
With this version of a whole food diet, the following simple guidelines are recommended.
- Fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits.
- Fill one-quarter of your plate with whole grains.
- Fill one-quarter of your plate with proteins (plant or animal).
- Use healthy natural oils in moderation.
- Drink lots of water (avoid sugary drinks).
- Exercise daily.
These guidelines are basic, simple, and healthful. A whole food diet tends to improve your health and vitality as they rid your plate of processed foods, sugars, fast foods, and fried food, getting you back to simple and clean eating. (If you are dealing with specific health issues, you may need to alter the foods within the whole food regimen to address your health more assertively.)
2. Gluten Free
Gluten-free diets are popular. Research shows that approximately 1 percent of the population worldwide has celiac disease (gluten intolerance), and 10 percent of people in the U.S. are gluten sensitive.
Grains containing gluten include:
While you may not be technically gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive (or are undiagnosed), eating less gluten can be beneficial for reasons such as decreasing inflammation, healing leaky gut (increased intestinal permeability), and reducing migraines. But don’t be fooled, eating gluten free does not guarantee good health. Beware of the ingredients in many gluten-free substitutions as they are often processed and high in sugar, GMOs, or preservatives.
The term “traditional diet” was coined by dentist Dr. Weston Price, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: eating the traditional and local foods that are part of one’s culture. In the early 1900s, Dr. Price traveled around the globe, making the world his laboratory. He observed many cultures far and wide–from Eskimos to Swiss and African tribes to Polynesian Sea islanders. His research is based on the dental structure and health of these varying populations and how their traditional diets affected physical degeneration related to nutritional deficiencies.
The traditional diet recommends a whole food-based regimen based on nutrient-dense local foods from plants and animals, with a special focus on nutrient-dense foods such as local cultured butter, local raw milk, farm fresh egg yolks, and bone broth as well as various traditional sourdough breads and organ meats where available.
The traditional diet varies based on where you live in the world (climate and region), and emphasizes eating locally sourced food. Getting your food from local farmers markets or ranches, or growing it yourself results in more nutrient dense and pure food. As we say in the nutrition world: “The secret is in the source.”
The paleo regimen is fairly simple: if the pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors did not eat it, then neither should you. The paleo diet is based on the premise that genetically, you are almost identical to your ancestors. While this premise may not be true, this hunter-gatherer type of eating has many fans.
Paleo eaters avoid:
- Processed sugar
The paleo eating style is based on a diet heavy on:
- Unprocessed meats
While some followers find it meat heavy, studies have found that the paleo diet can have a positive impact on glucose intolerance, weight loss, and cardiovascular health. The paleo diet is an anti-inflammatory, pure, and clean option to check out.
Originally created by the medical community as a supportive diet for children with epilepsy, the ketogenic diet is extremely low in carbs and high in protein and fat. The aim is to force the body into a ketogenic state—burning fat for energy instead of the usual glucose and glucose-rich carbohydrates. This eating style dispels the myth that “fat makes you fat.”
Researchers have discovered that the ketogenic diet has various associated health benefits beyond managing childhood epilepsy. One study showed a significant decrease in the growth of malignant brain tumors by 35 percent to 65 percent. Another study performed with normal-weight men may decrease cardiovascular disease.
And while the ketogenic diet requires more than a little diligence and commitment with limitations on eating many carbohydrates, one study of obese patients showed that the extended use of the ketogenic diet can have a positive impact on weight loss, body mass index, cholesterol levels (raising HDL and lowering LDL), and blood glucose levels, with no observed long-term safety issues.
6. Low FODMAP
With digestive issues on the rise, the low FODMAP (an acronym that stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) diet addresses some common digestive issues and is often recommended because many people have trouble digesting short-chain carbohydrates (tiny carbohydrates containing up to 10 sugars found in foods such as legumes, wheat, and stone fruits, varying in their ease of digestibility).
The result of eating high FODMAP foods can be that these partially digested carbohydrates reach the large intestine and create a fermentation effect. Also, in the gut the “bad bacteria” uses these partially digested carbohydrates for fuel, exacerbating digestive issues, leading to more gas, bloating, and stomach pain. While the low FODMAP diet can feel a bit restrictive and challenging at first, studies show this diet to be a healing option for many who struggle with irritable bowel syndrome.
Some examples of high FODMAP foods are:
- Certain high-fructose fruits (apples, apricots, cherries, watermelon, pears, plums, and figs)
- Certain vegetables (Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Jerusalem artichokes)
You can find a complete list of the low and high FODMAP foods to enjoy and avoid, respectively, here.
Whole30 was created by sports nutritionist Melissa Hartwig and her former husband, physical therapist Dallas Hartwig, in 2009. Their motto: Eat. Real. Food. This 30-day program is a whole-food short-term nutritional reset, governed by a few do’s and don’ts.
Do’s include eating a real food diet rich in:
- Natural fats (those fats found in nature such as avocado, coconut oil, olive oil, fat from nuts and seeds, and grass-fed or wild-animal protein)
Don’ts include avoiding:
- Processed sugars (including artificial sweeteners)
- Sulfites and carrageenan
- Processed foods
While there is no recommended calorie counting or weighing during the program (in fact, it is forbidden), the company claims weight loss is a primary benefit (no independent studies confirm this). Whole30 is considered more of a diet than an eating style with its short-term 30-day focus on structure, support, and regulation.
Author Michael Pollan said it well: “Eat food, mostly plants.” This is the foundation of the plant-based diet. Plant-based is not as strict as it may sound. It includes a wide range of plant-based foods—vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes—and can even include small amounts of animal protein. Often confused with vegan or vegetarian diets, plant-based eating has a foundation of plant-based foods without the strict guidelines.
However, as the Harvard School of Health points out, it’s important to be aware that “All plants are not created equal.” Technically, fruit juice, potato chips, and white bread are plant-based foods but can wreak havoc on your blood sugar and bodily inflammation, while a diet high in leafy greens and whole food-based plants can do wonders for health and vitality. If you choose to eat plant-based, be sure to choose your plant-based foods wisely.
Veganism is known as a diet and lifestyle that excludes (often for ethical and environmental reasons) all forms of animal products, including all dairy, honey, and eggs. When done well, the vegan diet can be sustainable and satiating, and create an array of health benefits, including lowering body weight, lowering blood pressure, and decreasing the rate of cardiovascular disease.
However, not all vegan diets are healthy. Eating vegan requires attentiveness and an understanding that certain nutrients (such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, zinc, iodine, calcium, and iron) are harder to come by in the vegan world. When eating vegan, it is important to stay away from processed, nutrient-weak foods that lack proteins and fats, instead choosing whole-food proteins (in the form of nuts, seeds, and legumes) and naturally fat-rich foods that provide a stronger base for nutrition, while in some cases supplementing with nutrients such as vitamin B12.
This witty marriage of the two words flexible and vegetarian, the flexitarian diet was named the third-best diet of 2018 by U.S. News. The diet was originally described in the book The Flexitarian Diet, by registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner. Flexitarian eating emphasizes a diet high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and plant-based proteins, with occasional animal protein options.
The flexitarian regimen comes with a supportive menu plan, lots of resources on cooking tofu and other plant-based proteins, and many supportive intentions including pleasure, satiety, and convenience. The flexitarian diet is just like it sounds—flexible. Most flexitarians will eat more fruits and vegetables, learn to listen to their bodies for when more animal protein is needed, and enjoy the flexibility of eating out or with friends without the restrictions of a vegan or vegetarian diet. While this approach works well for some, others may prefer a bit more structure. There are many versions of eating flexibly and finding the best one for you is important.
Finding an eating style that works for you can take a little patience, education, and mind-body awareness. In general, when filling your plate with nutrient-dense whole foods, you can be confident that you are getting a high-quality nutritious diet. Many of these eating styles are strong and healthy options that, over time, you can customize to align with your health and wellness needs.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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