What should you eat to improve poor health? Or, simply, what should you eat to stay healthy? There are so many different diets out there at the moment, I thought it would be a good exercise to compare some of the most current eating regimes.
Paleo is definitely the diet of the moment! Loads of cookbooks and paleo restaurants are popping up, however it has actually been gathering momentum since the 90s (as a healthier cousin to the Atkins diet). Loren Cordain put Paleo on the map back then and is subsequently considered its official founder (You can find lots of information about this diet on his website – thepaleodiet.com).
So, what is Paleo about? Basically it’s eating what our caveman ancestors ate and eschewing foods which have ‘evolved’ since the agricultural revolution. The belief is that our digestions – and nutrient requirements – haven’t changed all that much since those caveman days. Hence Paleo is based on meat (including bone broths and organ meat), fish, vegetables, fruit and nuts. No dairy, no legumes (pulses) and no grains. And, like all the eating regimes I’ll be mentioning, no processed foods (the fact that there is no healthy diet plan to support processed foods says it all).
Paleo proponents say this way of eating is more satiating and a good blood sugar balancer, providing sustained energy and well being.
There are research papers which support Paleo, showing that for many people it improves a.o. their healthy gut bacteria ratio. Considering 70%-80% of our immune system is in our gut it’s understandable why this is certainly one reason Paleo is suggested for some immune challenged health conditions.
However there are also numerous papers which criticize this diet. One obvious reason is the saturated animal fat content which has always been considered pro-inflammatory (just think of arteries and cardio vascular disease). Another criticism is the lack of fibre in the form of grains and pulses.
So, Paleo and Vegetarian? Never the twain shall meet…or is there a way?
What is a Vegetarian Diet exactly? Does it have some ‘paleo’, ie. eggs or cheese… or no animal products at all?
I see many vegetarians in clinic who eat less vegetables than a paleo diet follower. Cheesy pizzas or strange processed non-meat meals often figure in their vegetarian food plan. Not healthy, in fact processed anything is not going to be a healthy option for meals.
If you’re thinking about Going Veggie, consider the following. Ideally a Vegetarian Diet is high in the one food that is in its very name: vegetables. Also fruits, nuts, seeds, pulses.
And certainly if you’re a lacto-ovo vegetarian, then it includes dairy and eggs. If you want no animal products in your meals, then you are eating Vegan, and if you’re new to a Vegan Diet, you may want to have some guided advice as to where to obtain your macro and micro nutrients, as some will be compromised (notably B12 and iron…also low protein in general).
The Low FODMAPS diet, created in 2005 at Monash uni, Australia, is less well known perhaps to the public, however it is an important one in the world of nutrition.
FODMAPS is the acronym for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols – yes, it’s a mouthful of words. What’s being talked about here are the different types of carbohydrates which are hard to digest and become fermented by gut bacteria, causing problems such as bloating, flatulence, pain and so on.
Little wonder this is an eating regime which often works for those suffering IBS-type or IBD symptoms. This diet however is restrictive, and it’s not meant to be a ‘forever’ eating plan. It’s based on excluding high FODMAPs foods for a set period, say, 2-6 weeks, and then reintroducing them one by one in order to ascertain which one(s) may be the culprit.
The claim is, if you lower your FODMAPs, you’ll lower digestive problems, and yes, this works a lot of the time. However, keep in mind that this is indeed a restrictive diet, with some great vegetables, fruit, pulses and grains being excluded due to their high FODMAPS. For that reason, this diet, like the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), is best done under the guidance of a nutritional therapist.
DASH is another acronym diet. Similar to the Mediterranean Diet, it is the eating plan or regime which won the 2014 best diets award on U.S. Health news.
DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, and is based on high vegetable and fruit intake, lean poultry and fish, whole grains, and low-to-no artery-clogging red meats and sugars. A healthy middle-of-the-road way of eating which would benefit many (apologies but can’t resist all the dashes!)
Acid and alkaline are words which crop up in the nutritional world. The Acid Alkaline Diet resembles a Vegetarian Diet in that it supports alkaline-forming foods such as vegetables, fruits, sprouted grains, pulses, nuts and soy products.
Red meat, which is acid-forming, is a no-go (as are the obvious acid-forming fizzy drinks, for that matter! However these would be off any of the mentioned healthy diet options by dint of their high sugar/sweetener/additive/colouring content).
The theory regarding pH levels, is that having a more alkaline diet will lower overall body inflammation and increase longevity. pH is the measure of acids and alkalines in the body (the range is between 0 and 14), with acid-forming foods being linked to increased potential for inflammation and disease.
The acidic range is 0-7 (eg. vinegar is 2), and alkaline falls between 7 and 14. Since all protein foods are acid-forming (to a greater and lesser extent, with red meat being a high acid-forming food), but very necessary to good health, this diet is based on 60%-80% alkaline, with the remaining 20%-40% being ‘acid’. In this way, the Acid/Alkaline diet is more do-able.
The Raw Food diet is self-explanatory. Raw foodism has its roots in the late 1800s when Maximilian Bircher-Benner discovered the benefits of raw apples for curing jaundice.
The reasoning behind Going Raw continues in this vein, namely that the nutrient levels in uncooked food will be higher and will provide more anti oxidants, more minerals and vitamins to achieve better health.
Raw food is not processed, microwaved, irradiated or genetically engineered. Also it’s not exposed to herbicides or pesticides (which may be the hardest part of it these days).
Typically, about 80% is plant-based – and never heated above 46 degrees C – with some raw foodies eating raw animal products like unpasteurized milk or cheese made from it, or raw fish (eg. sashimi). The latter comes with its own set of potential problems as raw meats/fish can contain toxins. Grains and raw dried organic legumes are also accepted plus cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil and raw coconut oil…
As healthy as it may be for some, going raw does not suit a lot of digestive systems (and for that reason, juicing could be an option if you wanted to increase the amount of ‘raw’ in your life).
Going raw is also not the easiest food plan to follow – think about eating out or at friends’. It can be very limiting although admittedly there is currently a huge raw food movement, with fun equipment and ‘accessories’ on the market – like spirilators and dehydrators – which are enabling the range of interesting foods to expand.
This very equipment, however, can be costly plus the processes time-consuming, so for these reasons as well, it will not suit everyone.
The Mediterranean Diet has been a popular way of eating for many years. It resembles the DASH and Mayo Clinic Diet and is based on low red meat, low sugar and low saturated fats. There isn’t really just one Med Diet since Italians eat differently to the French or Greeks or Spaniards. However there are some common denominators in that the Med Diet focuses on vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, nuts, olive oil, cheese, fish… and occasional red meat and wine with meals. All quite broad, and hence a very do-able diet. Certainly a good starting point for those who have never changed dietary patterns but wish to make a healthy and easy start.
So, after this little tour around some so-called healthy diets, do you have an answer to your digestive issues (IF you have issues?!)
If not, perhaps before you even think about which diet may help improve how you feel, you should first ensure that your digestive system is in good working order. No amount of ‘healthy’ eating will work if there’s an unresolved digestive infection or an allergy or intolerance which is preventing proper digestion, absorption and regular elimination.
If this is ringing true in your mind then consider talking to a nutritional therapist like myself, or speak to your doctor for guidance.
There are so many other diets out there to share with you, from the Macrobiotic diet to the Glycaemic-index diet to the Gluten-free…and more.
The bottom line is there is no right or wrong diet.
There will be a way of eating which will suit you and your health picture. Possibly a mixture of some of the above.
In the end, it’s about finding the nutritious foods which you enjoy and which don’t cause discomfort. Foods which will help you feel well and thrive.