When he commented on high-end vegan restaurants to Forbes, Mike Thelin, co-founder of Feast Portland said that, “The new wave of veganism is more about health than animal welfare. For better or worse, this is why it will have more staying power.” But there are other nutrition-based lifestyle changes people are choosing to improve their health. While some may enter into a dietary change hoping to lose weight, others embark on new eating routines to create better, overall health.
Former President Bill Clinton exemplifies this decision. Clinton spoke about his lifestyle changes to AARP The Magazine. “I just decided that I was the high-risk person, and I didn’t want to fool with this anymore. And I wanted to live to be a grandfather,” Clinton said. “So I decided to pick the diet that I thought would maximize my chances of long-term survival.”
Along the way, he lost about 20 pounds and gained energy. But what worked for Clinton may not work for everyone else. As certain diets become popular, they receive more medical attention, and more people become willing to test them out. Some, like being gluten-free, are because of abnormal responses in the body to foods. That doesn’t mean that other people will not feel better from changing their eating habits. Here are five diets that are popular now, including what can and cannot be consumed.
1. Paleo or Caveman Diet
The idea behind this movement is to mimic the foods our ancestors ate. It was founded by Loren Cordain, Ph.D., a professor at Colorado State University. He spoke to Registered Dietitian (RD), Kathleen Zelman in a review of the diet for WebMD. “Clinical trials have shown that the Paleo Diet is the optimum diet that can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, markers of inflammation, help with weight loss, reduce acne, promote optimum health and athletic performance,” Cordain said.
The diet is based in fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, and healthy oils, like olive oil. At the same time, the diet cuts out diary, potatoes, cereal grains, processed foods, refined sugar, salt, refined vegetable oils, and legumes. According to Cordain, the foods that are eliminated are those the body is not readily able to process, and this can cause diseases. But Cordain realizes the limitations of this diet, and says health benefits can occur if you follow it 80 percent of the time. Attempting the diet for two weeks is a good place to start.
A spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association told WebMD a Paleo diet has many positives, ”but the limitations make it another diet that people go on but can’t sustain for a number of reasons, including a lack of variety, [cost], and potential nutrient inadequacies.”
MedicineNet published an in-depth look at going gluten-free. As it explains, there may be reasons other than Celiac Disease that lead an individual to a gluten-free lifestyle. Other medical ailments include: non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten ataxia, wheat allergy, irritable bowel syndrome, and dermatitis herpetiformis.
Avoiding gluten can be particularly difficult because it acts as a binding agent, and as an extender. It can be found in pharmaceuticals, meats, desserts, and sauces. To follow a gluten-free lifestyle means carefully reading labels to ensure in some form, gluten is not among the ingredients. It does not mean giving up all grains, the Mayo Clinic points out. Provided the grain hasn’t been cross-contaminated, people who have given up gluten can still eat grains such as amaranth, cornmeal, and quinoa.
Dr. Daniel Leffler is an an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. He told the Harvard Health Newsletter that, “It’s a popular diet of the moment, but it really does seem to provide some improvement in gastrointestinal problems for a segment of the population.” It is not necessarily a weight-loss solution, Dr. Will Clower, a neuroscientist, told CBS affiliate KDKA. “Don’t look at it as a magic bullet for weight loss because it’s just not,” Clower said. The weight loss experienced by people who do not need to follow a gluten-free diet is probably largely due to swapping donuts and cookies for more fruits and vegetables.
In comparison to newer diets, vegetarianism may seem a little old-hat when exploring different dietary options. MedLine Plus, a service of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that vegetarian diets reduce chances of obesity and heart disease; it also lowers blood pressure. MedLine Plus warns that vegetarians are at risk of not consuming enough vitamin D, iron, vitamin B12, and protein, but if people are aware of the potential problem, they can plan accordingly.
There are also levels of vegetarianism. A Lacto-vegetarian consumes plant, and some animal products; lacto-ovovegetarian build off lacto-vegetarians and add eggs to their diets; pescatarians will eat fish in addition to the previously mentioned foods; and semi-vegetarians, or flexitarians add chicken and fish, but still abstain from red meat.
A newsletter by the National Institute of Health in July 2012 said that over time, researchers have been coming to the conclusion that more vegetarian aspects included in a person’s diet, the less likely they are to be at risk for high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes. “The trend is almost like a stepladder, with the lowest risks for the strict vegetarians, then moving up for the lacto vegetarians and then the pescatarians and then the non-vegetarians,” Cardiologist Dr. Gary Fraser said in the newsletter.
Vegan diets go a step beyond the lacto-vegetarian and eliminate animal products such as dairy, honey, and eggs. The Vegetarian Resource Group says that vegan diets are low in saturated fat and cholesterol-free. Following the diet means being conscious of possible deficiencies in iron, zinc, and calcium, and other nutrients. However, once aware, other foods can compensate for the loss.
Two doctors debated the merits of a vegan diet in the Wall Street Journal in 2012. Professor emeritus of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, Dr. T. Colin Campbell was pro-vegan. He cited studies that say those following a vegan diet noted that their arthritic, migraine, cardiac pain had subsided. ”One of the biggest fallacies my opponent presents is that a diet including meat and dairy products is the most efficient way of giving the body the nutrients it needs with a healthy level of calories,” Campbell wrote, adding that plant-based foods were very capable of providing the proper nutrients.
His “opponent,” Dr. Nancy Rodriguez, a professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Connecticut, said that certain health benefits are not simply attributed to a vegan lifestyle. “There is scientific evidence that low-fat or fat-free dairy and lean meat, as part of a balanced diet, produce specific health benefits such as reducing blood pressure.” She also cited that governments and health organizations around the world promote dairy as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Marek Doyle, a nutritional therapist, believes that going grain-free can help improve skin, digestion, and result in weight loss. In general, the non-gluten grains are also excluded on this diet. Like the Paleo diet, the premise is that humans did not eat grain-based foods until after the agricultural revolution, and our bodies are not capable of properly digesting them. Neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter sees going grain-free as producing long-sought improvements for a variety of medical ailments, such as Crohn’s Disease.
Just as with going gluten-free when it is not medically needed, going grain-free can miss out on certain health benefits. If the desire is to lose weight, there are also studies that show weight loss is tied to eating whole grains.