The USDA recommends a balanced diet that incorporates what they deem as healthy portions of proteins, carbohydrates, sodium and fats. Many dieters prefer plans that pre-package "grab-n-go" meals and snacks with the plans' formulas for nutrition built into the regimen. While nearly everyone agrees that too much refined sugar is not healthy, some diets limit and increase food groups for health or weight loss reasons.
Dr. Robert Atkins began the low/no carb craze after testing a theory on himself that he'd seen in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1958. His personal success with weight loss from this led to his first book, Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution in 1972. Since then millions of people have lost weight by eating more meat and less sugar and grain. In fact, 10 years ago, when the diet's popularity was at its peak, nearly 10 percent of all North Americans were on it.
The premise of the diet is biological. The body uses food for fuel - all food, not just carbohydrates. If the body has enough fuel, the food will be processed for storage as fat. Carbohydrates are relatively easy to break down, so the body addresses them first. Stated very simply, if the body needs fuel and carbohydrates are not available, the next response is to utilize stored fat. Protein is more complex to break down, so the body uses more energy/fuel to digest protein. This conversion of fat to fuel is called ketosis.
Starchy vegetables, refined sugar and enriched bread are eliminated or discouraged from the Paleo, Atkins and Mediterranean diets, though the Mediterranean plan does allow a wider range of vegetables. It also allows whole grain breads and pasta.
This meal, Chicken and Broccoli Alfredo, is one of the Atkins Diet’s frozen entrees. The emphasis is on high protein, low carbs and at least 8 glasses of water a day. This meal has one gram of sugar and 26 grams of protein.
Animal protein (meat) is the foundation of the Paleolithic (Paleo) diet. Fresh organic or wild-caught foods that might have been hunted or gathered by distant ancestors are what the diet allows.
During the first two weeks, called "induction," Atkins' allows around 20 net grams of carbohydrates (minus fiber carbs) per day and recommends those carbs being green, leafy vegetables or a combination of non-starch vegetables rather than anything with sugar or starch. Dieters must drink at least eight glasses of water per day. They are allowed 4 to 6 ounces per meal of protein (meats, poultry, shellfish, fish and eggs) and 4 ounces of hard or semi-soft cheese in addition to salad and low-carb vegetables, butter and vegetable oils.
The following phases, "ongoing weight loss," "pre-maintenance" and "lifetime maintenance" are spent adding small increments of carbs back into the diet to find the tipping point between weight maintenance and gain. The plan introduces them in the following order: non-starchy vegetables, cheese, nuts and seeds, berries, alcohol, legumes, fruits, starchy vegetables and finally whole grains.
The latest version of the diet, The New Aktins for the New You, has adjusted some of the program's tenets from the early days to reflect later research and trends. For instance the company now promotes fresh, nutrient-rich foods and lean, grass-fed meat. They have also developed their own line of frozen and packaged foods labeled with the appropriate diet phases.
The Paleolithic (or Paleo) diet is also considered a "high protein/low carbohydrate" diet. Its basis is pretty much what it sounds like: harkening back to the hunter-gatherer diets of the pre-agriculture and pre-industrialized world. Those who follow the Paleo plan generally eat only grass-fed meat and eggs, wild game, wild caught fish and organic fruits, vegetables and nuts. They eat nothing that has been raised on manufactured feed or hormones and antibiotics.
As Rachel Goodman, owner of CrossFit at the Ohio Valley Mall and Paleo devotee, explains, there are also different levels of Paleo. Some people follow the basic, specific plan, and others add raw milk dairy or some whole grains to their plans.
"It's not a black and white diet," she says. "It's adaptable. The calorie concern here is the quality not cutting them back. It's a return to whole fat food, and it's restorative."
The gist of it is, in fact, restoring the body's responses to those of caveman days - instinctive nourishment and efficient fuel. The theory is that processed foods, too much sugar (even in fruit) and refined sugar trigger other responses like inflammation, leaky gut, arthritis, heart disease and cancer when the body can't utilize or process chemicals and altered ingredients. Eating foods that are as fresh and pure as possible will optimize the body's natural functions and eliminate modern maladies. Goodman says that eating Paleo "resets the hormones" that sugar has knocked out of whack.
Most Paleo dieters consume 55 to 65 percent of their food as animal foods and 45 to 35 percent plant foods. They avoid potatoes and other starchy or high-glycemic items and drink water or tea. They eliminate refined sugar and eat little fruit. Proponents also recommend physical activity since cavemen were not sedentary. Goodman says sleep and stress relief are also part of the program because of their effects on the body.
"Scientists are finding connections now between gut health and mental health," she adds. "When you eat appropriately, your mind is able to function better. The diet isn't cookie cutter like some diets. You explore what you can do to make your life healthier."
While these diets emphasize proteins, the Mediterranean Diet, what the Mayo Clinic calls "a heart-healthy eating plan," practically inverts the Atkins and Paleo food pyramids by serving up whole grains, beans, legumes, vegetables, fruits and nuts at every meal and for snacks as well.
Numerous studies have shown that Mediterranean cultures suffer less from heart disease and high blood pressure. Doctors have attributed much of this to diets low in animal protein and high in fiber and plant nutrients. As with Weight Watchers, Paleo and Atkins, the current trend is to use fresh vegetables and fruits to make the most of those nutrients, though frozen would be the second option. The body is able to process fresh, real foods more efficiently without added preservatives often found in canned goods. Fresh fruits and vegetables also have more flavor, so they are more satisfying to the taste buds, too.
For maximum benefit, the Mediterranean Diet recommends whole grain breads, pasta and cereals. Enriched flours (see the package ingredients list) have been stripped of much of their nutritional value in processing, and refined sugars like high fructose corn syrup are even worse for the body.
While the Paleo diet gives the okay for some nuts and seeds, the Mediterranean promotes them as another good source of fiber and protein. Natural peanut butter is okay, too. They, however, are also a source of fat - albeit "healthy" fat - and are usually high in calories.
Other healthy fats allowed on the Mediterranean Diet include olive or canola oils. Look for cold pressed oils and extra virgin olive oil. Be aware that much of the canola oil available includes genetically modified ingredients. On this diet moderate amounts of low-fat dairy products like skim milk and yogurt are allowed.
The Mediterranean diet promotes fish high in Omega-3s like grilled, baked or broiled salmon, mackerel and sardines and recommends eating fish twice a week. Deep frying, though, defeats the purpose of eating heart-healthy. Poultry is also okay on this diet, and, they say, should replace red meat most of the time. Once again, grass-fed, free range will offer the most benefits to the body.
Red meat, a pillar of the Paleo and Atkins diets, should be limited at best on the Mediterranean. Small portions (half of an 8 oz. steak) of lean meat are okay if eaten less than five or six times per month. Processed meats like bacon and sausage should be avoided entirely because of their high sodium and fat contents.
One of the most talked-about components of the Mediterranean diet is the allowance of one optional glass of red wine per day on the plan. Antioxidants and a substance called resveratrol have been found to protect blood vessels, reduce "bad" cholesterol and blood clotting.
While US News & World Report, which rates world diets annually, gave the Mediterranean Diet good scores for health and longevity (the ability to continue it), it did note that the diet could become expensive because of the fish, seafood and fresh produce recommended. Part of the European culture is also shopping at their local farmers markets on a daily basis rather than making a weekly trip to the grocery store, which insures fresh ingredients.
Critics of the Paleo plan say that the program may be good in theory, but true Paleo dieters are tasked with finding grass-fed or wild game and fish plus organic vegetables and raw dairy products, boosting costs and limiting choices. Most grocery stores offer only meats raised on factory farms, usually with added hormones or fed a manufactured or GMO diet. It is illegal to sell raw dairy in most of the United States. This and health concerns about the dependence on animal proteins garnered the Paleo diet one of the lowest ratings in the US News review. A clinical trial of patients with glucose intolerance and heart disease, did, however, find that the Paleo diet increased glucose tolerance more effectively than the Mediterranean plan.
Researchers have also noted that regular exercise is part of all of these plans, and dieters need to be mindful of daily calories. While Atkins dieters lose weight quickly in the first two to three weeks, doctors say much of it is water weight stored with fat cells (a ratio of three water cells to one fat cell.) Weight loss is slower with the Paleo and Mediterranean diets, but, as Goodman points out, these programs are more "lifestyle" programs than weight loss diets, promoting natural foods and overall body health.
For those eating the Standard American Diet (SAD), getting 70 percent of their energy from refined and processed dairy, cereals, sugars and vegetable oils, any efforts toward consuming fresher, more natural foods will be beneficial to their health.
The next installment will discuss the various types of vegetarian diets, the foods available and health effects.
Valenti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.