As a nutritionist, I’m excited that nutrition has become something so many are interested in—it means more people are tuning into their bodies and their choices to improve their health and wellbeing and that’s a great thing! The downside to all this enthusiasm has been the creation of “food confusion”. With the latest information (and sometimes misinformation) at our fingertips, along with so many dietary theories out there, it’s easy to understand why people are confused. If you find yourself asking—what’s best for me; what’s healthy, what’s not; what’s a fad and what’s balanced—then keep reading. This article aims to give you the nuts and bolts of some of the most popular diets, their pros and cons, as well as my clinical insights to help you make informed choices on what’s best for you.
Often called the “diet of cavemen” or the “hunter gatherer”, the Paleo Diet is focused on whole, unprocessed foods including quality protein (grass-fed meat, free-range/organic poultry and wild-caught fish), leafy greens, fresh veggies, nuts and seeds, healthy oils and occasional consumption of fruits. It eliminates grains, potatoes (but allows small amounts of sweet potatoes), legumes, pulses, dairy, refined products and sugars.
- Eliminating refined carbohydrates and sugars can aid in weight loss and control blood sugar fluctuations.
- Focusing on whole foods provides more nutrients for the body and gets you cooking!
- The principle is based on using the best quality foods possible.
- Easily misinterpreted (did cavemen really eat bacon?!) and can lead to overconsumption of fats and proteins that can have negative impacts on health.
- May lead to under-consumption of fibre and calcium that can increase the risk for certain health conditions.
- Can strain the pocket book when shopping (but you need to balance that with the cost of poor food choices to long-term health!).
Used for: Weight loss, general health and wellbeing, sports performance, condition management.
Poor choice for: Those with kidney disease, iron overload conditions, gout and some digestive disorders.
MY TAKE: While I’m not a fan of the complete elimination of any “whole food” group (grains, legumes, etc.), when the diet is done properly, many of the Paleo Diet principles are sound and appear to have positive benefits to health.
LCHF (Low Carb, High Fat–Ketogenic) Diet
Often confused with Paleo but actually differs on several fronts. There are several versions of LCHF, but the classic Ketogenic Diet reviewed here is focused on drastic reduction of carbohydrate intakes, replacing them with fats to lower insulin and blood sugar levels and shift the body into fat burning mode and limits protein intakes (75% fat: 20% Protein: 5% Carbs). The diet encourages full-fat dairy/butter, fatty cuts of meat/skins, oils, and restricts all fruit, root veggies/starchy vegetables, grains/cereals and other carbohydrate sources.
- Can be effective for short-term weight loss, lowering blood glucose levels and reducing the body’s insulin requirements.
- Can lead to overconsumption of inflammatory fats and dangerous levels of ketone production causing blood acidity.
- May lead to nutrient deficiencies longer-term.
- May lead to constipation in some individuals.
Used for: Weight loss, Epilepsy.
Poor choice for: Those suffering from pancreatic and gallbladder disease, malnutrition and some digestive disorders.
MY TAKE: I feel this diet is far too restrictive for most and potentially dangerous in some conditions. The research around excessive fat intakes and the effects on health are ongoing and I really think as a weight-loss diet, the benefits don’t outweigh its restrictiveness. Followers should incorporate quality fats like avocado, Omega 3-rich fish, nuts and seeds and olive oil rather than reaching for fatty cuts of meats. I have used a modified version clinically to aid in epilepsy control with some success. Should be monitored by a health professional.
Raw Food Diet
This diet is based on eating foods that have not been heated above 40°C (104°F) with the rationale being cooking destroys nutrients and raw foods promote healing, slow aging and reduce the risks of disease. It focuses on raw fresh fruit and veggies (except tubers which have to be cooked), sprouted grains/legumes, nuts and seeds, nut milks and butters, fermented foods (sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchee, etc), cold-pressed oils and may include raw fish (think ceviche and sashimi) and meat (think tartare and carpaccio).
- You’ll definitely get your recommended serves of veggies and fruits on this diet!
- Increased intakes of nutrients like fibre and vitamins that are sensitive to cooking such as Vitamin C and folate.
- The diet can promote weight loss as the foods tend to be naturally lower in calories.
- Some antioxidants are more available through cooking (for instance, lycopene in tomatoes and beta-carotene in carrots)
- Increased risk of nutrient deficiencies (Vitamin D, calcium, iron, Omega 3 fatty acids and Vitamin B12)
- Greater risk of food-borne illness as cooking kills many bacteria; restrictive and inconvenient long-term.
- Raw foods may irritate the digestive tract in some people.
Used for: Weight loss, general health and wellbeing, anti-aging, disease prevention/management.
Poor choice for: Those at risk of deficiency such as elderly and children, immunocompromised individuals, those suffering some digestive disorders.
MY TAKE: I’m a big fan of incorporating raw foods into the daily diet (I’m known as the Salad Queen) but not to the exclusion of all cooked foods. If embarking on a raw food journey, it’s imperative those with existing health conditions do so under the guidance of a qualified health practitioner. It’s also important to monitor for nutrient deficiencies and ensure proper supplementation if needed. I feel that highly restrictive diets can increase social anxiety and take some of the joy away from food.
The Vegan diet is a variation of the vegetarian diet but only contains plant-based foods (fruit, veggies, breads, cereals, grains, legumes/pulses, nuts and seeds as well as soy-based products such as tempeh and tofu)—with no animal-derived foods (eggs, dairy, honey, etc) eaten. While a vegan diet may be followed for a particular health concern, veganism is often more of a lifestyle and philosophical choice, rather than a “diet” with many people adopting it diet for environmental concerns, animal rights or religious reasons, where the diet becomes part of a holistic lifestyle change.
- Increased intakes of protective nutrients such as fibre, Vitamin C, carotenoids and flavonoids.
- The diet can promote weight loss as the foods tend to be naturally lower in calories.
- Some studies have shown lowered risk factors for obesity, elevated blood pressure and cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, some forms of cancer, type 2 diabetes and other inflammation-related conditions in those following vegan (and vegetarian diets).
- Increased risk of nutrient deficiencies (Vitamin D, calcium, iron, Omega 3 fatty acids, zinc and Vitamin B12) due to inadequate intakes or impaired absorption.
- Higher risk for bone fractures and osteoporosis due to inadequate protein and calcium intakes.
- Can be socially isolating for some.
- Difficult to maintain well.
- May interfere with certain pre-existing medical conditions and their medications (osteoporosis, diabetes).
Used for: Ethical and religious reasons, general health and wellbeing, anti-aging, disease prevention/management.
Poor choice for: Those at risk of deficiencies.
MY TAKE: I think that veganism is one of the more difficult “diets” to do well for the long term. I have seen many former vegans in clinic who suffered nutrient deficiencies due to lack of education, poor food choices and lack of appropriate supplementation within 2-5 years. I think when the diet is structured well and nutritional status monitored regularly, it can form the basis for a healthy lifestyle.
Each of these diets have merit when applied properly and tailored to your individual needs. For most of my clients, I find a balanced approach that shifts toward more whole foods in place of processed and convenience foods and less added sugar yields the best results, improving their mental and physical health and still maintaining the joy and sense of community that food provides.
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