Find out which diet trend is right for you. (Hint: It’s not as black and white as you probably think.)
When it comes to our well-being, there’s almost no other subject swirling with more information—much of it conflicting—than nutrition. And in January, with so many of us resolved to make some dietary improvements, the confusion can be a little deflating.
“We live in a world in which we’re overwhelmed by the latest diet fad or trend—but they don’t all work for everybody, because we’re all so incredibly different,” says registered holistic nutritionist and certified health coach Alyssa Bauman.
“By our very nature, our brains are a little black and white, so it can be easier psychologically to have hard rules than go with the standard dietitian line, which is ‘everything in moderation,’” says registered dietitian Desiree Nielsen, author of Un-Junk Your Diet and the soon-to-be published Eat More Plants (coming August 2019 from Penguin).
“You don’t have to choose one; you can take things that resonate from a number of diets,” says registered holistic nutritionist Keyrsten McEwan. “You can put a plan together that’s right for you.”
Think of the different trends that follow as toolboxes to draw from. Your toolbox may contain all of the tools from one box, or it can be a mashup of tools from different boxes.
Whole food diet versus clean eating
The terms “whole food” and “clean eating” are used widely and sometimes interchangeably, but what exactly do they mean?
Whole foods are “single ingredient foods,” says Nielsen. “It’s quite descriptive. [It means]: Did it grow up like this? An apple is a whole food; apple juice isn’t. The whole food diet is the least faddish because that’s ideally what we should all be eating. The majority of people have problems because they’ve gone toward a hyper-processed diet.”
Examples of whole foods include vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans, lentils, peanuts), whole grains and superseeds (brown rice, oats, barley, millet, buckwheat, quinoa), nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds), eggs, whole dairy products, fish, seafood, and meat.
Clean eating generally includes the foods listed above; however, it doesn’t demand their wholeness and suggests less sugar and reduced fat. Egg whites, juicing, and low-fat dairy are often acceptable.
But, “Separating foods means you’re missing half the nutrients,” says Bauman. “I think an organic egg is one of the best protein sources; we need that yolk.” She also suggests fiber-rich smoothies over juicing.
Paleo versus Whole30
The Paleo diet is thought to mimic the diet of our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors and consists of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils (including coconut, olive, and walnut oils), eggs, fish, and meat, plus the occasional drop of honey. It excludes dairy, grains, and legumes.
The Whole30 diet is a stricter variation of the Paleo diet, excluding honey and minimizing fruit. The Whole30 program rules dictate: “Eat meat, seafood, eggs, tons of vegetables, some fruit, and plenty of good fats from fruits, oils, nuts, and seeds.” It’s intended as a “short-term nutritional reset” that lasts 30 days.
“The Paleo diet has a good foundation because it focuses on fruits, vegetables, lean meat, nuts, and healthy fats, and research shows it’s effective for weight loss,” says Cristina Sutter, a registered dietitian specializing in athletic nutrition. “But it excludes superfoods like beans, lentils, and chickpeas; complex carbohydrates like quinoa, brown rice, and oats—a predominant source of fuel for high-performance athletes—as well as dairy, which can be important for those who digest it well.”
Digestion is a question for every diet. “The Paleo diet seems to be great for people with digestive issues, autoimmune disorders, and food sensitivities like gluten and dairy,” says McEwan.
Vegan versus flexitarian
A flexitarian diet is primarily vegan or vegetarian but very flexible, which means there are no rules—just an emphasis on eating plenty of plants and minimal animal products. It’s for those who generally adhere to a vegan diet but eat the odd egg for brunch or crave a steak every once in a while.
A vegan diet excludes all animal products, such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and even honey.
“I’m 100 percent for a vegan diet—unless you’re a junk food vegan,” says Nielsen. “Don’t be a vegan at all costs. Some diets are only made possible by modern times, because we have the nutritional knowledge to get around things, like vitamin B12. I believe it’s about finding an individual plan that brings health for that person. Vegan may be the answer for someone, while Paleo may be the answer for someone else.”
“Veganism is on the upswing, especially among teenagers,” says Sutter. “There are many valid reasons for people to move away from meat—health, environment, animal welfare.” However, she adds, it’s harder to get certain nutrients (such as vitamin B12), “so if you’re not replacing those nutrients, it won’t be a healthy diet.”
Okay, but what should I eat for my mood?
Whatever your diet, prebiotic and fermented foods are important to support your gut microbiome (the trillions of bacteria that inhabit your gut) and possibly even boost your mood.
Prebiotics are fiber-rich foods that fuel beneficial bacteria in the gut. “Many foods, like fruits and vegetables, act as prebiotics,” says Sutter.
Fermented foods—including sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha—contain natural probiotics: “good” bacteria that can add to our microbiome’s diversity and help it flourish.
How do these foods affect mood? Beneficial bacteria facilitate the digestion of food and absorption of nutrients and help the gut (also called the “second brain”) communicate with the brain—in part by modulating the manufacture of neurotransmitters.
Take, for example, serotonin: a neurotransmitter that mediates mood and regulates appetite and sleep. “Up to 95 percent of serotonin is synthesized in the gut,” says McEwan. GABA, another mood-related neurotransmitter, is secreted by gut microbes.
“Diet has a huge influence on mood,” sums up Bauman, who suggests consuming whole foods and taking supplements with brain boosters, such as omega-3s, vitamin D, and probiotics.