Fad Diets and You
Open up your Instagram account, and it’s not uncommon to see someone posting the amazing donuts they just had (*cough cough, me). But it’s okay because it fit my macros. Well what about the person eating grass-fed butter, avocados, nuts, and claims that keto is the best way to go because excess sugar consumption can lead to obesity and diabetes? How about someone eating only what our ancestors did, no processed foods, grains, or dairy. Surely paleo is the best right? There is a constant barrage of information regarding diet. So who is right and how do we choose which diet is best!?
First let’s talk about the human body. The human body is not a machine. It’s a very complex system with complex systems working within complex systems. Catch my drift? Hormone release, cell signaling, cellular respiration, metabolic flexibility, gene expression, your gut microbiome, there are countless of factors and processes going on every millisecond at all times. What works for someone might not work for you, and there most definitely isn’t one best way to diet. Here I’ll break down some of today’s most popular and trending diets, their pros and cons, and help you determine whether or not they’re right for you.
If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM)
Now if you know me personally, you know I have a sweet tooth. It’s not uncommon to find me at the local froyo place on any given night of the week. Heck I’ll even eat a whole pizza on occasion. But the key here, is that these meals are more or less programmed into my diet. Thank you flexible dieting. Just because one food might be very calorie dense, i.e. a pizza, doesn’t mean that if you eat one it’ll necessarily screw up your diet. By calculating the macronutrients of the pizza, and your daily required macronutrient intake (calculate your BMR first, you can do so here https://www.iifym.com/bmr-calculator/ ) you can breakdown what each of your meals will consist of. This is where iifym really shines, with careful planning, it allows the incorporation of any type of foods into your diet, on any given day.
Example: Say you calculated your daily caloric need, and it was 2000 calories. Fats have 9 calories/gram, Protein has 4 calories/gram, and Carbohydrates have 4 calories/gram. Knowing that, you would simply find a combination of macros (that works best for your goals) that equated to 2000 calories. Then you can find a combination of foods that fall within that range. That allows you to not exceed your caloric intake for the day. This is more or less the basis for IIFYM (if it fits your macros).
Sample Macronutrient Breakdown:
100 grams of protein (400 kcals), 300 grams of carbohydrates (1200 kcals), 44 grams of Fat (400 kcals)= 2000 kcals
My biggest qualm with IIFYM, is that most people correlate body weight, to health. This is not always the case. You can be shredded, and have nice abs while having very poor health. Likewise, you can be a little more fluffy, and have optimal health. So just because you can eat donuts and oreos and pizza while still losing weight, doesn’t mean you should! That said, IIFYM may be right for you if you can hold yourself accountable for what foods your body NEEDS, and are disciplined enough to abide by your calculated macronutrient intake. I recommend it for those more experienced with maintaining an adequate nutrition regime.
Benefits of IIFYM:
- Prevents erratic cravings
- No extreme restrictions
- Allows for flexibility in eating desired foods
Potential Downsides of IIFYM:
- Can lead to binging
- Doesn’t always ensure adequate micronutrient intake
- No restriction on low quality food
Intermittent fasting (I.F) has been another popular method of eating or dieting that has been brought to the spotlight. There are many types of fasting. However there are 2 popular forms of Intermittent fasting. There’s eating on a 5:2 schedule in which you eat normally for 5 days, and severely restrict calories for 2 days. For example you could eat 2,000 calories/day, Monday through Friday, and Saturday and Sunday you would eat 500 calories each day. There’s also time restricted eating, which is more common, in which you only eat during a specific window of time (6-8 hours) and fast for the remainder of the day (16-18 hours).
An example of this would be eating your last meal of the day at 8pm, waking up, forgoing breakfast, and eating your first meal at noon. This would be 16 hour fast, but the duration is up to you.
Studies have not shown intermittent fasting to be superior to any other diet,for weight loss, when calories are equated. Usually people find success with I.F because they simply can’t eat as much as they normally would. If you’re someone who finds themselves not eating breakfast because you’re rushed in the morning to go to work, this may fit your lifestyle. On days where I’m not exercising, or maybe I’m doing lighter exercise, I may I.F or do a full fast. This is not an everyday thing though, so build yourself up slowly. I would recommend doing one or two intermittent fasts per week, of varying durations on less active days, to get a feel for what works best for you, and going from there.
Benefits of Intermittent Fasting:
- Can aid in weight loss
- Increase tolerance to hunger
- Facilitates entering ketosis
- Increase in BDNF (strengthens neural connections)
- More ideal eating schedule for some
Potential Downsides of Intermittent Fasting:
- The calorie restriction, particularly in 5:2 can be a bit extreme
- People tend to binge during the feeding window, eating more processed and calorie-dense foods than normal
- No definitive research saying its better for weight loss than any other diet
The Ketogenic Diet
Going “keto” consists of a diet high in fat, limiting protein and cutting out basically all carbs. When your body is deprived of glucose for long enough, you enter ketosis during which your liver produces ketone bodies (made from fat) which become the primary source of energy. Ketones are also a great fuel source for your brain. In fact, your brain uses either glucose or ketones as energy, and some studies have shown that ketones are preferred by our brain. If you enjoy eating foods like grass-fed butter, bacon, coconut oil, dark chocolate, and nuts, then you’re in luck. The fattier the better! Now it is important to note that you must keep a low protein intake. Eating high amounts of protein while trying to enter ketosis, is counter-intuitive because your body can actually convert protein to sugar through something called gluconeogenesis. But won’t your muscle waste away if you do this? Supposedly no. According to advocates such as Dr. Dom D’Agostino, your body will not break down its own muscle for fuel, since it will be predominantly tapping into your fat stores. Preserve your muscle, and burn fat for fuel? Sounds fantastic!
Now while going keto has become popular as of late, is it right for you? It depends on your goals. Once again, a ketogenic diet has not been shown to be superior than any other diet in terms of weight loss, when calories are equated. However, it does have other health benefits. The ketogenic diet has been shown to be beneficial in those with insulin resistance and/or Type II diabetes, obesity, as well as epilepsy. Personally, I have tried keto for short spurts of time (1-4 weeks) and have felt an increase in energy, focus, fat loss, and less cravings for sweets.
However, I don’t necessarily believe it to be superior to any other diet, nor do I recommend it long term. Especially if you’re an athlete, you NEED carbohydrates! Your muscles can utilize fat for fuel at low intensities such as walking or maybe a long slow run, but your fast-twitch muscle fibers (the ones used for sprinting, jumping, cutting, pushing, etc) run exclusively on glucose, aka carbs. If you want to try out keto, make sure you’re consuming high quality products. Extra virgin coconut oil, organic nut butters, grass fed butter, ghee, wild-caught fatty fish like salmon, etc. Again try a couple days of eating keto before fully diving in. When you’re ready to fully commit, it usually takes a few days to reap the benefits of ketosis, so keep that in mind (you can determine if you’re in ketosis with a blood monitor, or pee strips).
Benefits of the Ketogenic Diet:
- Can aid in weight loss due to restricting carbohydrates which can include many processed foods
- Can help increase hunger tolerance
- Can help reduce cravings for sugar
- Produces ketones which are a great fuel source for the brain
- Aids in insulin sensitivity regulation
- Has shown promising results in reducing symptoms in those with Epilepsy and Type II Diabetes
Potential Downsides of the Ketogenic Diet:
- Long term adherence to the ketogenic diet has been shown to INCREASE glucose intolerance, and Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in mice
- Adherence can be difficult based on food restrictions
- Can induce ketoacidosis which is detrimental for those with Type I Diabetes
- Performance can be altered in athletes
The Paleo Diet
If you lived in the Paleolithic era, you would hunt, fish, and forage for food daily. Hailed as the “primal” diet, this is theoretically how you would eat if you were a hunter-gatherer. This means no GMO’s, no artificial sweeteners, processed foods, and no soy milk in your latte. By eating how our ancestors ate, and eliminating “unnatural” foods, we can optimize our health and quality of life. They claim that we can obliterate chronic/cardiovascular disease, by eating a diet full of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and high quality meat. In principle this line of thinking seems sound. However, proponents of the diet are a little more stringent.
Paleo followers abstain from eating any kind of food unavailable to the stone age hunter–gatherers. This includes calcium-rich dairy, grains which are full of B-vitamins, and legumes which contain fiber and protein. Their reasoning is that these foods were not consumed by our ancestors, so as humans we didn’t evolve to consume them. This is just wrong. Actually researchers have discovered that some of these foods were not only consumed during the paleolithic era, but even prior to it!
Another reason the paleo diet omits grains and legumes is due to their “anti-nutrient” content. Legumes contain lectins, and some grains contain phytic acid, which in a nutshell can be toxic if eaten in high concentrations (like most things), and/or inhibit the absorption of other nutrients. Well when cooked, these properties are actually reduced and can even become beneficial.
Our society is much different today than that of our pre-historic predecessors. We are sedentary, we exercise by choice not necessity, we can take a trip down to the local Trader Joe’s whenever we’re hungry. The food we eat, the soil our food is grown in, and the cultivation of different foods, are simply much different. And while I don’t believe eating organic, grass-fed, free-range, and non-GMO foods is a bad thing, it’s not always practical to do so. All in all, I think adopting a paleo-like lifestyle, would be an upgrade to that of the typical American’s. Maybe we don’t have to chase around rabbits so we can eat, or run from saber-tooth tigers, but incorporating daily exercise and being more mindful of what we’re consuming, while eating more foods in their natural forms, probably wouldn’t hurt.
Benefits of the Paleo Diet:
- Restricts consumption of processed foods which can have favorable outcomes for health and weight loss
- Increases likelihood of meeting general micronutrient intake
- Can help increase mindfulness of source of food
Potential Downsides of the Paleo Diet:
- Restriction of certain foods that are nutrient-dense (legumes, dairy, etc)
- Can create obsessive and/or negative association with certain foods
- Can be costly
- Unnecessary omission of certain foods
The Carnivore Diet
As of late, there has been a lot of buzz around this diet, in which meat, and other animal products are the predominant foods are eaten. It also advocates not eating ANY fruits or vegetables. Blasphemy right!? It must just be another fad diet, greens are crucial for health! Or so we’ve been told. Now personally I have not tried this diet, but it does intrigue me.
Proponents of this diet (which include some medical doctors such as Dr. Shawn Baker) claim that fruits and vegetables are not necessary because you can obtain all the macro and micronutrients you need from animal products. Does this hold any truth? Well liver, an animal product, is actually one of the most nutrient-rich foods you can have, period. Eggs contain many nutrients, including choline which is important for brain development, liver health, nerve impulse transmission, and many other bodily functions.
Then comes the issue of protein. Those who abstain from eating animal products claim that plant protein can be a great alternative to animal protein. And while you can obtain protein from plants, there are very few plant sources that contain complete proteins.
“But Jules I heard you can get more protein from broccoli than from steak!” This is a misconception. Plants just don’t have the same amino acid profile as meat. A 4 ounce steak contains about 30 grams of protein with all the essential amino acids necessary (essential amino acids need to be obtained from an outside source). To obtain the same amount of amino acids, you’ll need to about 500 grams of broccoli, or 5 cups. Totally doable, if you want an urgent trip to le toilet. The same can be said for certain nutrients. For example, we know that many people who don’t eat meat are often iron deficient. Why would this be the case if iron can be found in some vegetables? It’s because that type of iron is called non-heme iron, which is not easily absorbed by the human body. Iron is not a stand-alone case, there are many nutrients that are not easily absorbed in plant form. Not to mention, there are certain essential nutrients that are ONLY found in meat such as creatine, carnosine, and vitamin B12. And while you can choose the supplement route, many nutrients are not always very bio-available when taken in this form.
Meat has gotten a bad rap, with some claims saying it will increase your cholesterol levels, and some studies even show a correlation between eating meat and getting cancer. The problem with these studies is that for one eating meat is not the only variable influencing the outcome. A typical American that eats a lot of red meat, will probably not be eating high quality sources of meat. They’ll probably eat lot sugar and processed foods along with this meat. And if that’s what their diet is like, well what’s their general lifestyle like? Probably sedentary, and if you throw in smoking or drinking alcohol well yeah getting cancer is not too farfetched. Again, I love fruit and a good salad, so I probably won’t go full carnivore anytime soon, but I think it’s asinine to say meat or red meat at that, is bad for you.
Benefits of the Carnivore Diet:
- Easy to prepare
- Meat is generally easy to digest
- High quality animal products are nutrient dense
- Nutrients from animal products are generally more bioavailable than those from plants
- Increase in testosterone
- Improved cholesterol levels seen in some
Potential Downsides of the Carnivore Diet:
- Lack of fiber
- Long-term effects on gut microbiome unknown
- Long-term effects on health unknown
- Lack of antioxidants and phytonutrients
For a quick synopsis on what I think about Veganism, Carnivorism, and all “isms” check out the video below, and feel free to subscribe to my youtube channel
Don’t be so quick to Jump on the Fad Diet Bandwagon
Bottom line is find what works best for you, but don’t be afraid to try new things! People tend to be drawn to fad diets based on what they hear, hoping that they may be the silver bullet to all their problems. “My friend lost 20 lbs going keto!” or “Paleo is the way to go my skin is looking better than ever” are things we’ve all heard, and whether they’re true or not, what works for them might not work for you. Remember that we evolved because our flexibility and adaptability, not because we were stubborn and decided we were only going to eat 5 different food choices for the rest of our lives. Remember, you can also develop an intolerance to foods by eating them too frequently. Get an ancestry test done to see what kind of diet best matches your genetics, get a food sensitivity test, get blood work, test your gut microbiome! Skip the dogma, and put in the work to find the optimal diet, or better yet lifestyle for YOU, but most importantly, keep an open mind.