This was started by Robert Atkins in the 60s. It used to be promoted as a healthy diet which reduced carbohydrate intake. The reductions range from 20-100% and it encourages increased protein and fat intake.
+ In affect it was teaching people a different way of eating. In its favour, it has been reported to have helped lots of people to lose weight. It is now frequently promoted as a weight loss programme. As such it is also aligned with the ketogenic diet.
– It can cause horrible digestive problems, heart burn and halitosis. The NHS also report that it may; ‘put people at risk of kidney problems and possibly heart disease’. There may also be associated issues with fatigue, low energy and dizziness. Additionally, it ignores any links with undertaking activity to support health or even weight loss.
Again, we’re looking at a diet that’s keeping carbohydrates really low. However, this is primarily a medical advocated diet. Diabetes UK encourages a daily intake of 130g, although they still caution the importance of eating carbohydrates.
+ This is suggested for people with type 2 diabetes as a way of stabilising blood sugar. However, this may support many people who are challenged by blood sugar instability.
So, can maintaining such a low level of carbohydrate really be a good thing?
– 130g is very low, an apple constitutes about 15-20g and a large jacket potato 90g. Maintaining this long-term may be very challenging and that in itself can be stressful. The other thing to consider is what type of carbohydrates will the 130g or similar amounts come from? The best forms of carbohydrates come from vegetables and complex fibrous starches (grains and brown rice). Relying on white wheat-based foods (pastas, bread, cakes) and fruit for the 130g raises blood sugar levels. It may even induce or exacerbate food cravings.
The sad thing is that fats often get such a bad press. It’s so important to recognise that the body needs and benefits from fat.
Women especially need fat to help support menstruation and the sex hormones to work effectively. Fat is also needed to absorb some vitamins (A, D, E, K) and for thermodynamics and heat creation to work effectively. The British Heart Foundation and Blood Pressure UK consider low fat from the perspective of reducing saturated fats and trans fats. These may clog arteries and vessels and raise cholesterol (a type of fat already existent in the body).
+ Omega oils support many functions including vessel and brain health. Avocados and coconuts may be beneficial too, but they are very high in calories. The recommendations is that fat should not exceed 35% of our daily intake (or 70g). Only 11% of that should come from saturated fats.
– Having very little or no fat in the diet can be damaging. Sadly, in very low weights such as with anorexia, the body may grow excessive hair simply to keep warm.
This is the ultimate high protein, high fat and very low or no carbohydrate diet. It was initially founded as a medical intervention to support brain injury and neurological disorders such as epilepsy and later to support athletes. However, it is now often sold as a weight loss regime.
The body readily uses carbohydrates (glucose) for energy. Following that it will utilise fat and in the most severe cases protein (from muscle tissue). The keto diet suggests an intake as low as 20g carbs or less. The theory being that with a very low carbohydrate intake, the body is forced to induce glycogenolysis (the retrieval of stored glucose from the liver and muscle tissue). This leads to the development of ketone bodies which are produced by the liver and derived from the breakdown of fat intake and the body’s fat stores. These are then used to support energy production.
+ This is beneficial as a medical suggested diet which is used to support people with specific conditions. The keto diet reduces many carbohydrates (white carbs, sweets, excessive amounts of pasta, soda drinks) which would normally be reduced on a healthy eating plan anyway.
– Ketosis is something that the body is adapted to doing in times of famine when key nutrients are not available. By reducing carbohydrates to such a low level there may be a tendency to restrict fibre which may lead to constipation and digestive issues. Also taking in high quotas of fat and protein can cause problems if there are any indications of gall bladder or kidney issues.
This has been heavily heralded by celebrities such Gwyneth Paltrow as the most natural, hunter gatherer diet. Its foundation actually goes back to the 20s. It is a high grain and plant-based diet (vegan) diet allowing added soya bean and sometimes fermented products.
+ On the whole it can be healthy for some especially as it introduces a larger variety of vegetables in to the diet.
– The problem with consuming large proportions of fibre, grains or pulses especially for people who have poor digestion is that they can feel much worse. If these nutrients cannot be adequately broken down or tolerated it can create IBS-like system of cramping, bloating and gas.
The Eatwell Guide
This is a plan widely used throughout public health to promote what is representative of a well-balanced diet. Its components are varied and are intended to adequately support health.
The Eatwell guide was previously known as the Eatwell plate. The new guide is more comprehensive and adds additional nutritional support.
The emphasis is now not only on what ‘should’ be on the plate at meal times, but also on differing eating habits such as limiting fats and sugars. It also now shows foods outside the main food picture that are to be consumed minimally (eg, sweets, chocolate, cakes, condiments). This suggests that whilst these items may add some pleasure to the palate, they are unnecessary for maintaining a balanced diet.
The guide also separates differing fats, highlighting those which are saturated, unsaturated and food spreads.
+ This is a good general guide especially if you’re only now considering meal plans.
– It’s quite basic and can be limited for people who need support for specific health conditions.
5:2 or Intermittent fasting
This diet was brought alive by the work of Michael Mosely. Theirs is some evidence to show that it works to support weight loss and the lowering of blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Its premise is that the body doesn’t need as much food as we feed it.
+ It ultimately allows the digestive system to rest for 10 to 12 hours or more. This is a good thing and after all what we do it at night.
– Like any ‘diet’ it can be difficult to maintain. Rather than being a health plan, it can become an endurance test where people starve themselves until they give in. There’s also the risk that people fast for a given period and then eat lots of fat and sugar laden foods. This is also not suitable for people who may have glucose intolerance or imbalance issues which require that they eat sometimes every 3-4 hours. This is not one that I’d recommend without strong professional nutritional/medical support
This diet supposes that heating food kills essential nutrients and the enzymes which break down food. This makes sense to some extent, although some foods are so hardy that they need to be cooked at some level to break them down. This applies particularly for some vegetables and certainly to many proteins.
+ The raw food diet supports the premise that in essence our systems become lazy on too much comfort. To some extent that’s right. The chewing required with raw foods stimulates gastric juices. Raw food from vegetables also contains a great deal of fibre which can be helpful in lowering cholesterol, removing waste and cleaning the liver and gut.
– Raw food in large quantities can be hard for some people to break down. It can leave people not only feeling hungry, but also with symptoms of gas and bloating and even sores and hives. Including a proportion of raw food is always recommended, but it is also important to ensure that your digestive system is able to process it.
Okay, so we’ve covered a few diets here and there are of course a whole host of others. Vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian and macrobiotic. Then there’s the specialist diets for health such as the FODMAPS (for IBS and digestive disorders) celiac, lactose free, low GI, DASH (for high blood pressure) anti-candida and low salt
So, what is the best diet for you?
I believe that it’s a matter of assessing a few key things
What does your body need?
The ultimate diet is always one which serves your body fully. Not your next-door neighbour, your kids’ teacher or even your sister or another family member. As we’re all bio-individual, therefore having components that are unique to us, what you eat has to serve your body’s specific needs.
The reason that many diets don’t work is because they’re repetitive and unstainable and also too generic. They’re therefore geared to work for some, but don’t work for everyone.
It’s important to determine what’s right for you and to consider that this is a fact which will always be changing. It’s not only about the number of calories you use up. Even simple things like how much time you’re spending indoors or how much heating you have on will affect your intake needs. This may mean that you require more fluids or to eat several very small meals rather than a large one at lunch time. It’s also important to monitor, adapt and continually regulate your nutrient intake to meet your body’s needs
What stage of life are you in?
What age are you? What are you going through physically and emotionally? What does your body actually need to thrive? Are you experiencing a hormonal change due to childbirth, menstruation or menopause? Are you recovering from an illness or have you been diagnosed with a health condition?
As we age, and this can be anywhere from 30 upwards our body tissue starts to change, in some cases quite significantly. Muscle tissue starts to lose its elasticity which can impact us right down to the cellular level. We may also experience changes in our arteries and larger muscle groups and even our bladder. Our menstrual cycle will change, particularly the 10 years before menopause.
Our bone density may lessen resulting in our bones becoming more porous. Digestive enzymes may reduce leaving you not always able to break down or digest certain foods. All of this doesn’t mean that we’re less able to function, but it does mean that we may need to make some adaptations
What’s your stress like and your energy requirements?
Stress takes a massive toll on our bodies. It distorts hormone and neurotransmission function, blood pressure and neurological processes as well as exacerbating the body’s energy requirements. It also puts a huge demand on key organs such as our kidneys, thyroid, gut, pancreas, brain and even our muscle tissue which includes our heart.
Some people will find that they crave certain foods when stressed. This is not simply for comfort, but more so because the body requires greater levels of energy in the form of glucose. Understanding where you are mentally and emotionally can help as stress affects our whole body in one way or another.
What do you like?
There’s no point in having a meal plan that doesn’t work for you. We can all eat healthily even if this varies from person to person.
The easiest thing to do is to start by incorporating more of the healthy foods that you like. Then add (this is what I suggest to my clients) one new vegetable or healthy food a week. This doesn’t sound like much and most people bristle at this, but think about it. You’re actually adding up to 52 new healthy foods to your diet every year.
It may be as simple as a different variety of potato, tomato or cabbage. Or it may be trying something from an ethnic store which you’ve been curious about but never tried before. This is something that I love doing. Yes, I’ve messed up in cooking the odd thing but mostly I’ve discovered something completely new and delicious. Take a look here or more healthy food ideas.
A good way of assessing what your body needs in addition to your own specific personal needs is to look at Reference Nutrient Intakes (RNI). This gives an estimation on food labels of the amount of certain nutrients which are needed for the body to function effectively. This is based on a population average, so you may need slightly more or in some cases less. But the RNI is useful in showing both macro (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and micro (vitamins and minerals) nutrients.
Here are some key nutrients that many people are low in and that may support your body:
Digestive enzymes – These are key proteins that support your body by breaking down foods particularly fats, proteins, dairy and milk sugars and speeding up chemical reactions in digestion. They are present within certain foods such as pineapple, papaya, bananas, but can also be obtained through a simple supplement.
Stimulating the body to enhance enzymatic function can come from eating raw vegetables, particularly the more bitter varieties such as endive, dandelion and chicory. Also, lemon juice and cider vinegar.
Magnesium – This is particularly important if your muscles become fatigued or if you suffer from stress. Magnesium supports muscle contraction as well as healthy nerve function. It can be readily found in avocados, spinach, nuts and seeds, prawns and apricots.
Zinc – This is needed for so many different functions in the body including; hormone regulation, maintenance of the immune system, activation of our genes and thyroid function. It’s readily found in wheatgerm, eggs, nuts and seeds, pulses, chicken and eggs.
Healthy oils – Omega 3 oils can be derived from fish and flax or linseeds and Omega 6 from plant sources. Both are important for brain function, reducing inflammation, developing healthy cell membranes and supporting supple joints. Omega 3 can be found in oily fish and linseeds. Omega 6 in nuts and seeds.
Other beneficial oils include olive, hemp, walnut, flaxseed and coconut oil. It is important to recognise that whilst some fats provide considerable health benefits they are still a high energy food that burn at a slower rate in the body. Therefore, take this into consideration when seeking to maintain a balanced diet.
Hydration and elimination
One of the most important nutrients for us to have is water. It is critical to our survival. We can last for a good two to four weeks without food, but only a few days without water.
Water allows our cells to operate in a buoyant environment. It replenishes fluid lost through sweating, breathing and urination. It allows nutrients to flow through our blood stream to our cells and it removes waste.
The right diet for you should in addition to water contain plenty of fibre to support the removal of waste. Fibre does not only have to come from wheat products or grains, a large proportion of the best fibre comes from the skins and fibrous structures of plants.
Our tissue is always breaking down and being rebuilt. Old cells are dying and, in some cases, particularly with our skin syphoning off. But if we do not have adequate levels of fibre or fluid to eliminate the waste it can build up in our bodies and cause a myriad of issues from constipation to allergies, menstrual issues and headaches.
Although this isn’t about feeding us with nutrients it is vital to our health and survival. There are two studies that I love and which still blow me away. Researchers have found over the years that in some instances regardless of what people eat, having a strong community actually supports their health hugely in positive ways.
Time and time again people quote the centenarians in Okinawa, Japan. They have the largest population of people living to 100 and above. Another very interesting study was done over 50-years in Roseto Pennsylvania, USA in the 50s. It followed an Italian immigrant population who at that time didn’t have incidences of heart disease or cancer unlike many of the neighbouring communities. The surprising thing was that their diet was in some cases particularly poor as were some of their working conditions. Yet they thrived. The conclusion was that their health was attributed to strong communal bonds.
Being a part of a community whether that’s people you know intimately or even online groups can be very helpful and supportive.
So, I’ve given you quite a lot of information to go away with. The best thing especially if you’re looking to adapt your diet is to take your time and make slow steady changes. If you need support and want to review your diet take a look at the details of the dietary review and contact me to discuss it.