With the help of an expert panel, we break down some benefits and drawbacks of the latest diet trends, so you can put together your ideal eating plan.
When it comes to our well-being, there’s almost no other subject swirling with more information—much of it conflicting—than nutrition.
“We live in a world in which we’re overwhelmed by the latest diet trends—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 (Skyhorse Publishing, 2014).
“You don’t have to choose one; you can take things that resonate from a number of diets,” says holistic nutritionist and Canadian School of Natural Nutrition instructor 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] 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 hyperprocessed 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, sesame), 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 fibre-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), 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,” says Cristina Sutter, a registered dietitian specializing in athletic nutrition, “and research shows it’s effective for weight loss.
“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 and a few slices of bacon every once in a while.
A vegan diet excludes all animal products, including 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, it does have important nutrients, so if you’re not replacing those nutrients, it won’t be a healthy diet.”
Microbiome versus mood
Two of the most exciting areas of research in nutrition right now are our relationship to the trillions of beneficial bacteria that inhabit our gut (collectively called our microbiome and weighing about 1 kg in the average adult), and the relationship between what we eat and our brains—and therefore our moods.
Beneficial bacteria facilitate the digestion of food and absorption of nutrients, modulate the manufacturing of neurotransmitters, act as protective gatekeepers at our intestinal lining, and play a role in the communication between our gut (also called the enteric nervous system or “second brain”) and our brain.
“Up to 95 percent of serotonin is synthesized in the gut,” says McEwan, of the neurotransmitter that mediates mood and regulates appetite and sleep.
Nutrient-dense whole foods supply building blocks for neurotransmitters, like carbohydrates for serotonin. Studies show that some neurotransmitters—such as GABA, which plays an important role in mood—are even secreted by our gut microbes.
Prebiotic and fermented foods, as well as probiotic supplements, are important factors to support our microbiome and boost our mood.
“Many foods, like fruits and vegetables, act as prebiotics,” says Sutter, of the fibre-rich foods that fuel the beneficial bacteria in our colon.
Fermented foods—including sauerkraut, chickpea miso, kimchi, and kombucha—are natural probiotics that add to our microbiome’s diversity, an important factor for any ecosystem to flourish.
“Diet has a huge influence on mood,” says Bauman, who suggests consuming whole foods and taking supplements with brain-boosters such as omega-3, vitamin D, and probiotics.