It’s hard to believe that just a few decades ago it was difficult to get fresh produce out of season. I remember as a child feeling sad as I stared at the empty bins of produce at my local grocery store. Food scarcity was a huge issue not too long ago and both my grandmother’s raised me with countless stories about the war, not having food, and how expensive it was back then to simply buy meat.
These stories and my parents’ and grandparents’ health played an integral part in shaping my career and breaking down both physical and emotional eating issues. In my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, there were few overweight people, let alone overweight kids. Fast forward to raising my daughter, and now it is common for children to have a puffy tummy or be a few pounds overweight. My gluten and dairy-free daughter was one of only a handful of thin children in her classroom!
So what’s going on today that is making everyone heavy and thinking they need to be on some sort of extreme diet? The answer is modernization.
Everything from how we grow, process, and make our food plays into our weight, making Westerners fat and sick. Junk food, fast food, and non-organic food are some of the main downsides to modernization.
The good news though, is that through modernization and the advancement of medicine we are able to look at our genetics to determine what diet and way of eating works best for our bodies and also where we are in our body’s lifecycle. Modernization also gives us an opportunity to explore healthy options and, most importantly, access beautiful produce that wasn’t available years ago — which is the cornerstone of any healthy eating style.
Today we have a multitude of diets that work differently for each individual. I stress how important it is to find one’s own personal sweet spot in accordance with eating and specific diets. What works for some, doesn’t work for everyone. Every day I hear patients say “But my friend is eating…” Yes, but you are not your friend and don’t share the same genetics and medical history. It is so important for readers to get familiar with various styles of eating, and not diets. Instead, tune in to what feels best for you.
VEGAN AND VEGETARIAN —
A vegan diet excludes all animal products, including meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy. While a vegan diet consists of plant-based foods, it does not require consumption of whole foods or restrict fat or refined sugar.
A vegetarian diet is also mostly plant-based, but may include eggs and dairy, which makes it more likely to meet all current nutritional recommendations, especially when including supplementation and fortified foods. Vegetarians and vegans need to supplement with Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Omega 3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, and zinc. This style of eating (when done correctly) is loaded with phytonutrients and fiber, which help prevent disease.
From an overall health perspective, I believe a vegetarian diet offers the safest animal-free style of eating with a low likelihood of nutritional deficiency.
RAW DIET —
Those who follow a raw diet regimen believe that every raw food is balanced and that enzymes are the life essence of food and are present in a perfect combination. These diets often form the basis of cleanses or “detoxification” programs. In a raw vegan diet, 80% of the daily intake is from raw foods. This includes foods “cooked” to a maximum temperature of 92-118°F, which helps to preserve essential plant enzymes.
A raw diet requires careful planning in order to avoid potential nutrient deficiencies, such as protein, B12, iron, Vitamin D, and calcium. This diet can be very hard to maintain for many individuals. It can be labor intensive and require immense planning. Unfortunately, I see many young women getting sick and even anemic from this diet.
In my opinion, a raw diet is great for a few days or weeks post-holiday or when we transition to warmer seasons — but not necessarily for the long term.
KETOGENIC DIET —
Ketogenic is a very low carbohydrate diet. Ketogenic diets are thought to stimulate weight loss from higher satiety from fat ingestion as well as an increase in fat loss. Additionally, fat consumption has a higher metabolic efficiency in a ketogenic diet. Severe carbohydrate restriction compared to the standard American diet leads to ketosis, meaning the body burns fat for fuel — thereby promoting weight loss.
When we don’t eat carbohydrates, our body goes into ketosis and looks for alternate sources of energy. Keto works by taking your body’s fat stores, making the liver break down fat and turning it into glucose for energy. Fatty acids are oxidized and turned into ketones. This is what provides energy for the body and occurs when insulin and carbohydrate levels are very low. People on Ketogenic diets need to consume less than 50 grams of carbohydrates a day, and sometimes as low as 20 grams.
As a result of the ketogenic state, hunger will be less than before, which may decrease the impulse to overeat. This diet allows for weight loss through the loss of body fat with improvements in cardiac and blood sugar biomarkers. Ketogenic diets require severe food restrictions making dining out difficult and requiring some pre-planning. Sugar, carbohydrates, and sweets are strictly banned. A ketogenic diet however, can include bacon, dairy, and lots of fat, which can be appealing to many as fat creates satiety and the feeling of less deprivation. While a Ketogenic diet can indeed be a bit extreme, I have seen patients do well once they get into the maintenance stage.
PALEOLITHIC DIETS —
Paleo is another carbohydrate restricted diet, though not as extreme as Keto. This diet allows some restrictive plant-based carbohydrates like squash and pumpkin and has supportive cardiovascular and blood sugar effects. I prefer this diet as opposed to Keto or Atkins, because it’s based on the concept that our eating habits centuries ago were healthier due to a simplified diet of non-processed foods. This diet consists of fruits, vegetables, nuts, roots, and unprocessed protein sources such as meat. Returning to our original eating patterns can decrease insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, and chronic disease.
Paleo, keto, and all restrictive carbohydrate diets help with blood sugar and cholesterol. I think for the most part Paleo is the most balanced of all carbohydrate restricted diets. (I have my patients use a modified version of this.)
Macrobiotics is based on the work of Japan’s George Oshawa and Michio Kushi, who brought this diet and philosophy to the United States in the 1950’s. Macrobiotics is based on grains, beans, sea vegetables, and small amounts of fish, meat, eggs, and poultry. (I actually was “macro” way back I the 80’s!)
This diet is rooted in Asian medicine, using the principles of yin and yang and eating in a balanced way. What I like about it is that it includes traditional cooking methods without microwave cooking. It is an incredible system which I still use aspects of to this day. A macro diet has many fodmap friendly foods (no fructose which can be bad for your liver) like brown rice syrup, seaweed, and plum vinegar (which is made from umeboshi plums).
Most Macrobiotic products are easy to digest, making the diet much more balanced compared to some of the extreme diet styles of today. This diet involves a lifestyle component as well and encourages being outside, getting fresh air, and using clean body products. Many people going through cancer treatments use macrobiotics as a tool for balance.
Some of today’s leading health food companies like Erewhon, (founded by Kushi) and Eden carry food products that have Macrobiotics roots. I am willing to bet this old style of eating will be making a huge comeback soon to counter the extremes we are seeing with Raw and Ketogenic diets, as this way of eating falls nicely in the middle.
OTHER DIETS —
More recently regional diets like the Nordic diet are gaining popularity. This diet focuses on high omega fatty fish, including salmon and a white salmon-like fish called Sik or Sil, as well as small non-toxic fish like herring that do not contain mercury. The Nordic diet focuses on eating seasonally and locally with the consumption of lingonberries, arctic berries that are high in antioxidants, root vegetables, whole grains like rye, and adaptogenic herbs like Rhodiola and Chaga. The diet promotes foraging for food and loving the land in countries that respect the environment. It’s like the Macrobiotic diet, but specific to Scandinavian countries with many similarities and philosophies.
One must seek a diet that is specific to their physiology and health condition and simple enough to follow. Complicated, laborious diets can end in frustration. Diets should not be solely about losing weight, but equally focused on a healthy lifestyle. Extreme weight loss diets should be followed as a temporary regimen only — one that can be adapted for long-term lifestyle changes that will keep us healthy in the long run.
Dr. Elizabeth Trattner is a Doctor of Chinese and Integrative Medicine and an Acupuncturist. For more information about Elizabeth, visit elizabethtrattner.com or find her on Instagram at @dreliztratts, Facebook at @drelizabethtrattner, and Twitter at @acumom.