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The basics of nutrition with 4 popular diets

nutrition May 08, 2023
Salad plate with free weights

What makes up a “healthy diet?” Wondering what the basics of nutrition are? Paleo, low carb, low fat, Mediterranean…the list goes on and on. So how do you know which one is right for you? As you will see, these diets share some fundamental similarities. Let’s start by reviewing four of the most recognized diets.

Paleo Diet (Paleolithic Diet)

The paleo diet is often called the paleolithic or caveman diet. It revolves around consuming only:

  • Veggies
  • Fruits
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Eggs
  • Meat, including organ meat
  • Excluding dairy and grains

The idea is to eat as few processed foods (a great healthy eating habit) as possible to consume more nutrient-dense, whole foods. Among the benefits of the paleo diet are:

  • Improved body composition (decreased body fat and increased skeletal muscle mass)
  • Improved metabolic health

Major takeaway of a Paleo Diet

The Paleo diet prioritizes lean meats and natural plant foods. This diet reduces the consumption of processed foods.

Low Carbohydrate (Low-Carb)

What does it even mean to be on a low-carb diet? Many people immediately associate a low-carbohydrate diet with avoiding bread, rice, and potatoes. Yet, an actual low-carb diet is low in ALL carbohydrate sources. That includes vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, and legumes.

The Dietary Reference Intakes of the Institute of Medicine defines normal carbohydrate consumption as 45-65% of daily caloric intake. Thus, “low carb” reflects a diet that restricts daily intake of carbs to below 45% of daily consumption. Of note, many low-carb proponents will advocate for much lower.

What are the benefits? Research shows that a low-carb diet may improve metabolic diseases and help weight-loss. Yet the specific reason for weight loss while on a low-carb diet isn't clear.

Those consuming a low-carb diet also usually consume fewer calories. So, the question becomes, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” In other words, losing weight while on a low-carb diet may be because of:

  • The consumption of fewer calories
  • The consumption of fewer carbohydrates
  • A mix of both

The specific mechanism for weight loss on a low-carb diet doesn't matter much. Success depends on the amount and types of carbohydrates and the calories consumed. So what does this mean? You can eat fewer carbohydrates as part of a low-carb approach to weight loss. But this must be in conjunction with decreased caloric consumption.

The major takeaways of true low-carb diet

  • Reduce all forms of carbohydrates
  • Focus on minimally-processed foods
  • Reduce or cut added sugars
  • Restrict refined starches (carb sources stripped of all nutrients and fiber)

Examples are white bread, white rice, white flour, pizza dough, and most cereals. Research does not show that a low-carb diet is superior to other diets for weight loss and general health. 

 Low-Fat Diet 

“Low-fat” is a diet that reduces fat intake from all sources to below 20% of daily calorie consumption. A low-fat diet:

  • Prioritizes minimally-processed foods like veggies, fruits, and beans
  • Is majority plant-based (but not completely)
  • Has a lower fat intake

Among the benefits of a low-fat diet are:

  • Weight loss
  • Improved cholesterol
  • Reduced cardiac events
  • Decreased early mortality
  • Lower cancer rates
  • Lower rates of cardiometabolic disease

How does low fat compare with low carb? “When food choices are judicious in both contexts, the superiority of fat-restricted versus carbohydrate-restricted eating for weight loss and health is not reliably established.”

The following statement is true with many diets. Misapplication of the original principles may result in harmful or less-than-ideal results. For example, data from NHANES notes a decline in the percentage of fat consumed by those on a low-fat diet; however, a decline in the percentage of fat consumed is not the same as a decrease in actual fat consumed.

The problem is due to the rise of many “low fat,” high sugar, high starch, and high calorie processed food options. Many items marked “low fat” are actually increasing the total calories consumed.

A real world example

Jane Doe consumes 1500 calories daily, 20% or 300 calories of which comes from fat. Jane is super motivated. She begins to buy more and more “low fat” food items, thinking she is doing the right thing. After a few weeks, Jane noticed that the percentage of fat consumed had  dropped to 18% from 20%. But, she is not seeing any changes to her body composition.

Situations like these can be confusing. Here's what Jane doesn’t realize. By eating high-calorie/low-fat foods, she is now consuming 2000 calories instead of 1500. Despite a decrease in fat percentage from 20% to 18%, she is consuming 360 calories from fat, an increase of 60 calories from fat.

Why is this important for YOU? Because “low-fat” labels on processed foods are misleading and should not immediately be associated with a healthy food choice.  

Major takeaways for a low-fat diet

  • Low-fat diets focus on plant foods and avoid harmful fats
  • Minimally-processed foods play a major role
  • Many “low-fat” labeled food options are calorie dense and contain high amounts of added sugar which may be counterproductive to your body composition and health goals.  

The Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet reflects the dietary patterns customary in Mediterranean countries. While this dietary pattern may differ based on the country, common features emphasize:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Nuts
  • Legumes
  • Olive oil
  • Moderate alcohol intake
  • Whole grains
  • Seafood
  • Limiting animal meat
  • Selective dairy intake

A Mediterranean diet benefits include:

  • A longer life
  • Healthy brain function
  • Reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease

Major takeaway for Mediterranean diets

Mediterranean diets prioritize minimally processed foods, eating mostly plants, and emphasizing the consumption of healthy oils. Monitoring daily caloric consumption is equally important for success if utilized for weight loss. 

The bottom line - the basics of nutrition

Do you see a theme here? In this blog, we have looked at four popular “diets,” and they all share two foundational principles and nutrition basics.

  1. Principle #1: Eat mainly minimally-processed foods
  2. Principle #2: Eat mostly plants

Here’s the point:

  • Do you want to know where to start to change your body? You don’t have to buy supplements or vitamins from that social media influencer.
  • Forget pre-packaged meals. You don't have to buy them!
  • You don’t have to starve, eat only soup, or consume a grapefruit every morning.

Instead, start by eating mainly minimally-processed foods AND eat mostly plants. Why? Because these two basic nutrition principles are the foundation of almost every type of diet you can think of including low glycemic, vegan, mixed balanced and vegetarian. 

Do you struggle to get started because you don’t know which diet to adopt? Do you find yourself jumping from one diet to the next with little traction? Start building your foundation with these universal nutrition basic principles. Develop your skills, one habit at a time. It’s the difference between the short and long-game approach.

I help clients from all different backgrounds, dietary preferences, and needs. I help them develop, adopt and sustain nutritional strategies for a healthy and happier life. Ready to ditch the yo-yo dieting for an individual approach to nutrition? Book a discovery call and let’s chat!

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