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Which Diet is Best? Analysis of Popular Diets

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Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a registered nutritionist and I do not play one on TV. This does not represent medical advice.

A diet is a set of rules we impose on ourselves in hopes of improving our health. Everyday it seems like there is some new diet that someone is pushing as the next best thing. Which diet is best? Some diets do have more merit than others and we are going to look at the best and worst parts of each diet strategy.

Low/No Carbs  

The low carb diet focuses on limiting carbs and eating mostly fats and protein.  The popular justification for this diet is that carbs get digested fast and are quickly absorbed as fat, supplying a quick burst of energy, then followed by an energy crash. Along these lines is the belief that since carbs digest quickly, they do not leave you feeling full for very long, and quickly get absorbed as fat. While there is truth behind these justifications, it makes large generalizations that do not tell the whole story.

Carbs can have a high wide range of different types, from the fast digesting carbs in highly processed foods, like donuts or white bread, to slower digesting carbs, like beans and starchy vegetables. These highly processed foods are often highly refined and full of sugar, which your body can very quickly convert to energy, leading to the burst of energy that quickly fades, leaving you feeling lethargic and hungry again. The high level of sugar that usually sneaks into the average American’s diet, leading to obesity, can often be found in these highly processed foods as well. However, slow digesting carbs give a more sustained energy while keeping you full longer. Slow digesting carbs also tend to be whole foods, with minimal processing and higher nutrient contents. These types of carbs do not deserve to get grouped into the same category as the fast digesting carbs but this diet typically treats them as equal.

A by-product of this diet is eating foods with higher fat and protein content. Protein and fat take longer to digest in the body, so they are great choices for a sustained energy that keeps you full longer. While protein heavy foods are a great way to stay full while eating fewer calories, fat heavy foods can be a dangerous slope as they are very calorie dense. Next time you go to eat a fat heavy food, like peanut butter or guacamole, take a look at the calories in a standard serving size. You will probably be surprised about how calorie dense each serving is and how many servings are in each container. Odds are you are probably eating more than a standard serving size as well, meaning that more calories are sneaking their way into your diet than you realize.

A lot of people believe in this diet because when they try it, they see large drops in weight within a couple weeks. This can be encouraging and seems to prove the effectiveness of this diet; however, the majority of this weight loss is water weight. Cutting carbs from your diet causes the body to retain less water. Therefore, you are mostly losing water weight instead of burning fat when you cut carbs. That water weight will immediately come back when you do eat carbs since the body will start to retain water again. Seeing this sudden weight gain often discourages people and will cause many to quit the diet, especially if they cut out some of their favorite foods to stay in a low carb state.

The low carb diet is very similar to the popular ketogenic diet, which severely limits carbs. Research has been showing that the ketogenic diet can have some very positive effects in fighting diabetes, cancer, epilepsy, and alzheimers due to your body being in a ketogenic state. There is nothing magical about the Ketogenic diet and weight loss but there are other possible health benefits that research is starting to hint towards. Keto deserves its own deep dive article which will be coming in the future.

Vegan/Vegetarian

These two diet types are slowly gaining more popularity as people look for alternatives to animal products. Choosing one of these diets for moral reasons is a noble choice and I respect those who have the will to do this. The issue usually comes with people who chose to make this transition strictly for health reasons, where cutting meat and animal products creates a craving.

When done correctly, vegan/vegetarian diets are a great way to lose weight and keep it off. Eating vegetables, legumes/beans, and healthy plant based fats are a great way to keep calories low while remaining full, due to the usually low calorie density of these types of foods, meaning you can eat a lot of volume without packing on the calories. However, these diets also allow for eating processed grains and fatty foods. Turning to these foods can ruin the benefits of this diet style and it becomes really easy to bog down the body and make yourself feel lethargic while packing in the calores, a lose-lose situation. 

One issue that many vegans/vegetarians run into is getting proper amounts of protein. By cutting out animal products, it can become difficult to consume proper protein amounts of 0.6g-1g of protein per pound of body weight. This level of protein is very helpful in keeping you full and also preserving muscle mass. Keeping muscle mass is important for keeping your resting metabolic rate high, since the two are directly correlated. There are plenty of plant sources that are high in protein, such as lintels and tofu, you just need to make sure to get them in your diet.

Moreover, there are certain vitamins and minerals, like B12, omega-3, iron, and vitamin D that vegans/vegetarians find themselves deficient in. These vitamins are essential for your body to function properly and could require supplementation to make sure you are not missing out on their benefits. Vitamin D is extremely important, especially now in a pandemic, since it is vital for immune health, and the majority of us are deficient. Consider taking 3000-5000 IUs a day to make sure you have adequate levels. 

Like most diets, as long as you focus on eating nutritious whole foods, the vegan/vegetarian diet can be a great way to improve your health. Some people respond better than others to this style of diet since we all have different genetic makeups. Consider giving it a shot and see how you feel during it. 

Raw Food Diet

This diet consists of eating whole foods. A whole food is anything that has not been processed or minimally processed. 

A lot of people who follow this diet believe that the majority of the food consumed this way should be eaten uncooked. 

Eating whole foods is a fantastic way to go about losing weight. These types of foods are packed with vitamins and are usually slower digesting and less calories than something that is processed. 

While this diet technically relies on eating a lot of uncooked foods, I think this is taking it a step too far. Whole foods are a great way to eat healthy and feel great, and there are plenty of ways to prepare them into delicious meals. If you take anything out of this diet, it should be to add more whole foods to your life. Your body will thank you.

Intermittent Fasting

Are you someone who skips breakfast? Congratulations, you are doing intermittent fasting. This diet has been growing in popularity and involves consuming your meals in what is called a feeding window. A typical feeding window would be 8 hours where you are allowed to eat and 16 hours of fasting. Some people make this more aggressive with shorter eating windows. Most people will accomplish this by skipping breakfast, so they break their fast with lunch at noon and then will have finished eating by 8pm that night. This can feel rough at first and can lead to strong feelings of hunger while you are waiting for your feeding window but over a few weeks, your body will adapt and that hunger feeling will fade.

There is no magic bullet that makes intermittent fasting better than any other diet. People have success with this diet because the limited feeding window creates a calorie deficit because they have less time to eat. Weight loss only occurs in a calorie deficit, so if you do intermittent fasting and still eat at or above your weight maintaining calorie level, you will not see any weight loss and could still gain weight. To see success with this diet, still aim to eat healthy and nutritious whole foods with low calorie density in your feeding window so that you are satiated while remaining in a calorie deficit. If done correctly, you can feel full for your entire feeding window. 

Any Type of Diet that Calls for a Cleanse

Cleanse diets have started to pop up more and more recently. These types of diets seem to be endorsed by certain types of celebrities and other personalities. They usually use one to multiple days of consuming strictly a type of juice or “cleanser” in order to “cleanse” the body.

If you could not tell my opinion on these diets from the quotes around “cleanse”, I do not endorse these diets at all. The body is great at cleansing itself and has been doing so since the beginning of human history. A cleanse style diet is a gimmick and the people who promote it are usually spouting pseudoscience without any factual evidence. These same people are usually trying to sell you their special way of doing this or sell you on the fact that they know something you do not.

Drinking juices for a day or multiple days is depriving your body of the calories it needs to function normally. These extreme calorie deficits usually leave you in a worse place than you started. Please stay away from anyone who tells you that you need to “cleanse” your body and they have the perfect way to do it.

Relying on a cleanse will not help your body function properly and could actually do the opposite. Focus on eating mostly nutrient dense whole foods to ensure your body is running at its peak performance.

Conclusion

Every diet has its pros and cons. There is no magic diet that will work for everyone. The magic diet for you is one that you can remain consistent with to eat the proper amount of calories for whatever your goal is, be it weight loss, weight gain, or maintaining. 

Completely cutting out your favorite foods is usually never the correct way to go about a diet as willpower is a limited resource and having to use it for too long to resist your favorite foods will result in a binge or breaking the diet. 

Finding clever ways to satisfy your cravings without breaking your diet so that you can enjoy what you eat while eating properly is the key to long term diet success. You do not have to be perfect. The key is trying to make the right decision more often than you make the wrong decision with the right food choices.