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All those crazy diets – different or similar?

Photo for The Union by John Hart
John Hart | The Union

The question we are asked more than any other at South Yuba Club is which “diet” do we recommend? Mediterranean? Paleo? Low Fat? Low Carb? Weight Watchers? What about vegan?

If a particular nutrition concept — like Paleo or vegetarianism — has worked for you personally, then that’s great. You should be happy you found something that helped you reach your goals. But just because it worked for you, at one point in your life, under a particular set of circumstances, doesn’t mean that everyone else should follow the same diet. I see both personal trainers and the general public often make this mistake.

The human body can do well under a variety of different nutritional conditions. This is clearly demonstrated by examining the traditional diets of various tribes and ethnic groups throughout the world. For example, the Arctic Inuit and African Masai eat traditional diets that are very high in fat and animal products with very few vegetables.



The Kitavans in the South Pacific eat traditional diets that are low in fat but very high in vegetables and starchy carbohydrates. Yet, all these traditional diet eaters are relatively healthy people with minimal incidences of cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity. This is only possible because the human body is amazingly adaptable to a variety of different dietary conditions.

So you’re probably wondering: How can such wildly different ways of eating all lead to positive results? Well, they’re not as different as you might think. Most effective nutrition programs are more similar than different. That’s because when done properly, Paleo diets, plant-based diets, low fat diets, low carbohydrates diets, eating small meals frequently, eating larger meals infrequently all accomplish the following components of a healthy diet.




Nutritional awareness and attention

Everyone wants to talk about the specific foods. What to eat more of and what to avoid. But research shows that simply paying better attention to what you eat is a key factor in whether you’ll lose fat, get lean and improve your health. Whether your attention is focused on avoiding carbohydrates, eating more vegetables, seeking out organic food, avoiding animal foods or avoiding “non Paleo” food, it’s all leads to better health. Because what you focus on may not matter as much as simply caring more about what you’re eating in the first place.

Focus on food quality

Paleo and low carbohydrates advocates want you to eat more natural, free-range animal-based foods that are higher in protein, higher in fat, and are minimally processed. Vegan and low fat advocates want you to eat more natural, plant-based foods that are higher in fiber, antioxidants, and are minimally processed. Recognize what’s common here?

None of the nutrition camps recommend you eat more processed, chemical-laden “junk” food. Instead, almost every diet camp recommends eating whole, minimally processed, nutrient-rich foods. And that may be one of the most important nutrition interventions of all, regardless of the protein, carbohydrate, and fat content.

Control appetite and food intake

When we’re more aware of what we’re eating, we tend to choose more satisfying, higher quality foods, and therefore often end up eating less total food. We feel more satisfied. We lose fat, gain lean muscle, and perform better. Focusing on food awareness and food quality is usually enough for people to tune into their own hunger and appetite. And that often means calorie control without the annoying calorie-counting math.

Regular exercise

When people start paying attention to their eating, they usually start thinking about physical activity and other healthy habits, too. In fact, most of the diet camps recommend regular exercise. When a person exercises regularly, with a mix of high and low intensity activity, they dramatically improve their ability to turn the food they eat into functional tissue (instead of extra fat) and are able to better regulate metabolic and their hormonal response to food.

You can now see how different well-designed dietary philosophies – even when they seem oppositional on the surface – can all promote good health, body composition and longevity. This is why choosing a single diet doesn’t make sense.

Just remember, all those diet gurus are in this game to get attention, make the rounds on TV and sell books. That’s why they try to force people into following strict and largely unnecessary nutrition rules — demonizing some foods, deifying others. But we all know how things turn out when real people try to follow specific diets in real life.

Instead, try this simple plan. Choose the healthiest versions of your favorite foods and then select the appropriate portion sizes of those foods. No calorie counting and no special diets. In my next article, I will lay out a simple method to correctly gauge portion sizes of your favorite foods based on your body type and size.

Mike Carville is a NASM/RKC certified Fitness Coach and co-owner of South Yuba Club in Nevada City and Grass Valley (www.southyubaclub.com). Contact him at: mikec@southyubaclub.com.


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