With an overwhelming amount of health and nutrition advice out there, it can be confusing to know what to listen to. Deciding which diet works best for our individual health goals and lifestyle can be challenging. If you’re like me, you’ve probably experimented with a variety of different diets to see how your body responds. This ongoing n of 1 experimentation has allowed me to fine-tune my dietary choices to use food as fuel to optimize my performance. Through trial and error I have learned what foods work best for me to increase energy, boost immunity, and feel great and which foods to avoid that contribute to fatigue, inflammation, and toxicity.
“Traditionally, nutrition research has dealt with providing nutrients to nourish populations. Nowadays, it focuses on improving the health of individuals through diet. Modern molecular nutritional research is aiming at health promotion and disease prevention and at performance improvement. Personalized nutrition is the concept of adapting food to individual needs.”
Because we’re all genetically different it makes sense that what works for one person does not guarantee it will work for another. However, regardless of genetic makeup, scientific studies have been performed that indicate we would likely all stand to benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables and less meat, dairy, and processed foods.
Eating a plant-based diet is not only better for our health, but necessary for our future. Over the next decade, the world’s population is predicted to head towards hockey-stick type growth. As a planet, will not have the land and natural resources necessary to feed the world’s rising population. This is why many experts argue that, “nutrition has the most important life-long environmental impact on human health.” Kussmann and Fay.
Assuming you want to make a change in your behavior to not only improve your own health and wellness, but also to contribute to a more sustainable future, which diet should you choose? The following is a brief overview of various plant-based diets. What follows is a brief overview of some of the most popularized plant-based diets to point out a few of the positives and negatives for each
Veganism: Strict vegans refrain from consuming and using all animal products. This includes eggs, dairy, and any animal-derived substances. For best results, it is advised that vegans eat a wide range of fruits, vegetables, and grains to meet their daily macro and micronutrient needs.
- Arguably the most humane, eco-friendly, and sustainable diet.
- Reduces exposure to harmful toxins, hormones, and antibiotics typically used in meat and dairy production.
- May lead to consuming higher amounts of processed foods to seek out vegan options (i.e. fake soy meats and packaged food) that may contain harmful artificial sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup, and other unhealthy additives. Just because something is “vegan” does not mean that it is healthy.
- May lack certain key nutrients proven to be optimal for health that they are not getting through diet (i.e. Omega 3 (EPA/DHA), vitamin K2 (mk-4/mk-7), vitamin D3, vitamin A, and vitamin B12
- Tends to be less practical and more idealistic than other diets and may be difficult to adhere to based on accessibility to vegan-friendly food choices
Vegetarianism: A vegetarian diet is one that is meat-free, but may include eggs and dairy known as a lacto-ovo vegetarian. Veganism is also a type of vegetarian diet, but the main difference between the two is that vegetarianism is usually constrained to what one eats whereas veganism is a lifestyle.
- Allows for a wider diversity of food options than a strict vegan diet, which can help to fill some of the common nutritional gaps that can occur in veganism
- May help to alleviate certain chronic illnesses and other health issues that are typically associated with eating a standard westernized diet
- Usually easy to find vegetarian options when dining out
- Failure to thrive (FTT). It may not be the optimal diet for you personally and could be the reason for any of the following: constant hunger cravings, poor sex drive, poor sleep quality, mood instability, dietary inconsistency, and in some cases nutrient deficiencies
- Goes against human evolution. Science demonstrates that we as humans, have evolved to be omnivores, to eat a diversity of foods, which includes meat from animals.
- Consuming dairy from industrialized farm animals contributes to the same inhumane practices as eating meat and includes ingestion of antibiotics and hormones that are used on these animals.
Plant-Based Sub-Categories: Because each of the following consumes meat, by definition they are not considered to be vegetarian diets. Pescatarian (does not eat meat, but includes fish), pollotarian (does not eat meat, but includes poultry), and flexitarian (someone who eats a meatless diet sometimes).
- By allowing for the consumption of some meat, it may help to reduce the “yo-yo” effect, which can be common with more restrictive diets
- Can make eating in social settings more convenient
- Makes up in key nutritional categories where strict vegan and vegetarian diets are deficient
- Need to be more aware of food sourcing to seek out healthy options that do not contain harmful toxicities
- Industrialized hen houses and farm-raised fisheries are contributing factors in environmental waste, deteriorating quality of our food system, and the inhumane treatment of animals
- Access to and availability of high-quality fish and poultry options can be difficult
Paleolithic “Paleo”: The paleo diet is a diet based on the types of foods presumed to be eaten by our early ancestors during the paleolithic era. Because this era was before modern-day farming and agricultural techniques, it excludes dairy, grain, and processed foods. It is a diet that consists of fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, nuts and seeds, and healthy natural oils and fats.
- Evolutionary research shows that a low-carb, high-fat diet was what the human species consumed during our formative years and it wasn’t until recently with the introduction of modern agriculture and industrialized farming that grains and legumes became staples in our diet.
- Avoiding dairy, grains, and processed foods can help to eliminate many of the harmful food additives and toxins that have contributed to poor health and lifestyle illnesses
- Ability to enjoy a balanced range of food to meet all our nutrient essentials
- Industrialized farming of animals is one of the leading contributors to environmental waste and pollution
- Consuming grass-fed, organic, and wild-caught sources of meat is ideal but is more expensive and not always readily available
- Overconsumption of protein from animal sources may be harmful to our health
- As a population, continuing to consume animal proteins at the current rate is not sustainable
Ketogenic: The diet is high in fat, low in carbohydrates, and supplies adequate protein, which changes the way energy is used in the body. Instead of predominantly relying on carbohydrates for fuel, the body uses fat for energy, which leads to elevated ketone bodies in the blood otherwise known as “ketosis”. Typical breakdown of macros would be 75% dietary calories from fat, 20% protein, and 5% carbohydrates. In order for the body to enter and stay in ketosis, it is necessary to keep carbohydrates to a minimum and consume protein in moderation. Type of food consumed is generally most similar to a paleo diet.
- Very effective for weight loss since your body uses fat stores as primary energy source
- Promising scientific research has pointed to the use of ketogenic diets in the treatment of cancer, various chronic illnesses, and in improving certain biomarkers such as cholesterol and triglycerides
- More consistent energy and improved feeling of satiety. Reduces carb and sugar cravings
- Being “keto-adapted” can result in mood elevation, increased energy, and improved stability in blood levels
- The transition from a standard western diet to ketosis can cause fatigue, headaches, mental fog, flu-like symptoms a.k.a. “the keto flu”, dizziness and irritability. These symptoms usually subside after one week of being strict keto.
- May require precise weighing and measuring of food as well as checking blood glucose levels to determine if you are in a state of ketosis
- When transitioning to a ketogenic diet you may experience limitations in physical performance and energy output. This usually dissipates as your body adapts to using fat as a primary fuel source.
Mediterranean Diet: This is the diet that replicates what was theoretically consumed by our early neolithic ancestors with the introduction of agriculture. The diet emphasizes eating predominantly plant-based foods including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and legumes. It suggests limiting red meat consumption to just a few times per month and opting for fish and seafood more frequently. Healthy fats from natural oils should replace saturated fats and butter.
- Promotes heart health compared to the standard western diet
- Promotes regular physical activity as a healthy lifestyle behavior to maintain weight
- High in antioxidants from fruits and vegetables
- Does not specify targets for macro and micronutrient intake
- Health benefits of daily consumption of wine are likely overstated
- Very broad in scope. Fails to take into consideration the quality of food choices and the manner in which they were raised and/or produced.
The aforementioned are just a handful of plant-based diets that have become popularized in modern culture. The controversy between which diet is optimal will continue to be debated. Each diet has a valid argument for or against it depending on the purpose of the diet and the lens from which it is examined. For example, in regard to sustainability and impact on the environment, it’s hard to argue against a vegan diet. However, if the objective is weight loss, a ketogenic diet may be best. Additionally, it is impossible to make fair assessments between diets without considering the quality and source of foods consumed. A person who eats a paleo diet from all organic fruits and vegetables, wild-caught and sustainable seafood, grass-fed beef and wild game may arguably be better off than a vegan who consumes highly processed meat substitutes and genetically modified soy, fruits and vegetables. The problem with ALL diets is that they are intended to be a broad set of guidelines applied to a diverse group rather than a specific set of principles that are personalized for the individual.
Humans by nature are tribal. Being part of a group with a common set of ideals and values provides a sense of identity and belonging. This includes the food tribes that we subscribe to. Like most tribes that exist in society, be it political, religious, geographic, educational, or other, food tribes have their own set of dogmatism that when unquestioned may be hurting us more than helping.
“As the planet gets more crowded, the reputed economic advantages of vegetarian diets and their presumed more-efficient use of land and resources than heavy animal-food diets will continue to attract more attention. This motivation for considering vegetarian diets on an economic level has also been accompanied by the more personal motivations people have to improve their own health as well.”
When it comes to diet we would be wise to each do our own experimenting with food to determine what works best for us as individuals rather than what is determined to be socially acceptable and optimal by the group. One way to do this is through the elimination approach. Having a roadmap like The LYFESTYLE Program can be a great way to learn what works best for you as an individual without sacrificing the support and knowledge you would gain by belonging to a community. Join others just like you who are committed to improving health and unlocking our full human potential. By going through a progression of eliminating certain food groups from the diet we can restore the body’s homeostasis and begin to learn what is optimal for us as individuals. When we gradually reintroduce foods one by one to the diet, we will gain a much deeper understanding of what is optimal for our specific needs and preferences. Self-experimentation and questioning everything we think we know is the best way to create a personalized dietary and nutrition plan that will lead to optimal health and longevity. Food is necessary to our survival, but the moment when we learn how to use food to our benefit is the moment we begin to thrive!
- Kussmann M, Affolter M, Fay LB: Proteomics in nutrition and health. Comb. Chem. High Throughput Screen. 8, 679-696 (2005).
- Kussmann, Martin, and Laurent B. Fay. “Nutrigenomics and Personalized Nutrition: Science and Concept.” Personalized Medicine. Medscape, 5 May 2008. Web. 23 Mar. 2016
- Nicholson, Ward. “What Happens If Vegetarian Diets Are Not Best for Everyone?” What Happens If Vegetarian Diets Are Not Best for Everyone? Beyond Vegetarianism, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2016.