When you start considering new diets, you're quickly bombarded more questions than answers. What's the difference between keto and paleo? Is the Mediterranean diet better than plant-based? Should you go gluten-free or low-carb? Which diet is the healthiest and most sustainable--and which are just fads?
In this guide, we're going to breakdown today's most common diets, list their pros and cons, and provide you with the information you need to figure out which diet and lifestyle is right for you and your health goals.
First up is the keto diet.
Ketosis is the state where your body burns fat instead of carbs for energy. The keto diet seeks to put your body into ketosis by restricting carbs and calories. In order to achieve this, the keto diet is high in protein and fat while low in carbs.
The keto diet was originally developed to reduce seizures in children with epilepsy, and scientific research is investigating if it can help those suffering from neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease. The keto diet caught on in the fitness and weight loss world like many low-carb diets before it.
KETO DIET Pros
Many people lose weight on the keto diet, whether due to burning more fat in ketosis or simply eliminating carbs and restricting calories.
You can eat rich foods like red meat, fatty fish, nuts, cheese, and butter while still losing weight.
KETO DIET Cons
The keto diet is difficult to sustain and must be strictly followed, requiring food restrictions and food intake tracking, which can lead to yo-yo dieting.
The process of switching your body into ketosis takes several weeks during which you will feel foggy and tired or even experience flu-like symptoms.
Without proper dietary guidance, the keto diet can lack essential nutrients and fiber.
The paleo diet restricts foods to those that might have been eaten during mankind’s early history, back in the Paleolithic era. A paleo diet is typically high in lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds -- foods that could be obtained by hunting and gathering.
On a paleo diet, you prioritize unprocessed, whole foods, avoiding grains, sugar, beans, legumes, and dairy. The rationale is that these didn’t become a major part of humankind’s diet until relatively recently in our evolution -- about 10,000 years ago, when farming and agriculture first developed -- and therefore we didn’t evolve to eat them.
PALEO DIET Pros
At its core, the paleo diet is about eating unprocessed, whole foods, especially lean meats, fish and seafood, and non-starchy vegetables, which eliminates many junk foods.
Like most low-carb diets, the paleo diet can help people lose weight.
PALEO DIET Cons
The paleo diet cuts out healthy foods like whole grains, beans, and legumes, and when taken to extremes, even essentials like salt.
The “paleo” theory doesn’t stand up to strict scientific scrutiny, as researchers have found our ancestors ate wild grains up to 20,000 years before the Paleolithic era, and we see recent evolutions in human genes that improve our ability to digest starches.
Plant-Based & Vegan Diets
Plant-based diets are those that eliminate most or all meats and animal products. Plant-based diets have grown in popularity in recent years, and many food producers are releasing new plant-based products like burgers, cheeses, milks, eggs, and more.
The most common plant-based diets are vegetarian and vegan. Vegetarians don’t eat meat, chicken, or fish. A vegan takes this further and doesn’t consume anything derived from animals, including eggs, milk, and cheese. As you’d expect, plant-based diets are high in fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, seeds, and grains.
Less strict plant-based diets include pescatarian, which is like vegetarian except fish and seafood are allowed, or flexitarian, which is plant-based most of the time, but with occasional animal products.
Plant-Based & Vegan Diets Pros
Research shows many health benefits to plant-based diets, including lowered risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
Eating plant-based foods may be more in line with your ethical views on the humane treatment of animals, sustainability, and protecting the environment.
Plant-Based & Vegan Diet Cons
Without proper meal planning, eating a well-balanced plant-based diet that’s low in processed foods can be challenging and expensive.
You are limited in what you can order off the menu at many places when eating out.
On a strict vegan diet, you need to supplement certain vitamins like B12.
Of all the diets we’ve talked about, the Mediterranean diet can claim the best scientific evidence for its benefits, which show it reduces the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and breast cancer.
On the Mediterranean diet, you are not restricted in what you can or can’t eat, and you don’t count calories or limit portions. Instead, you’re encouraged to eat a well-balanced diet of healthy whole foods like those common to Mediterranean cultures, such as fruits, vegetables, fish, olive oil, nuts, beans, legumes, whole grains, and even red wine and dairy.
Mediterranean Diet Pros
You can enjoy a varied diet of many flavorful foods without counting calories or obeying restrictive or complex rules.
Strong evidence shows the Mediterranean diet is much healthier than the average American diet, significantly reducing risks of many common chronic diseases.
Mediterranean Diet Cons
You may not get enough of some nutrients like vitamin D and calcium if less dairy is consumed (though with proper dietary guidance you can get these from other sources like whole grains, leafy greens, and fortified foods like soy milk).
While its relaxed guidelines may appeal to many, some may have trouble sticking to a weight loss plan without specific calorie counts, portion sizes, and lists of foods to eat or avoid.
Low-carb diets have been around for a long time, with Atkins being the classic example. In recent years, keto and paleo diets have taken over the low-carb diet space, and low-carb versions of vegan and Mediterranean diets have also popped up. Low-carb diets tend to be high in meat and fat while cutting most or all carbohydrates, such as grains, rice, and sugar.
Low-carb diets never go away since they offer quick weight loss results, but without proper dietary guidance and long-term lifestyle changes they are likely to lead to rebound weight gain.
Low-Carb Diet Pros
Low-carb diets have always shown some success in making people lose weight, if that’s your only goal.
With the popularity of keto and paleo diets, you can find low-carb options for many foods that were not available in the past.
Low-Carb Diet Cons
Low-carb diets tend to encourage crash dieting, which may give quick results temporarily, but ultimately lead to rebound weight gain and worse health markers in the long run.
The gluten-free diet eliminates all foods containing the gluten protein found in wheat and other grains. People with celiac disease must eat strictly gluten-free because their intestines are damaged by gluten, which prevents them from absorbing nutrients from their food. In recent years, less serious forms of gluten-sensitivity have been found as well.
Because they are already low-carb and grain-free, keto and paleo diets are often de facto gluten-free diets as well.
Gluten-Free Diet Pros
Some people find that a gluten-free diet reduces their digestive problems and other symptoms like chronic inflammation and headaches.
With the rising demand for gluten-free products, there has never before been so many gluten-free options on the grocery store shelves or restaurant menus as there are today.
Following a strict gluten-free diet is difficult since wheat is used in so many foods, and you may struggle to find gluten-free options when eating out.
A gluten-free diet may not be necessary for those without celiac's disease or gluten sensitivity, and an easier-to-follow diet could be a better alternative.
Without wheat-based foods you may not get enough fiber or nutrients like iron and vitamin D.
The low-FODMAP diet is less well known than others like the gluten-free diet despite there being more dietary research to back up its claims. FODMAPs are carbohydrates that ferment in the digestive tract where they can cause gastrointestinal distress. A low-FODMAP diet is recommended for people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other digestive problems.
Because the gluten-free diet eliminates many FODMAPs, people without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity who feel better when eating gluten-free may be inadvertently enjoying the benefits of a low-FODMAP diet.
Low-FODMAP Diet Pros
Dietary research backs up the low-FODMAP diet’s claims to relieve digestive problems and bloating.
While not as wide-spread as gluten-free products, low-FODMAP products are showing up on more store shelves.
Through experimentation, you can find out which of the FODMAP carbohydrates affect you and at what amounts, allowing you to still enjoy smaller portions of those foods when you crave them.
Low-FODMAP Diet Cons
Keeping track of what foods do and don’t contain FODMAPs is difficult, and you will need to educate yourself and use a FODMAP guide while shopping until you learn the ropes.
Some of the most common ingredients in cooking like garlic and onion are major FODMAPs, making them very hard to avoid.
I hope this diet crash course has helped clear up any confusions you have on the topic. As you can likely tell by now, there is no single cookie-cutter diet that's right for everyone, but there are universal principles of health and nutrition you can apply to your situation. If you still have questions, you're welcome to message me. I'd love to hear from you!