It's hard to believe that 2009, the year that Avatar was the most popular movie and people danced to the Black Eyed Peas' Boom Boom Pow, was 10 years ago. In that time, many fad diets have come, gone, and come again. Food science has changed vastly in the past few decades and has caused many heated debates on what's healthy and unhealthy for the human body. Confusingly, different studies and research support both sides of food debates, so it's hard to know what and how we should eat.
At hippo.co.za, we're not food or health experts, but we thought it would be fun to investigate some of the theories and principles behind the most popular diets of the last 10 years, as well as their pros and cons.
Some people believe that, because our diets have changed so much in the past 10,000 years, our bodies haven't had time to properly adapt to process the foods we eat. They believe this is the main cause of many modern diseases such as diabetes and obesity. That's why the paleo diet recommends eating only what our ancestors ate during the paleolithic era between 2.5 million and 10,000 years ago.
Because people during this era ate what was available to them depending on their location, it's a fairly flexible diet today. You can eat meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruit, and healthy oils and fats, like avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, and coconut oil. Avoid legumes, dairy, grains, potatoes, salt, and refined sugar because people only began to eat these after they stopped hunting and gathering.
Paleo diet pros
The paleo diet encourages eating whole foods and discourages eating processed and refined foods, so in principle, it's a healthy diet. Many people lose weight on it because they're not consuming loads of hidden sugar while getting a lot more nutrients out of more natural foods.
Paleo diet cons
The diet assumes that our ancestors were a lot healthier than we are. However, they still harboured parasites and suffered from infectious diseases. Also, many of the fruits and vegetables we eat today didn't exist then.
Our blood's pH levels are naturally between 7.35 and 7.45, which is slightly alkaline. The alkaline diet proposes that, by avoiding acidic foods, we can reduce inflammation in our bodies and prevent diseases like cancer and acid reflux. Alcohol, coffee, meat, and pasta are no-nos, while low-sugar fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and nuts are fine.
Alkaline diet pros
The foods encouraged by the alkaline diet are good for you; eating more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts are excellent ways to get more nutrients.
Alkaline diet cons
Many scientists disagree that what we eat affects the pH level of our blood, so the theory behind the diet doesn't necessarily hold up. Also, some of the restricted foods are actually healthy for you; some fruit, vegetables, and legumes, like pomegranates and black beans, are slightly acidic and so are not allowed.
Several countries border the Mediterranean, therefore the Mediterranean diet isn't one single, prescriptive way of eating – different countries have different diets after all.
More a way of life, this diet emphasises the experience of dining, making mealtimes an occasion, and eating a balanced variety of foods. Fish and chicken are consumed in abundance, as are fresh fruit and vegetables, and olive oil. Even red wine is okay on the Mediterranean diet, providing it's consumed in limited quantities.
Mediterranean diet pros
Heart disease is less common in Mediterranean countries than in many other developed nations, so the Mediterranean diet is believed to be good for heart health. It's low in saturated 'bad fats' and high in unsaturated 'good fats', so it's thought to keep cholesterol levels low.
Mediterranean diet cons
Because it's less a scientifically based diet and more a lifestyle, it can be confusing for people following it. For instance, while red wine is allowed in 'limited quantities', it's not always clear what those quantities are. The fact that this diet isn't prescriptive is great for some people, but it can make it difficult to follow correctly.
The idea behind Whole30 is doing a 30-day 'reset' on your body. If you're thinking of going on this diet, be prepared to forego alcohol, added sugar and sweeteners, grains, legumes, and dairy.
Rather than portion control and calorie-counting, the diet consists of foods that you can eat in fairly large quantities without worrying about weight gain – think broccoli and fish.
Whole30 diet pros
Despite all the polarising food research, most experts agree that sugar in large quantities is bad for our health, and on the Whole30 diet, you cannot eat foods or drinks with added sugar. It also encourages reading food labels – a good practice anyway because people learn more about what they put into their bodies.
Whole30 diet cons
As with many other diets, the downside to Whole30 is eliminating food groups; many experts believe that a healthy diet is a balance of all food groups. Whole30 eliminates dairy, legumes, and grains, which contain high amounts of calcium, iron, folate, protein, and certain vitamins, all of which are necessary for good health.
The Banting diet is named after William Banting, who reportedly cured himself of obesity by following a low-carb high-fat (LCHF) diet. LCHF diets have been around for over a century, but the Banting version of it has exploded in popularity in the last decade, especially in South Africa. Carbs are the enemy and, because you need another source of energy, eating fat is not only allowed, it's encouraged.
Banting diet pros
Being allowed to eat fried bacon and eggs for breakfast every day sounds less like a diet and more like a dream come true. Also, many people report having more energy after a few weeks on the diet, and it eliminates most sugars.
Banting diet cons
Excluding carbohydrates, many experts argue, is unhealthy. Carbs are a macronutrient, which means they are considered necessary in large quantities for our growth and survival. A Banting diet can also cause bad breath, as the lungs secrete ammonia as a by-product of burning fat.
The name says it all. Any food that has been heated to over 40°C, refined, pasteurised, processed, or treated with pesticides can't be eaten. You can, however, juice, dehydrate, and soak your food.
The idea behind the raw food diet is that foods lose most of their nutrients through heating and cooking, so to maximise the nutrients you get, you should eat mostly raw foods.
Raw food diet pros
A raw food diet naturally leads to eating more vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds, which means you consume a lot of nutrients to keep you healthy. These also contain only natural sugars and are low in sodium, so you're eating less of the bad stuff.
Raw food diet cons
The idea that all foods lose their nutrients when heated and cooked is simply untrue. While some nutrients, like vitamin C, are better consumed from raw foods, many others are better consumed after cooking, such as iron. Cooking actually raises the nutrient profile of many foods, such as tomatoes.
The fertility diet is split into 10 steps and, although it was originally created to help women conceive, almost everyone can go on this diet. Eating healthy fats, plant-based proteins, full-fat dairy, and whole grains, while avoiding saturated fats, sugars, and refined carbs make this a fairly standard and balanced diet.
Fertility diet pros
One of the 10 steps is exercise, so it encourages you to be healthy outside of just the foods you eat. Also, women with reproductive disorders such as polycystic ovary syndrome, which is greatly affected by what they eat, can benefit from the fertility diet, whether they are trying to conceive or simply keep their health in check.
Fertility diet cons
Because it's so balanced, there are few risks or cons with the fertility diet. However, there is one area of risk that research has not yet cleared up; some studies have shown that dairy improves fertility while others have shown the opposite.
Made famous by Kate Middleton, this diet will likely give you rapid weight loss. If you're a meat-lover, you'd probably adore it, but other foods are extremely limited. Meals are based on high protein and very little fat, which makes it quite different to many other modern diets which encourage high-fat foods. It's divided into four phases: Attack, Cruise, Consolidation, and Stabilisation. The first two phases focus on losing weight while the second two are for maintaining your weight loss.
Dukan diet pros
Because you consume so much protein, which helps you feel fuller for longer, you won't feel hungry on the Dukan diet. Additionally, splitting the diet into separate weight loss and maintenance categories can help people keep the weight off.
Dukan diet cons
Because the diet restricts so many foods, there is a concern that dieters don't get the nutrients they need. According to the programme, you can consume only protein on certain days, which means you're not getting a daily intake of vegetables or fruits.
While veganism has been around for centuries, it is steadily gaining in popularity. Vegans eat only plants and plant-based foods, and exclude all meat, dairy, and eggs from their diets.
Vegan diet pros
For many vegans, the diet has less to do with fixing health problems and losing weight and more to do with the moral concerns around eating animals. For those with these concerns, the vegan diet is ideal as you eat no foods that are animal based.
For those who do want to lose weight, the vegan diet automatically cuts out many foods that are high in calories, which can lead to weight loss.
Vegan diet cons
Unfortunately, the opposite can happen to those new to a vegan diet. They may feel hungry all the time and reach for foods that are high in saturated fat and sugars to feel satiated, which besides being unhealthy lead to weight gain.
Many people automatically think of low iron levels in vegan diets, but iron is actually quite easy to consume through foods such as beans and spinach. The bigger problem is usually a vitamin B12 deficiency. This is present in dairy and meat and it's difficult to get enough through fruit and veggies. When the body doesn't get enough of it, it can lead to fatigue and other long-term problems.
While only about 1% of people worldwide have coeliac disease (an autoimmune disease that generates an intestinal reaction when a person consumes gluten), eating gluten-free food has become very popular. On a gluten-free diet, you avoid foods such as wheat bread, some pastas, and cakes. Gluten is, surprisingly, in many foods in the form of additives, like tomato sauce and ice cream, which can make following this diet a challenge.
Gluten-free diet pros
If you have coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity, following a gluten-free diet can be life-changing, as sufferers often deal with diarrhoea, bloating, and abdominal pain.
Gluten-free diet cons
Gluten-free foods are often loaded with sugar and fat to make them more palatable, leading to unhealthy weight gain. Many people also completely eliminate carbs from their diets, even though not all carbs contain gluten. This can lead to some nutrient deficiencies.
Created by a retired South African veterinarian, this diet allows you to eat just one meal per day, which should be low in carbs and high in fat and protein. It's based on studies that suggest fasting can have health benefits for certain diseases, but the scientific community is divided on whether doing this every day is good for you.
Wolf diet pros
Eating one meal per day is probably going to cut your monthly grocery bills in half, at least.
Wolf diet cons
There is little room in this diet for vegetables and fruit, which can lead to serious nutrient deficiency. Also, eating one meal a day can affect your glucose levels, making them less stable, which can lead to dizziness.
Some of these diets seem crazy and some make sense, but they are all (supposedly) based on scientific research. Have you tried any of these diets? Did they help you lose weight or improve your health?
Sources: Best Health Mag; Red Book Mag; NCBI; Precise Nutrition; The Cut; Livestrong; Eating Well; Very Well Fit; US News; Self; Outside Online;
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