Based on a conversation with Michelle Valentino, FNP
From low-carb to low-cal, there’s an overwhelming amount of diets out there purporting to be the “perfect” fit for anyone on a mission to eat healthy.
But — spoiler alert! — every single human being requires a unique nutritional plan and what works perfectly for one person may actually have the opposite effect on another.
“Establishing a healthy relationship with one’s body and food is the most important goal for anyone, regardless of their nutritional goals,” says Michelle Valentino, FNP.
It is important to talk about food with your primary care provider and it may be beneficial to involve a nutritionist or dietician.”
Rather than get swept up in the media hype surrounding a particular eating plan, get the facts from Valentino what a few of the most headline-worthy different diets are actually all about.
Potential Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
Plant-based or plant-forward eating patterns, which primarily focus on foods that come from plants, vegetables, oils, or legumes (nuts), may offer some health benefits.
“Such a diet does not mean that one is vegan or vegetarian—merely that they’re proportionally choosing more food from plants,” Valentino explains.”
Plant-based diets offer all the necessary carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals needed for optimal health and are higher in fiber and phytonutrients.”
For people who do choose to be vegan (i.e. those who do not eat any food derived from animals and who typically also avoid other animal products), Valentino recommends supplementing with vitamin B12 to ensure all basic nutritional needs are met.
There has been a slew of nutrition research dedicated to examining plant-based eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet (which has a foundation of plant-based foods and includes fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt a few times a week with meat less often) and vegetarian diet.
“Both large population studies and randomized clinical trials have shown that the Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and certain cancers — specifically colon, breast, and prostate,” Valentino says.
“It has also been shown to reduce the risk of depression and the risk of fragility in older adults, along with better mental and physical function.”
Vegetarian diets have benefits including a lower risk of developing coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes and may also increase longevity.
Potential Benefits of Caloric Restriction
Caloric restriction is a consistent pattern of reducing average daily caloric intake below what is habitual or typical.
It’s a controversial approach but Valentino says that as long as a person is not going so far as to become malnourished or depriving themselves of essential nutrients, research indicates caloric restriction might reduce risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, and stroke.
While some animal studies have shown that caloric restriction may be associated with a longer life span, the National Institute on Aging says “more research is needed before we understand its long-term effects” and “there are no data in humans on the relationship between calorie restriction and longevity.”
“Several [animal] studies focusing on what occurs in the body when caloric restriction is implemented have shown that caloric restriction affects many processes related to aging, such as inflammation, sugar metabolism, maintenance of protein structures, and the ability to provide energy for cellular processes,” Valentino says.
“Caloric restriction also modifies DNA and affects oxidative stress, which is the production of toxic byproducts of oxygen metabolism that can damage cells and tissues.”
With all that in mind, research has also suggested that the supposed benefits of caloric restriction could have more to do with decreasing intake of animal protein, which increases inflammation in the body that leads to risk of developing things such as coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes and decreased longevity.
“If reducing meat does not suit an individual’s lifestyle, it is recommended instead to have several days a week in which one follows a vegetarian diet,” Valentino says.
Potential Benefits of Fasting
Fasting regimens, which typically focus on the frequency of eating, limit or eliminate food intake during certain hours of the day or certain weeks or months. A fasting diet typically leads to reduced caloric consumption.
“During fasting, the body uses up glucose and glycogen, which are its primary energy sources during the day when an individual is eating,” Valentino says.
“When glucose and glycogen are consumed, the body then turns to ketones from fat. Ketones may help certain cells, especially brain cells, work more efficiently.”
Some researchers believe that because ketones are a more efficient energy source than glucose, they may protect against age-related decline in the central nervous system such as dementia.
Because malignant cancer cells cannot effectively obtain energy from ketones, it is also possible that ketones may reduce the risk of cancer. Ketones may also help protect against inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. They also reduce insulin levels in the blood, which may protect against type 2 diabetes.
“There is some evidence that circadian rhythm fasting, when combined with a healthy diet and lifestyle, can be a particularly effective approach to weight loss, especially for those at risk of diabetes,” Valentino says.”
However, children, teens, individuals with diabetes, those with a history of eating disorders, and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not attempt intermittent fasting unless they are under the close supervision of a medical professional.”
Potential Benefits of Carbohydrate Restriction
When it comes to weight loss plans, low carbohydrate diets still seem to receive the most attention. “Research has shown that a moderately low carbohydrate diet may help with weight loss,” Valentino says.
“In a low-carb diet, one reduces their reduced intake of grains and starchy fruits and vegetables while increasing their protein and fat intake. Many types of low-carb diets exist, each with varying restrictions on the amounts and types of carbohydrates one can eat.”
Low-carb diets might help with weight loss and body composition goals and some people may experience benefits like a reduced risk of diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
However, anyone with any history of disordered eating or who may have existing health issues should consult with their doctor.
“We recommend checking with your medical provider before starting a low carb diet, especially if you have heart disease,” Valentino says.
Finding the Right Type of Guidance
While all this basic info may help clarify some of the complex and contradictory claims you’ve seen or read regarding different diets, these facts are just a starting point for embarking on any kind of dietary change.
The best way to make a healthy, safe plan of action is to consult with a professional.
So how do you decide between seeing a nutritionist or dietitian?
“For those without specific health concerns, a nutritionist is likely the best fit,” Valentino says.
“For those who are seeking to change their diets but have specific health concerns, a dietician is likely to be more helpful as they have disease-specific training.
Those with very specific goals in mind, such as fitness enthusiasts, can be well-served by consulting with either a nutritionist or dietician.”
Given how important nutrition is to one’s overall health and the complexity of nutrition, dieticians and nutritionists can offer important insights to help achieve health and dietary goals.
“Ultimately, regardless of the diet you choose or your nutritional goals, the most important thing is to find a food plan that works for you,” Valentino says.
“Recognize that each type of diet isn’t the right fit for everyone, and that’s okay. The most important thing is to establish a healthy relationship with your own body and the food that you consume.”
If you or anyone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) offers support by chat, call, or text.