I have a special place in my heart for fad diets. I know, I know, fad diets are evil and if we try one our weight will balloon up like Violet from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Nevertheless I believe fad diets have a lot to teach us.
It’s easy to demonize fad diets, page through a health and fitness magazine today and you find authors ridiculing paleo, ketogenic, and everything in between. I’m hear to say that it isn’t all bad.
Fad diets aren’t created by some villainous medical researcher who’s went rogue and decided to convince everyone’s aunt to eat only protein for the rest of her life. Most start with the intent of helping people improve their health, but we humans have a tendency to take dietary recommendations and and turn them into a religious war. To see this tendency in action let’s look at the paleo diet.
The Paleo Diet
For the casual observer of dietary trends in America the paleo diet jumped onto the scene around 2010, really beginning to hit it’s stride in 2013 when it topped Google’s charts as the most searched for diet. Though it’s origins go back much earlier than that (John Kellogg and Weston A. Price were tossing around ideas of eating like our ancestors in the early 1900’s).
In short the paleo diet revolves around the following notion: if our hunter gather ancestors didn’t eat it, neither should you. The core of this idea stems from looking at the evolutionary history of humanity and applying some of the things we know hunger-gatherers did and ate to our daily life. People significantly smarter than myself have written books that dissect human health from an evolutionary perspective. A personal favorite of mine being The Story of the Human Body by Daniel E. Lieberman. Though not a “paleo book” per say, it takes the reader on a journey through what we know about the evolutionary process and how it effects our health.
This idea is especially useful, looking at health through an evolutionary lens has a played an instrumental role in bringing ideas like sugar avoidance and into the public eye.
Why All the Hate?
Paleo is a lot more than just a diet—it’s a thriving business. Paleo cook books, recipes, and weight loss guides line the health and fitness section of local book stores. It’s no surprise, there is a ton of money in weight loss. Instead of thinking about health through an evolutionary lens paleo folk became deeply infatuated with the minutia. For example the article What You Can’t Eat on the Paleo Diet from Paleo Grubs lists all of the things that a good paleo dieter should avoid. Below is their list of foods that one “cannot eat” according to the article:
- Artificial Ingredients
- Hydrogenated Oils
- Junk Food
- Fast Food
- Processed Foods
There is some bad stuff on this list. For most people eliminating these foods would mean a significantly improved diet. Heck, even I avoid most of these.
So what’s my issue? I’ve got a couple.
Avoiding everything on this list equally doesn’t make sense. While the scientific community has no debate about whether or not ancient man drank Dr. Pepper during mammoth roasts there is debate about the inclusion of grains, dairy, legumes, and potatoes.
Paleo folks could end up being correct in eliminating these foods from their diet, but the level of confidence is not the same for each item.
Independent research has backed up the negative effects of soda, processed foods, and artificial ingredients time and again—but beans? It’s debatable.
Studies have shown that the phytate found in beans does decrease absorption of certain nutrients. But where does this stack up in relation to the damage sugar consumption can have on the body? Everything in the world of health exists on sliding scale, these answers aren’t black and white. While it may be prudent to remove phytate your diet, we know with a lot more certainty removing sugar will have a larger benefit.
The simplification of foods you “can” and “cannot” eat is a big problem. It attempts to frame the complex world of nutrition into overly simplistic rules.
This is part of the reason fad diets are so frustrating. One diet says carbohydrates are bad, another tells you to eat tons of them. How can we consolidate these ideas? Rather than gaining an understanding of the mechanisms behind each diet the average person decides to label both as “fad diets” and put them in the mental bin of things that are quackery and don’t deserve their mental energy, right alongside telepathy and flat earth conspiracies.
Ordered eaters aren’t average people, instead of turning a blind eye to the newest fad diet we do the opposite. It is important to approach new dietary trends with an open mind and view them as a learning experience.
Rather than internally thinking “Oh, just another stupid fad diet” try “How did this diet come about?” on for size. More often than not you will realize the core of the diet has something interesting we can learn from. By doing this we can begin to recognize commonalities behind these diets, by looking at enough diets in this way trends appear.
Let’s take a look at two diets that, on the surface, are polar opposites but have more similarities than one may initially think: the ketogenic diet and the potato diet.
Much like paleo in 2013 the ketogenic diet has never been more popular, and rightfully so, many of it’s followers have great success. Entering a state of ketosis is central to the ketogenic diet. This happens when, rather then using glycogen as a primary energy source, your body switches to using ketones as a fuel source. Your body will naturally enter a state of ketosis during periods of extended fasting, the ketogenic diet gets people there by reducing carbohydrate consumption right down near zero. Initially the diet was created to help children manage seizures, more recently it has taken form as a weight loss tool. The two mechanics making it so popular for weight loss are mental clarity and appetite control.
When in a state of ketosis your mind feels sharp, focusing is easier, and your mental energy is more consistent over the course of the day. Along with the metal benefits, those following the ketogenic diet have a drastically reduced appetite, a incredibly useful thing for someone trying to lose weight.
The ketogenic diet completely restricts carbs, but aren’t potatoes basically straight carbs? How could these two diets have anything in common?
Although much more extreme—and potentially a lot more dangerous—the potato diet is gaining traction. While the ketogenic diet requires a bit of an introduction the potato diet doesn’t necessitate one.
You eat potatoes. Just potatoes. A shit ton of potatoes.
So why does the potato diet make people lose weight? As you can probably imagine eating literally only potatoes would get boring. The potato diet has no restrictions on how much you can eat, simply that you must eat potatoes for literally every meal. This lack of volume restriction can be appealing to those with emotional eating disorders and is the core draw for experimental dieters. It doesn’t take long for the no-holds-barred potato gluttony to get a bit bland. The diet is monotonous, but it has one significant benefit: it takes away the entire addictive element of food.
Potatoes are one of the most filling foods in existence. When the only thing you are eating is potatoes day after day the emotional and psychological reasons behind eating don’t carry as much weight. Alongside the increased satiety the removal of refined carbohydrates and sugar in the potato diet decrease the cravings that come with the standard American diet.
Are you beginning to see what the two diets have in common? Both the ketogenic and potato diets reduce food cravings and hunger levels. Even though the two diets are on such opposite ends of the spectrum the core mechanic that causes followers of the diet shed pounds is the same. Both operate in a completely different manner, but the end results is the same, each diet creates a lack of cravings and creates a caloric deficit
Discovering a Pattern
These parallels aren’t unique to just the ketogenic and the potato diets, when comparing diets side by side we are able to tease out general rules that hold true across the board. As different as the fad diets can seem from one another at their core there are many similarities. Raw vegans and carnivore dieters both cut out processed sugar, refined carbohydrates, and dairy—though I’m fairly certain they could still find some things to argue about.
If we abstract this even further and include diets like Atkins, South Beach, Zone Diet, and the Dukan Diet we can further refine things that hold true across all disciplines. Here are the most common trends:
- Eating at a caloric deficit over an extended period of time
- Drastic reduction of sugar and refined carbohydrates
- A mechanism for decreasing hunger levels and increasing satiety
- Increased consumption of nutrient dense food
These four rules aren’t revolutionary, but they work. Rather than getting infatuated with the small bits of the diet (like whether or not to avoid beans) master these things.
Saying that fad diets don’t work then never looking deeper is simply missing the picture. Fad diets work well in the short term, but losing a few pounds quickly doesn’t interest ordered eaters. We are looking for long term weight loss that sticks around for the rest of our lives. Sustainability of the diet is of the upmost importance here. Anyone can lose a bunch of fat, a small minority are able to keep the weight off.
This leads to what I believe is the most important question you can ask yourself regarding your health:
How can you do these four things in a way that is sustainable for the rest of your life?
This answer will be different for everyone. For myself intermittent fasting has played a paramount role in in rules #1 and #3 above, but that may not be your thing. Find what works for you personally, I typically skip breakfast and fast until lunch. Maybe breakfast is your favorite meal of the day, great! You can make most things work for you within reason. I don’t skip breakfast because I have to, I do it because it is the most enjoyable way I have ever found to bring the first and third rules into my life.
Increasing nutrient intake while decreasing refined sugars and carbohydrates is just as personal. One trick I have found that works for me is to make zucchini pasta, completely replacing an unhealthy food with a vegetable. Experiment for yourself, with enough trial and error you will be able to find small ways to improve these facets of your diet. Over time these small consistent improvements are what make all the difference.
Instead of being paleo or identifying as a vegan, be your own damn person. We can take the ideas that actually work from fad diets and apply them to our own life. By doing so we become dietarily agnostic. Rather than believing everything others say, instead we should think for ourselves. This practice is how we learn what works best for us. Through this process we move in a positive direction toward ordered eating.