Want to lose weight? Control your acne? Improve mental clarity?
These four diets are what I believe to be the “extremes,” with most other (safe and healthy) eating plans being a combination of qualities from them. They each have unique pros and cons, which I’ve listed in each description.
For any diet, it’s important that calories are kept within a reasonable limit, and that you do what feels right for your body.
Let’s start out with the majority of readers’ “ground zero”…
Western Pattern, Meat-Sweet, or the Standard American Diet (SAD)
This way of eating has overtaken the majority of Westerners, and is spreading through the world as each new fast food chain is opened. Most calories are taken in through red meat, sugary desserts, and refined grains, along with high fat foods. A large amount of dairy is typically added, along with highly sugared beverages and processed animal products.
The macronutrient breakdown is generally about 50% carbohydrates, 15% protein, and 35% fat–which, if eaten through different foods, could make up a healthy intake, but the concerning aspect of this way of eating lies more with the overly processed nature of the foods. (1)
Pros: Easy to maintain as it fits with cultural habits, generally inexpensive, low prep time per meal.
Cons: Difficult to maintain control over calories as the high glycemic load of this diet induces cravings and blood sugar variances in most adults.
Now on to the good stuff…
The Paleolithic Diet
This diet is based off of the idea that
if it can’t be found in nature, don’t eat it if a human wouldn’t eat it before the agricultural revolution, it’s not food (thanks Mike D for correcting me!). Because of that guideline, those who follow a Paleolithic–usually shortened to just “paleo”–diet plan eat plenty of meats, vegetables, fruits, and tubers, while scorning dairy, grains and processed foods (from wheat to bologna). This diet’s macros are highly variable, and depend on what the eater prefers.
If using this diet for weight loss, or to treat diabetes, it’s a good idea to go light on the fruits and tubers, and eat mostly meats and vegetables. If this diet is adopted as a possible remedy for various maladies such as acne, frequent headaches, and hormonal imbalances(2)–many of which are theorized to be caused by various allergies, excessive sodium intake, gluten, unnatural chemicals in food, or high blood sugar–the dieter should experiment with macronutrient amount and timing to achieve their desired result.
Pros: Is reported to help treat many diseases, allergies, and, depending on your choice of food, can assist with weight loss.
Cons: Can be moderately difficult to maintain in social settings. Because grass fed meats and dairy, and organic produce are highly recommended, this diet can be expensive to maintain.
This diet, often simply referred to as “keto,” has a similar menu to the Paleo diet, but for different reasons. Originally used to treat some forms of child epilepsy, this way of eating was popularized for weight loss by Dr. Atkins. The keto diet as we know it today maintains the recommended maximum of 30 grams of carbohydrates a day–shared by both the medical diet and the Atkins diet–as well as a defined macro recommendation that the daily calorie breakdown should be 30% protein, 65% fat, and 5% or less carbohydrates (remember that fats are 9 calories per gram, whereas protein and carbohydrates are 4 calories per gram).
This diet consists almost entirely of leafy green vegetables, fatty cuts of meat, eggs, hard cheeses, and small amounts of nuts and berries. Because of the diuretic effect of this plan, users should be careful to both drink plenty of water, and ensure that they are consuming enough electrolytes (sodium, potassium, magnesium).
Unlike many other diets, this plan must be adhered to diligently to get results–dieters will not get nearly the same benefits by partially adhering, either by only following the “rules” some days of the week, or by not cutting carbohydrates out enough. Do not be mistaken, there is benefit to lowering carbohydrates, but the dramatic results that are associated with keto–improved mental clarity, acne cessation, hunger suppression, and rapid weight loss for those with 30+ pounds of extra fat–will not take effect until the body enters ketosis, as this diet’s success relies on hormone and energy regulation, and has a chemical impact on the functioning of your body:
Ketosis is a state in which your body has run out of glycogen (sugar), and is using fat for energy, including your brain. This can take anywhere from 3-10 days to achieve, during which many experience the “keto flu,” a state in which the body is adjusting to the new energy source. The dieter will feel sluggish and dim, and possibly experience headaches and mild nausea. Once the body is adjusted, however, dieters report feeling “smarter,” more alert, free of cravings and severe hunger pangs, and even (in some, not all) needing to sleep less hours every night.
Pros: Can remedy many maladies caused by high blood sugar and gluten. Is very helpful for those suffering from diabetes, or are pre-diabetic. Regulates hunger and greatly diminishes cravings. Some evidence that the diet “starves” cancerous growths. (3)
Cons: Can be very difficult to maintain in social settings. Many, including some doctors, combat the diet openly, as there is a belief that fat and red meat will lead to cancer, high cholesterol, and heart disease–though keto dieters tend to have improved blood panels after a few months.
The majority of vegetarian dieters are lacto-ovovegetarian, in that they do not eat animal products, save for eggs, dairy, and honey. (4) Fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes are all encouraged.
Those who are looking to lose weight should be mindful of their grain intake, as calories can accumulate, though it can be tempting to turn to breads and pastas out of convenience. Dieters should also be mindful of their protein intake, and ensure that they are eating plenty of beans, dairy, eggs, and nuts. The healthfulness of eating excessive amounts of soy is still under debate, though some–especially men–have reported ill effects.
This diet can be extremely nutritious if the dieter primarily eats vegetables and fruits. It’s easy to have a wide variety of tastes, as many are culturally vegetarian.
Pro: Easy to maintain in a social setting. Wide variety of foods available.
Cons: Some foods that qualify as vegetarian are low in nutritional value, so a high level of self control is necessary for maintaining or losing weight.
Like vegetarians, vegans do not eat animal products–and also do not eat eggs, dairy, or honey, which can make it a little bit harder for them to get adequate protein. With the right planning, this diet can be just as complete as any other, though the same precautions against excessive refined carbohydrates (namely bread and pasta) should be taken as with vegetarians.
Because of the extensive restrictions on food that can be eaten, it’s highly recommended that those considering adopting this lifestyle plan out how they will eat to ensure that they get enough fat, protein, and minerals.
Veganism has been reported to have many health benefits, often in ways unique to the particular dieter, and can include allergy and asthma relief. If done right, the food a vegan consumes is much lower in calories than the same volume of non-vegan food, and can be a very effective diet for weight loss. (5)
Pros: Is reported to help alleviate hypertension, obesity, and may play a part in preventing cancer. (6) If the dieter avoids processed grains, the food is generally very low in calories, and thus conducive to weight loss.
Cons: Can be very difficult to maintain in a social setting, as many dishes include non-vegan ingredients, such as butter while cooking.