Don’t Fall for Fad Diets
It seems like every few months, there is a new diet fad. My concern with many of these latest diets, like Paleo and keto for example, is that, similar to the Atkins diet from decades ago, some folks are just looking for permission to eat more of America’s favorite foods – meat and fat. Protein and fat are prized above carbohydrates, the most-maligned macronutrient these days. But let’s talk about the word “carbohydrates” for a minute, as it includes many different things.
Carbohydrates include simple sugars and complex ones, such as starchy foods and fiber. Not all carbohydrates are created equal; simple sugars like white sugar, honey and fructose from fruit are not the same as the complex sugars found in fiber and cellulose. Cardboard is a carbohydrate, as are grains, potatoes and legumes, but all veggies and fruit are also classified as carbs. Clearly, their impact on our health is not the same. So, we should be talking about sugars and starches (white flour, starchy veggies like potatoes and grains like rice) differently than lettuce – they’re all carbs, but very different sorts of carbs.
Carbohydrates are an essential component of all living things. Complex carbohydrates come naturally from plants and are made from sunlight, carbon dioxideand water during the process of photosynthesis. Thus, all animals get the energy of the sun, thanks to plants. Carbohydrates provide energy to our bodies and they also help form some of the essential structures in our cells, including our DNA.
When we severely restrict carbs as an energy source, our bodies make energy from protein and fat, producing ketones. This is a back-up plan, critical during evolutionary times of drought and migration, and seems to have benefits when done occasionally in our modern day lives.
Most Americans would greatly benefit from reducing the amount of sugars and starchy carbohydrates they eat. The USDA-recommended diet contains way too much sugar and starch (breads, cereal, potatoes and pasta). The current recommendations are to get half of your daily calories from carbs, meaning 200 to 300 GRAMS a day. This has led, in part, to our obesity epidemic and growing number of other health problems. Cutting that amount of sugar and starch at least in half is a good idea for almost everyone.
Leafy, green and other non-starchy vegetables, although they are carbs, should NEVER be counted towards a “max” number of carbs per day or limited in any way. They should be eaten all day, every day, with their negligible carbohydrate content ignored. In fact, these foods should make up more than half your plate – some raw, some cooked – with any starchy carbs making up a much smaller part of your plate. The more complex the carb, the better, as this means it takes time for them to be converted to sugar, so instead of a quick rise and fall in blood sugar, which causes all sorts of problems, complex carbs with lots of fiber, like lentils, provide a slow release of sugar for steady energy over the day.
Now let’s examine some of the different diets that are popular these days.
The Ketogenic Diet
Keto is a new fad (meaning a real thing that has been blown completely out of proportion) and I’m getting many questions about it. There are big benefits to not eating as much starch and sugar than most of us currently do, but eating a high-fat diet with only 20 grams of carbs is neither easy nor safe. A true ketogenic diet is just 20 grams of carbohydrates to force the body to make energy from fat and proteins as described above. This is a medical treatment and can be very effective in treating Alzheimer’s, certain cancers and seizure disorders and some other conditions, but it requires close medical supervision because of the loss of muscle that inevitably occurs, along with several other potential complications. It is unhealthy for the average person to eat such a high amount of fat and so few carbohydrates for many reasons, a big one being that when people reduce carbs they tend to skip the most important carbs of all – plant foods like vegetables and berries.
Any diet that limits non-starchy plant foods is not a healthy diet.
A healthier way to do a modifiedversion of the ketogenic diet would be to eat a very reduced amount of carbs, say 50 grams, for short periods of time, periodically. But, in the counting of carbohydrates, be sure not to count non-starchy veggies, such as leafy greens, celery, cucumbers etc. Products such as MCT oil or supplemental ketone salts can help mimic ketosis and can be helpful for some.
Another great option is a fasting-mimicking diet, or FMD. This program, called ProLon, has been studied for twenty years. The 5-Day ProLon Fasting Mimicking Diet has been clinically testedand found to offer many health benefits including anti-aging by increasing stem cell production, as well as weight (fat) loss, better blood glucose and cholesterol results and more. A summary of the benefits can be found here.
Prolon supplies you with whole, nutritious, plant-based foods, providing everything you need for a 5-day “fast.” With this program, you’re still eating, but only about 40% of the calories you would normally eat. This option sits better with me because you’re still getting your veggies, some fiber and some protein – and the severe calorie reduction, or quasi-fast, is only for five days and only a few times a year, plus it has been proven to be beneficial. I have done ProLon myself (and now offer it in my online store) and Tracy (my Health Coach) and I are happy to discuss it with anyone who is interested in trying it.
For everyone – but especially anyone reducing their carbohydrate intake – one of the easiest ways to get the nutrition found in fruit, vegetables and berries but without the sugar or carbs, is powdered produce in a capsule. Juice Plus+ is the most researched, brand name nutritional product in the world (see 25 years of research and 38 published studies here). It is packed with antioxidants and important phytochemicals, but because it has only 3 grams of carbs and 15 calories a day, it is an important, easy and affordable way to optimize your health all around.
A Shred 10 is another great way to do a deep and rapid reboot or cleanse. This is a fabulous and easy program that I have done many times. With a Shred 10, you are given a clear plan with specific steps to follow and many recipes. You cook and eat your own healthy food, including 2 protein shakes per day, plus one healthy plant-based meal and snacks, for 10 days. There is a wonderful, private Facebook group for ongoing support and a community of like-minded people. I have patients who do a Shred 10 at the beginning of every month as a reset.
Intermittent fasting is also popular these days. One practice involves restricting the time you eat to only 8 to 10 hours a day. The timing of the fasting hours is part of the success of intermittent fasting in clinical studies, though. Please don’t practice intermittent fasting by eating a late dinner and skipping breakfast. While this technically counts as an intermittent fast, it is NOT healthy to eat right before bed, or to routinely skip breakfast. A healthier option would be to eat an earlydinner and not eat again until the next morning, 12 to 14 hours later. The goal is to eat all of your food in an 8 to 10-hour window during daylighthours, and have no snacks, just fluids, the rest of the time. This lowers insulin and burns fat and may have many other benefits.
Water and Juice Fasting
Perhaps the most dangerous fad diet is water or juice fasting. These diets are touted as quick ways to detox, but what actually occurs is just the opposite. If you do a water or juice cleanse, you’re not eating any protein, nor are you getting the phytonutrients or fiber from vegetables. These nutrients are what allow us to safely transform and eliminate toxins. Nutrition is the antidote to toxicity. You may instinctively know this if you’ve tried one of those water cleanses – any detox program that makes you feel sick is not a good detox program. Headaches, exhaustion and general yuckiness mean you are pulling out more stored toxins than your detox system can handle, and the overflow is making you feel, well… toxic. Fasting was very effective in the 19thcentury when the Eclectic Doctors used it to treat many conditions, but there were almost no toxins in the environment then, as compared to the multitude of toxins in our modern environment – and in all of us. Please do not do water-only fasts for more than a day.
Plant-Based Diet – The BEST Diet of All
The best diet, overall, is a plant-based diet – whether that be the Mediterranean diet, or a traditional Asian or South American diet. Plant-based diets are the ONLY diets with decades of positive research behind them. Plants speak to our genes and our microbiome. Plants give us both information and nutrients we can’t get anywhere else. We evolved eating plants. And, just as importantly, plants give us fiber that WE cannot digest, but that the good bacteria in our guts do digest – and those bacteria, in turn, make many vitamins, short-chain fatty acids like butyrate, and countless other molecules that our bodies need but cannot produce ourselves – all of which heal and feed our gut cells. This amazing, co-dependent and synergistic system of our microbiome requires REAL plant food to work properly.
Every cell in our bodies needs the nutrients that plant foods provide – those phytonutrients give our cells protection from those inevitable free radicals that the simple act of living produces. If you want to support your immune system, balance your hormones, improve your brain and liver function, clear up your skin and support your body’s natural detoxification system, eat more of those colorful veggies! There is no limit, no cap on the amount, the more the better.
When it comes to diet, I go with evolution and science. All of the aforementioned fad diets are only loosely science-based – they are just too new to have any long-term research behind them (the Paleo diet has only 50 studies in PubMed – as opposed to over 6,000 articles for the Mediterranean diet). Now, don’t get me started on the lectin fad…there is much more marketing than science there, too. Doesn’t mean it wont help a few, it means that for the majority of us, giving up a long list of healthy foods isn’t smart or necessary.
Any diet that restricts plant foods is the wrong diet. To quote the well-known words of Michael Pollan, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Dr. Tamara Sachs
With over 30 years in the medical field, Dr. Sachs is a pioneer of Functional Medicine and Integrative Care. She has toured the world and spoken to over 500 audiences about the benefits of detox, wellness and nutrition-based health. Her experience is available to help YOU hit your wellness goals.
With credible, scientific and leading-edge information, and everything from resources to recipes, Dr. Sachs will empower you to take control of your life and your health.