Decoding Popular Diets: An Overview

I love talking about food - from kale salads to peanut butter pie and from #trending superfoods to the staples of grandma's kitchen pantry.  So, when I meet new people and they discover I'm a dietitian, I genuinely welcome the flood of questions that I usually receive.  Often they've read or heard of a bite (ha!) of nutrition news and want my take on its validity.  Sometimes there's merely a whisper of hope that it's true (does drinking red wine match the benefits of working out?) and other times there's real interest in pursuing the plan (will removing dairy from my diet improve my digestion?).  The most frequent topics posed, however, include overall diet approaches such as going gluten-free or adopting the paleo diet, which leads me to the beginning of an exciting new series!


I'm dedicating the upcoming weeks to discussing popular diets, the science behind them, and my thoughts on their efficacy.  The plan is to breakdown the following diet approaches: paleo, gluten-free, Mediterranean, Whole30®, cleansing, clean eating, and intermittent fasting.  The series begins with the key details of each diet including the premise, foods to include, and foods to exclude.  Throughout the rest of the series, I'll focus on one specific diet per week and delve into the related science, benefits, and challenges that accompany it.  If you're interested in learning about a diet that is not listed, please comment below.  Let's get started! 

The Paleo Diet || The premise: Look to the past (back to what Paleolithic humans may have been eating) to guide our nutrition decisions today.  What to eat: Load up on fresh fruits + veggies, meat, seafood, eggs, healthy oils, nuts, + seeds.  What to avoid: Skip dairy, grains, legumes, potatoes, refined sugar, processed foods, and refined oils.  Grain-based alcohols are off-limits too! 

Gluten-free || The premise: Eliminate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley + rye that damages the lining of small intestine in those with celiac disease.  What's included: Fruits + veggies, meat, seafood, eggs, dairy, legumes, oils, nuts, seeds and wine.  Non-gluten grains like quinoa and rice are good to go too.  What's avoided: Any products that contain gluten! This includes the obvious like wheat, barley and rye and foods that contain them (pasta, bread, cereal, crackers), but it also includes foods that are less expected like soy sauce and some salad dressings and seasoning mixes.  

Mediterranean || The premise: Adopt the Mediterranean approach to eating and cooking for a heart-healthy diet.  What's included: Lots of plants!  The majority of the diet consists of fruits, veggies, whole grains, seafood, olive oil, legumes, nuts, seeds and the occasional glass of red wine. What's avoided: Unhealthy fats!  Limit red meat, choose a healthy oil over butter, and skip high-fat dairy options.  

Whole30® || The premise: Determine if there are any food-based culprits for your fatigue, aches, or illnesses by cutting out specified foods + food groups for 30 days.  Cheating not allowed!  What's included: An abundance of veggies, some fruit, meat, seafood, eggs, and healthy fats (nuts, seeds, oils).  What's avoided: Sugar (real + artificial), dairy, grains, legumes, alcohol, carrageenan, MSG, and sulfites. It's also advised to exclude any healthy versions of typical junk food (read: don't try creating brownies that fit within the approved food guidelines - they are off limits too!).    

Cleansing || The premise: Detox the body by restricting food intake to a limited group of healthy(ish) options for a short period of time.  What's included: The type of cleanse will dictate what to include - some require a 100% juice diet while others allow foods such as fruits, vegetables, and plant-based protein.  What's avoided: Again, this will vary, but many cleanses avoid alcohol, caffeine, red meat, and most animal products.  

Clean eating || The premise: A lifestyle approach encouraging whole foods and recognizable ingredients over processed options.  What's included: Fresh produce, fish, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, nuts, and seeds.  Packaged foods with few ingredients and/or ingredients you recognize are usually ok too.  Opt for organic when possible.  What's avoided: Highly processed and refined foods and foods with a long list of ingredients or ingredients you don't recognize.  Skip out on foods with preservatives, stabilizers, and color additives (these are likely the ingredients that don't look so familiar!).     

Intermittent fasting ||  The premise:  The focus here is more on when you eat than on what you eat.  It requires cycling between periods of eating and fasting, often with the goal to maximize fat loss and lose weight.  What's included + what's avoided:  While proponents of intermittent fasting recommend eating sensibly, the foods can vary as the timing of eating and fasting is the key piece of the program. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences with the diets mentioned above.  Comment below, and let me know if you're curious about any other food-based programs!