New Year, New You? A Look At America’s Most Popular Diets
Can you eat beans on the Paleo diet? What about Keto? Are gluten-free foods low carb? And when is a nut not a nut? We answer your burning questions and help you make sense of the most-talked-about healthy-eating trends.
Scroll through any food-related social media feed or glance over at the magazine rack at the grocery store, and you’re bound to see diet buzzwords everywhere: Keto, Paleo, Clean Eating, Vegan, Whole Food… It’s hard to keep them all straight. Which allows what? What do you make if your Paleo friend is coming over for dinner with you and your Vegan husband? And should you be trying one of these diets? They sound healthy, but which ones are safe, and which are just fads?
Before you jump on any bandwagon, consider some basic recommendations for what healthy food choices look like. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines don’t consider any food off-limits, but instead recommend limiting added sugar, saturated- and trans-fats, and sodium (keeping to less than 1 teaspoon of salt a day). For an optimal diet, they encourage eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods in healthy amounts. Needless to say, this gives you a fair amount of wiggle room to find a healthy diet that fits your lifestyle.
A Word On The Word “Diet”
At its most basic, a diet is simply what you eat day-in and day-out. It’s common for people to use the word “diet” to mean restricting food (either by reducing calories or limiting the foods they eat) in order to lose weight. But in reality, a diet of Oreos and 7-Up is still technically a diet, although probably not one that’s going to get endorsed by a major medical association any time soon.
There are many types of diets out there. People who aren’t “on” a diet, are, well, on the omnivore diet. There are elimination diets, which forbid certain types of foods or nutrients, weight-loss diets that restrict calories, medical diets to treat certain conditions, and faith-based diets that are followed as part of a religious practice.
The diets we review below may or may not contribute to weight loss. Ultimately, any type of diet, when combined with a reduction in calories, can cause weight loss. The key to remember here is that weight loss happens when your body uses more calories than it takes in.
The Mediterranean Diet
While the Mediterranean diet may not have the cachet of some of the others on this list, it’s one worth looking at. It recently landed at the top of U.S. News Report’s annual list of best diets and is well-regarded both in terms of its health benefits and ease-of-use for the long term. But what is it? In the Mediterranean diet, there aren’t any strict rules or “off-limits” foods; instead, it’s more about a pattern of eating that prioritizes certain groups of foods. It’s based on traditional Greek and Italian diets that incorporate plenty of plant-based foods, a moderate amount of animal products, and a low amount of sugar and refined or processed foods. Here’s the basics:
- Build your diet around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts
- When eating animal products, prioritize fish and shellfish (aim to eat these two or more times a week), eat eggs, chicken, and cheese in moderation, and limit red meat to a couple times a month
- Get healthy fats from olive oil (instead of butter) and fish
- Minimize the use of added salt, and instead focus on using lots of fresh herbs and spices to flavor your food
- Drink red wine in moderation, if you choose (about a glass a day)
It’s notable that, unlike the other diets in this list, this diet doesn’t restrict any foods or nutrients. On the one hand, it makes it harder to follow, because there aren’t black and white rules to apply. On the other hand, it’s considered by many to be the healthiest approach because it allows for a wide array of foods to satisfy your dietary needs, and is flexible enough to stick to when “real life” happens.
Curious? Check out these recipes as a starting point:
This one’s simple, right? Don’t eat meat! Not so fast. There are many different types of vegetarianism that people practice based on preference, ethical considerations, and dietary needs. The key consideration once you’ve adopted one of these diets is to make sure that you’re satisfying all of your nutritional needs. There’s also less-thought-about animal products to consider whether or not to include in your diet, such as honey, gelatin, and rennet.
Vegetarianism is generally considered a healthy diet, taking the 11th spot on U.S. News’s list of best diets. Veganism, the most restrictive form of vegetarianism, falls to the 20th spot primarily due to the inherent difficulty involved in following more limited diets. While strict vegetarians may consider some of the diets below not to be “true” vegetarianism, remember that diets are ultimately a personal choice, and the only “right” or “wrong” is what’s right for you.
Here are some of the most common types of vegetarians and what they eat:
- Vegan: Vegans are 100% vegetarian, consuming no animal products whatsoever (this sometimes means that honey is off-limits, but definitely nixes dairy and eggs)
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: In this most-common form of vegetarianism, practitioners do eat eggs and dairy, but don’t eat any meat, poultry, fish, or shellfish
- Ovo-vegetarian: Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs, but exclude all dairy, meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish
- Lacto-vegetarian: These vegetarians eat dairy, but don’t eat eggs. They also exclude meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish
- Pescetarian: Another common form of vegetarianism, pescetarians eat moderate amounts of sustainable fish and/or shellfish, but don’t eat meat or poultry
While vegetarianism does restrict the types of food you can eat, it most certainly doesn’t mean a life full of flavorless meals and refined carbs! Take a look at some of these tasty recipes:
The Paleo Diet
The Paleo diet has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, with blogs, cookbooks, and social media channels dedicated to the practice. Most people understand generally that it’s based on eating like our paleolithic ancestors, but what does this mean? And why do it? Proponents of the diet claim that by eating only foods that were available before the first agricultural revolution, we can avoid some of the modern health issues that we face, such as diabetes and heart disease. Detractors raise concerns about the amount of fat in the diet and whether it's too restrictive to sustain long-term.
So what does the Paleo diet consist of? Is it just sitting around eating bacon all day? Not exactly (in fact, a lot of bacon contains preservatives and other additives that are off-limits on Paleo). Here are the general tenets of the Paleo diet:
- Avoid products of agriculture. This means no grains, dairy (except for butter), legumes (beans, lentils, peas), sugar, or oils (except olive and avocado)
- Eat food that can be hunted or gathered, including meats, fish, eggs, roots, fruits, vegetables, and nuts (but not peanuts — they’re a legume).
- Avoid processed foods
So, you may ask, since Paleo avoids grains and sugar, isn’t this just another type of low-carb diet? Not necessarily: you don’t have to restrict carbs on the Paleo diet, and you still get carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables, which are not limited. That said, by nature of avoiding grain and inclusion of meats, Paleo diets tend to be lower in carbs, higher in protein, and high in fat. Like any diet, the quality of the food you choose makes a big difference in the overall nutritional value you get.
Yummly has just introduced a "Paleo" filter to help you find Paleo-friendly recipes. Find it under "Preferences" in your Yummly profile. Just click "add diets" and choose "Paleo."
Want to explore eating Paleo? Try these recipes:
Here’s a new one for you — have you heard of the Pegan diet? It’s a diet that takes some of the elements of Veganism and some of the elements of Paleo, for a diet that’s intended to be well-rounded and less restrictive. There are still categories of food that have to be avoided, though, so, like both Vegan and Paleo diets, Peganism can be harder to stick with for the long haul. Unlike Paleo, Pegans can eat gluten-free grains and beans, but avoid starchy vegetables and limit meats. Like Veganism, it promotes eating plant-based foods and healthy fats, but is very much the opposite of Veganism in that it does allow animal products in moderation.
Here’s what a Pegan diet looks like:
- Excludes dairy, vegetable oils, starchy vegetables, gluten, and soy
- Includes limited quantities of sustainable, grass-fed meats, sugar, gluten-free whole grains, and beans
- Promotes fruit, vegetables, and healthy omega-3 fats from nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut, and fish
- Places an emphasis on whole foods
Here are some Pegan-friendly recipes to get you started:
The Low FODMAP diet is considered a medical diet and should only be undertaken with the advice (and supervision) of a doctor. FODMAPs refer to compounds within foods that may cause irritation to the digestive system including fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. The diet was developed to help people who suffer from IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). During the two-phased elimination diet, high-FODMAP foods are avoided and then reintroduced while tracking symptom reduction (and any recurrance). Off-limit foods include fructose (high fructose fruits & corn syrup), lactose (milk and yogurt), fructans (wheat, garlic, onions), galactans (pulses and beans), and polyols (stone fruits, artificial sweeteners).
Unlike some of the other diets we’ve looked at, the list of restricted items is quite complex, and can’t be defined by a widely-recognized category: Some vegetables are OK, others aren’t; some fruits are OK, others aren’t. Same with cheese. Garlic and onions are to be avoided completely. Generally speaking, the diet can include uncured meats, fish, seafood, gluten-free grains, certain fruits and vegetables, and eggs. A complete list of foods that you can and can’t eat can be found here.
Using the FODMAP filter on Yummly can help you find recipes that fit a low-FODMAP diet. Find it under "Preferences" in your Yummly profile (click "add diets").
Here are a few recipes to get you started:
Like FODMAP, Whole30 is an elimination diet that is meant to be followed for a finite period of time. It is intended to identify food sensitivities, reset your body, and kick-start further healthy-eating patterns. As its name suggests, it focuses on whole foods and lasts for 30 days. Here’s what it looks like:
- Eliminates foods that commonly cause sensitivity, including sugars and artificial sweeteners, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, certain food additives (MSG, carrageenan, sulfites), and alternative or “faux” grains, such as grain-free pasta and baked goods
- Exceptions to the “do not eat” list include fruit juice, clarified butter (ghee), green beans, sugar snap peas and snow peas, gluten-free vinegars, coconut aminos, and salt
- So what do you eat? The Whole30 diet includes lots of fruits and vegetables, unprocessed meat, fish, seafood, egg, oils, and nuts (except for soy nuts and peanuts, which are not technically nuts)
Here are a few of our most-popular Whole30 recipes:
Low Carb Diets
There are many different incarnations of low-carb dieting, most of which are intended to promote weight loss. They all work on the premise of restricting the amount and/or types of carbohydrates that are consumed, although the specifics can vary greatly based on the diet. Some of the best-known low-carb diets include Atkins (which now has many variations in itself), South Beach, and Keto. Of these three, the South Beach diet took the highest spot on U.S. News’s list, coming in at #20 of 41, with the original Atkins diet placing at #37 of 41, and Keto following shortly thereafter at #38 (tied with Whole30). The lower ratings of these diets can largely be attributed to the difficulty of restricting carbs for a long period of time. (Carbs are everywhere — see “What is a carb?” below).
Atkins and South Beach
The Atkins diet hit the scene in 1972 and essentially started the whole low-carb diet phenomenon. It has fallen in and out of popularity over the years, waning in the 80s when fat became public enemy #1. The diet encourages eating high-fat, high-protein foods and focuses on limiting carbs such as sugars, grains, legumes, and high-starch fruits and vegetables. It involves four phases of dieting that go from a very carb-restrictive start, where carbs must be counted daily, to slowly reintroducing carbs as one approaches their goal weight.
The South Beach diet is also centered on reducing carbs, but is lower in fat and not as carb-restrictive as Atkins. South Beach is comprised of three phases: In phase one, all fruit, alcohol, and grains are eliminated; in phase two, whole grains and fruit are reintroduced on a limited basis, and in phase three, the maintenance phase, no foods are off limit, although you should use the foods from phase one as the basis of your diet.
There are many highly rated low-carb recipes on Yummly, including these four top picks:
The Ketogenic Diet (“Keto”)
The Keto diet is a much-talked-about diet that has soared in popularity in recent years amidst celebrity endorsements and media attention. Some of the more unique foods associated with the diet, like “bulletproof” coffee (i.e. coffee with added fat) and “fat bombs” are prime fodder for food writers, after all. Originally a medical diet used to treat epilepsy in children, the high-fat, low-carb diet is meant to trigger a physical state called “ketosis.” When the body is in ketosis, it switches from using sugars for energy to burning stored fat for energy instead.
Compared to other low-carb diets, Keto is both very high in fat and very low in carbs; a typical Keto diet usually consists of only 5-10% carbs and up to 70% fat, compared to Atkins, which, at its strictest, limits carbs to 20%. Due to the drastic reduction in carbs, people are known to experience flu-like symptoms in the early days of the diet as their bodies adjust to this new way of eating. This is commonly referred to as the “keto flu.” Due to its highly restrictive nature and elevated fat consumption, this hotly-debated diet doesn’t often see support from the medical community but garners zealous advocates within the Keto community.
Interested? Here are the basics:
- Avoid grains, legumes, fruit, alcohol and sugars, and certain oils
- Eat a moderate amount of fish, meat, nuts, and berries
- Leafy vegetables and those with lower-carb counts are eaten, but starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, and carrots (with higher sugar content) should be avoided
- Fatty butter and oil-based sauces work well in Keto diets, but sugar-laden condiments like ketchup and barbecue sauce should be avoided
- High-fat dairy is allowed on Keto, but low-fat dairy and dairy products with a higher sugar content (like milk and yogurt) are eliminated
So what do Keto dieters eat? Look at these recipes for some ideas.
Ultimately, the diet you choose to eat should be one that suits your lifestyle, supplies you with sufficient nutrients to keep you healthy, and keeps you satisfied. Listen to your body and see what kind of eating plan makes you feel best. As we’ve seen, that can mean very different things to different people — and that’s OK. The one thing almost all diets can agree upon? Turns out your grandmother was right all along: Eat your vegetables!
What is a legume? Legumes (also called pulses) include lentils, peas, beans, and peanuts.
What is a carb? A carbohydrate (or carb) is one of the essential nutrients found in food, along with proteins, fat, water, vitamins, and minerals. There are three main types of carbs: sugars (simple carbs), starch, and fiber (complex carbs). In addition to table sugar, sugars are found in fruits and dairy products in the form of fructose and glucose; starches come from rice, cereal, potatoes, corn, and peas, among others; fiber is also a carb (and an important one in the diet), and is found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
What is does low-carb mean? U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that 45-60% of your diet be made up of carbs. Low-carb diets, on the other hand, limit carbs to somewhere in the 40% range or less. There are many different types of carbs; foods higher in carbs include grains, legumes, fruit, starchy vegetables, and sugars (including milk sugars). Severely limiting these foods can result in nutritional deficiencies.
What is gluten? Is it bad? Gluten is a combination of proteins found in some grains. Celiacs are people who have an immune-system response to gluten that can damage their intestines. This is a medical condition known as celiac disease, and sufferers should avoid gluten in all forms. Gluten sensitivity, on the other hand, occurs in people who have many of the same negative reactions to gluten, but without triggering an autoimmune response. While the number of people with celiac disease is relatively small, many people choose to avoid or limit gluten in their diet due to sensitivity or as part of an overall low-carb diet. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, and rye. Because of this, avoiding wheat alone is not enough to avoid gluten.
What’s a nut and what’s not? Common nuts include almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios, and brazil nuts among others. Macadamia nuts and pine nuts are actually seeds. Not a nut: Coconut is technically a fruit, not a nut. Peanuts are legumes, not nuts. However, people with peanut allergies often also have tree nut allergies. Sunflower, pumpkin, and sesame seeds are...seeds...not nuts. “Nuts” that aren’t nuts: peanuts, butternut squash, water chestnuts, nutmeg.
What is a “whole food”? The term whole foods generally refers to plant-based foods that are not processed or refined, and the term clean eating is often used to describe a diet that focuses on whole foods. Whole foods include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Whole grains are unprocessed, and include the entire kernel (bran, germ, endosperm); standard white flour, for example, is “refined” and doesn’t include the bran or germ, so it isn’t a whole grain. The bran and germ contain many nutrients, which is why refined flour is considered less healthy.
Did You Know?
If you’re looking to find recipes that suit a specific diet or avoids common allergens, we’ve got a filter for that! You can apply a filter to an individual Yummly search, or add it to your profile preferences to permanently update all your search results to match your selected diet.
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