Today’s Trendiest Food Philosophies: The Ultimate Guide

Diet plans got your head spinning? We’ll help set things straight.

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June 22, 2018
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When it comes to finding the right food philosophy for you, there are countless things to consider. Are you trying to lose weight? Fuel an intense athletic training program? Manage a chronic condition? Save the planet? Or maybe you’re just trying to look and feel your best. (And who isn’t?) What you eat to help achieve those goals is a deeply personal decision that requires careful thought.

As if that weren’t complicated enough, there are also hundreds of trendy food philosophies out there, each of which comes with its own distinctive set of rules, prohibited foods, eating plans, and purported health benefits. There’s just so much information to take in—let alone put into practice. Why isn’t there just an objective, easy-to-follow guide that lays everything out in one place?

Lucky for you, there is—and it’s right here. We worked with registered dietitian Allison Dostal Webster, PhD, associate director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation, to delve into the ins and outs of today’s most popular food philosophies, from paleo and ketogenic diets to flexitarianism and veganism. Here’s what you need to know about nine trendy diet plans.

The Food Philosophies

Ketogenic Diet

The short version:

This high-fat, moderate-protein, extremely low-carb diet is meant to cause the body to rely on fat for fuel.

A closer look:

“There are different iterations of the ketogenic diet, but generally about 80 percent of your calories will come from fat, 10 to 15 percent of calories come from protein sources, and about 5 percent of calories come from your carb intake,” says Webster. Eating this way is intended to put your body into a state of ketosis, during which your body converts fat into ketones that can be used as energy.

The goals:

Primarily weight loss, but the ketogenic diet has also been shown to be effective at reducing seizures and in treating other neurological illnesses.

Similar to:

The paleo diet, which is less rigid about carb sources

Be aware:

“There are certain side effects people usually run into during their first days on the ketogenic diet, known as the ‘keto flu.’ As you convert from getting your energy from carbohydrates to fat, you might experience nausea, headache, and fatigue,” explains Webster. “You might also not get enough vitamins, nutrients, and fiber when you’re on the ketogenic diet.”

Whole30

The short version:

This elimination diet involves cutting large groups of foods for a 30-day “nutrition reset.”

A closer look:

Whole30 eliminates a large range of foods—including dairy, legumes, grains, alcohol, added sugar, carrageenan, MSG, sulfites, and junk food—for a month. “The focus is eating meat, eggs, fruits, veggies, and that’s pretty much it,” says Webster. “Healthy fats, like avocado, are also allowed.”

“Diets with lots of rules and restrictions … can be triggering for people who have a history of disordered eating.”

—Allison Dostal Webster, PhD

After the 30 days are up, Whole30 switches to a gradual reintroduction phase, during which you’ll start eating previously eliminated foods one at a time to see how your body responds. “If you drink milk and feel crummy, you might realize you have a sensitivity to lactose,” explains Webster.

The goals:

Weight loss, improved nutrition, disease management, and an increase in body awareness

Similar to:

The paleo diet, but with some differences in allowed foods

Be aware:

“Diets with lots of rules and restrictions, like Whole30, can be triggering for people who have a history of disordered eating. Giving a reason to be restrictive can push people back into old ways of thinking, which can be damaging,” says Webster.

Paleo Diet

The short version:

The paleo diet only allows foods that our ancestors could hunt or gather thousands of years ago.

A closer look:

“The theory behind the paleo diet is that our bodies are not evolutionarily adapted to eating things like processed grains and sugars and that they can cause all kinds of bad symptoms in the body,” says Webster.

The paleo diet emphasizes grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish, eggs, vegetables, certain oils, and getting carbs from sweet potatoes and some starchy veggies. “Almost anything you can buy in a package off the store shelf is out of bounds for paleo,” says Webster.

The goals:

A healthy lifestyle, weight loss, disease management, and community—“This diet has a huge online community, so it can be rewarding for people who belong,” says Webster.

Similar to:

Other low-carb diets, like Whole30 and the ketogenic diet

Be aware:

The cost of going paleo can put this food philosophy out of reach for many people. “Grass-fed meat and wild-caught fish can be much more expensive than the conventional versions, if they’re even available at your grocery store,” warns Webster.

Atkins Diet

The short version:

The commercialized weight-loss diet restricts carbs and sugar and encourages consumption of fat and protein.

A closer look:

This low-carb diet takes a four-phase approach to weight loss based on the idea of “net carbs.” “The Atkins diet has more math than other food philosophies. You take into account the amount of fiber you might get from a source of carbohydrates and subtract that number from the amount of carbs to get your net carb value,” explains Webster.

The first phase is the most restrictive part, during which adherents are limited to about 20 grams of net carbs (“roughly what you get in a piece of bread,” says Webster). After the first two weeks, you slowly start reintroducing healthier carbs, some fruits, high-fiber vegetables, and other healthful foods as you get closer to your weight-loss goals.

The goals:

Weight loss and possibly reducing the risk for type 2 diabetes

Similar to:

The ketogenic diet, but with Atkins-branded products on grocery store shelves

“People following restrictive, low-carb eating plans will probably see weight loss at the beginning, but it’s not sustainable over time. You’re likely to regain that weight as you start introducing carbs back into your diet.”

—Allison Dostal Webster, PhD

Be aware:

“While not unique to the Atkins diet, people following restrictive, low-carb eating plans will probably see weight loss at the beginning, but it’s not sustainable over time. You’re likely to regain that weight as you start introducing carbs back into your diet,” cautions Webster. “Really restrictive diets aren’t suitable for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, either.”

Mediterranean Diet

The short version:

This mostly plant-based diet with an emphasis on healthy fats has proven benefits for the cardiovascular system.

A closer look:

Unlike other food philosophies, the Mediterranean diet is sustainable for the long term, says Webster. Followers eat loads of plant-based foods (like fruits and veggies, whole grains, nuts, and legumes), swap out butter for healthier fats (especially olive oil), and try to season their foods with herbs and spices rather than salt. Seafood and poultry make an appearance on plates a couple of times a week, while red meat is generally eaten only a few times per month.

“Part of the Mediterranean diet plan is also that meals should be enjoyed with friends and family as much as possible, and drinking a moderate amount of red wine is encouraged,” says Webster.

The goals:

Health and longevity

Similar to:

The DASH diet, but without specific sodium restrictions

Be aware:

“There are very few warnings about this diet. However, people with dietary restrictions, such as gluten intolerance, would not be able to consume whole grains with gluten, which are part of the Mediterranean diet,” says Webster.

DASH Diet

The short version:

This diet was designed to reduce high blood pressure by reducing sodium intake.

A closer look:

The food philosophy behind the DASH diet can be found right in its name, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. “It was designed several decades ago with the intended goal of helping treat or prevent high blood pressure associated with high sodium intake,” explains Webster.

The DASH diet cuts sodium levels down to federal guidelines: 2,300 milligrams per day. Some adherents take it a step further, using the American Heart Association (AHA) recommendation of ideally no more than 1,500 mg of sodium daily.

High-sodium products such as canned goods, salty snacks, and some processed foods generally don’t work with this diet. Overall, though, the DASH diet isn’t very restrictive. It encourages eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy while allowing a small amount of fats and sweets.

The goals:

Preventing or reducing high blood pressure

Similar to:

The Mediterranean diet, but with a greater focus on cardiovascular health

Be aware:

“There is some debate about whether or not the AHA’s sodium intake recommendation is too restrictive for some people—you’ll sometimes see pushback on that number,” says Webster.

Flexitarian Diet

The short version:

Just what it sounds like: vegetarianism with a bit of flexibility.

A closer look:

“The flexitarian diet is a purposeful movement away from a meat-heavy diet but isn’t quite as strict as a vegetarian diet,” says Webster. Adherents of the flexitarian diet strive to eat mostly plant-based meals made up of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes. “People try to substitute meats with tofu and eggs,” says Webster.

Many people switch to this diet in an effort to reduce their environmental footprint, as animal production requires a lot more natural resources than plant foods.

The goals:

Health, weight maintenance, and environmental conservation

Similar to:

The vegetarian diet but with occasional meat and seafood

Be aware:

This is largely a healthy diet, but people will frequently ask you if you’re getting enough protein. “It’s really not too difficult to get enough protein, even if you’re not getting it from an animal. Just make sure you eat a variety of foods to cover your nutritional bases,” says Webster.

Vegan Diet

The short version:

Vegan diets prohibit all foods that come from an animal.

A closer look:

Start with the vegetarian diet, take away eggs, dairy, and honey, and you’ve got veganism. “Animal welfare is a huge reason many people decide to go vegan,” says Webster. “There’s also a good body of research showing the health benefits of following the vegan diet.”

She adds that the vegan diet has been associated with a lower body mass index, reduced risk of diabetes, lower instances of cardiovascular disease, and a potential reduction in your risk of colon cancer.

The goals:

Ethical eating, weight loss, and health

Similar to:

The vegetarian diet, but without eggs and dairy

Be aware:

B12 is the vitamin that’s only found in animal products. So if a person is following the vegan diet for a long time, he or she might need to get a B12 shot or take supplements to keep their levels up,” says Webster.

Plant-Based Diet

The short version:

The plant-based diet is a food philosophy that encourages adherents to fill their plates with non-animal foods.

A closer look:

There are no hard and fast rules to this eating plan. Instead, it’s a dining choice in which you get most of your fuel from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other plants.

Adherents to the plant-based diet may still eat meat, dairy, and eggs, but they generally limit those foods to a few times a month. With this approach, “you’d be more mindful of when and how often you choose to eat animal products,” says Webster. People who follow a plant-based diet also strive to avoid processed foods.

The goals:

Health and ethical eating

Similar to:

The flexitarian diet, but with a heavier focus on plants

Be aware:

“Vegetarian, vegan, and plant-based foods aren’t always healthy. On any of these diets, you need to put in the work to eat healthfully and make sure you’re getting enough nutrients. A plate of fries, while plant-based, just won’t cut it,” says Webster.

Choosing a Food Philosophy

“If you are considering going on one of these eating plans for a specific health reason, like weight loss, and if you already have certain risk factors, such as diabetes, involving your healthcare team in your diet will be critical,” explains Webster.

“Keep in mind that improving your health is a lifelong endeavor, and you need to make sure your diet and lifestyle changes are sustainable over time.”

—Allison Dostal Webster, PhD

“But if you are already pretty healthy and interested in seeing if one of these food philosophies might help you lose weight or get healthier, it’s OK to strike out on your own. Just keep in mind that improving your health is a lifelong endeavor, and you need to make sure your diet and lifestyle changes are sustainable over time.”

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