With so many diets out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and confused. After all, we see friends and social media influencers espousing the benefits of adopting a “healthy lifestyle” by changing up their eating habits (for better or worse) — but are these diet fads really a good idea? You’ve got questions, and we’ve got answers. SheKnows spoke with several nutritionists to get the level scoop on which diets are actually healthy and which really don’t work or can lead to complications later on. Here’s what you need to know.
With an emphasis on cooking styles from countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, the Mediterranean Diet emphasizes eating plenty of healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and red wine, Toby Amidor, a registered dietician and nutrition partner with GOED tells SheKnows.
“Good fats like those from fish are beneficial and encouraged on the diet because of their high omega-3 content,” she explains. “Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA from fatty fish, are nutrients that play a key role in heart, brain and eye health throughout life. The American Heart Association has gone so far as to include at least two servings of fatty fish per week in their dietary recommendations.”
According to Amidor, the best way to stick with the Mediterranean Diet is by making it a lifestyle choice. “There is a wide-variety of foods, no elimination of foods or food groups, and exercise is encouraged,” she explains. Plus, it’s relatively easy to follow. “I purchase these Mediterranean foods every time I head to the supermarket: boneless chicken breasts, salmon, hummus, Greek yogurt, ricotta cheese, fresh herbs and lots of fruits and vegetables.”
Like the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet focuses on vegetables, fruit and whole grains with lean proteins, and healthy fats from nuts and seeds, Kimberly Arnold, a registered dietitian nutritionist, tells SheKnows. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension and is commonly prescribed to people with high blood pressure, but really, anyone can benefit from following its guidelines. It’s simply a healthy way to eat. In addition to including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, the DASH diet limits sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets, as well as foods that are high in saturated fat, such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils such as coconut, palm kernel and palm oils.
Though not a diet in the traditional sense, there has been a recent trend towards what many call “intuitive eating.” According to Melissa Giovanni, a nutritionist at Balance Nutrition Counseling, this practice involves learning to listen to and honor your hunger and fullness cues, as well as what makes you feel good mentally and physically.
“This isn’t meant to be a diet at all. Rather, it’s a shift in perspective that moves away from restriction and embraces body positivity,” Katie Trant, a nutritionist tells SheKnows. “Most people find that when they recover from restrictive eating and eat the foods they really love, this is a way of eating that works in the long term.”
What to avoid
There are a number of reasons to avoid certain trendy diets, even when you’re hearing other people’s “success stories.” This includes:
Carb-restricting diets. The ketogenic diet — or keto, for short — is based on foods that are relatively easy to find in most grocery stores. It’s also pretty effective when it comes to weight loss, according to Lisa Richards, a nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet. But, while a low-carb diet like keto may help you drop the pounds, it’s not necessarily the healthiest or most sustainable way to do it, she cautions.
“Keto is effective in weight loss and improving some health markers like lowered glucose, but it is not a sustainable diet pattern and can lead to other health issues if not followed properly,” she tells SheKnows.
So what’s the problem with restricting carbs? Richards explains that the body requires carbohydrates for proper fueling, and rather than cutting carbs and adding fat, it is more beneficial to take in wholegrain carb sources and healthy fats. In addition, Mascha Davis, a registered dietitian nutritionist, founder of NomadistaNutrition.com and author of the upcoming book Eat Your Vitamins says any diet that eliminates an entire food group — like keto does with carbs — is bad news. “While you may get short term results, these types of highly restrictive and challenging to follow diets are really tough to stick with and rarely last long term,” she tells SheKnows.
Calorie restrictions. Similarly, Rachel Fine, a registered dietitian and owner of To The Pointe Nutrition, a nutrition counseling firm in NYC, recommends avoiding diets based on calorie restrictions. “Calorie restricted diets” are often seen as anything lower than 1600 calories, sometimes as low as 1000 to 1200 calories per day, she explains.
“These diets are dangerously restrictive and risk negative consequences,” Fine tells SheKnows. “Physiologically, yo-yo dieting may impact the metabolism. With any caloric restriction, the body learns to adapt to the self-imposed state of famine. In doing so, the body’s metabolic rate lowers in efforts to conserve energy for vital processes like breathing and blood circulation.”
Deep down, we all know that a balanced, healthy diet is our best bet to feel better in the long term, and these nutritionists just confirmed that. The good news is that so much has been written on the Mediterranean and DASH diets that there’s no shortage of food plans and recipes out there that might fit with your lifestyle and keep you excited about the food you’re eating.
A version of this story was published October 2019.
Before you go, check out our favorite powerful quotes to inspire healthy attitudes about food and body image: