Which diet is best?

Low-carb or low-GI? More protein or less? Eating three meals or every three hours? In this age of information overload, there are so many conflicting messages about healthy diets that many of us feel completely confused about which approach to follow. What’s important to remember is that healthy eating regimes are not one-size-fits-all. A food plan that suits your biochemical makeup may have a totally different impact on your partner, work colleague or best friend.

So, when making dietary decisions, take into account not only your lifestyle, age and food preferences, but also what you know intuitively about your body and how it functions best. Instead of slavishly following one plan, you may gain more benefit from adopting a range of ideas from different diets then devise an individualised eating program that suits your body makeup and health priorities.

A low-carb diet

During digestion, the body converts carbohydrates to glucose. Eat too many carbs, even healthy ones such as bananas, corn and pumpkin, and your body is more prone to converting the resulting glucose into fat, according to the low-carb philosophy. By limiting carbs, your body is forced to find another source of fuel, so it burns body fat to give you energy — a process known as “ketosis”.

There are many different low-carb regimes on offer; some promote a carbs curfew (no carbs after midday), while others encourage no intake of grains. The most popular — the Atkins diet — suggests you eat as many kilojoules as you like as long as you replace carbs with a higher intake of protein in the form of meat, chicken, cheese and eggs, which will also help you feel full after a meal.

Another low-carb diet called Zoning or The Zone aims to reduce insulin levels and regulate metabolism with a diet of 40 per cent carbs, 30 per cent protein and 30 per cent fat.

Pros: If you replace your usual carbohydrate intake with more fruit and vegetables, this eating style can certainly help you lose weight and lose it quite quickly. Meanwhile, lower blood insulin levels will mean your risk of conditions such as diabetes type 2, heart disease and metabolic syndrome will be decreased.

Cons: To fill the gap left by carbs, many people tuck into additional protein. Unless you are vegetarian and enjoy lentils and beans, this may mean you eat more meat, thereby increasing your intake of saturated fats, which have been linked to heart disease and bowel cancer. A diet too high in protein may also lead to calcium loss from bones. With less carbs in the form of grains, cereals and some vegetables, you may become constipated due to insufficient fibre and may feel lethargic or run-down because your body lacks a fast energy source.

The Mediterranean diet

This style of eating, based on the cuisines from areas such as Greece and southern Italy, has been one of the it diets in recent years. Foods on high rotation include garlic, olive oil, salad greens, legumes, tomatoes, fetta and ricotta cheeses, fruit, fish and chicken. Grains are also abundant in the Mediterranean diet in the forms of pasta, polenta, rice and bread.

Pros: The Mediterranean diet is based on sound nutritional ideas and a balanced approach, with tasty options available from all the important food groups. The health benefits are most likely due to the higher intake of plant foods and fish with moderate consumption of wine and red meat.

A 10-year study by Melbourne University found that those Australians who follow this type of diet are more protected from heart disease and stroke. Other studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet lowers blood pressure and insulin resistance while improving good cholesterol and reducing inflammation.

Cons: Though a Mediterranean diet gives you a headstart in health, you still need to be careful of your food choices. Overdosing on red wine, fried foods such as calamari or haloumi cheese, or salty choices such as preserved meats and olives could exacerbate health problems such as high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol. Remember also that homecooking is best, so the antipasto you pick up from your local takeaway may not be as healthy as you presume.

Eating according to your blood type

Each of the four blood types — A, B, AB and O — contains different genetic information that stems from the diet and lifestyle of our ancestors, according to physician Dr Peter D’Adamo. This information programs your immune system to respond more positively to some foods than others. As our bodies process these foods more easily, D’Adamo maintains that eating foods suited to your blood type can assist you to lose weight, feel healthier and live longer.

According to the diet guidelines, type Os can eat meat but should not eat wheat or most grains; type As should be vegetarians with a low intake of fat and high intake of carbs; type Bs should have a varied diet that includes dairy products; type ABs should eat most vegetables with some fish and some dairy foods.

Pros: As you don’t have to count kilojoules or weigh food portions on this regime, it’s a low-fuss eating program. Anecdotally, many people report health benefits when many other diets have not worked for them. The idea is that once the body is in balance thanks to healing foods, it can then get on with the business of losing weight and preventing disease.

Cons: Critics say the diet is not based on scientific evidence and could encourage you to needlessly avoid healthy food groups such as protein or dairy products. Or it might have the opposite effect, encouraging you to over-indulge in meat or cheese because they are recommended for your blood type, so you think you can eat as much of these foods as you like. As with every food regime, moderation is the key.

A vegetarian diet

Stewed apple for breakfast, minestrone for lunch and steamed vegetables and tofu for dinner — this is a typical day’s menu for a vegetarian diet, which contains a wide range of antioxidant vitamins such as A, C and E. Once people become vegetarians they often report that their energy levels increase, their eyes and skin become clearer and they are less susceptible to illnesses such as colds or flu.

Pros: There is ample evidence that a meat-free diet can help lessen the risk of heart disease and lower blood pressure. Vegetarians also have a lower incidence of cancer and fewer digestive problems because fruit and vegies are packed with a health-giving range of vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre. If healthy preparation is used, vegetarian food usually involves low-GI choices and meals that minimise the intake of fat, salt and sugar. This reduces your kilojoule load, keeps blood sugar levels stable and minimises risk of gaining weight over time.

Cons: If you cut meat from your shopping list and sustain yourself on cottage cheese, vegetables, fruit and salads, your diet, though seemingly healthy, may lack important nutrients that can only be added by knowing how to combine grains, nuts, cereals and legumes (beans) to ensure you are getting complete protein with all nine amino acids. So to become a healthy vegetarian, you need to also be educated about food and plan meals carefully.

Unless you are lactose-intolerant (allergic to dairy products), it’s a good idea to keep eating dairy to enhance your intake of calcium and other nutrients. As meat is a good source of iron and zinc, you should ensure you eat other foods high in these vitamins and minerals. Be aware that if you are loading up on breads and crispbreads and eating cheesy foods such as vegetarian lasagne or fried foods such as felafel, your vegetarian diet may still be high in fats and kilojoules.

A wheat (gluten) and dairy free diet

Some people find that minimising or removing gluten and dairy from their diet leads to noticeable improvements in their health and makes it far easier to achieve and sustain a healthy weight. The emergence of offerings such as gluten-free friands and soymilk on menus in cafes is a sign of this increasing trend.

Pros: Many people find that reducing or avoiding wheat and dairy foods radically reduces niggling health problems, boosts day-to-day wellbeing and improves mood and energy levels. A domino effect of this approach is that you eat fewer kilojoules because you are no longer slathering butter on bread or adding ingredients such as cheese or cream to your pasta sauce.

Cons: Bread and cereal foods not only contain important fibre, they are also high in B group vitamins, so eating less of them may leave you more prone to a sluggish bowel, low energy and depressed mood. Dairy foods are an important source of energy, protein and calcium, needed to maintain healthy bones. If you don’t replace foods like milk and cheese with their nutritional equivalents such as a calcium-fortified soy or rice milk, you may be putting yourself at risk of osteoporosis later in life.

The raw food diet

Devotees say heating food kills important nutrients and destroys living enzymes needed to aid proper digestion of food. On a raw food diet, you eat plenty of uncooked vegetables and fruit as well as nuts, whole grains, seeds and herbs and drink purified water and fresh juices. Some people also include legumes (such as chickpeas and other beans) and organic fish and poultry, though many “raw fooders” are strictly vegan, which means they don’t eat meat, dairy food or eggs.

Pros: A raw food diet is very low in fats, salt, sugar and preservatives, so it’s high in nutrients and low in kilojoules. The foods on a raw food menu are said to promote energy, glowing skin and a flat tummy. They can help people maintain weight loss, reduce conditions such as eczema or asthma and lower risk of heart disease.

Cons: Sticking to a strict raw diet that avoids foods such as red meat and potatoes can sometimes lead to deficiency of some vitamins and minerals such as iron and calcium. Constantly eating uncooked food can also be quite hard on the digestive system and some people find it leads to flatulence, bloating and abdominal pain, even if they try to make a slow transition to a raw food diet.

A macrobiotic diet

This mostly vegetarian eating style adopts a yin and yang approach to food balance, with avoidance of red meat, eggs, chicken and dairy foods in favour of whole grains, fruit and vegetables, legumes (eg chickpeas), nuts/seeds and soy foods. The food is organically grown, so it’s free of pesticides and eaten as fresh as possible.

A typical meal would be brown rice with steamed vegetables and seaweed, followed by fruit. Macrobiotic followers may include some fish in their diet but off limits are sugar, caffeine, alcohol, white bread, dairy products and processed foods made with preservatives, artificial colourings and flavourings. Natural sweeteners, such as rice malt and honey, are used instead of processed sugar.

Pros: Because it steers clear of unprocessed foods, this diet can promote wellbeing, help prevent weight gain and reduce the risk of other conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. It is low fat and high fibre, so it has all the foundations of a healthy eating plan and certainly ensures you eat the recommended five serves of vegetables every day.

Cons: An eating plan that is so strict, particularly in relation to sugar, hot spices, caffeine and chocolate, could in some people lead to sudden binges due to cravings for food with a stronger taste. As with the raw food diet, you need to be conscious of your macrobiotic food choices to ensure the regime does not lead to deficiencies in vitamin B12, D, iron and calcium, which may result in loss of energy and loss of bone density.

Liver cleansing and candida diets

The liver cleansing diet as popularised by health advocates such as Dr Sandra Cabot and Dr Hulda Clark suggests the inability to lose weight (and a host of many other health problems) is a sign of an overloaded liver, which is then unable to optimally filter your blood, burn up fats and promote good metabolism. Vegetables, protein and wholegrains are recommended, while sugar, saturated fat, alcohol and preservatives are reduced to minimise the load on the liver.

The Candida diet, first popularised by Dr William Crook in 1983, suggests a similar range of health problems but points the finger at the overgrowth of the Candida albicans yeast bacteria in areas of the body such as the digestive system and vagina. As with the liver cleansing diet, this eating regime recommends fresh and varied produce from all the food groups while prescribing avoidance of foods that promote candida growth such as yeast, soy sauce, mushrooms, rockmelon and certain herbal teas.

Pros: Candida and liver cleansing diets are based on sound health principles such as homecooking and bumping up your consumption of a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Their avoidance of pre-packaged foods automatically leads to a reduced intake of the usual unhealthy suspects, namely sugar, salt, unhealthy saturated and trans fats, colours and preservatives. As a result, the recommended food is not only lower in kilojoules but higher in health properties that enhance the function of your liver, gall bladder, lymphatic system and digestion.

Cons: With most people struggling to juggle career, family and social life, finding the time and energy to cook three meals a day from scratch can be difficult. On a candida or liver cleansing diet, dining out with friends can become very tricky and boredom with sometimes bland meals can set in. This might lead you to start replacing meals with snacks such as rice cakes topped with tahini so that, even though you are sticking to the diet, you are not getting a good balance of nutrients and food groups at every meal.

The three-hour diet

On this diet, there are no “bad” foods, just bad portions. The aim is to eat three meals and three snacks every day to ensure you are munching on something every three hours. The plan was devised by San Diego fitness guru Jorge Cruise, who believes that when you eat is more important than what you eat. According to Jorge, low-carb and low-kilojoule diets slow down your metabolism, encouraging the body to burn muscle rather than fat. However, by eating every three hours you rev up your metabolism and burn more fat. On the diet, you eat breakfast within an hour of rising, eat every three hours after that and stop eating three hours before bedtime.

Pros: This diet can address the slowing of metabolism often caused by low-kilojoule eating plans. Regular food intake stops the body from going into famine mode (where it starts storing more fat just in case you are deprived of food for a long period). However, it’s critical that you ensure all your food choices are healthy and not too high in kilojoules.

Cons: Though Jorge says it’s OK to eat foods like chocolate and icecream, he does recommend smaller portions and watching your kilojoule intake at each small meal. However, someone light on willpower might end up taking this message too far, serving up plenty of high-carb snacks like crackers and salty peanuts instead of a few pieces of sushi or a handful of almonds. If you tend to engage in emotional eating or just don’t know when to stop, then a diet that says “eat every three hours” could cause overindulgence and weight gain.

Are you food sensitive?

Food sensitivities can cause a range of health problems, from skin rashes, fatigue and sinus congestion to mood swings and headaches. They can lead to imbalance within the body, making weight loss harder. An elimination diet can be a very helpful way to determine which, if any, of the following foods are responsible.

Gluten: This protein is found in wheat products. Some people with gluten sensitivity react to wheat but can tolerate oats or rye.
Food examples: Wholemeal bread, rye crispbreads, rolled oats and barley.

Lactose: A natural sugar, lactose is present in dairy products. Some people who can’t tolerate milk find they can eat yoghurt.

Food examples: Milk, cheese, cream, yoghurt, butter, icecream.

Salicylates: This family of plant chemicals is found naturally in high levels in many fruit and vegetables.
Food examples: Pumpkin, broccoli, capsicum, watermelon, strawberries, honey, tea and coffee.

Amines: These result when protein is broken down by fermentation.
Food examples: Cheese, chocolate, wine, beer, yeast extracts, bananas, avocado, tomatoes.

Yeast: As they grow, these living, single-celled fungi make proteins and vitamins (particularly the B group).
Food examples: Vegemite, Marmite, most breads, some crispbreads, beer, wine and some stock powders.

Specific foods or food groups: Some people find that certain food groups cause them health problems and are best avoided.
Food examples: Seafood, eggs and the nightshade family (eg eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes).

MSG (monosodium glutamate): The manmade MSG additive is often found in takeaway or pre-packaged foods, but MSG also occurs naturally in some foods, making them more flavoursome.
Food examples: Cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms and yeast extracts.

Food additives: These include artificial colours and preservatives such as antioxidants, sorbates, benzoates, sulphites, nitrates and proprionates, which are added to everything from processed meats and dried fruit to salad dressings.
Food examples: Just about anything that is processed or packaged. Making foods from scratch at home is the best way to avoid colours and preservatives.

Healthy eating principles

The following golden rules should apply in every diet:

  • Eat foods high in antioxidants such as fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • Choose whole grains and low-GI foods.
  • At every meal, include some high-quality protein such as red meat, chicken, eggs or a mix of legumes and nuts/seeds.
  • Cut back on sugar and salt.
  • Drink two litres of water every day.
  • Minimise intake of caffeine in coffee, tea and chocolate.
  • Eat three meals with healthy snacks in between.
  • Cut out soft drinks and reduce alcohol consumption.
  • Snack on foods such as raw nuts, fruit, vegetable sticks and yoghurt.

Stephanie Osfield has been a freelance health journalist for 15 years.

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning freelance health journalist. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and women’s health issues.

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