Paleo, Keto, Whole30, oh my!

There are so many diets out there, that it is hard to keep them all straight. Today I am going to talk about three very popular ones and the pros and cons of each:

The Paleo Diet

While I personally see absolutely no reason to live like a caveman (they don’t sleep on nice comfy mattresses, for one reason), many people aim to eat like one and follow the paleo diet. While some people debate if the paleo diet is actually how cavemen ate, it does not really matter. The question is…are there benefits to following the paleo diet?

The foundation of the paleo diet is no grains, legumes, dairy or sugar and lots of meat, vegetables and fruit. Vegetables and fruit are chock full of vitamins, minerals and fiber, so I can really get behind that part. Paleo also recommends avoiding processed foods, sugar, soft drinks, artificial sweeteners, margarine and trans fats. That part sounds very good too because the typical American diet has way too much of all of those.

If you are going to try paleo, choose high-quality animal proteins. People who recommend this diet recommend eating reasonable portions of grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and eggs and sustainably raised seafood. However (here comes the “but…”), the paleo diet also recommends avoiding grains based on the theory that grains can cause inflammation. Research, however, does not support that theory for the average person.  On the contrary, many heart health studies suggest that whole grains are beneficial to heart health. Whole grains contain many nutrients like B vitamins, antioxidants and minerals, and a diet rich in whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and some forms of cancer.

The paleo diet also prohibits dairy, beans, and soy. As someone who suffers from lactose intolerance, I agree that dairy can cause inflammation and a wide variety of digestive issues. However, that is because my gut is particularly sensitive to dairy. Yours may not be. And without dairy, beans and soy, you may find it difficult to get enough calcium, which is incredibly important for strong bones.

Many nutritionists reject the paleo diet because of its restrictions on entire food groups.  A diet with a wide variety of foods is important to ensure your body has access to and absorbs all the nutrients it needs. While nutritional supplements can help provide nutrients that may be missing in a person’s diet, studies show that supplements are not absorbed by the body as effectively as nutrients obtained from real food.

The Keto Diet

The keto diet has become trendy for people looking to lose weight and recommends 70% of daily calories from fat, 20% from protein and just 10% for carbohydrates.
The keto diet recommends a 4:1 ratio of fat to carbs. Therefore, about 5–10% of your total daily calories can come from carbohydrates.  In order to achieve that goal, you will have to drastically reduce your intake of carbohydrates to less than 40–50 grams per day. By comparison, I personally consume about 100-200 grams of carbohydrates a day despite my relatively small frame. As I discussed in last week’s post, carbohydrates are an important source of energy for both your body and your brain. Fifty percent of my daily calories come from carbohydrates. I may be able to cut that down to 30-40% if I were not running, but I cannot even begin to imagine how foggy my brain would get if I tried to cut it down more than that.

Also, the keto diet is high in saturated fat, which research suggests may increase your risk of heart disease. We all need some fat in our diets to ensure we feel satisfied, but too much may not only clog your arteries, it may offset any potential weight-loss benefits as well.

Nutritionists say that vitamin and mineral supplements are essential on this type of diet since pure fats like coconut oil, olive oil and butter and many other fats that make up the base of a keto diet are not really very good sources of vitamins. Also, you are also missing out on the beneficial antioxidants in fruit and root vegetables, which have been associated with a decreased risk of cancer, heart disease and other conditions.

The Whole30 Diet

Unlike the paleo and keto diets, which recommend following the plan for an indefinite period of time, the Whole30 diet recommends following specific guidelines for 30 days. It is meant as more of a detox than a lifestyle. The basic guidelines are to completely cut out “hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups,” including sugar, dairy, alcohol, grains, and legumes (including hummus and peanut butter). The Whole 30 diet also recommends reading the nutrition labels on all foods and avoiding carrageenan, MSG, and sulfites. My first problem with this plan is that my food comes with “nutritional labels”. In other words, it comes in a package and is (therefore) somewhat processed. That may not be 100% true since, for example, peanut butter comes in a package and there are plenty of healthy, unprocessed brands of peanut butter (it’s not like I crush my own peanuts!). But overall, it does not sound as “whole food”-oriented as I thought it would be. And for some reason they prohibit peanut butter, one of my favorite healthy energizing snacks.

Whole30 also excludes paleo-approved sugars like honey and baked goods made with almond or coconut flour. On the plus side, you can eat all the fruit, veggies, and meat that you want.  The list of foods to avoid includes the following:

  • Natural or artificial sugars and sweeteners, including maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, coconut sugar, date syrup, monk fruit extract, stevia, Splenda, xylitol, and others.
  • Alcohol in any form, even if you’re using it in your cooking.
  • Grains, including wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, millet, bulgur, sorghum, sprouted grains, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat as well as any additives derived from these foods, like brans, germs, and starches.
  • Legumes, including all beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, and all forms of soy.
  • Dairy, including all cow, goat, and sheep’s milk products.
  • Additives like carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites
  • Sweet treats, and other not-so-healthy goodies made with compliant ingredients, like cauliflower pizza.

Wow! That’s a lot of things not to eat!  On the positive side, one benefit of Whole30 is by cutting out so many categories of food, you may be able to identify potential allergies or intolerances (for example to grains or dairy) when you introduce them back into you diet when the 30-day plan is over. However, I believe that nutrition is a lifestyle. We need to eat every day! 😊 So, while changing your diet drastically for one month may help you lose weight, it may not necessarily help you keep it off as you transition back to a less restrictive form of eating.

So, what will help you ensure that you get all the nutrients you need to function optimally while maintaining a healthy weight?

Regardless of your macro mix, it is important to focus on high-quality calories. A good rule of thumb is to prioritize whole foods over processed ones whenever possible. Carbohydrates are not evil (as many diets would have you believe), however you should choose nutrient-dense whole grains and starchy vegetables over highly processed refined carbohydrates and sugar. For fats, choose heart-healthy options like nuts, avocados, fatty fish and olive oil. And most importantly, feel free to experiment to find your personal optimal mix of macronutrients.  We are all different. That means each of our bodies may have different needs and preferences to function optimally.  Celebrity diets may work well for the celebrities who created them and they may work well for lots of other people too. But the key to optimal health is finding the right mix for YOU!

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