How Healthy Is Your Diet, Really?

Healthy eating is very near and dear to our hearts, here at R29. We’re big proponents of the old adage that you are what you eat, so we do everything we can to know everything we can about our diets. 

With that in mind, we asked a few of our favorite food experts to weigh in on seven of the most popular diets among the health-obsessed — vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, paleo, high-protein, raw, and macrobiotic — to give you the inside scoop on what they really do to your body. In the epic guide ahead, you’ll find a breakdown of each diet, plus its nutritional pros and cons.

We get that for many of you on these diets, the choice may be about more than just about eating. So, hear us now: We don’t intend for this to be a competition of which diet is best. This guide is here to do just that —guide you to make informed, healthy decisions about your dietary needs. And, as always, remember that there are no one-size-fits-all food solutions, and you should always talk to a medical professional — be it a nutritionist or your GP — about your specific diet requirements. 

But, if you’ve ever been curious about all that hype around paleo, or if you want to find out if Gwyneth’s macrobiotic plan really is as amazing as she claims, this one’s for you….

1

Vegan

What It Is
Nixing all animal products (including meat, dairy, and eggs), but also any and all animal-derived things entirely — as in clothes and fabrics (so those new leather Miu Miu’s are a no-no), too. And sometimes it’s not as obvious as the aforementioned: White sugar, wine, beer, and even some hard alcohol are off limits. “This is due to either the refining or fermentation process, where animal parts are typically used in some way (such as gelatin or bone charcoal to purify),” says Brian St. Pierre, C.S.C.S., C.I.S.S.N. (a top-notch sports nutritionist), a nutrition coach atPrecision Nutrition in Toronto, who is based in Maine. 

Pros
Eating vegan can have cardiovascular benefits. If done right (fruits and veggies up the wazoo is always the way to go, according to most nutritionists, from a health perspective) you could be eating mostly plant-based, which long-term, can be beneficial for your heart and simply staying healthy overall. Plus, you can eat a ton of whole grains — like quinoa and buckwheat — and go nuts with nuts, which will get you ample calcium — cow’s milk is not the only way to score it — as in cashew ‘cheese’ or almond milk. But you can also load up on the big C from green veggies like broccoli, kale, or beans such as lentils. (How do you think the cow got the calcium in the first place? They EAT grass!)

Cons
It’s possible to be lacking vitamin B12, which is mostly found in animal by-products (not just meat, but eggs, too). What you can do: take amultivitamin that has B12, or a separate supplement. But, Tricia Williams, a certified holistic nutritionist, chef, and founder of Food Matters NYC, says that’s not the only way to get it: Try adding nutritional yeast to meals. This cheesy-tasting food supplement can be shaken over salads, grains, or popcorn; or laced into your favorite smoothie.

2

Vegetarian

What It Is
Not eating meat and poultry — so no red meat, chicken, turkey, pork, or fish. However, there are subsets and breakout classifications, i.e. pesceterian (those who eat fish) or lacto vegetarian (those who are cool with eating milk, cheese, and dairy, but not eggs).

Pros
If you stick to the core of vegetarianism, you’ll load up on fruits and veggies. This means a high-alkaline diet, which many experts say is the perfect environment for fighting disease (of course, experts do point out that you can still eat poorly as a vegetarian — like say, mostly simple carbs and few veggies — like with any and all diets and ways of eating). Depending on where you fall on the vegetarian spectrum, you aren’t necessarily skipping animal by-products entirely, so you can still load up on calcium, iron, and protein from eggs — also a great source for B12, experts say — as well as calcium-rich dairy. And, if you want to top off your iron intake (because you are anemic or just want to maintain stellar levels), Williams suggests not only eating iron-rich foods such as dark leafy greens like spinach, eggs, lentils, and chickpeas, but also using this easy iron-boosting trick when cooking: Make veggies in a cast-iron skillet — some iron leaches out into the food that you are cooking. Sneaky!

Cons
“Eating meat in moderation isn’t bad for you, plus it’s a great source of protein and iron,” says St. Pierre. “And animal-derived iron is easier for the body to digest than plant-based sources.” Many experts don’t suggest substituting tofu or soy-based products to get protein because so many can be either GMO or high in estrogen (although if you are sure the kind you’re consuming doesn’t fall into either category and have it on occasion, you should be all good). It’ll take a little more work when cooking or eating out, but instead, St. Pierre suggests you swap in smart protein subs such as eggs, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, cheese, yogurt, peas, asparagus, and potatoes.

3

Gluten-Free

What It Is
The actual definition of the word gluten is glue. “Gluten is a protein found in some foods that can cause inflammation in your intestines — part of your GI tract — because that’s where it is absorbed,” says St. Pierre. The possible results: bloating, stomach pain, etc., post-consumption. It’s important to note that whether you’ve been diagnosed with Celiac disease or not, it’s possible to have a gluten sensitivity. While a ‘wheat allergy’ is a term often used to describe those with either of the aforementioned gluten issues, it’s not really accurate, says St. Pierre — it’s really more of wheat intolerance (similar to the deal with lactose intolerance). The main sources of gluten (but by no means the only ones): wheat products such as crackers, bagels, and bread as well as rye, spelt, and barley, plus soy sauce and salad dressings (it’s often used as thickening agent).

Pros
Technically, you don’t need the wheat-based grains and other items that gluten is in to be nutritionally balanced, says Williams. And what you can eat a ton of while being GF can be super-good for you — think quinoa, potatoes, rice, risotto, and buckwheat (yes, the word “wheat” in there is super confusing, but don’t worry, it is GF). Another possible positive side effect: You can end up eating less processed junk food (such as pretzels, crackers, cookies, cake, and of course, the bread basket at dinner). Caveat: That only works if you don’t trade in super-processed, wheat-laced food for similar foods that are GF. 

Cons
If you see that GF symbol as a halo of health, you could run into some nutritional pitfalls. “If you eat GF, you still should steer clear of processed foods, and not use it as an excuse to house a box of gluten-free cupcakes — a cupcake is a cupcake,” says Williams, who also notes that there has been some buzz around people possibly lacking fiber when eating GF. “But that’s most likely because many wheat products are fortified with fiber and then you aren’t getting that extra push when you cut them out, but you can still totally get fiber from increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables.”

4

Raw

What It Is
Nothing can be cooked over 118 degrees and you can’t have any foods that are fermented, pasteurized, or roasted. So basically, your diet consists of a ton of raw vegetables, as well as fruits, seeds, and nuts.

Pros
“The lack of heating food helps preserve naturally occurring probiotics,” says St. Pierre. For example, unpasteurized milk contains some probiotics, but pasteurizing it (which uses high heat) kills them, along with other bacteria. Because you are eating a super-high quantity of plant-based foods, which are loaded with nutrients and minerals etc., and there are naturally a lot of healthy enzymes in natural plant foods, you could be consuming a stellar amount of nutrients (again, key word is could, as it depends on whether or not you are rounding out your diet to do so).

Cons
“There are some downsides to following raw foodism year round,” says Williams. “For many of my clients, they say it’s easier for them to do it in the summer, probably because in a warm climate it’s natural to want to eat fresh fruits and vegetables than in the colder months when your body normally craves warmer foods.” You can easily swing the way of major lack of nutrition if you don’t do raw right — as in, eat a wide array of fruits and veggies as well as nuts. Meaning, four avocados a day is NOT going to cut it.

5

Macrobiotic

What It Is
Macro equals long and bio, life. This “long life” diet makes grains and vegetables the main attraction and totally skips processed, refined, and most animal products. Also, you have to focus on chewing completely before swallowing to fully digest your food.

Pros
Not much, say our experts. Sure, loading up on veggies, whole grains (brown rice is the go-to), fruit, seaweed, and legumes is all really good for you, but you’re eating so little of that food (the amount is limited) as well as leaving so many food groups out that you can easily find yourself nutritionally lacking.

Cons
Eating macrobiotic can be really rigid and hard to stick to, so basically, you most likely need someone preparing your meals for you (Gwyneth, we’re looking at you). You are also dropping nightshades such as tomatoes, avocados, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, beets, and spinach because they are deemed as too acidic, meanwhile they are really nutritionally good for you, says Williams. Plus, the high amount of rice intake (although quinoa and buckwheat are okay here) could be questionable, thanks to the high-arsenic reports of brown rice lately (that’s compared to that of white rice, once deemed not as healthy as its brown counterpart, but actually has less of the toxin because of the refining process).

6

Low-Carb

What It Is
Take away the carbs and pack on the protein (from meat and nuts) or fat, or both. The most popular versions include Atkins and the South Beach Diet, which essentially follow the basic put-down-the-baguette idea, but go to another level by giving the green light to have as much greasy meat as you want — BACON! — and OD on peanut butter. 

Pros
Plenty of protein and no carbs can equal major weight loss. “Protein is essential in maintaining lean mass and recovering from exercise, since it requires far more energy to digest than fat or carbohydrates, and is also the most satiating of all macronutrients,” says St. Pierre. Plus, taking away carbs — a.k.a. the crack of the food world, which skyrockets insulin as well as sets off dopamine receptors in your brain and leaves you craving more (especially the bad, processed kind like pizza, pasta, and French fries) — can also make you healthier as well as leave your brain clearer. 

Cons
It can be easy to shift your focus and your plate more on protein and away from greens. And if this happens, you could wind up lacking fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, all of which are essential to vital health, says St. Pierre. Also, not all carbs are bad — whole grain options such as brown rice (pending the resolution of the arsenic issue we just talked about) and quinoa, give you the good energy you need to power through the workday or a SoulCycle class.

7

Paleo

What It Is
Also referred to as the Stone Age diet or the hunter-gatherer diet, this is getting some traction among high-performance athletes and CrossFit diehards. While there are varying versions, essentially it’s a lot of protein, plus veggies and nuts. The main standout point: nix the grains, dairy, and the beans completely; and increase low-glycemic fruits (as in, not a ton of natural sugar) such as berries, plums, and oranges. What sets it apart from classic high-protein regimens? The theory behind it: Eat the way they ate back in the day — as in caveman (and woman) times. Plus, the no grain or beans rule. The why behind leaving these out: We didn’t need all this cultivated hoopla then, so why do we need it now — our bodies have only been eating that stuff for a couple thousand years and are not yet adapted to it. Paleo-devotees say that “pseudo-grains” such as quinoa and buckwheat actually have anti-nutrient compounds that may harm your health.

Pros
“Like with Atkins, lots of protein can help build muscle, which means, yes, you can get leaner and the number on the scale can go down,” says St. Pierre. This diet focuses on more of the healthier meat than Atkins does, though — chicken, turkey, and lean meat. And because the body requires more power to digest protein, it can boost metabolism and lead to loss of fat. Also, fresh fruit and veggies are important in the Paleo diet and are super important to eat — and well, nothing wrong there.

Cons
“There’s always a downside to eliminating several food groups,” says St. Pierre. Also, grains and legumes (most nutritionists love a lentil!) are really good for you and eliminating them completely leaves some experts saying going Paleo is going over the top. Especially when there’s not actual proof that our bodies can’t process these things. (However, experts say if you do it right and pack on the veggies and nuts, then it can be okay, nutritionally). “And the actual anthropological evidence suggests we have been eating many of them for far longer than the Paleo advocates would have you believe—like 100,000 years, not 10,000 years,” says St. Pierre.

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1 Comment

  1. I’m on day 7 of this new diet regime and really feel terrific! I lost 14 pounds in 10 days and have by no means felt far better. Very first couple of days are somewhat tough to stick to but by day four you are going to feel awesome, and by day 11 you’ll be 10 pounds lighter.

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