Nutrition Workshop Notes

Diets….is there a best one? 

Background 

Different types of diets have been around for years and years and new ones emerge every couple of months, it seems. 

Dr Libby Weaver, a renowned nutritional biochemist says that if you live long enough you’ll see the diet trends go around in cycles of about 20-30yrs, they might just be rehashed or marketed in a new way.  

All of us in some way have tried various diets. Let’s think about the motivations and reasons behind why people diet.  

Reasons we came up with: 

  • For cultural, religious or ethical reasons 
  • Weight loss 
  • To kickstart new lifestyle habits 
  • It’s a popular trend (everyone seems to be trying the diet and having results) 
  • Relief for a particular health condition e.g. removing some foods which aggravate arthritis
  • As part of training for an event e.g. athletes who need to carbo-load or bulk up or lose weight 
  • To support a friend or loved one who is changing their diet 
  • Other: e.g. a bride preparing for the wedding day 

It’s important to think about our reasons behind trying out diets and particular ways of eating and will they serve us well to develop healthy habits in the long term. 

Exploring 5 popular diets 

We discussed the diets, some possible benefits as well as some cautions or areas of concern. 

Keto Diet 

This was developed first in the 1920s as a treatment for epilepsy in children. The diet is very high in fat, tends to be high in meat and has extremely low carbohydrate intake, <50g per day. The idea is that by removing carbohydrates, the body adapts to using stored fat as its fuel source more efficiently. 

The body converts stored fat into chemical structures known as ketones which it then uses as energy. The diet also restricts a number of vegetables and fruits as well as all grain products (so can be low in fibre which is needed for bowel health as well as other areas of our bodies working well).  

Benefits: it removes refined carbohydrates from the diet.   

There is some evidence it has positive benefits for people with epilepsy, cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s and there is some research developing that it can help people manage their blood sugar levels better. 

Caution: BUT some research has conflicting results and we do not yet know what the full impact of high meat and high fat along with low fibre in the diet has over time.  

Bottom line: This diet can be difficult to sustain for a long time. If you choose to explore it, PLEASE have a check up with your doctor, including blood tests to look at blood lipid markers and what impact the extra meat has, especially if you have a kidney condition.  

Vegan/Vegetarian 

Adopted by many people for cultural, religious, ethical and health reasons. Both diets remove animal products and are focused on plant-based foods. 

Vegan: no foods or products derived from animals including meat, milk, eggs, honey or textiles such as leather, wool and fur.  

Vegetarian: there are variations of vegetarianism- generally there are no animal meats included but some may choose to eat fish and/or dairy. 

Benefits: Based around plant-foods it is naturally high in fibre (good for bowel health) and can cover a wide range of micronutrients. It is associated with improved blood glucose control and reducing heart disease risk. 

Caution: without careful planning there are risks of developing deficiency in some key nutrients: iron, calcium, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acid and zinc. 

Bottom line: research and plan it well to ensure you are getting all that you need by eating a wide range of plant-based foods. 

Paleo/Hunter-Gatherer (caveman) 

The idea is to only eat what people groups of hunter-gatherer cultures or people of the past ate. That is, wild caught animal meat and plants that have been found/foraged. 

It tends to be high in animal protein and low in plant food; removing anything that is cultivated including grains, dairy, salt, crops such as potatoes and legumes. 

Benefits: a focus on whole foods as close to their natural state as possible is great. People might explore more variety in their diets especially learning what is seasonally and locally available. 

Cautions: For most people, eliminating good quality grains, legumes, dairy is not necessary and can cause deficiencies in some nutrients. 

There is a high meat intake which if not countered with high vegetable/fruit intake may lead to problems later on with bowel health in particular. 

Beware of the marketing ploys especially special Paleo products! 

Bottom line: Adopt practices of eating whole, real food and include plenty of vegetables, fruit and good quality grains.  

Intermittent Fasting 

5:2 Fasting: Eating normally for 5 days of the week and on 2 days, food intake is restricted to 2100kJ (502cal) per day.  

16:8 Fasting: Fasting for 16hrs each day with eating only happening in an 8hr window. 

Benefits: as with any diet where calorie intake is restricted, there will be weight loss over time. 

If you are paying attention it can help you to become more attuned to your body’s signals of hunger and fullness. 

Cautions: NOT recommended for people who have diabetes, are pregnant or breastfeeding. Restricted eating can mean missed opportunities to get all the nutrients you need.  

Bottom line: fasting is difficult to sustain long term and can be a problem socially (if events are outside of your eating periods). It doesn’t educate about developing healthy habits long term which ultimately make the greatest difference. 

If you have the discipline to fast, focus that energy on developing habits in healthy eating and exercise which will serve you long term.  

Mediterranean Diet 

A diet focused on whole foods including plenty of vegetables and fruit, wholegrains, plant oils, nuts, seeds and limited portions of fish, meat and alcohol (in moderation). 

Enjoyed by a number of people groups in the Mediterranean, there are some variations according to area. 

Benefits: Studied extensively it has been found to contribute to improved cardiovascular health, lowered incidence of obesity and reduced risk of some cancers. It is centred around plant foods so is naturally high in fibre and antioxidants both of which have disease prevention effects. 

Cautions: There are not any to speak of- it is associated with very positive health outcomes. 

Bottom line: This diet is well supported by research. However, remember it is not just the food that makes a difference- consider lifestyle factors as well including physical activity, family and social connectivity, sleep, patterns of eating (think leisurely meals are typical of these people groups). 

Final notes 

Overall, a balanced diet high in vegetables, with wholegrains, healthy fats, some protein and fruit and minimally processed foods have consistently shown positive outcomes for health. 

Many of the popular diets are focused on short-term outcomes only and may be difficult to sustain long term. 

Others have not been studied for long enough or well enough to truly understand their impact on health (either for better or worse). 

Remember: despite what comes through in the headlines, good health has many factors and does not usually come down to one thing, but rather a whole lot of small steps which can make a big change in your life for good. 

How to spot a fad diet (adapted from the Healthy Food Guide) 

  • If it is promoted by celebrities who may or may not  have nutrition credentials 
  • It calls for high intakes of specific ‘superfoods’ 
  • It promotes using specific and often expensive products 
  • It restricts whole food groups (e.g. remove all grains or all dairy etc) 
  • It promises short cuts to weight loss (e.g. lose x-amount of kgs in 2 weeks).   

There are lots of factors which contribute to our health both positively and negatively. 

Tips for good health 

  • Enjoy a widely varied diet of a range of foods including lots of vegetables, fruit, some lean protein, healthy fats and minimize processed foods high in sugar, salt and fat. 
  • Slow down while eating and savour each mouthful (this helps you become more tuned to your body’s signals). 
  • Enjoy spending time with friends, family and loved ones. 
  • Have some moderate physical activity each day; 30-60mins. 
  • Drink water little and often throughout the day. 
  • Have 8-10 hours good quality sleep each night. 
  • Spend time each day thinking about what you are thankful for and all that is good in your life.
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