When it comes to organized diets, there’s the new: the Keto diet, Intermittent fasting, Whole30, The Paleo diet.
There’s the old: South Beach Diet, Slimfast, Atkins
And there’s also Weight Watchers (now WW), which has been around and is still going strong.
New diets pop up all the time, and they usually have a few things in common: restriction, counting, and big promises (“lose 10 pounds in 10 days!”) 👎.
These diets may work for some, but they can also take you on an unexpected rollercoaster.
Here’s how they lead to a cycle of losing and regaining weight:
The typical diet experience involves rapid weight loss when you start (along with a positive attitude and rush of enthusiasm), followed by rapid weight regain (to your previous weight, or even higher) when you can’t sustain the diet and revert to your old ways.
Chronic dieting is a frustrating cycle, but I understand why people are drawn to diets. It can feel easy to follow rules, and who doesn’t love quick results?
So what is the best diet to follow, from a registered dietitian’s perspective?
Short answer: It depends on your lifestyle! I like the Mediterranean diet, which advocates for whole, unprocessed foods. The population it’s based on tends to lead long healthy lives.
Long answer: The best diet is one that you will enjoy long-term (we’re talking decades here) that keeps you mentally and physically healthy. Aim to eat in a way that provides your body with a balance of macronutrients (protein, fat, complex carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals from fruit, vegetables, and plants), while avoiding processed foods in excess. By definition, a diet is simply what you eat — not a special program or set of rules to follow, and also not something you do for just a few months. If you can’t maintain it, then it’s not the right diet for you. It’s also important that it feels enjoyable, satisfying, and unrestrictive — these are the foundations of a sustainable diet.
Let’s see how some of the most popular diets measure up:
High fat, moderate protein, very low-carb.
Possibly the most popular thing since avocado toast, the keto diet was actually developed to treat epilepsy in children. So how did it become a weight-loss diet? While it is true that you’ll lose weight quickly in a state of ketosis, following this diet can actually cause some health problems. Eating so much fat (especially saturated fats found in bacon, cream, and cheese) can raise your cholesterol and take a toll on your heart health, while limiting fruits and vegetables can lead to nutrient deficiencies. Limiting carbs can also lead to constipation since you may be eating less fiber. Most importantly, it’s very difficult to maintain, which means weight comes back quickly when you eat carbs again. It’s generally too restrictive for most people, especially if you want to eat carbs like fruit and whole grains, have a glass of wine, and a piece of birthday cake once in a while.
This typically involves 2-3 fasting days a week (eating very little calories), or fasting for a 12-16 hour window each day.
Potential health benefits include weight loss and improved insulin sensitivity, but there’s not enough research to conclude anything long-term yet. There’s nothing inherently wrong with fasting, but it may not have a huge impact on your health or weight if you aren’t incorporating healthy habits too. For example, it can help you cut down on late night snacking, but it can also cause you to eat larger portions during the day if your hunger levels increase. You can certainly try it for a few weeks to see how you feel and pay attention to changes in your mood / energy / appetite / weight / bloating. Be cautious if you’re prone to dizziness or fainting, as it can cause low blood sugar.
Eating what our ancestors presumably ate, including vegetables, fruits, protein, some nuts and seeds, while avoiding processed foods, dairy, and grains.
There’s a lot of good bits to the paleo diet, but excluding food groups can lead to deficiencies in nutrients like fiber, calcium, and vitamin D, and generally makes this a hard diet to maintain (say it with me now — if you can’t maintain it then it won’t be sustainable). It’s great to eat more whole foods and eat fewer processed foods, but it’s not great to cut out food groups when research does not definitively show benefits.
Following an elimination diet focused on “whole foods” for 30 days, followed by a reintroduction phase, in order to identify your trigger foods.
The whole30 diet is a very strict 30-day diet where you eat only the foods that are allowed on their list of “whole unprocessed foods.” The purpose is to identify your trigger foods or food intolerances. Their reasoning is that eliminating these foods can help with hormonal imbalances, acne, gut health, allergies, brain fog, and more.
It’s important to note that this is all theoretical.
I certainly believe that our food choices impact us in significant ways. However, this diet is more restrictive than necessary for most people and thus is difficult to follow. You’ll probably feel better eating more fruits, vegetables, and less processed foods in general without having to eliminate so many foods. It’s also not a good choice for weight loss purposes only, since it was not designed for weight loss. The whole30 diet is best for people who have symptoms of gastrointestinal upset (bloating, indigestion, constipation/diarrhea), although it is not a guaranteed fix.
Gluten-free / Dairy-free / Low-FODMAP
I’ve grouped these diets together because they all involve eliminating certain foods from the diet. The point of elimination diets is to figure out whether you have intolerances to certain foods or food groups — not weight loss. So, unless you have gastrointestinal issues like IBS, celiac disease, excessive bloating, problematic diarrhea, constipation, or actual food intolerances, there is no real benefit to excluding foods from your diet. Cutting out foods doesn’t necessarily lead to cutting down on calories (you may not lose weight at all), so I encourage using these for the right reasons.
Weight Watchers (WW)
The WW points system is one of the most popular diets around, and kudos to them for rebranding as a holistic wellness program. I like the focus on both physical and mental health, the community aspect, and the fact that they don’t restrict particular foods. Their points system is straightforward, but the downside is becoming reliant on it and ultimately not understanding the nutrition in your food. It can be challenging to maintain your weight loss once you leave the program. That’s probably why I hear my patients say they’ve been on and off WW for years.
Healthy eating can be intuitive
Figuring out what to eat can feel really challenging especially with diet culture and misinformation on social media, but healthy eating shouldn’t actually be hard.
You don’t have to follow any specific food guidelines in order to be healthy, and you certainly don’t have to be perfect. Incorporate healthy eating habits that make you feel good and don't feel too restrictive. We recommend focusing on eating nutrient-dense foods and limiting highly-processed meals.
In many cases, it’s a balanced combination of vegetables, protein, complex carbs, and fruit. Learn more about building a balanced plate.
It might take a little longer to reach your health goals intuitively than using a crash diet, but it can ultimately help you avoid yo-yo dieting. Remember, building healthy habits is a marathon, not a sprint.
Figuring this all out can take time and extra guidance (especially if you’ve been dieting for a long time), and we encourage you to talk to your Sequence Care Team to schedule a session with one of our dietitians for more individual support.