Healthy Eating for Your Active Lifestyle

Most dietitians are not fans of trendy or fad diets. These diets are not grounded in science and have very few, if any, benefits. They are usually hard to follow, expensive, restrictive and may eliminate entire food groups and the nutrients they contain. Their popularity is driven by media hype, celebrity endorsement and personal testimonials. Given the extent of nutrition misinformation, trendy diets contribute to the confusion.

Recently though, I have thought about the effect of these diets on the overall nutrition landscape. I realized that although they may not deliver on their promises, they do have unexpected benefits. They can raise awareness, generate conversation and speed up the development of new products. Here are some examples.

Gluten-free diet

The demand for gluten-free foods has driven the food industry to develop new gluten-free products. While some of these products are high in sugar and additives—needed to mimic the texture of gluten-containing foods--many offer variety and alternatives to those with celiac disease  or non-celiac gluten sensitivity. On a personal level, I am grateful for this. After a long illness and numerous tests, my husband was diagnosed with celiac disease. The variety of products available allow us to continue to eat our favourite foods, use our traditional recipes and eat together as a family.

I am not encouraging anyone who does not have a medical reason such as celiac disease or gluten intolerance to adopt a gluten-free diet. The diet is more involved than simply giving up bread and pasta, and it requires careful planning to get all of the nutrients you need. It includes eating a variety of natural gluten-free foods: vegetables and fruit, grains such as brown rice or quinoa, dairy products, meat, fish and legumes. To help you overcome the practical and nutritional challenges, I would advise consulting a registered dietitian. 

Paleo diet

The paleo diet is based on the questionable theory that if we eat like our ancestors in Neolithic times we will be healthier. The diet focuses on meat and vegetables and eliminates agricultural crops such as grains, legumes and milk products. While this theory is seriously flawed, not to mention unproven, it has unexpectedly caused us to focus on the importance of protein in our diets.

For example, we know why protein is important:

  •  Helps build, repair and maintain muscle
  •  Keeps your immune system strong
  •  Helps control blood sugar levels
  •  Keeps hair, nails and skin healthy
  •  Slows down digestion, allowing a steady stream of nutrients to flow into your blood

However, what has made the Paleo diet so popular are the claims that it can help with weight loss. Some go as far as to recommend that 50% of daily calories should come from protein and 50% from fat. Never mind that this is almost impossible to achieve, there is limited evidence to suggest that higher protein diets lead to more weight loss than those higher in carbohydrate. The amount of protein necessary to achieve weight loss falls within the accepted guidelines of 15-30% of our calorie intake. This is about 44-62 grams of protein per day for a 120-170 pound person. Even so, many Canadians, especially older individuals, do not eat enough protein to build muscle and may start to lose muscle, a condition called sarcopenia.

Some experts believe that the recommended protein intake should be higher. Research is underway to determine the optimal level. Whatever the optimal amount turns out to be, with the heightened profile of the Paleo diet, we are now more aware of protein in our diets.

Detox diet

Detox diets are another celebrity-driven trend. While popular at any time, they are especially attractive after the holiday season when you might feel a little heavier and sluggish. Proponents of these diets claim that they flush toxic chemicals from your body and result in weight loss. This is based on the false assumption that your body needs help getting rid of chemicals.

Simply put, detoxes are not necessary and may be harmful. Your body does a good job of getting rid of toxins. That’s the continuous job of lungs, kidneys and liver. Once you get back to regular eating, activity and sleep, you will shed extra pounds.

What then could be a possible benefit from following a detox diet? Some people use these diets to kickstart positive eating habits. While unnecessarily restrictive and unbalanced, these diets do eliminate heavily processed foods from your diet. They also make you aware of what you are eating, may motivate you to change your eating habits and encourage you to eat more vegetables and fruit. This is always a good thing.

The bottom line

Although trendy diets may not live up to their claims, they may motivate you to take a look at how you are eating and encourage you to develop healthier habits.

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Lee Finell, RD

Registered Dietitian

Lee (MHSA, RD) is a registered dietitian and Program Manager at Dairy Farmers of Canada. She writes articles and develops programs and resources that help Albertans translate the science of nutrition into healthy food choices.

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