There seems to be an unceasing amount of — usually conflicting — nutritional advice and diets available. Low fat, high fat, high protein, vegetarian — figuring out what to eat can feel like an impossible feat.
My goal is to present the pros and cons of different eating regimens so that you can curate your own unique eating "mix."
"Low-fat diet" is an umbrella term to explain a way of eating where one consciously lowers the overall percentage of calories coming from fat; the extreme — and unfortunately prevalent — interpretation is that anything labelled "low fat" is automatically "healthy."
As Staying Healthy With Nutrition points out, the general consensus is that a healthy diet can include up to 35 per cent fat. If your current fat consumption is higher than 35 per cent, decreasing overall fat consumption could have positive effects. But see the caveats below.
The "low-fat" umbrella does not distinguish between "good" and "bad" fats. Good healthy fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. A few examples of healthy fats are olive oil, rapeseed oil, almond oil, avocados, olives, nuts and seeds. For a more detailed explanation of types of fats read this fantastic synopsis from Precision Nutrition.
Most foods labelled "low fat" are full of preservatives and high in sugar and salt — not to mention nutritionally empty. Think muffins, puddings, cereals and yogurts.
Chronically low-fat diets can leave you susceptible to things such as dull, flaky skin, cold extremities, hormone imbalances and poor control of inflammation.
Who might want to eat a low-fat diet?
Successfully adopting a healthier lifestyle is in part about finding your "linchpin" habit: the one that, when adopted or deleted, creates a huge ripple effect. If your current diet is high in trans and saturated fats — you survive on French fries and chicken wings — fat might be your "linchpin." Limiting fat could be a simple and effective way to improve your overall health. Simple is good. People often "fall off the horse" when a regimen feels too complicated.
Informed consumers who are motivated by the "low-fat" umbrella to shop "the outside of the grocery store," which for the most part will mean buying unlabeled low-fat fresh produce and lean proteins. These informed consumers understand the difference between "good" and "bad" fats, and that a "lower-fat" diet does not mean a "no-fat" diet. These informed consumers might just say they are following a Mediterranean diet. See below for more info.
Who might want to steer clear?
Anyone who uses diet "rules" to justify unhealthy choices — the "I can eat X because it is low fat" justification. Low fat is not the only key element in a food. Low fat does not mean "healthy" — processed foods are never healthy.
The Mediterranean diet prioritizes fresh fruits and vegetables (preferably purchased fresh daily), fish, and other forms of healthy fats like olive oil (in moderation), and suggests decreasing unhealthy fats and meat from land animals.
The Mediterranean diet is associated with lower incidences of heart disease and highlights the importance of unprocessed, whole foods.
Too much choice. The plan is not overly dogmatic, which is good if you find a lack of choice suffocating, but for some this feels overwhelming and directionless.
Who might want to eat a Mediterranean diet?
Individuals who thrive on choice and enjoy whole, unprocessed foods and cooking daily.
Who should steer clear?
Anyone who hates fish or needs a plan with more direction.
Weight Watchers is a business. Members pay to count and track points. Every food has a point value. Each member is given a set number of daily and weekly points. The goal is to stay within the prescribed number.
The social aspect. Members go to meetings or join an online community; accountability and knowing you are not alone are motivating.
Resources. Members can ask group leaders or peruse online databases for information.
Counting points ensures mindfulness. You have to be aware of your eating patterns to create new habits.
Tracking can seem tedious and overwhelming.
Members often parse out points in unproductive ways. Too often people choose zero- or low-point options over nutritiously dense choices. For example, people chose multiple zero-point fruits as snacks. Fruit is nutritious, but if your goal is weight loss, you're better off having half the banana and a high-quality protein. The added points are worth it; protein and fiber will ensure you feel satiated longer and will have less of a negative effect on your hormones and blood sugar.
Who might want to follow Weight Watchers?
Anyone who likes a community, who likes tracking data, or whose linchpin habit is a lack of mindfulness around food.
Anyone who likes "structured balance." You can have the treats you love as long as you count the points.
Who should steer clear?
People who find counting points frustrating.
People who use rules to "game the system." Too often people let themselves eat when full because they have points left or eat just under a certain calorie range of a food so it counts as "free," forgetting that multiple small indulgences add up.
You are an adult. Own your choices.
Regardless of how your "mix" turns out, remember that adopting a healthier lifestyle is a process, NOT an event. Your nutritional life is analogous to learning to swim. The initial period of splashing around and looking uncoordinated was how you learned. Allow yourself some ungraceful falls — some splashing. Instead of letting an unhealthy choice snowball, learn from it. Note the circumstances. Were you exhausted? Hangry? Then figure out solutions. Be the author of your own life. You are an adult. Own your choices. If you're not proud of a choice, learn so you can make better ones next time.
Next up: the macrobiotic style of eating, the ketogenic diet, and programs like Jenny Craig.
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