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A brief look at five distinct diets reveals the complexities of each one.
The word “diet” often evokes strong reactions from people, and for good reason—it’s loaded. What we choose to eat can be a reflection of our politics, religious affiliation, socio-economic background, health status or entire worldview. Hindus’ vegetarianism, health enthusiasts’ Paleolithic foods, celiac disease sufferers’ gluten-free regimes—they are more than diets, they are lifestyles. Understanding the rationale behind opting for one way of eating over another is a formidable undertaking, as the complexities of each are many.
However, a basic outline of the foods consumed on each diet is more manageable, and is as follows:
The “Paleo” diet/ancestral lifestyle centers on the idea that, prior to the invention of agriculture, our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate wild foraged foods and were healthier for it. Studies show grains are quite difficult to digest and have many negative consequences for our “gut health” and autoimmune system. In fact, many people come to the Paleo diet after suffering all manner of inflammatory disease-related issues and find it to be a near-instant cure. Eliminating all grains, processed foods, dairy, sugar, caffeine, alcohol and legumes (including peanuts) and instead consuming grass-fed meats and wild-caught fish proteins, omega-3-rich fats and a variety of specified vegetables is key to Paleo nutrition. Great emphasis is placed on nutrient-dense meals that rely on whole foods, satiating fats, healthy meats devoid of grain (hence, grass-fed beef) and carbohydrates gleaned from vegetable sources like sweet potatoes and carrots. Many Paleo followers also incorporate ancestral movements into their exercise regimes—the idea being that, in combination with foods that fuel healthy muscle growth, things like squatting, jumping, lifting, sprinting, etc. are responsible for the strong, lean, muscular bodies common to our Paleolithic ancestors.
Most people are familiar with the vegetarian diet, as it has made its way into the mainstream more quickly than any of the others discussed here. It is defined by the elimination of animal products, but many variations on that theme fall under the vegetarian umbrella. Lacto-vegetarian diets, for example, exclude meat, fish, poultry and eggs (and all foods that contain them) but allow milk, cheese, yogurt and butter. Lacto-ovo vegetarian diets, on the other hand, exclude meat and fish, but allow dairy products and eggs. There are, in fact, multiple interpretations, as many vegetarians customize their intake in accordance with the realms into which their belief system or health concerns takes them.
Vegan, or plant-based, nutrition restricts foods consumed to those that do not originate from an animal source. Like the Paleo diet, veganism calls for the elimination of processed foods and focuses on the intake of whole foods. Vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds and healthy fats are the vegan staples, though many find themselves supplementing their meal plans with vitamins and minerals, specifically vitamins B12 and D, EPA/DHA (vital fats found in fish), calcium and choline—a nutrient associated with optimal brain health. Just as the Paleo follower incorporates the philosophy into the realm of exercise, so too does the vegan carry the principles into other arenas. By not wearing clothes or using products made from animal products, for example, they are adhering to an ideology that goes beyond “diet.”
The gluten-free diet, unlike the others described here, is often not a philosophical choice, but rather can be a life-saving measure for those with celiac disease—a crippling medical condition that, once diagnosed, is treated by avoiding the gluten protein. Some people cannot digest gluten—which is found in grains like wheat, barley, rye and triticale—without serious inflammation of the small intestine. Foods allowed on this diet include: beans, nuts, seeds, eggs, meats and most dairy products. To adopt the gluten-free diet is to become hyper aware of the ingredients found in all foods, particularly packaged and processed foods; knowing what to order in restaurants and, at times, informing a server of the condition might be necessary, as in the case of a serious sensitivity. A growing awareness of celiac disease and its relationship to gluten happened to coincide with the rise of the organic-whole foods-eat local movement, which has meant it is sometimes thought of as an alternative diet that stems from the desire to be on that bandwagon. And while it is inexorably linked to good health, its roots are physiological, not ideological.
Protein mixology takes the emphasis away from whole foods and instead focuses on quick, efficient, supplemental powders. Amino acids, fiber, minerals and vitamins are all found in protein powders made for turning into shakes with the addition of things like milk, yogurt, fruits, nut butters etc. Alternatively, protein in a powder form can be mixed into meals for an extra dose. Whey and casein are the primary proteins found in most powder formulations on the market; there are many options so a fair bit of research or consultation with a health professional is a good idea when choosing from among them. This diet often appeals to serious athletes—or those who wish to increase their body mass index for other reasons—looking for additional sources of protein. What these varied approaches to nutrition have in common is community—each is a way of life, a common denominator. In the case of a very specified diet, there is often an underlying philosophy or a physiological reason for it. If that way of thinking or being, like a meal itself, is something shared, then it is infinitely more than food on a plate (or protein in a blender)—it is a social bond.