Trendy Diets vs. Healthy Eating (Is there a difference?)
I’m often asked about trendy diets, especially at the beginning of each new year, and whether or not they work and what is the true way to eat healthfully. Every time, my answer is the same.
How to eat healthfully
As as an extension agent who is charged with promoting the benefits and skill development of healthy living, one of my pet peeves is the comment “experts” keep changing their minds about what IS and ISN’T healthy. Now, the truth of the matter is that nutrition is indeed a science, and a relatively new science¹, and science has a process of theories that are researched with new ideas being brought forth which expel old ideas. And while there are many opinions about what is healthy, which is largely driven by a market geared towards selling quick weight loss solutions, across time the recommendations for long-term and sustained (two key terms) healthy eating and living have barely changed.
For example, consider the very first publication of the Dietary Guidelines from 1980, which was crafted jointly by the U. S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In this inaugural publication, which is only 20 pages, the following are recommendations from the assembled panel of nutrition, medical and health experts from nearly 40 years ago²:
- Eat a variety of foods
- Maintain ideal weight
- Avoid too much fat, saturated fat and cholesterol
- Eat foods with adequate starch and fiber
- Avoid too much sugar
- Avoid too much sodium
- If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation
Now compare that against the key recommendations from the most recent publication, still jointly produced by the USDA and HHS, of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, whose length has jumped up to 144 pages³:
A healthy eating pattern includes:
- A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups: dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other
- Fruits, especially whole fruits
- Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
- A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meants and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products
A healthy eating pattern limits:
- Saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium
- Consume less than 10 percent of calories per day from added sugars
- Consume less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day of sodium
- If alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation: up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men, and only by adults of legal drinking age
And while the 2015 – 2020 guidelines are certainly more descriptive and specific than the 1980 ones, it’s hard to ignore that there is definite overlap (i.e. eat variety, consume less fat and salt and sugar, be moderate in your alcohol intake, etc.). What you don't find listed in either one are the current trendy health opinions. These include avoiding carbs, indulging in fats, avoiding all foods except vegetables, and eating "raw" (don’t eat anything you have to cook).⁴ Not only does that sound impossible, it also sounds dreadfully boring, which brings me to my second assessment: what do I think about trendy diets?
While some diets have not had the benefit of time to undergo scientific research testing for efficacy, others that support lower carbohydrate intake over lower fat intake actually have gone through this rigorous process. One meta-analysis comparison of 23 randomized control trials that compared participants’ year-long low-carbohydrate diet against those following a low-fat diet for the same amount of time found that, while both diets were effective for weight loss and improved biomarkers, those following the low-carbohydrate plan had better numbers overall.⁵
However, while science does seem to support the health effects of adhering to a low-carb diet, it’s important to remember this one key fact: people love food. And for those who love food, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is still my preferred method for healthy eating.
Your health is a composite of choices made over a long period of time. It doesn’t matter that a certain trending diet helped you achieve your ideal weight for 3 months; if it’s a diet that’s not sustainable, then it’s not a healthy diet. Also keep in mind that these participants in the randomized control trials were fed a prescribed diet controlled by researchers. Outside the lab, maintaining the continued discipline without being held to accountability or potential incentives is a tough task. It’s certainly not impossible. But personally speaking, it’s not a task I’d be willing to undertake. And it’s a situation I’ve witnessed countless times: friends and family members wholeheartedly embrace a new diet, have remarkable results after a few months, but after a few more months find they are miserable and miss old favorites, and inevitably fall off the diet and gain back all the weight they've lost, if not more. Now, without question, this type of observational evidence is exceedingly weak compared to randomized control trails, but nevertheless, it has been the case 100% of the time with personal contacts following a trendy diet.
When I teach health classes, my key term isn’t low-carb or high-carb; it’s balance. True health begins with striving for and maintaining balance, not avoidance, but balance across all aspects of our lives that contribute to our health. This includes: balance in working, balance in sleeping, balance in exercising, and, of course, balance in eating. The healthy eating plan outline in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans continues to promote a balanced approach to healthy eating that does not exclude nor over-exude any particular food group. It acknowledges the scientific fact that our bodies need nutrients from a variety of sources to maintain normal function⁶. And it’s why I continue to support and teach from its principles.