If you have ever listened to online dieting advice or read a few books on nutrition, you probably noticed one thing.
There are countless of health and fitness gurus out there and it seems like every one of them will market their own diet. The funny thing is that not only are many of these diets completely different, they also often contradict each other.
For example, a very popular diet during the 90s was the low-fat diet and you will still find quite a few people who are convinced that any food high in fat will automatically cause them to become overweight and unhealthy.
On the other hand, you have the paleo diet that is built around high fat foods like beef, eggs, olive oil and nuts. How is that possible? Both diets have completely different food requirements that rule out much of the other diet.
Now, you could say that one diet is simply wrong and the other is right, but there are dozens if not hundreds of different diets out there and you will find healthy proponents in almost every camp. So there has to be something else.
In this post, I want to explain how this is possible and, what’s even more important, how to not get confused by all the different diets as a beginner. Because the real problem is that beginners who have no idea where to start will see all these diets and simply be overwhelmed and might even give up.
To be honest I don’t blame them. Even though healthy dieting isn’t all that difficult when you break it down, the fitness industry has made it seem like rocket science. All these vilifications of certain bad foods like sugar, carbs or fat make some people think they will die if they ever eat a croissant again.
In a similar fashion, some gurus will tell you that you can enjoy perfect health if only you ate one specific food or supplements, which of course they can sell to you.
So the bottom line is that if you believed the fitness gurus, you’d think there’s a huge debate over which diet is best and what you should eat. In reality, there’s a pretty broad agreement on the fundamentals of healthy eating at least when you actually look at the studies.
How Diets Differ From Eachother
Before I tell you what really matters when wanting to set up a healthy diet, let’s first talk about how diets can differ from each other.
The most important aspects of different diets are either:
1. Macronutrients: how much protein, fat or carbs a diet includes
2. Food sources: what specific foods the macronutrients come from
3. Meal timing: when you eat your meals and how often you eat
There are other differences for example in preparation, but I won’t go into these today. So let’s look at the three most important ones individually:
Like I said before differences in macronutrients mean different intakes of protein, fat or carbs. For example, the low-fat diet will have a lower fat intake than the low carb diet, which will have a lower carb intake.
Low Carb Or Low Fat – Which Is Better?
One thing you may have noticed is that no one ever recommends a low protein diet. That’s because protein is vital to health, fat loss and muscle growth so there is really no advantage to having a low protein intake. Pretty much every fitness diet out there will include a good amount of protein.
So the real question is high carb and low fat or low carb and high fat or medium carb and medium fat?
Which of these diets is best?
Here is my take on this. Multiple studies have shown that a wide range of macronutrient splits can be healthy and promote fitness. We know this from studies done on extremely high carb intakes with bodybuilders or professional athletes.
On the other hand, we also have studies on the ketogenic diet, which is extremely low in carbs, that also show that it can work for certain people.
They key phrase here is certain people. Dieting is an extremely individual matter and absolute statements like carbs are bad or fat is bad are misleading. Some people, like me for example, strive on a high carb intake while others process them very poorly and should favor fat.
But what’s more important than your individual macronutrient split is that that you meet your protein, fat and carb minimal requirements every day, while also getting a good amount of vitamins and minerals.
Once you have covered your minimum requirements for the day it doesn’t really matter where the rest of your food comes from.
Of course, I always assume that you consume mostly quality foods and your diet doesn’t consist of only junk food. So when you follow a high carb diet go with quality complex carbs like whole grains, vegetables or fruits and in the case of a high-fat diet go with mostly unsaturated fats or healthy saturated fats.
Simple carbs and trans fats can definitely be a problem in excess and should never make up the majority of your food intake.
What Are The Healthiest Food Sources?
Next are food sources, so the specific foods that provide you with protein, carbs and fat.
Diets that differ in food sources usually either exclude specific foods. For example, vegan diets exclude all animal products and derivatives while whole30 excludes grains and legumes among others.
Or they emphasize the importance of sticking to certain foods. For example, paleo eaters should focus on food sources that our early ancestors had available to them and cut out everything else.
Of course, there are other examples, but the important question is, are there foods out there that are will actually harm you?
After all that is what many of these diets claim and why they focus on certain foods.
The answer is: probably not. I say probably because in dieting there are always exceptions but what you have to keep in mind is that your body does not evaluate the individual foods you eat and automatically become healthy or unhealthy.
What matters most is the total energy of all the foods you eat along with how nutrient-rich they are.
In this sense, whole and unprocessed foods are better than high-calorie processed foods. But that doesn’t mean you will become unhealthy the moment you eat a chocolate bar as long as the rest of your diet allows for it.
Now, this debunks some of the claims made by advocates of pure clean eating, but it doesn’t answer questions like “does meat cause cancer”, “do grains cause inflammation” and “should we really eat like our ancestors?”
These are some of the main fears of vegans, whole30 proponents or paleo advocates. I will talk about these as examples in this post, but of course there are many others out there.
Does Meat Cause Cancer?
So let’s first talk about meat. Does meat, especially red meat cause cancer and should you avoid it?
Well, here’s what the research says. First of all, cancer is a problematic disease to discuss in absolutes, because there is no single trigger and almost everything in our environment can potentially cause it.
One example would be antioxidants, which can both promote and keep cancer in check, but the effect is usually too small to notice.
In regards to red meat, there is actual evidence that it can damage cells and potentially lead to cancer. But, and this is important, the risk is highest for people with poor diets, who are sedentary and smoke.
What this means is that people who are overweight and don’t exercise will be at greater risk of getting cancer from meat.
If instead you follow a balanced diet, don’t smoke and are physically active your risk of getting cancer from meat is very low. In fact, in studies where participants ate meat along with vegetables, the vegetables had a protective effect against carcinogens.
So, what’s the bottom line on meat and cancer?
Fears about cancer and red meat are probably true but exaggerated. Making smart lifestyle choices like losing weight if you are overweight and not smoking are more important than micromanaging your red meat intake.
Are Grains Bad For You?
Next, are grains. Are they really bad for you?
Again, this is a difficult question to answer in absolutes but if we’re talking about unrefined whole grains then the answer is also: most likely not.
Unless you have celiac disease or your body doesn’t process carbs well, whole grains are actually good for you and will help you fight hunger during dieting, give you energy in the form of complex carbs for your workouts and also provide a number of minerals and vitamins.
Of course, if we are talking about highly refined grains like white bread, then yes, these foods can become problematic because they deliver very few nutrients, are high in calories and also raise your blood sugar quickly. But that is an argument against refined grains and not grains in general.
The last claim that I want to talk about is that we should only eat the foods our ancestors ate, which many paleo eaters advocate. At first sight, this diet is pretty good with fish, grass-fed meats, eggs, vegetables and fruits as its staples.
But the paleo diet also excludes quite a few foods and food groups for example grains, legumes, dairy products and pretty much all processed foods.
There are two problems with this approach. First, the naturalistic fallacy which states that everything that is natural is also good for you. This is one of the most common fallacies in nutrition. It assumes that processing a food automatically makes it less healthy, but does it really?
Sometimes, for example when removing fiber during the process of making white flour. But sometimes it actually makes food more healthy as in the case of milk pasteurization.
So in this context, the labels “processed” and “unprocessed” or „natural“ and „unnatural“ are not specific enough to be useful.
The second problem are the missed benefits of many of the foods paleo prohibits you to eat. I know that paleo gurus will often say that whole grains cause inflammation in the intestines, but the evidence in humans is simply not there.
Same with dairy.
Yes, there are people that are lactose intolerant and many dairy cows are kept in pretty bad conditions, but that doesn’t automatically make all dairy unhealthy for everyone.
So the bottom line is that the food included in a paleo diet are quite alright, but the ones excluded don’t make sense.
The Truth About “Dangerous” Foods
And this is also my verdict for most diets that rule out specific food categories. Most of the time the proclaimed danger of these foods is rooted in a grain of truth, which has been blown out of proportion.
Now, at this point you might ask yourself: does that mean everyone can eat everything and still be healthy?
Of course not. Dieting is highly individual and some people have food intolerances or allergies, so for them it makes sense to avoid specific foods. But for the general public it’s more important to follow a well-balanced diet that keeps calories in check and meets your macronutrient requirements.
Food choices are also important, but as long as your overall diet is healthy there is no need to rule out an entire food category just because your diet guru told you so.
Therefore, the answer to the question of why every fitness guru recommends a different diet is pretty simple.
It’s because we as humans can strive on a variety of diets and as long as you have the basics right like your calories and macronutrients while also getting enough vitamins and minerals, you can pretty much eat whatever you like.
There is no one-true-diet and anyone telling you otherwise is most likely trying to sell you some complicated fad diet.
That said, there are people that actually need a complicated diet because a strict meal plan helps them control their calories and fight off cravings. If that is you that’s ok, but it doesn’t mean this approach is right for everyone.
What About Intermittent Fasting?
Before I end this post, we have to talk about one more aspect, which is meal timing. Not only can diets differ in their macronutrients and foods, but also in regards to when you eat. This is called nutrient- or meal timing and to be blunt, it doesn’t really matter.
Studies on intermittent fasting have shown that even eating all your food for the day in just 2 sittings is basically no different from eating 5 or 6 smaller meals throughout the day.
Your body composition, meaning your muscle and fat percentage will stay the same and neither is better for weight loss or muscle gains. Now there are some health benefits associated with prolonged fasting, but this is a topic for a different video.
What this means is that how often and when you eat should be primarily determined by your lifestyle and not by some random diet.
If you are trying to build muscle it makes sense to eat certain foods before and after your workouts, but besides that there is little you can mess up in regards to meal timing.
If you feel better eating several smaller meals throughout the day than go for it. If you like fewer but larger meals than that’s ok, too.