If you type ‘diet book’ into an online search bar, your query will yield thousands of results. Whether you want to lose weight, boost your energy, or just feel better, the options to optimize your nutrition are endless. If you find it all confusing and contradictory, you are not alone. We asked Renee Cha, a registered dietitian at St. Mary’s Regional Hospital, to weigh in on which diets really work.
Ditch the word diet
Cha’s first piece of advice may surprise you. She recommends replacing the word diet in your vocabulary with eating style. Cha explains, “The word diet has such a negative connotation and unless you are extremely motivated and disciplined, it’s not going to be sustainable. I don’t think I know one person that has been able to stay on a ‘diet’, but I know many that live a healthy lifestyle.”
Lasting change comes from lifestyle modifications aimed at living and feeling healthier. Although a slimmer waistline may be what motivates you, Cha says the focus shouldn’t be to lose 1-2 pounds per week, but to take the steps that can result in your body actually feeling better.
Put yourself on a budget
View your nutrition choices like you do money. For example, healthy adults should only have 2,300 milligrams of salt (sodium) a day. That’s just a single teaspoon of table salt. Think of those 2,300 milligrams as a $2,300 budget to spend for the day. The goal, whether it be salt/sodium, sugar, or another nutrient, is to know how much you have in your budget (how much you have to spend) so you save where you can and spend where you want.
“If you know you’re planning on enjoying pasta at night, plan on eating lighter meals throughout the day. For example, you might have Greek yogurt with fruit for breakfast and a lean protein, such as fish or chicken, with veggies for lunch.” Cha continues, “I think a lot of diets have good parts to them, the Mediterranean diet is one of the best, but it should be a guideline, rather than a rule book.”
These three questions can help you make better short-term decisions and lead to lifelong changes:
- Are you making a mindful choice?
- Are you really hungry or does it just look good?
- How will you feel afterward/is it worth it?
Dietitian-approved advice for better health
- Cut back on added sugar. You probably know sugar is in your favorite drink, but did you know it’s also hiding in yogurt, granola bars, almond milk, and more? Labels can be tricky to read. Sugar is always listed in grams and four grams equals one teaspoon. Added sugar should be limited to 30 grams a day, that’s 7.5 teaspoons.
- Fiber, eat more in 2024. Fiber helps you feel full, helps regulate your bowels, controls blood sugars, and helps lower cholesterol. The average person needs 25-30 grams a day. To get your fill of fiber, Cha recommends filling half your plate with veggies and fruits and reading the nutrition label, if it is available. Try new recipes that will help you incorporate legumes (like lentils, chickpeas, and beans) as well as whole grains (such as quinoa, farro, oats, and brown rice).
- Drink water. Adequate hydration aids in digestion, increases energy and brain function, and will help you maximize your physical performance. The average person needs eight cups or 64 oz of calorie-free, caffeine-free liquids daily such as water, flavored sparkling water, decaf tea, and coffee. Aim to drink a glass of water as soon as you wake, carry a bottle with you throughout the day and refill as needed, and drink water with your meals.
- Get moving. Exercise improves mood and brain health, strengthens bones, and muscles, and reduces your risk of disease. Aim to get at least 150 minutes (about 2 and a half hours) per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like brisk walking, dancing, hiking, or biking) or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity (like running, swimming, or playing basketball), or a combination of both preferably spread throughout the week.
Setting a New Year’s resolution
There is no one weight loss plan or diet for everyone. Talk with your healthcare provider about what might work best for you before starting a diet or drastically changing your eating style. Unless a therapeutic diet has been recommended by your physician or dietitian, Cha generally does not support any particular diet. However, recognizing that many people make “going on a diet” a common New Year’s resolution, here is a brief breakdown of some of the most popular diets, so you can make a more informed decision.
How does it work?
Will you be nourished?
Is it sustainable?
|Balanced, flavorful, and backed by science to promote heart health, the Mediterranean diet follows an eating pattern embraced by countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea that emphasizes plant-based foods, healthy fats, and seafood.
|The diet encourages a variety of nutrient-dense food making it easy to meet your nutritional needs.
Because many people who follow the Mediterranean diet consume lower amounts of dairy products, it may be necessary to ensure you are receiving enough vitamin D and calcium from other sources.
|Yes. The Mediterranean diet is not a strict plan. Instead, it emphasizes eating whole grains, produce and seafood.
Although there are no branded foods or supplements involved with the diet, the cost of fresh seafood, nuts, seeds, and olive oil can be expensive.
|DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension)
|Created by the National Institutes of Health, DASH promotes a low-sodium and nutritionally conscious approach to eating that emphasizes healthy food choices in all food groups.
|The diet is designed for nutritional balance and lifelong wellness. Although it is not intended for weight loss, a personalized calorie-limited plan can help you lose weight and lower your blood pressure.
|Yes. This diet focuses on permanent lifestyle changes. The diet requires a bit more work upfront as convenience and pre-packaged foods are not always an option.
|These diets aim to restrict high-glycemic index foods such as refined grains and added sugars. Healthy fats and proteins are encouraged.
|Nutritional deficiencies of essential vitamins and minerals are possible. Basing food choices on the glycemic index could lead to serious health risks.
|Long-term adherence can be difficult and confusing. Meal planning and preparation can be time consuming.
|Paleo and Whole30
|Both diets advocate for whole or minimally processed foods while eliminating dairy, grains, legumes, and processed foods containing added sugar, fat, and salt.
|Restricting your intake of grains, dairy and legumes could make it difficult to meet your daily nutrient needs such as fiber, iron, magnesium, and B vitamins.
|The diets are restrictive. Your food choices must be become a habit to maintain weight loss or health benefits.
|Keto diets are very low-carbohydrate diets that force your body to use stored fat and fat consumed through your diet for fuel instead of glucose (sugar). This process, known as ketosis, can result in a decrease of body fat.
The diets are known to create satiety. Foods high in fat boost satisfaction and fullness while protein takes longer to digest making you feel full longer.
Speak with a doctor before starting a ketogenic diet. By eliminating fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains, you could put yourself at risk for a deficiency of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, folate, fiber, and more.
|Large-scale studies on the long-term effects of a ketogenic diet are not available. Consult with a healthcare provider prior to starting a ketogenic diet to make sure it is safe for you.
|A method of calorie restriction that requires extended periods of time without eating. Some programs recommend fasting for a certain part of each day, a few days each week, or several days each month. Diet restrictions on based on when you eat not what you eat.
|The diet has a lack of guidance regarding healthy food choices. Someone following an intermittent fast diet may or may not meet their nutritional needs on days they are not fasting depending on what they choose to eat. It would be difficult and require compensation to meet the nutritional needs missed on fasting days.
|Intermittent fasting could potentially lead to unhealthy food habits of binge eating. It can also be challenging to avoid meals and social gatherings centered around food.
|A plant-based diet makes vegetables, fruits, seeds, legumes and grains the focal point of your diet. Some plant-based diets allow for minimal quantities of meat, fish, and dairy products.
|Vegetarian and vegan diets do contain some protein, but often not enough to meet daily calcium, iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and essential amino acids.
Meat-less meat products are not necessarily healthier. Always read the label to check for protein and sodium levels.
|Without proper meal planning and preparation, sticking to a plant-based diet can be challenging. To avoid resorting to unhealthy convenience foods or making poor meal choices, prepare your meals in advance while making the transition to a plant-based lifestyle.
|Advice for low-fat diets has changed over the years. In general, no more than 30% of daily calories come from any fat source in a low-fat diet. Saturated and trans fats are avoided.
|Healthy fats support cell growth, protect the body’s organs, and help keep cholesterol and blood pressure under control. By reducing fat intake below USDA recommendations, your body may not get the nutrients it needs.
|Possibly. A low-fat diet can be a healthy eating plan if you choose high-quality nutritious foods. However, some low-fat diets eliminate foods that provide enjoyment and satiety and can lead to increased consumption of less healthy foods made with refined carbohydrates.
|Diets that use meal replacements such as shakes, bars, pre-packaged food, and other calorie-controlled meals. The diets are designed to provide portion control, convenience, and eliminate the planning involved in weight loss.
|The nutritional value of meal replacements varies according to the company you choose and the number of meals you opt to replace in your diet. Nutritional balance may be possible if you make healthy meal choices. Note, many of the replacement programs include heavily processed foods.
|The cost of meal replacements can be expensive. Weight loss shakes have not been found to be a sustainable choice over the long term. People often return to real food after a few months.