Instead of making us fitter or healthier, restrictive fad diets can cause nutritional deficiencies or even metabolic damage in the long term. Diet books aren’t educating people on how to build a balanced dinner plate from a variety of nutrients and how to make healthy eating part of your lifestyle because most people don’t want to be educated. They want to drop a few pounds. No matter how hard you fight me on this, weight status has become a mechanism for social acceptance and plays directly to our primal need to belong. The deep-rooted fear of rejection is what continues to drive the diet industry.
The long-term damage of short-term wins
How do restrictive diets create nutritional deficiencies? The new era of fad diets is placing foods on “good” and “bad” lists. These “bad” lists most likely contain nutritionally dense, nourishing, and carbohydrate-rich like legumes, grains, dairy, and even fruits and certain vegetables. Foods like potatoes, corn, lentils, and soy, staples of every ancient culture, are being shunned, supposedly because they contain things like lectin and phytates. It is a nutritional tragedy to ban unprocessed and nutritious carbs, which contain incredibly important components of your diet like B vitamins, iron, potassium, and fiber. You cannot simply extract these nutrients and put them into a pill bar, or shake, either.
And until good research shows otherwise, the “toxic” lectin and phytates argument is merely an excuse to ban carbs and induce loss of water weight (unless, of course, you actually have celiac disease). We should be much more concerned about a deficiency in fiber or essential vitamins and minerals that will come from eliminating fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes than with speculative toxins.
Two other common restrictions that I will address briefly are gluten and dairy. Although lactose does cause digestion issues for some people, dairy is generally a low-cost source of protein and other nutrients for many people. Gluten is extremely harmful to those with celiac disease. There is some research concerning gluten intolerance. Like dairy, many people just feel better when they don’t eat gluten. Everyone has a different body. If a certain food doesn’t agree with you, don’t eat it. If you suspect a serious issue, talk to a medical professional.
Keep your restrictive eating to yourself
A word of caution: sometimes restrictive diets can lead to an air of superiority. If you do choose a particular diet or way or eating, it doesn’t mean that your diet is better than someone else’s. Many people lack the education, resources, willpower, and social support that is required for disciplined eating. Please be careful of judging other people for where they are in their health journey.
Beyond nutritional deficiencies, diets that heavily restrict carbohydrates will actually hinder athletic and mental performance by preventing your body from accessing glucose–energy. Carbohydrates are the most efficient form of energy for your body. By restricting the carbohydrate energy that you are consuming, you will drop water weight at first but you will also lose the carbohydrate reserves in your body. Instead of fueling your body to build muscle and truly change your physiology through an increased metabolism, restrictive low carb diets actually force your body to use your muscle for energy. Without these reserves, your body will rip apart your muscle for energy and you will never see the fruits of your hard labor in the gym. Impeding the development of muscle will prevent you from looking and feeling your best.
Women need to be especially aware of how they are fueling their body. As women get older, they lose muscle and bone density and should be encouraged to eat a diet that promotes muscle building and maximizes resistance training. Eating a low carb diet will not change your metabolism.
To add insult to injury, restricting carbohydrates also means that you are diminishing fuel to your brain, which uses glucose as its main source of energy.
So now, I have to ask you. Do you still want to go low-carb to drop a few pounds in water weight? Or do you want to eat a diet that strengthens your body and revs your metabolism for the long haul?
Remember what healthy eating looks like?
We have gotten ourselves so deep into the whole thing that many “healthy eating” practices are actually starting to look more like eating disorders. “Orthorexia” is on the radar of many health professionals as a newly coined unhealthy obsession with food quality, quantity, and purity, which can lead to social isolation or nutritional deficiencies.
So what can you eat? My recommendation to maintain a healthy lifestyle through food is to keep marching toward the only True North we know: a balanced diet of unprocessed food ingredients (fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, lean protein, and healthy fats).
A few simple rules to follow:
- For every meal, half of your plate should be vegetables, a quarter should be good carbs, and a quarter should be lean protein.
- All ingredients should be as nutritionally dense, meaning they are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and as unprocessed as possible.
- Stick to natural, single ingredient foods for the majority of your fuel.
- Explore new foods in each of these categories to ensure variety (eat the colors of the rainbow).
- Learn about portion control. Read labels to find the suggested serving size and don’t overstuff yourself.
- Reduce added sugar and trans fats as much as possible (read labels).
- Plan your meals ahead of time and make cooking an integral part of your weekly routine.
- Exercise pretty much every day, get enough sleep, and try to keep your stress to a minimum.
- Be patient. The best results come after months or even years of consistent, hard work over time.
I know my recommendations are not earth shattering, but they work. Don’t try to outsmart physiology. There are so many wonderful foods out there that you can and should eat. Don’t trust any diets that restrict major food groups or any unprocessed single ingredient food. Be skeptical of all marketing claims, especially those that promise fast results.
Slow and steady wins the race
Be brave enough to stick with a solid eating plan without jumping onto whatever bandwagon passes by as these fads are distracting and take energy away from creating the discipline needed to achieve results in the long term.
If you really need customized help beyond these simple guidelines, book yourself an appointment with someone who has the right credentials, like a registered dietician.
It can be tempting to fall into the latest fad diet that promises you quick solutions, especially with a busy life. However, ask any seasoned high-level athlete if there is a shortcut to success. I guarantee that he or she will tell you that the only way to optimal performance is persistence, consistency, and hard work over time. It might take months or even years, but staying disciplined over time is the one and only way to look and feel your best.