Before diet was a four letter word, it was just a noun used to indicate the types of foods we ate. We didn’t buy books on special diets, we didn’t go on and off diets, and we certainly never cheated on our diets.
But times are different now. In this age of health obsession and confusion, it seems like many of us appreciate the structure and guidance of a “diet.” When it comes to weeding out the foods and food-like substances that work against our health rather than for it, three common diets (think of them as eating patterns) have been found by epidemiologists and researchers to be beneficial.
The Paleo Diet
The Paleo diet is based off the foods that our Paleolithic ancestors ate. It includes wild game meat, lean grass-fed meat and wild-caught fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds; and excludes dairy, grains, legumes, starches, and sugar.
Research has found that the Paleo diet is effective in improving blood pressure, triglycerides, HDL cholesterol, and fasting blood sugar, all of which are important health markers (1). The Paleo diet is also effective for improving insulin resistance, even without weight loss, and is a good choice for the prevention and management of chronic metabolic issues such as type 2 diabetes (2).
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet (named so for the traditional eating patterns of the Mediterranean region) is characterized by high intake of olive oil, legumes, fruits, and veggies, as well as moderately high amounts of fish. The Mediterranean diet also includes some dairy and wine, but is very low in meat that is not fish, and excludes refined grains and sugars.
Like the Paleo diet, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to be effective in preventing and managing diseases associated with chronic inflammation, such as metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and cognitive diseases (3).
The Vegetarian Diet
Although there are different types of vegetarian diets, ovo-lacto vegetarianism is common. This diet includes eggs and dairy, but excludes meat and fish. The vegetarian diet also focuses heavily on fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Vegetarian diets have been linked to weight loss, improved lipid profiles and blood pressure, and decreased risk for chronic diseases including heart disease, stroke, metabolic syndrome, and cancer (4).
Which is best?
Meat, no meat. Dairy, no dairy. Grains, no grains. Legumes, no legumes. There are definitely notable differences between each different diet! And yet, the similarities are what count!
That is, each of the above diets is a whole foods diet that is rich in fiber and phytonutrients thanks to the emphasis on plants, and focuses on whole, unprocessed foods, while excluding refined sugars/grains and processed junk foods.
Following a specific diet with its unique nuances is not nearly as important as making sure you are eating whole, real foods! Beyond that, finding the diet/eating pattern to fit your individual lifestyle, preferences, and needs is what counts most.
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- Paleolithic nutrition for metabolic syndrome: systematic review and meta-analysis.
- Metabolic and physiologic effects from consuming a hunter-gatherer (Paleolithic)-type diet in type 2 diabetes.
- Health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet: an update of research over the last 5 years.
- Health benefits and risk associated with adopting a vegetarian diet.