In the 1950s, praying to Jesus for a slimmer waistline rose as the hot “diet” trend.
The following decades focused on deprivation fads — be it restricted calories (Weight Watchers), low fat (Scarsdale), or no carbohydrates (Atkins) — as the promise to a trim physique and optimal health.
Today’s top diet choices, while dramatically different from one another, share one common theme: getting back to nature when it comes to nutrition. From juicing and plant-based meal plans to meat-centric hunter-gatherer lifestyles, current diet paradigms encourage a high intake of healthy whole foods that nourish the body, prevent disease, and potentially cure such ailments as high blood pressure and autoimmune disorders.
Here, through interviews with the country’s top diet gurus, we highlight some of these plans and dish on how to follow them.
Dr. Alona Pulde, a family physician specializing in nutrition best known for her appearance in the 2011 documentary Forks Over Knives, recommends a plant-based diet consisting of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes for optimal health.
“These are nature’s multivitamins,” Pulde says. “They provide us with not only the necessary proteins, carbohydrates, and fats but also important vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other phytochemicals.”
These foods also contain fiber essential for proper bodily function, satisfying hunger drives, and stabilizing blood sugars. (“Animal products and refined foods contain little to no fiber,” she adds.) Devoid of cholesterol and containing little saturated fat, plant-based foods also help ward off heart disease — the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A plant-based diet can also help reverse other major chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, cholesterol disorders, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes, and lower overall cancer rates, says Dr. Andrew Weil, founder, professor, and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona as well as a naturopath and educator on holistic health.
“Studies show that compared to nonvegetarians, vegetarians have a lower incidence of these illnesses,” he says. “Of course, I meet vegetarians who eat mostly macaroni and cheese — that’s not a healthy diet. I follow my Anti-Inflammatory Diet, eating mostly fish, a mix of raw and cooked vegetables, whole soy foods, and some high-quality dairy products.” Weil says that supplementing a plant-based diet with vitamins D and B-12 is also beneficial.
Weil notes that the biggest myth associated with a vegetarian diet is that it is difficult to obtain adequate protein.
“This is simply not true,” he says. “A wide variety of satisfying, protein-rich dishes can be made using nonanimal protein sources, including whole grains, legumes, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and whole soy foods such as soy milk, tofu, and tempeh. Quinoa is another good option; it is considered a complete protein, meaning that it contains all nine essential amino acids — a rarity in the plant kingdom.”
While the human body has evolved to digest meat, Pulde insists a plant-based diet is the healthier choice.
“We are designed to seek out the sweet taste of carbohydrates beginning with the first taste receptors on our tongues; starches and sugars are the primary fuel sources for our bodies and the preferred energy sources for our brain,” she says. “When starvation threatens us, living off meat is healthier than not eating at all. Otherwise it’s best to eliminate or minimize animal products … animal proteins break down into amino acids. The problem with this is that our bodies like to be alkaline, the exact opposite of acidic. Therefore, when we consume too much protein, our bodies neutralize that acid by leaching calcium and other nutrients from our bones.
“In addition, meat is high in fat and high in cholesterol — two leading culprits for heart disease. In fact, higher meat consumption is associated with higher mortality. An advantage to a plant-based diet is that you can follow it without portion control, deprivation, or calorie counting. The simplicity of this diet is, eat these foods until you are comfortably full and they will lead you to optimal health,” Pulde says. “In fact, because these foods are generally lower in calories, it is important to avoid portion control and restriction or you will end up hungry.”
She notes that if taking medications, it is important to consult your doctor when switching to a plant-based diet, as they may need to be adjusted or eliminated as you become healthier.
Hunting and Gathering
OK, not really — but the Paleo Diet (an ode to the Paleolithic era), dubbed “the caveman diet,” mimics the eating habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
“This diet looks at human evolution to see how our genes evolved and recognizes that there’s a mismatch between what our genes expect us to be eating and doing with what we are choosing to do with what we have available to us,” says Mark Sisson, former Ironman and author of The Primal Blueprint. “The Paleo Diet seeks to eliminate processed foods — grains, sugar, and oils like corn, soy, and canola — and gets back to real food, including meat, fish, fowl, eggs, seeds, nuts, and some fruits.”
Following a form of the Paleo Diet he calls the Primal Diet (including raw dairy, which hasn’t been pasteurized or homogenized), Sisson argues that humans are designed to be meat eaters.
“We’ve never in history thrived on a meatless diet,” he says. “The pH of our stomach is acidic and the body balances acidity from meat almost instantaneously in the blood.” Sisson advocates nose-to-tail consumption, similar to that eaten by ancient man, which means consuming all parts of the animal, including such organ meats as the heart and liver. “Organ meats contain nutrients that choicer [muscle] cuts that are typically available today are lacking,” he explains.
A runner since his early teens, Sisson’s experimentation with the Paleo Diet was a result of his own health struggles.
“I fell into the paradigm of eating complex carbs for fuel,” he says. “I got fit, and fast, but my health declined. I was one of the top runners in the country but had many health ailments.”
Since adopting the Paleo Diet, the fitness guru says he’s discovered that he doesn’t need to work out as hard or as often. “I actually work out less,” he says. “Thirty percent of your body composition is determined by how you eat.”
Sisson says most people who adhere to the Paleo Diet will notice changes after one week — better sleep, more energy, water-weight loss.
“Over time, you become good at burning off your own body fat for energy rather than depending on carbohydrates throughout the day,” he says. “It takes about 21 days for your body to switch to this mode of fat-burning, and that’s when you’ll really start to see results.”
Sisson says something else to consider is that hunter-gatherers also experienced periods of fasting when food was scarce. Therefore, he encourages what’s called intermittent fasting — skipping a meal or three in a row — after three weeks of following the Paleo Diet. “By now, your body has become good at burning stored fat, and missing a meal won’t leave you feeling hungry or tired,” he says.
Lierre Keith, a former vegan of 20 years and author of The Vegetarian Myth, attributes the evolution of man’s intellectual and physical strength to a meat-based diet. “Millions of years ago, man used stone tools and had a brain the size of a chimpanzee,” Keith says in the simplest of terms. “Over time, man’s cranial capacity doubled and [he] was able to use fire and more complex tools. What created that large brain? Eating meat.”
The environmentally impassioned author and activist became a vegan at a young age in an effort to save the planet — until she learned through studies how industrialized farming, or “Big Ag,” as she calls it, destroys the land, soil, and all of its inhabitants. As she dug deeper, she became convinced that a return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle — or at least a modern version that mimics it by sourcing meat and produce from local, sustainable farms — was ideal for both the earth and the human body.
Keith, too, emphasizes the difference between the meats our ancestors consumed and the options available at our local market today.
“Muscle meat has 10 to 100 times more nutrients than plant foods, and organ meats have 10 to 100 times more nutrients than muscle meats,” she says. When it comes to raw dairy, she says it depends on the individual. “Not everyone does well on dairy, but there are some ancient dairy cultures that produce people of beautiful strength and stature,”
Keith says, noting that industrial-produced milk bears almost no relation to milk in its natural state. “Some people who thought they were lactose-intolerant find that grass-fed raw milk is wonderfully tolerated,” she adds.
Juicing It Up
Similar to a plant-based diet, juicing — the process of extracting juice from fruits and vegetables — delivers a dense boost of nutrients right to the bloodstream. At least for most enthusiasts, juicing is meant to be an additive to a well-balanced diet as opposed to one all its own.
“Juicing is a delicious way to get top nutrition into your diet,” says Candice Kumai, celebrity chef, regular judge on Food Network’s Iron Chef America, and author of Clean Green Drinks. “It can lead to clearer skin, better sex, better sleep, and greater mental health.”
Kumai recommends incorporating green vegetable juices into your diet as often as daily.
Jamie Jensen, founder of Living Juice in Orange County, California, turned to juicing when she was faced with pre-cancer issues and injuries that were not healing properly.
“When I started seriously juicing, these issues went away, and I found myself with greatly increased energy coupled with a more positive mental attitude,” Jensen says. “Sleep also became deeper and easier.”
She also recommends incorporating organic, cold-pressed juices (pasteurization kills nutrients) into your diet every day. “A 12-ounce bottle contains the juice extracted from 4 pounds of produce,” she explains. “It’s the most efficient way of ingesting a large quantity of vitamins, healthy enzymes, and minerals.”
Jensen adds that a monthly juice fast — where between six and eight various juices are consumed in place of whole foods for three to five days — is a great way to “reboot” your system. “Not only will your digestive system benefit from the respite of not having to work hard to convert all manner of food into energy but your attitude to diet will gradually shift away from craving processed foods,” she says.
Dr. Nicole Ortiz, a naturopathic doctor based in La Quinta, says that something to be mindful of when juicing is that an abundance of fruit juices can be more problematic than beneficial. “The sugar in fruits can spike your blood sugar rapidly because there isn’t a balance of fat and protein accompanying the juice,” she says. “Also, juicing extracts the fiber that occurs naturally in whole fruit, which naturally slows the release of sugar into the bloodstream.” Ortiz recommends consuming no more than one juice per day that contains fruit. Others should be mixed solely from vegetables.
Seven Deadly (Food) Sins
Intolerance diets are based on the notion that our bodies experience adverse reactions to certain foods, thereby inhibiting weight loss. Symptoms can include poor digestion, fatigue, and headaches (as opposed to food allergies, which can cause extreme adverse reactions including hives and anaphylaxis).
One such diet, proposed by nutritionist and fitness expert J.J. Virgin, seeks to eliminate a group of intolerance-causing foods and then slowly reincorporating them to determine which intolerances are present. Called the Virgin Diet, Virgin lays out the process in three cycles: In the first, you eliminate gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, peanuts, corn, sugar, and artificial sweeteners for three weeks.
“People love this cycle because you can lose up to 7 pounds the first week alone,” Virgin says.
The second cycle introduces each of those foods back into the diet for a recommended period of time in order to determine which ones cause intolerance, while the third focuses on maintenance after you’ve learned what your body tolerates.
“If you’ve suffered miserable symptoms like fatigue and bloating that you dismiss as ‘normal,’ you might discover that your new ‘normal’ feels so much better than what you ever felt before,” Virgin says. “Likewise, if you’re struggling with weight loss resistance, pulling these seven foods can help you get those last few pounds off even if nothing else has worked.”
Working with various doctors who conduct food intolerance testing, Virgin has for the past decade focused on what she’s coined as “weight loss resistance” — the inability to burn fat even though you’re doing everything right. “I started noticing the same foods pop up in these tests,” she explains. “For instance, 70 percent of clients tested positive for eggs and dairy.
“I narrowed it down to the seven most highly reactive foods, which became the basis for the Virgin Diet. I have clients pull these foods and their symptoms disappear, they look and feel better, and they finally let go of that stubborn weight.”
By removing the offending foods, you will immediately experience less inflammation in the body, which causes a host of conditions from cardiovascular disease to Alzheimer’s and allergies, Ortiz explains.
“Many experience improvements in digestion, elimination, and energy levels, too,” she says. “Because these foods trigger an immune reaction, people affected by autoimmune diseases can see benefits by eliminating particular foods because the immune system is less overreactive.”
She notes that the con of this diet is that it’s harder to dissect menus and avoid certain foods when eating out or dining with friends.
While these various diets differ greatly in theory, each advocates eliminating most, if not all, processed foods in favor of a whole-foods diet rich in vitamins, nutrients, and minerals. Doing so can lead to not only weight loss but also improved sleep and physical and mental health, and it may prevent or even reverse a host of diseases.
What’s best of all about a natural-foods diet is that it doesn’t leave you feeling hungry — you’re feeding your body nutrients as opposed to making sacrifices — making it more manageable and easier to maintain in the long run.