What's the Deal With Food Fads

It seems like no one just eats “normal” food these days. Even the dining halls are now catering to specific dietary restrictions: Frary is famous for its large gluten-free section, while Collins’s “Farm to Fork” area is all vegan foods. But just because this type of lifestyle is accessible doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthy: after all, we evolved over time to be omnivorous creatures consuming a large variety of meats, plants, and carbohydrates. So, are these “fad” diets really as great as the health-food magazines and pop-culture make them out to be? Or are there hidden risks associated with restricting our food intake in specific ways? I spoke with Melanie Brede, a nutritionist at the University of Virginia, to get some answers. Omnivorous Diet This is the diet of the original human, consuming an “I eat anything in front of me” diet that does not exclude any particular food group. For most people, an omnivorous diet is the best choice: it allows for plenty of variety in foods, which provides sources of many different nutrients. However, it is important to make sure that you are consuming a “well balanced” diet that has high amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Vegetarian Diet Vegetarians (like myself) consume any foods that do not include animal flesh. There are many sub-groups of vegetarians: lacto-ovo vegetarians include dairy and eggs, lacto vegetarians consume dairy but no eggs, and pescatarians make an exception for seafood. Vegetarian diets are generally lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and higher in fiber than an omnivorous diet, which can be a great health boon. However, vegetarians must work hard to achieve a balanced diet with the proper amount of vitamins and minerals. Iron, protein, and calcium are often the most difficult to obtain while avoiding meats or animal products, because according to Brede “we don’t absorb these from pants as well as we absorb them from animal products.” Iron and protein deficiencies can cause chronic low-energy and muscle weakness. To counteract these deficiencies, vegetarians should eat plenty of nuts and beans (for protein) and consider taking supplements and multivitamins.  Some bodies do absorb vitamins better than others, and if this is the case switching to a vegetarian diet can actually cause an increase in energy levels.  If you're interested, just give it a try, and see what your body tells you after a month or two of the switch.

Vegan Diet A vegan is the most restrictive type of vegetarian, including no dairy or eggs in their diet. Some vegans avoid other animal-produced foods like honey or products that require non-plants or fungus for their production. The benefits of veganism closely match those of vegetarianism, but the health risks are even more extreme. Vegans are at risk for low protein, iron, and calcium as well, and additionally often have a low level of vitamin B-12. Again, taking supplements or even injections can be a good way to work around these deficiencies. Often, people choose to become vegan because they are lactose intolerant to begin with, or they appreciate the lowered environmental impact of a vegan diet. As long as enough care is paid to getting the proper minerals, the vegan lifestyle can be a rewarding one.

Gluten-Free Diet The protein “gluten” is found in wheat, barley, and many other types of grains: read, pastas, pizzas, breads, cereals... most of our most delicious carbohydrates contain gluten. Some people suffering from celiac disease, a metabolic disorder which impedes the body’s ability to process gluten, are forced to become gluten-free, while others simply choose it as a lifestyle. Although many popular books and magazines have touted the diet as a weight-loss strategy, Brede emphasizes that “research does not indicate any health benefit for individuals who do not have a gluten intolerance.” Not only that, but the health risks of cutting out gluten, no matter what the reason, are numerous. Gluten is very common in our food supply, and avoiding it can create many deficiencies, especially in B-vitamins, iron, and folate. Additionally, many people find themselves experiencing mood- and energy-swings after cutting out carbohydrates. If you want (or need) to go gluten-free, be sure to eat plenty of gluten-free carbs like rice and potatoes, and foods containing flours made from soy, nuts, or gluten-free grains.

Raw Food Diet The most extreme type of dietary restrictors, raw foodists eliminate any foods that have been cooked or processed from their diets. This includes obvious things like baked goods and packaged foods, but also applies to less apparent foods like pasteurized milk, cooked eggs, and unsprouted grains. People who follow this rigorous regime most often include more fruits and veggies than the average eater, which provides them with many healthy nutrients and fiber. In addition, “some nutrients can be destroyed by heat and cooking, and would be preserved on a raw diet,” Brede says. However, health risks abound for raw foodists. “Uncooked dairy, meat, fish, or eggs are at a higher risk for carrying bacteria that can make a person sick, like Salmonella,” Brede points out. Less immediate risks include the fact that, conversely to the previous point, some nutrients actually need heat and cooking in order for the body to readily absorb and process them. A raw food diet is often inadequate in iron, calcium, vitamin D, protein, zinc, and calories, leading to a host of complications in the short and long term.

So, what does your ideal diet look like? Brede recommends eating some fruits and veggies at every meal, regardless of what the rest of your plate looks like: a pizza and some carrots is better than a pizza and no carrots. She also stresses not to skip meals: get some snacks and quick meals for your dorm room if you don’t have the time (or the meal plan) to eat at the dining hall three times a day.

For more information and tools to support healthy eating and the creation of a balanced diet for you, check out www.choosemyplate.org.

Want more health tips from Nora? Check out these great articles on how to stay healthy around midterm season, how to eat right when the budget is tight and the perfect P.E. class for each type of person