By Karen Michail
Speakeasy Content Studio
If you browse the “Healthy Eating” section of any bookstore, you’re likely to encounter row upon row of books claiming to contain the magic formula for losing weight, boosting energy or improving certain health conditions. But this proliferation of pop diets and nutritional quick fixes can make it feel impossible to figure out what you should be eating to live healthier. To make matters worse, many of these recommendations and the so-called scientific “findings” that support them change from one day to the next.
If you’re looking to make healthy eating a part of your lifestyle, how can you cut through the misinformation to find out which diets are actually credible? Is there a sustainable method of eating that’s both truly effective for weight loss and helps promote general health and wellness?
We consulted Dr. Steve Farrell, Ph.D., FACSM and Senior Investigator at the Cooper Institute’s Research Division, to get his data-based take on some of the latest trends in the diet industry. Read on to get the real scoop from a leading health expert on trends such as the paleo diet, the ketogenic diet, the Mediterranean diet and even juice cleanses.
Popular diets: Are they supported by research or not?
Thanks to the First Amendment, anyone can write a diet book and make claims about what’s “healthy.” Unfortunately, this protected free speech translates into a great many diet and nutrition programs that aren’t necessarily supported by good science — or by any real science at all.
Two of today’s most popular diets are the paleo diet and the ketogenic diet, both of which advocate eliminating certain foods from your diet. While avoiding the ingredients in some foods can indeed contribute to weight loss (in the short term, at least), Dr. Farrell says most diets that advocate for cutting out entire food groups are not very sustainable or beneficial for overall health and wellness.
“There is no scientific evidence that supports [the paleo and ketogenic diets] from a morbidity (illness) and mortality (death) perspective,” Dr. Farrell says. “If you lose weight on these diets, it’s simply because you are consuming fewer calories than you were previously.”
And what about those uber-trendy juice cleanses? Does juicing really “cleanse” your body of toxins?
Unfortunately, while this popular approach seems appealing, there’s “not a shred of scientific evidence that juices cleanse the body of toxins,” Dr. Farrell says. “The liver and kidneys are quite adept at removing toxins from the body. If weight is lost on a juice cleanse, it’s simply because you are taking in far fewer calories per day than you normally would.”
When it comes to dieting and cleanses, Dr. Farrell is a big fan of an old adage: “If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.”
The best diets for health and weight loss
According to Dr. Farrell, very few diets pass muster from a research perspective. One of these is the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes consuming plant-based foods, whole grains and fatty fish in addition to olive oil, nuts and red wine (in moderation, of course). “It’s not a weight-loss diet, but rather a healthy lifestyle approach,” Dr. Farrell says.
Many studies conducted around the world, including a Cooper Center Longitudinal Study, have demonstrated a link between the Mediterranean diet and a reduced risk of illness and a relative increase in lifespan. The Cooper Center study also found that consuming more fruits, nuts and whole grains was associated with an approximately 35 percent decrease in the risk of cardiovascular mortality.
But what if you’re trying to lose weight? Dr. Farrell says that, first and foremost, it’s important to understand that the goal with weight loss should be to lose fat weight, not water or muscle weight. “In order to lose fat weight, one must burn more calories per day than one consumes,” he says.
The diet he recommends for weight loss is one that is in alignment with the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines include:
- Reduce your intake of saturated fats, added sugars, alcohol and sodium.
- Increase your intake of complex carbohydrates (unrefined plant-based foods) such as fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans and peas) and unsalted nuts.
- Try to consume 3 cups of low-fat dairy per day and two to three servings of fatty fish, such as salmon, per week.
- Limit red meat to no more than a couple of servings a week.
Dr. Farrell explains that, when you’re trying to lose weight, it’s also important to pair a healthy diet with a focus on exercise. “Increasing your level of physical activity is an absolute must if long-term weight control is a goal,” he says. “Try to accumulate at least 300 minutes each week of moderately intense aerobic activity. Adding at least two days per week of strength training is also highly recommended.”
So, what is the simplest way to start eating a healthier, more balanced diet? Don’t worry about trying to follow the latest eating fad. Keep it simple by focusing on eating more plant-based foods and cutting back on empty calories, such as soda, fast food and potato chips.
Eating healthy doesn’t have to be — and shouldn’t be — complicated. Don’t waste your time (and money!) trying diet after diet. As Dr. Farrell advises, stick to what works and is supported by solid, scientific research.
Presented by The Cooper Institute. Founded by Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., M.P.H., the “Father of Aerobics,” in 1970, the Cooper Institute has established itself as one of the world’s leaders in advancing preventive health practices for both children and adults.