Paleo, keto, vegan — three funky, unfamiliar words associated with health and fitness have begun to fill the aisles and shelves of grocery stores.
These three diet models — Paleolithic, ketogenic and vegan — are everywhere, promoted and endorsed by social media influencers and celebrities, used on food packaging for energy bars, gummy bears and ranch dressing and hailed by friends sharing testimonials about successful diet plans.
Isaac Mourier, a sports nutrition intern at the University of Georgia, said popular diet models are often shared along with success stories.
“So they want to do it for one reason, but that’s only because they’ve seen somebody looking good or feeling good or whatever, and not really understanding it,” Mourier said.
While popular diets are based on some research themselves, they are not wholly agreed upon by nutrition experts. The current ChooseMyPlate guidelines, the official guidelines from the U.S. government, are a dietary reference based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines created by a group of scientists who comb through relevant nutrition-related studies to produce a set of principles.
Within this framework, however, the scientists who conduct this research are not the ones who actually publish the guidelines — that is up to the USDA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This gap in publication allows room for lobbying organizations to have a say in what gets released to the American public.
Elizabeth Klingbeil, a doctoral candidate in dietetics at UGA, said the amount of research that goes into these guidelines should not be brushed aside when considering one’s diet. If the goal is maintaining a healthy lifestyle, Klingbeil said, following the Dietary Guidelines are a good start.
“People think that, ‘That can’t be it, it must be a more complex problem,’” Klingbeil said. “But time and time again … a well-balanced diet where all of those food groups show up on your plate in their correct amounts works great.”
Diets with purpose
Senior entertainment and media studies major Maryanna Reed followed the paleo diet with her family while living at home during the summer. Paleo is a diet model of refraining from consuming processed foods that weren’t available during the Paleolithic era. Reed said she felt better, had more energy and lost weight.
Though she is no longer following a paleo diet, Reed said she tries to have a day of eating paleo here and there. She said the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables is a deterrent, especially as a college student.
Many popular diet trends are aimed at specific demographics that are able to maintain the diet — people who can afford organic or specialized food and can control every meal they eat. The exclusivity, Klingbeil said, reflects the lack of sustainability of some diets.
“There’s a lot of other options for people … just because it’s in a can or a bag doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad, you just have to read what’s on it,” Klingbeil said.
Audrey Haynes, an associate professor of political science at UGA, followed a fairly strict ketogenic diet for about four months to reduce joint inflammation and lose weight. Her orthopedist recommended she cut out sugar, which was contributing to her inflammation.
The keto diet is a high-fat, low-carb diet that pushes the human body into a state of ketosis, during which fat is burned for energy instead of glucose found in carbohydrates. The breakdown of fat cells produce ketones, organic compounds used to fuel the body. The goal of ketosis is to function either mostly or completely on ketone energy, essentially burning fat to be used for energy.
Haynes’ joints felt better within two days of following the diet model, though she attributes the decrease of inflammation to cutting out sugar. In four months of eating keto and exercising consistently, Haynes also lost 20 pounds.
Senior religion and Arabic major Sam Fisher has followed a vegan diet for six years. He does not eat animal products — including meat, dairy, eggs and honey — to avoid harming animals. This extends into a vegan lifestyle, such as avoiding leather and products tested on animals.
Fisher doesn’t see the need for the addition of dairy to the Dietary Guidelines, especially since an estimated 30-50 million American adults are lactose intolerant. And many non-dairy milk options are fortified with nutrients and have more calcium per glass than cow’s milk.
Lack of information
Reed, who followed the paleo diet for about four months, said she did not know much about the USDA Dietary Guidelines except for the food pyramid she learned growing up.
MyPyramid, the predecessor to the current MyPlate guidelines, was widely criticized as being too confusing for the average American to understand. Klingbeil said the lack of education regarding the food pyramid could be a factor in why there has been a recent surge in diet trends.
“As a dietitian, as a nutritionist, you try and implement something that’s sustainable that is going to promote behavior change for life,” Mourier said. “Whereas a lot of these diets, because they’re so restrictive, they put people at risk of … making them kind of go backwards.”
From a nutrition standpoint, Mourier thinks it’s important for people to consider exactly what they’re cutting out when adopting a new diet. He said carbohydrates shouldn’t be considered all bad because they are important for day-to-day bodily functions, especially for those engaged in athletic practices.
When it comes to calories, Mourier said it’s important to understand what a calorie is before labeling it as “good” or “bad” — it is simply a unit of energy, whether eaten through a Brussels sprout or a McDonald’s hamburger.
“A calorie is a calorie, but how many nutrients do you get per calorie of your food?” Mourier said. “It’s no longer about calories, it’s about the other things that are involved.”