Diet trends have come and gone throughout the years, each with their own goals and rules about what to eat and what to avoid.
The paleo and gluten-free diets are two trends that have become more popular within the last several years, according to Cal Poly nutrition professor and registered dietician Lisa Nicholson. Both diets have benefits and drawbacks though, she said.
For Nicholson, there are two general types of diets: One is a diet intended for weight loss, and the other is a long-term healthy eating pattern. She’s seeing more Cal Poly students who want to diet as part of a lifestyle change, she said.
“I think the message is out there that any diet can cause weight loss, but if you want to keep the weight off … then you need to make that lifestyle change,” Nicholson said.
Don’t eat the wheat
One diet trend Nicholson has seen more during the last several years is going gluten-free. While some people require this diet because they cannot tolerate gluten, others choose to eliminate it.
Nutrition senior Mollie Shimer is a personal trainer at the Recreation Center, and agreed more people are going on gluten-free diets today because they think they might have a gluten intolerance.
“It’s gotten a lot more prevalent,” Shimer said. “I just don’t think it’s that necessary … I think it’s more of a trend.”
Those who can tolerate gluten but choose this diet believe removing gluten will generally improve their health and may help with gas, bloating, stomach pain and fatigue, Nicholson said, or they believe it will help them lose weight. Nicholson also said more parents of autistic children are eliminating allergens including gluten from their children’s diets as a potential treatment. There is a lot of research in this area, but no scientific link has been found between eliminating gluten and treating autism, Nicholson said.
Gluten is a protein found in many grains, Nicholson said, and more people make this dietary choice because they want to remove starchy foods as a way to cut calories and carbohydrates. Being gluten-free eliminates a large number of foods, so people on this diet eat more fruits, vegetables, dairy and meats. Additionally, by eliminating foods with gluten, people are often eliminating processed foods and “trigger” foods they might overeat such as breads and cake.
“They’re eating a lot better from my perspective,” Nicholson said.
However, she said people who choose this diet can miss a number of vitamins, minerals and fiber by not eating grains. Another downside can be what these people choose to eat instead — that’s what she would want to know. Gluten-free dieters lose weight because they’re eliminating a whole food group, she said — the diet doesn’t cause weight loss by itself.
Nutrition senior Rylee Horner is the coordinator of the Cal Poly PULSE Health Enrichment Action Team (HEAT) and consults with students about healthy eating habits. Horner said while some people do require a gluten-free diet, she wouldn’t recommend it to people who can tolerate gluten.
This diet is more expensive, Horner said, and requires cutting something out of a regular diet that the body wants. The body likes a variety of foods, she said, and cutting foods out will make it harder to re-introduce them back into a diet.
“I wouldn’t suggest cutting out something if your body feels good consuming it,” Horner said. “But you know, some people don’t have a gluten intolerance, but they feel better if they don’t eat gluten. It’s all by choice.”
For Cal Poly students, there are a number of on-campus foods available to accommodate gluten-free diets. According to the Campus Dining website, there are gluten-free options at The Avenue, Campus Market, Ciao!, 19 Metro Station, VG Cafe and Tacos-to-Go.
Alayna Albert, a biological sciences senior at the University of California, Santa Cruz tried a gluten-free diet for a week two years ago to see what on-campus options were available as part of an assignment about an aspect of the university she would change. It was really hard, she said — especially because she was already a vegetarian.
There aren’t a lot of options out there for people who are gluten-free, Albert said — she even had to check the ingredients in soup before eating it.
“It’s crazy how much you have to check labels,” she said. “I was definitely starving at the end of the week.”
Though it was difficult for her, Albert said she’d recommend everyone try different diet options, and people should try being gluten free because they might be allergic to it and not even know it, she said.
Back to the cavemen
Another diet trend Nicholson said has been growing in the past few years, and one more students have come to see her about, is the paleo diet. This diet is centered around the idea of eating the kind of food humans consumed before the Agricultural Revolution, according to a paleo diet website.
For Nicholson, this diet has pros and cons as well. Following it diet means eating more fruits and vegetables and avoiding processed foods, and she said she’s a big proponent of that idea. There are aspects of the diet “that aren’t that bad,” she said.
However, this diet does not include grains or dairy — and Nicholson said she doesn’t see why whole grains are a negative. Cutting out entire food groups is difficult and makes it more difficult to eat out and avoid intense cravings, she said.
Followers of this diet might not get enough carbohydrates, she said — which is something hunter-gatherers harvested whenever they could. And Nicholson said followers of are in turn getting too much animal protein, which she doesn’t promote. She said in this aspect, the paleo diet is very similar to the South Beach Diet.
“This is just another way of writing up a high-protein, low-carb diet in my opinion,” Nicholson said.
Like the gluten-free diet, Horner said she wouldn’t recommend the paleo diet either. Horner said cutting out grains and dairy doesn’t seem very healthy — eliminating grains cuts a number of vitamins and minerals, and eliminating dairy cuts out vitamin D and calcium.
Food science senior Melanie Sholander has been on the paleo diet for a year, and this is her second time — she took a break after being on it for two years before. She’d planned on trying it for only 30 days to see what it would be like but said she felt so good, she kept going.
“I thought it would be really hard, and it was actually really easy,” Sholander said.
While she can only eat fruit, vegetables, lean meats, fish and nuts, Sholander said she can have as much as she wants and at any time. It is time-consuming because she has to cook all her meals herself, but she said it’s worth it — and she still gets all the nutrients she needs as long as she eats those five food groups. Eating out is difficult, but Sholander said “you can pretty much find something to eat anywhere you go.”
Sholander said she would recommend this diet to anyone, because she feels like this is what people are meant to eat, but she would call it a lifestyle, not a diet, she said.
“Once you go on it, you don’t want to go off it because you feel so good,” Sholander said.
While Shimer said the principles of the paleo diet make sense, she added it doesn’t include many necessary foods available today. Not eating processed foods is beneficial, but people won’t get much fiber on this diet, she said.
“There are ups and downs to it,” Shimer said. “You do get a lot of protein, but you don’t need that much protein. You need more fat than that, you should have other sources of fiber besides fruits and vegetables.”
Going to extremes
In addition to the gluten-free and paleo diets, there are diets practiced today that are more restrictive. An example is the “master cleanse” which entails consuming only a mixture of lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper and water. While Nicholson said it can help you lose weight quickly in a short period of time, it also has a number of health consequences such as diarrhea, the stripping of mucus from the intestinal tract and food allergies.
“It is not a good choice,” Nicholson said. “The more days you’re on it, the worse it is for you.”
Nicholson said there are always unusual diets out there — other examples she gave are the peanut butter diet, the cabbage soup diet and the nose tube diet, where people go on nasal tube feeds to lose weight. These kind of diets do cause you to eat less and become more conscious of what you’re eating, Nicholson said, but they can be unhealthy; but she also said she’s seen less extremism in dieting recently.
Horner echoed Nicholson’s opinion of these more extreme diets. She’s had people come in to see her who ask about cleanse diets or how to lose weight fast. However, she said those diets cause weight fluctuations, which are unhealthy for the body over an extended period of time.
“If you lose it (quickly), you’re going to gain it back really quickly,” Horner said.
In today, out tomorrow
Diet trends come in and out of fashion because humans are dichotomous creatures, Nicholson said — they like to classify food as “good” or “bad.” And different foods have been judged as “bad” in the past, Nicholson said — for a time it was fats, then sugar and then high fructose corn syrup.
“A diet becomes really popular because it makes sense — ‘Well I can just cut out a whole type of food, I don’t have to think about it,’” Nicholson. “It makes choice easy.”
Since all diets cause weight loss when followed diligently, Nicholson said such past diet trends did work for a time and got very popular — but people start gaining the weight back and the popularity goes down. And then people start looking for the next trend, she said — today the “bad” food is gluten.
Human nature draws a connection between health and being thin, Nicholson said, and so people keep looking for the next thing to help them lose weight. But there are thin people who can be unhealthy or people who are heavy but still healthy, she said.
So what to do?
To maintain a healthy diet, Nicholson advises students do a number of things such as eating some kind of breakfast and getting a variety of foods during the day. Don’t try to eliminate one kind of food completely, she said — it will just make you want that food more. And Nicholson also advises students to find ways to bring healthy food with them to campus so they don’t get stuck hungry and end up eating something unhealthy.