Some years ago, I used to be on a crusade. Fresh out of studying 4 years of nutrition, I was on a mission to find the one perfect diet. You know, the one that miraculously heals all ills, magically dissolves fat and gives you that sparkly glow.
The trouble is, the deeper you go into nutrition, the more confusing it becomes. I’ve seen countless fads burst onto the alternative health scene and then fizzle out without a trace. I’ve witnessed more than a few evangelical ‘wellness gurus’ preach “it’s my way or the highway” and then years later, sheepishly admit to their followers that they have actually found something better. Or worse still are those that doggedly stick to their regime (despite new evidence) because they have built up a name and fame around it.
The internet is filled with so many judgemental and shaming comments towards those who don’t follow their one, righteous path – since when did food become a religion? Some vegans are screaming all meat is poison, The Paleo tribe screams all grains are poison, and the raw foodies say all cooked food is poison… So what is it then that we are supposed to eat?
Thankfully as I began clinical practice in naturopathy and started working with hundreds of clients from different walks of life, with different symptoms and genetics, in different stages of their lives and with different nutritional needs,
I quickly learned that there can never be a one-size-fits-all approach to diet.
Instead of searching for the one ultimate way of eating to rule them all, I became more flexible in my thinking and started observing the common threads between diets that healed people as well as the common types of chronic diseases so prevalent in our modern world, and how we can prevent these through proper nutrition.
I like to think I have more of a common-sense approach to nutrition now, and I will share some of my guidelines in a moment. But first, let’s look at the benefits and potential issues with the 3 current big fads in the wellness world at the moment: Raw food, Paleo & Veganism.
RAW FOODISM 101:
Raw food diet overview
Raw foodies believe that our body has not adapted to eating cooked food, due to the lack of enzymes and nutrients that are destroyed in the cooking process, and many believe that all cooked food is actually toxic. Most would identify as raw vegans and so do not include any animal products in their diets. Unfortunately there is a great divide within the raw food world as to whether one should get most of their calories from mainly fruit and little fat, or from large quantities of nuts, seeds and oils for easy calories, but with less sugary fruits.
Raw food diet health benefits
It’s true, raw food is very alkalizing and high in phytochemicals, antioxidants, water and fibre. So it is no surprise that many who follow a raw food diet plan have healed chronic conditions and lost weight with raw food; as well as have a lovely glow about them. Also, being a raw vegan means you are cutting out all of the processed junk in the standard Western diet which is always going to improve your health! This can be a very good short-term “healing” diet for cleansing and detoxification, but there can be some issues with eating all-raw as a “maintenance” diet long-term.
Potential issues with a raw food diet
A common potential issue with eating an exclusively raw diet is being able to get enough calories. The danger of a raw food diet is that raw fruit and vegetables are really low caloric foods and you need to eat a ton just to meet your daily requirements. Vegans in general are at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency. The high-fruit eating raw foodies consume a lot of natural sugars and over time can have issues with candida overgrowth and dental caries. The fat-eating ones can over do it on the nuts – I know of a case of a woman who actually developed fatty liver disease from eating so many raw nuts. The most common issues with long-term raw foodists are a lack of lean muscle mass (a very important health marker), low energy and feeling spacey and ungrounded. Psychologically, it is an extreme diet, which can cause issues with perfectionism and difficulty socialising with others.
Overview of a vegan diet
Vegans choose not to eat any products at all that are derived from animals, such as meat, eggs, dairy and even things like honey and seaweed. Reasons for eating this way include ethics (wanting to sustain the environment and reduce cruelty towards animals) and some vegans also believe that this diet is the healthiest way to eat and that humans are not genetically adapted to eating animal foods. And can I just say, I totally respect food choices made for ethical and religious reasons, I am looking at diet from a purely nutritional point of view here.
Veganism health benefits
We all know veggies are the healthiest type of food, so one of the benefits of going vegan (if done in a nutritious way) is the large quantity of plant-foods you’d eat. This is extremely beneficial for health – for preventing cancer and heart disease, protecting colon health, reducing cholesterol and in some cases it can help with weight loss. Vegan protein is sourced from high fibre legumes and grains which are very cheap to produce and go a long way towards creating a more sustainable planet. Again, Vegans in general are at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency.
Potential issues with going Vegan
Just because a food can be classed as vegan, doesn’t mean it is automatically healthy – after all, sugar, toxic seed oils and gluten-containing grains can all be classed as vegan but can be very destructive to health. Some vegans also eat a lot of overly- processed, soy-based and chemical laden “faux – meats”. And even “healthy” vegans who eat very clean still rely on a lot of legumes and grains which contain anti-nutrients that can damage the gut lining and cause leaky gut syndrome which has been linked to many chronic health conditions. A lack of dietary iron and vitamin B12 can also be an issue, especially for women. Vegan diet restrictions are vast for those who’ve eaten animal products all their life.
THE PALEO DIET 101:
Overview of a Paleo diet
Perhaps the newest trend in the wellness scene (particularly in Australia with Celebrity Paleo Chef, Pete Evans), the Paleo diet is based primarily on the work of Dr Loren Cordain; whose research set out to show that humans thrive better on more of a “cave-man” ancestral diet, featuring a lot of meat (including organ meats and other tissues besides the muscle flesh most commonly eaten these days), good-quality fats and vegetables, with no dairy (some think butter is ok), no grains or legumes and very little fruit.
Benefits of a Paleo diet
Due to the lack of gluten, grains, legumes, sugars and fruits, this is a very good diet if you have issues with candida or leaky gut syndrome and auto-immune conditions. Also, due to the high protein and low starch content, it could be very useful in losing weight and maintaining or building lean muscle mass. It also has the potential to provide a wide variety of nutrients.
Potential issues of eating the Paleo way
I don’t know how much a modern Paleo diet really has in common with what people ate 10,000 years ago, and I do think some Paleo eaters see it as a free-pass to chow down on as much steak and bacon as they can eat. Portion control is important with meat, particularly if you suffer from kidney or liver issues. So a healthy Paleo diet would ideally be comprised of predominantly greens and non-starchy veggies, some nuts, seeds and good fats, and smaller palm-sized portions of animal protein. Also, although the current Paleo paradigm eschews all grains as gut-destroying demons, I would like to point out that eggs and nuts – both Paleo staples – also contain anti-nutrients. I do think small amounts of soaked gluten-free grains such as quinoa, amaranth, millet and buckwheat can be beneficial for some people if they do not have leaky gut or candida.
SO WHAT SHOULD YOU EAT?
So as you can see from above, there are benefits and drawbacks to all three diets. But there are some common denominators. All three diets, in their healthiest ideals, place a large emphasis on eating foods in their natural, unprocessed forms and all agree that non-starchy vegetables are super-important and should be the mainstay of a wellness diet. That is common sense nutrition demystified.
I think other important factors in eating a healthy diet these days is to drink lots of filtered water; avoid gluten, toxic seed oils (eg sunflower and canola oils) and high GI foods (eg starchy or processed carbohydrates, sugars and excessive sweet fruits) and to eat a high amount of raw and fermented foods – but not all-raw.
As I said, there can never be a one-size-fits-all approach. If you feel like your current diet needs work and isn’t leaving you feeling as nourished and fuelled as you should be, consider working with a qualified Nutritionist or Naturopath to guide you finding what works for you and your body.
Do you follow a raw, vegan or Paleo diet, or have you in the past? In the comment section below, tell me what you’ve found that does and doesn’t work for you and why. I can’t wait to hear from you.
P.S. Have you got your copy of NOURISHMENT, the (free) Plant-Based Recipe eBook exclusive to the CDK tribe? It’s filled with 24 nourishing recipes including 3 smoothie recipes from yours truly. Join here to receive your copy as soon as you confirm your email (and let me know what you think!).