Diets: fad or fact

By Sydney Johnson - Contributing columnist
Sydney Johnson -

We have reached our second month in 2018. Some of you may have stuck with your New Year’s goal for 31 days by now! Wow, great job! Others may have fallen off the wagon, or perhaps started something new because the original plan wasn’t working. This article will help you navigate through the diet maze and discover what may be the best plan for your health. You should always consult your doctor before beginning a new diet.

With the multitude of diets on the market, it’s difficult to know which one would be the best for your health. Did you know we make over 200 food decisions a day? To make it even more difficult, there are hundreds of diets that try to tell us what those food decisions should be. It’s no wonder we are all so confused as to what to eat! There are several fad diets floating around currently. Some popular diets have been broken down below from our Nutrition Decisions webinar with Dr. Carolyn Dunn on

Whole 30 is one of the most popular diets that I have personally been hearing about for years. This diet is touted as a way to address many health issues such as eczema, acne, other skin disorders, low energy, anxiety, depression, and autoimmune disease among others. It’s often seen as a quick fix for weight loss, although personally I could never imagine giving up some of my favorite foods for 30 days straight! The program is very restrictive and encourages you to not consume several foods for 30 days such as sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, foods with carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites, and you also can’t re-create baked good or junk food with Whole 30 ingredients (such as pancakes made with coconut flour and eggs). While on the Whole 30, if you cheat and consume any of the foods on the ‘no’ list then you must start back over. The Whole 30 says yes to vegetables, fruit in moderation, unprocessed meat, seafood, eggs, nuts and seeds (except peanuts), oil and ghee, and coffee. In talking about this diet, we first need to discuss grains since that is one superfood that seems to be limited here. All grains are not created equal. This is saying hamburger buns which are completely processed and refined are equal to steel cut oats. We know they are not equal at all. Refined grains are what we want to cut out of our diet. Oats, brown rice, farro are all whole, unprocessed grains that are healthy to consume.

US News and the World Report take popular diets every year and have nutritionist and health professionals to rank the diets from best to worst. This year they ranked 38 diets and Whole 30 scored 38 out of 38 as the worst diet. They state the Whole 30 ranks worst because it’s really restrictive, there is no scientific support, it eliminates all grains and dairy, and is a short-term approach that promises all these great outcomes.

Positives of the Whole 30: it’s likely not detrimental to health because it’s short-term. Another great aspect is it increases your mindfulness due to not being able to eat out, not being able to eat processed foods, and making most meals from scratch. It also may heighten your awareness of how certain foods make you feel. If you properly reintroduction some of these no foods as suggested by Whole 30 after 30 days, it may help you understand which foods may or may not sit well with you.

Bottom line, we don’t have to go to the extreme of Whole 30 to eat less processed foods! If you’re just looking for rules to follow, try these: eat out (fast food) only 4 times a year, limit refined grains to once a week, and primarily eat grains as grains rather than baked into a product. This diet is tough to follow and is not science based.

Let’s discuss two popular topics floating around the diet world. Have you ever heard of clean eating? There is no single definition of clean eating but it’s typically defined as eating whole foods, unprocessed or minimally processed foods, no processed (which is almost impossible), or to prepare or cook meals from whole foods. What do you think of when you hear ‘processed foods’? Poptarts? Potato chips? Olive oil? Vegetable broth? Did you know all of these are processed foods? It’s pretty clear here that not all processed foods are created equal. It’s important to read the ingredients of products to decide if something is a moderately processed or highly processed food. Even Triscuits are not considered a highly processed food, containing whole wheat, oil, and salt. Read your ingredients list to properly determine if a food is highly processed.

Another popular topic is detox diets. Again, there is no single definition for a detox diet. This may be short term and it may eliminate whole groups of foods. Typically detox diets are only a few days. Simply put, there is no scientific evidence to support that a detox diet does anything better for our body than simply eating a healthy diet. If you want to support your own body’s incredible detoxificiation system, you can drink plenty of water, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (especially cruciferous vegetables and berries), and consume adequate fiber.

Our next hot diet is Paleo. Paleo claims we should eat like our ancestors did. They encourage not consuming grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugar, potatoes, processed foods (which again are almost impossible to get out of our diet), salt and refined vegetable oils. They do encourage eating grass fed meat, fish and seafood, fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts and seeds, natural sweeteners like agave and honey, and unrefined oils. This diet is not consistent with current dietary recommendations. It does have the possibility of moving us towards dietary guidance because it encourages fruit and vegetable consumption, but usually people who go Paleo use this as a green light to eat way more meat than what is recommended for dietary guidance. There is no reason to remove all grains and no reason to remove beans. We know based on Dietary Guidelines for Americans that we should be eating more of beans and legumes, not less of them. So why does Paleo allow sugar but not beans? They claim beans were not part of our ancestral diet, which has been disproven. They also claim that beans contain two compounds that are detrimental to our health, lectin and phytic acid. Phytic acid is in lots of foods. Paleo claims we shouldn’t consume this chemical because it binds minerals in the gut and keeps them from being absorbed 100 percent. Beans are not the only food that contains phytic acid but, unlike other foods with this chemical, it is one of the foods Paleo encourages to restrict. Other foods containing phytic acid are spinach, broccoli, and many other vegetables. This is known by health professionals, but they are also aware it happens in a lot of compounds and dietary minerals. This is not a reason to avoid consuming a food. The other compound of concern by Paleo is lectin, a protein that binds to certain cell membranes. Raw beans contain high amounts of this compound. However, when prepared the lectin content in raw beans is almost entirely killed through the soaking and heating process. Pinto beans for example are very high in lectin when consumed raw. How often do we eat raw pinto beans? Please don’t try, you might break a tooth!

When comparing other diets, follow this simple guide to determine where a diet fits. First, where does a diet stand on the known superfoods such as fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, mono and polyunsaturated oils and fats (such as olive oil), and beans and legumes. These are the foods we know based on science that should be in our diet in high levels. Fish can also be added to this list because it has been shown to decrease the risk of chronic illnesses. Also, it’s important to know where a diet stands on the foods we should limit in our diet because they shouldn’t be consumed in large quantities. These foods include sugar, saturated fats (such as meats high in saturated fats and butter), and highly processed foods.

So what diet is healthy to follow? The Mediterranean Diet was tied for best diet for Americans according to the US News and World Report. The Mediterranean diet encourages eating lots of vegetables, consuming a variety of fruits, consuming whole grains, consuming nuts and seeds, choosing olive oil, using herbs and spices to season foods, consuming fish at least three times a week, being physically active, and the option to consume red wine in moderation. It also limits sugars, saturated fats, fast food, and highly processed foods. Based on our simple guide, this diet gets a 100! It is also evidence-based unlike many of the other diets reviewed, and studies have shown the Med Way has a number of health benefits such as promoting health and decreasing the risk of chronic diseases. Want to learn more about the Mediterranean diet? Check out for recipes, tips, and tools! I will also be offering a Med Instead of Meds 6-week series that gives in-depth details about the Med Way and teaches you how to cook Med at home. We still have a few spots available, so call the Sampson County Cooperative Extension office ASAP to reserve your spot 910-592-7161.

For more information about Diet Fads, you can watch the full webinar by Dr. Carolyn Dunn at Visit the tools tab, then click Nutrition Decisions.

Sydney Johnson Johnson

By Sydney Johnson

Contributing columnist

Sydney Johnson is an Area Family & Consumer Sciences Extension Agent, with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. She can be reached by calling the Sampson County Center at 910-592-7161.

Sydney Johnson is an Area Family & Consumer Sciences Extension Agent, with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. She can be reached by calling the Sampson County Center at 910-592-7161.