Learning how to navigate the jungle of food and nutrition can be a struggle for university students. Whether you’re living on your own for the first time or just trying to take more responsibility for your eating habits, it can be difficult to find reliable nutritional information.
Among the abundance of misinformation floating around the Internet, there are today three commonly praised fad diets: the paleo diet, the gluten-free diet, and the juice diet. They each involve a similar strategy: to eliminate one or more food groups from one’s diet.
I looked into whether these fad diets actually work, and more importantly, if they are safe or realistic to follow. Helping me along the way to offer clarification was Kimberly Green, UTM’s registered dietician.
The basic premise of the paleo diet is to eat “modern foods that mimic the food groups of our hunter-gatherer ancestors”, according to the official paleo diet website. Put simply, people who follow the paleo diet eat meals mainly consisting of large portions of protein, such as lean meats, and dramatically reduced portions of carbohydrates.
One aspect of the diet that often raises controversy is that it does not support the consumption of legumes, which are described as a valuable source of protein by nutritionists. Green suggests that the elimination of legumes from the diet can be traced back to an aversion to carbohydrates. She says that people often experience success in weight loss by eliminating carbohydrates because it forces the body into a ketogenic state, during which the body obtains energy from fats rather than carbohydrates, a survival strategy of sorts enacted by our body in situations where only protein is available to us.
The main drawback to this diet is that it’s easy to miss out on valuable nutrients. All in all, a balanced, nutritional approach to one’s diet is much more valuable and safe than a weight-loss approach.
“There is absolutely no value that can come from eliminating gluten from the diet,” opines first-year philosophy student Joseph Corazza.
It’s an opinion that many people share, but one that is often contested by people who claim to have achieved weight-loss success simply by eliminating gluten.
With all the gluten-free talk that’s been spreading on health and wellness blogs, it’s easy to believe that gluten is out to get us, but Green says giving up gluten is just another way to reduce carbohydrate intake, which causes some people to experience weight loss. Green advises that the elimination of carbohydrates from the diet is a highly restrictive and unnecessary step to achieving a more nutritional diet.
“I tried out the gluten-free diet for one day, but the food wasn’t very satisfying so I switched back,” says first-year linguistics student Brianna Ansara.
Green jokes that many people who can’t consume gluten for health reasons would be shocked that anyone would give up gluten voluntarily, given the inconvenience of finding gluten-free foods and their generally unappealling nature.
Many experts also suggest that since eating gluten-free restricts one’s food choices, people generally tend to consume less. The restriction, rather than the actual elimination of gluten, causes them to lose weight.
Praised as a convenient source of valuable nutrients, smoothies and cold-pressed juices are becoming more and more popular. While researching this topic, I decided to try my hand at making a nutritional banana-blueberry breakfast smoothie. I blended up blueberries, milk, and a banana. The result was a lumpy smoothie that had me wishing I’d just eaten a banana and a bowl of blueberries instead of trying to get all fancy.
Aside from finding the right recipe, it’s also important to mix smoothies that incorporate different food groups, says Green. She gives the example of an addition of oats and Greek yogurt to a plain vegetable or fruit smoothie.
Another factor to watch out for is the loss of fibre that occurs in juicing rather than blending. As long as one makes up for the lost fibre at another meal, cold-pressed juices can be a great way to supplement more fruits and vegetables into one’s diet, but aren’t much of a meal replacement.
FINDING A BALANCE
While walking in CCT this week I was handed Canada’s Food Guide, which reminded me of a simpler view of nutrition. Green says the guide is still a valuable resource for health and wellness, and although one doesn’t need to track every meal and count servings, the advice on how to structure one’s meals is helpful. Green says a good technique is to fill half of one’s plate with fruit and vegetables and to divide the rest equally between grains and starches on the one hand, and meat and meat alternatives on the other.
Green says her own diet is based on the principle of finding basic foods with ingredients she can recognize. She eats both foods she likes and foods that are nutritional. (She admits that even she doesn’t like the taste of kale, a highly acclaimed superfood, and gets the same nutrients from the better-tasting broccoli instead.)
Her observations have made me think differently about nutrition. As someone who has for the past year been sucked into trying several different “superfoods”, including kale, I’ve found that each either tasted horrible or was too troublesome to prepare. Since my idea of a dietician was someone who ate nothing but superfoods, it was encouraging to hear that Green eats simple, good-tasting, nutritional food and isn’t suffering on a restrictive diet.
When it comes to nutrition these days, everyone seems to be an expert. Green believes that the best way to live healthier is to listen to your body and to discover what works best for your lifestyle and body type.
(Bonus: UTM offers some nutrition tips and student-friendly recipes at utm.utoronto.ca/health.)