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The beginning of the year is often a time for resolutions and new routines. It comes on the heels of a holiday season that typically brings more indulgences, increased stress and inconsistent sleep. It’s only natural to look for a reset as we turn the calendar to a new year. Instead of seeking out the latest diet book or meal plan, it may be more helpful to look inward and remember what your routine is like when you have more control over your choices. Maybe it would be helpful to have a different eating pattern, or maybe you would feel better if you revisited old habits that have been set aside.

Before deciding, it’s important to make a distinction between a short-term diet and a long-term eating plan. Often, we may feel so desperate to make a change, whether it’s in our weight, blood pressure, energy or another measure, that we go on an extreme and restrictive program that we’re unable to sustain, hoping we’ll figure out the long-term solution later on.

However, if you’ve been down this road before, you know that it is easier said than done. So, as you evaluate eating changes you plan to make, it is important to ask yourself if you desire a short-term diet or a long-term eating plan.

Red Flags for Short-Term Diets

If you want lasting weight loss, start by filtering out diets that won’t have a lasting impact. Here are a few red flags of diets that will likely result in regain:

  • Include lists of foods to avoid
  • Eliminate an entire food group
  • Require a particular brand of food
  • Fail to acquire backing from research organizations, such as the National Institute of Health

Popular Diets

Atkins Diet

The popularity of low-carb diets began in the 1970’s with the Atkins diet, which is a low-carb and high-protein diet. The first phase of the diet is meant to be temporary, and it includes several phases of acceptable carbohydrate levels ranging from 20-100 grams of net carbs per day. It’s useful to note that the term “net carbs” came from Atkins himself and is not a term recognized by the FDA or promoted by the American Diabetes Association.

The Atkins diet was the first of many popular low-carb diets, such as the South Beach diet, Paleo, Primal, Carnivore and the popular Keto diet.

Keto Diet

Originally used in 1920 for children who had seizures that would not improve with medication, the keto diet is a very low carbohydrates, high fat and moderate protein diet. While following it, the body uses fat, rather than carbohydrates, as its main energy source.

Brains typically need about 120 grams of glucose, a carbohydrate, each day. If this isn’t available through food, the body will pull from the glucose stored in the liver and muscles. Once those stores are depleted, the body uses fat to produce ketones, which are an alternate source of fuel for the brain. Continuing to eat very little carbohydrates keeps the body relying on ketones, which have the potential to reduce appetite and make eating fewer calories easier.

The catch is that this only works when you remain in a state of ketosis. Eating extra protein or carbohydrates can stop ketosis; the exact amount that can do this varies per person. Someone following the keto diet who is not in ketosis, but is losing weight, is experiencing weight loss due to calorie restriction rather than the specific nature of the diet.

If you choose to follow this eating plan, be aware that the side effects range from annoyances, such as constipation to more severe ones, including increased risk for kidney stones. It is critical to consume enough fluids while on the keto diet to reduce the chances of developing side effects. Experts have concerns about the keto diet’s effect on cholesterol and heart health, as there is no specific guidance on what types of fat to consume on this high fat eating plan.

Characteristics of Long-Term Eating Plans

Instead of dieting, lifestyle changes that include positive strides in exercise and daily eating plans are preferred.

Here are the attributes of healthy eating plans:

  • Allow for balanced meals and flexible planning

Rather than promoting individual foods, these plans typically highlight groups of foods rich in nutrition, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, seafood, nuts and seeds. Centering meals and snacks around these foods makes it easier to focus on what to eat more of, rather than focusing on foods to restrict.

  • May include guidance on enjoying foods that may be sweeter or saltier in moderation

Rather than recommending cutting sweet and salty foods out or relegating them to “cheat” days, eating plans make room for these foods, which is a healthier way to approach food.

  • Principles are backed by major health organizations

These may include the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the American Cancer Society, the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now we’ll move on to specific eating plans.

Highly Effective Eating Plans

The Mediterranean Eating Plan

The Mediterranean eating plan is widely promoted by health care professionals and has gotten a lot of research and popular press in recent years. It is based on the traditional cuisine of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. This is one of the most customizable ways of eating.

When we think of Mediterranean eating, we may picture olive oil, fish and red wine, but it is so much more than that. Med Instead of Meds is a great resource developed by a partnership between NC State and the NC Division of Public Health that explains the science and principles of Mediterranean eating and includes some recipes.

These are the seven components of the eating plan they highlight:

  1. Change your protein (to more plant protein and fatty fish).
  2. Swap your fats (to incorporate more olive oil).
  3. Eat more vegetables.
  4. Eat more fruits.
  5. Snack on nuts and seeds.
  6. Make your grains whole.
  7. Rethink your sweets.

Mediterranean eating may seem far-fetched to many of us, yet Southern food can easily mirror that way of eating. In fact, Southern and Mediterranean cuisines are so closely related that researchers at UNC have developed a Med-South eating plan showing that foods from any region can have their own version of Mediterranean eating.

From oven-fried okra to heart-healthy hush puppies to a BBQ grain bowl, Med-South highlights Southern vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins.

The Mediterranean diet is backed by major health organizations, and there is strong evidence that it may reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, certain cancers and cognitive decline. If you are looking for a plan to help specifically with weight loss, you may need to have more intentional calorie change for that to happen.

Another thing to note about the Mediterranean diet is that it is so much more than food. It includes lifestyle habits, such as eating mindfully, having strong social connections and staying physically active. If you’re not sure if you would like to adopt this style of eating, incorporating the other components could result in measurable health benefits.

DASH Eating Plan

The DASH eating plan, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, doesn’t get a lot of attention, but similar to the Mediterranean diet, it is consistently ranked among one of the top eating plans. While the goal is not weight loss, the DASH eating plan does help reduce blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels.

DASH was developed to study if different eating patterns could change blood pressure, and the original research had many strengths, such as providing food to participants to minimize differences in food choices. Since it was created in the 1990s, it has gone through more research and variations, such as different amounts of fat and protein, which have shown an even greater impact on health than the original plan. You can learn more about DASH eating plan at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, where you can also find sample meal plans.

Similar to the Mediterranean eating plan, it is high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds. Some differences come in its emphasis on low fat dairy and moderate sodium.

Where to Start?

If one thing is clear when it comes to nutrition and health, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to eating. We see this with cultures around the world, what foods different people grow up eating, and we certainly see this when adults want to change their current eating habits.

If you are more interested in having healthier eating habits than following a specific plan, three great considerations are incorporating vegetables, eating on a consistent schedule and finding your “why.”

Eat Your Veggies

Vegetables are typically high in fiber and low in calories, which is why even the strictest diets include veggies, if not some fruit. Not only are they great choices nutritionally, but they also encourage you to meal plan, grocery shop, cook and eat at home. Even if you’re not eating your veggies, those habits, alone, can help improve your health.

Time and taste are two common barriers for eating more produce, especially vegetables. They generally take a little more preparation and their bitter flavor can be challenging.

The good news for saving time is that frozen and canned vegetables typically require less preparation than fresh vegetables and are very similar nutritionally.

As for taste, keep trying veggies cooked in different ways until you find something you like. From sautéing to roasting to grilling to mashing, there are endless ways to enjoy them. If you’re feeling a little stuck with adding in more produce, here are 95 ideas to help you get started.

Feed Yourself Regularly

One major downside of diets is that we feel guilty when we’re not following them, when we eat something not recommended or we feel hungrier than we think we should and end up restricting. One way to avoid that is to start eating on a regular schedule. This is counter to fasting — instead of focusing on when we’re not eating, the idea is to plan to eat meals and snacks on a predictable schedule. This gives us permission to eat, instead of forcing us to restrict, and it can be a great way to tune into our innate hunger and satiety cues. The Ellyn Satter Institute has great resources on the benefits of eating on a regular schedule, especially for a family, and teaches that eating a meal together — even if it’s not perfect — is good enough.

Make Your Intentions and Expectations Clear

If you are looking to start a new eating plan, first decide why you would like to change your eating habits. Is it something you just feel you should do? Are you hoping to eat in a way that will give you more energy and have a better relationship with food? Or are you trying to improve a specific health condition?

Then, recognize your personal preferences and current life demands. Ask yourself along the way if you’re creating your own healthier lifestyle or living by someone else’s food rules. It may be helpful to read about intuitive eating and being more mindful of how you feel when eating to help tune in to how you feel about food. Every year, there are new diets and messaging about what we should be eating, but one of the best measures of success is not how well you’re following a diet, but how you feel about your body, health and relationship with food.

About Meredith Ebersohl, RD

Meredith is a registered dietitian who teaches nutrition classes, offers one-on-one nutrition counseling and develops educational material. She is passionate about explaining nutrition research and helping people incorporate sustainable changes in their lives. Outside of work, she enjoys spending time with her husband, their two young children and their middle-aged pets.

Outpatient Nutrition Services

Do you need help determining how to eat healthy or finding healthy choices for your family? Consider scheduling with our WakeMed Outpatient Nutrition Services.

Our licensed, registered dietitians in Nutrition Services are committed to providing evidence-based, scientific nutrition advice. They can help with weight management, healthful living and nutritional care related to bariatric surgery.

Additional WakeMed Services

WakeMed Primary Care as well as Bariatric Surgery & Medical Weight Loss also offer support to help patients find their way to a healthier lifestyle.

Disclaimer: The advice of individual medical providers serves as guidance from the specific provider and is not intended to establish standards of clinical practice or rules of law for WakeMed Health and Hospitals.

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Meredith Ebersohl RD