Everyone—celebrities, medical professionals, social media icons, your mom—has an opinion or advice on nutrition, and there are many conflicting messages surrounding how and what you should eat. Even nutrition research and professionals seem to go back and forth with messages.
- In the past: Fat is bad for you, but carbs are good.
- Now: Carbs are bad, but fat is good. In fact, some advocate eating mostly fat (keto diet).
- In the past: Eggs and saturated fats raise the risk for heart disease.
- Now: Eggs and saturated fat may not be so bad for heart health after all.
- In the past: Total calorie intake is the primary indicator for weight loss.
- Now: The quality of your calories also matter, not just quantity.
As a dietitian, I have many people express to me they are confused about what and how they should focus on for nutrition or weight loss.
Below are some questions to ask to help you sift through diet or nutrition advice.
1. What is the research behind any diet?
Any diet or nutrition advice should be backed up with valid research. Valid research means many studies are done looking at this diet in a variety of ways.
- How many studies are there? One, or even a few, studies do not necessarily validate a diet is the best one to follow.
- How big were the studies? Those involving a small sample size need more research in order to validate any health claims.
- The more a diet has research behind, the better. For example, many studies have been done on the Mediterranean diet. There is strong research suggesting health benefits following this diet style.
- The best and easiest way to look at research for anything science related is Google Scholar. If you Google something, any and all websites are fair game. However, Google Scholar uses just scholarly literature. Therefore, the results from these searches are more valid.
- Keep in mind testimonials are NOT valid research supporting a diet! This is something fad diets do all the time: use testimonials. If this is their main reason why you should try it, stay away.
2. Do health professionals agree with it?
Some people can forget nutrition is a science. Dietitians and those with their Masters or PhDs in nutrition go through chemistry, biochemistry, organic chemistry, physiology, etc. to thoroughly understand the science behind nutrition.
Be wary of someone giving nutrition advice without this science background. Anytime you are wondering about taking a supplement or drastically altering your diet, consult your health care team.
3. Is the diet sustainable and healthy long term?
This may be one of the most important questions when contemplating a diet: Is it good for you long term? Weight loss with any diet may happen in a week or two. However, your overall health and long term weight loss go much longer than just a few weeks.
- Very low-calorie diets (less than 1,000 calories per day) are hard to maintain long term and need to be supervised by your doctor.
- Any diet that advocates eating only a few different foods does not support long term health.
4. Is it cutting out major food categories?
Some diets suggest you need to cut out whole food groups (i.e. grains, fruits, vegetables, proteins and/or dairy).
Some people need to cut out or drastically lower their intake of certain food groups if they have an allergy or other health condition. HOWEVER, this does not mean everyone should cut these food groups out of their diet.
Cutting out any foods in any food groups that are highly refined, full of sugar or have other questionable man-made ingredients is practical advice for anyone. However, that doesn’t mean for weight loss or health all of us should cut out all grains, dairy, fruit or whatever other food group is the target.
Eating more food groups—like fruits and vegetables—and less of others may be a more balanced message. Each food group offers nutrient dense and nutrient-poor choices. Cutting out nutrient-dense foods in a food group may mean you are missing out long term on important nutrients in your diet.
If you think you may need to cut out a food group in your diet, consult your healthcare team for individualized guidance.
5. Are they selling you something?
If a company or website is advocating a certain diet and part of that is a supplement or foods they sell, that should send warning bells in your mind.
Cutting out any foods in any food groups that are highly refined, full of sugar or have other questionable man-made ingredients is practical advice for anyone.
Following a diet for overall health or specifically for weight loss does not need an extra weight loss supplement or specific foods/meals available only through that company. The strong reality is they are more interested in getting your dollars than your health.
If you think you may need a vitamin or mineral supplement for your health, it’s always best to run it past your healthcare team first.
6. It claims to be the ‘only’ diet for everyone
Three red flags from a diet:
- Cutting out food groups
- Limiting food choices
- Claiming everyone should follow this diet
The reality is there are many ways to meet our varying nutritional needs. Look at all the different native diets around the world: Mediterranean, Asian, Middle Eastern, South American, Scandinavian, etc. These diets all vary slightly, but they have some things in common (see below point).
Suggesting everyone around the world needs to eat one specific, narrow way is arguably naïve. As researchers continue to unpack genetic differences and genetic responses to food, individualized nutrition will increase.
What will fit into your lifestyle long term is another important consideration. Some people may do really well on a vegetarian diet. Some people may do really well on a Whole 30 approach to eating. Some people may do really well on an intermittent fasting diet. That does not mean it will be the best lifestyle fit for everyone, and that’s ok.
Things we can all agree on …
Lastly, there is some good news. No matter what diet you are trying to follow, there are things we can all agree upon.
1. Lower your processed food intake
Processed food can mean food that is altered from a natural state, stripped apart and put back together again in different ways. Examples of processed foods: high fructose corn syrup, white bread, many packaged snacks in grocery stores and fast food.
Research suggests we handle processed foods different than foods in their natural forms. Eating a diet made mostly of processed foods may increase total calorie consumption.
A typical American diet is high in processed foods and low in nutritional value.
No matter what diet style you follow, the suggestion to cut back on processed foods is one we can all agree on.
2. Eat more fruits and vegetables
This may be the most important diet message. While all food groups can have their merits, fruits and vegetables have so many important nutrients. People following a Western diet typically do not get nearly enough fruits or vegetables. We can all agree we need to get more in our diets.