Which diet is the best? This is one of the most common questions about nutrition and health, with implications for weight control, chronic disease prevention and treatment, and exercise performance. Unfortunately, this is no simple answer to this question. While there are certain eating patterns and aspects of specific diets that are considered to be beneficial, there is no single diet that has been shown to be the “best.”
As a general rule, healthy eating should be informed by nutrition science, not determined by the latest trends. Many fad diets raise concerns because they restrict or over-emphasize certain foods or nutrients, rely on meal replacements or supplements instead of real food, or are supported by limited evidence.
The Paleo and ketogenic (Atkins) diets are examples of popular diets that are at odds with traditional nutrition recommendations, going against the poor “low-fat” advice we have long been provided. Given the popularity of these low-carbohydrate diets, it is worth exploring the benefits and drawbacks of each to help you decide which is right for you.
The Paleolithic diet emphasizes minimally-processed foods that may have been consumed by our ancient ancestors, emphasizing meat, eggs, fruit, and vegetables. While the diet restricts the consumption of grains and added sugars, the emphasis on vegetables, including root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, means that much of the energy comes from carbohydrates. That said, the Paleo diet is lower in carbohydrates and fat and higher in protein than the typical American diet. It also contains more healthy fats, like omega-3 fats, and is much lower in added sugar. These aspects of the Paleo diet contribute to certain health benefits, including weight loss and management of diabetes.
By contrast, true low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diets restrict the consumption of nearly all carbohydrates, not just grains. The Atkins diet is the most famous example, but there are many others which limit carbohydrate intake to varying degrees. The emphasis of these diets is on protein and fat. Carbohydrates are included in some vegetables, but typically not starchy vegetables or grains.
The research seems to support the health benefits of diets that are relatively low in carbohydrates, especially refined grains and sugars, and relatively high in fat, especially monounsaturated and omega-3 fats. In particular, these diets are effective for promoting weight loss and treating diabetes, likely due to the restriction of refined carbohydrates and sugar.
Something to keep in mind is that although the Paleo and low-carbohydrate diets may be consistent with fitness, weight control, and health, they are not the only way to achieve these benefits. Indeed, people who are considered to be fit and healthy have a wide range of eating patterns, from vegetarian and low-fat diets to extreme low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diets and everything in between. The one factor they have in common is that they are active. It may be that regular exercise is just as important as what you eat when it comes to promoting health.
The bottom line is that you should match your diet to your individual health and fitness goals and personal preferences. Pick a diet that includes food you like and will eat, that fits into your lifestyle, and that you will follow, even if it isn’t the latest fad. And remember the best diet advice of all, which is to eat real food, and not too much!