By Benjamin Goodin
A new year dawns and, theoretically, a chance to become a new you as well. Many of us begin the year with great expectations, and perhaps less than total dedication to seeing them through to completion. If the statistics are to be believed, then only a few among us with their eyes on personal edification will have the grit to see their way across the finish line. It’s no small wonder either; change is hard.
One of the most difficult changes to make, and one of the most common resolutions to undertake, is to change your eating habits. So many start the new year aspiring to change their diet for better health, weight loss, or ethical concerns, but few are able to make enduring change when it comes to their diets. Many fail to make lasting change due to ingrained habits, other because of overwhelming temptation, but most flounder simply from having good intentions but little understanding of the dietary experiment they are embarking upon.
There’s no single diet that works for everyone, and it’s even harder to decide what might work for you personally when there is so much introductory information for each one and a multitude of voices espousing these popular choices. With so many diets being talked about, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when trying to find the right one for your health history and lifestyle — paleo, vegan, the Zone, vegetarian, ketogenic, Atkins, plant based, raw food, juicing — the options are dizzying, and even the snappiest testimonial is no guarantee that it will be a choice that works for you. Your physician, who has access to your health records and some personal knowledge of your case, is the best starting point when choosing to follow a new dietary plan.
Below are detailed some of the more acclaimed diet programs that are supported by health organizations and physicians, and a quick description of the purpose, practices, and restrictions of each. If you’re looking to make a dietary dedication for the coming year, success depends on adopting a diet that creates lasting change in lifestyle; quick fads may let you drop a few pounds, but the weight often comes right back when you return to previous habits. Hopefully, this will arm you with enough knowledge to further investigate an option that sounds right for you.
The DASH Diet
DASH stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.” Hypertension is a serious condition that leads to heart disease and other serious complications that stem from high blood pressure. This diet was designed by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health) to combat the rising number of Americans with hypertension and hypertension-linked ailments. The diet has not only proven to reduce systolic blood pressure, but its guidelines also help prevent stroke, diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis.
One of the primary objectives of the diet is to reduce overall sodium intake. Because of this, DASH recommends staying away from highly processed foods, fast foods, and some forms of already-prepared meals, all of which employ higher sodium levels. To promote cardiovascular and circulatory health, DASH emphasizes whole grains for complex carbs and long-lasting energy, the vegetables and fruits as the bulk of daily calories and fiber, followed by low-fat dairy and fish and poultry as low-fat protein sources. Nuts and seeds are an occasional, healthy treat, and fats and oils (even healthy oils) are restricted to minute daily portions. Sweets and other calorie and simple-sugar heavy foods are not forbidden, but should be highly restricted. Preference is given to raw, organic, and other whole foods, and preparing one’s own meals is prioritized to control added salt. Low and no-salt varieties of all foods, but especially prepared and prepackaged foods, are heavily stressed — herbs and spices are the preferred method of adding flavor and complexity.
The Nordic Diet
The Nordic Diet is not designed for rapid weight loss; it was created to emulate the healthy and sustainable traditional eating habits of Nordic countries (including Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland). That being said, weight loss is quite possible on the Nordic diet, as it stresses balanced eating habits rich in healthy fats, whole grains, seasonal fruits, and fewer processed foods and sugars. The diet is also known to be helpful in combatting type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, and inflammation. With it’s focus on seasonal eating, the Nordic diet lends itself well to those who try to eat organic and sustainably, while focusing on at-home meal preparation, therefore reducing processed foods and foods of convenience.
The centerpiece of the Nordic Diet is fish — fatty fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and nutrients and they serve as the bulk of animal proteins in this diet. Fresh, wild caught fish are not only plentiful and economical, but they are rarely as heavily processed as red meats, making them a high-quality protein choice. Seasonal produce is another pillar of this diet. Berries provide sweet, simple sugars and loads of natural fiber and antioxidants. Additional fiber and fullness is added through plentiful roots and tubers, and legumes provide additional proteins and nutrients. Nuts and seeds provide additional good fats as well as fiber, and heart-healthy canola oil is the standard cooking oil employed. Dark, complex, and earthy whole-grain breads provide complex carbohydrates and fiber for satiety. The Nordic Diet is a great way to improve the health and nutrition of your diet without making drastic changes to your existing habits.
The Mediterranean Diet
A second, cultural folkways-centered diet is the Mediterranean Diet, which is based on the traditional diets and dining patterns of Italy, Greece, and Spain. This diet, like the Nordic Diet, is not a quick, weight-loss plan. Rather, it is gaining popularity with the health conscious and physician community as a pattern of eating that promotes heart health, longevity through the reduction of non-communicable diseases, and that combats obesity and type 2 diabetes, according to the World Health Organization.
The Mediterranean Diet focuses on seasonal produce and plant-based food-centric meals. Proteins are primarily ingested from healthy helpings of legumes, nuts, and seeds. Whole grains and vegetables provide the bulk of dietary fiber and nutrients, and fresh fruits add additional simple sugars and nutrients in healthy portions. The diet is light on portion guidelines, but suggests meals that roughly consist of 25 percent helpings each of grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruit/nuts/seeds. You’ll notice that meats and animal proteins are not accounted for in that measurement; meats are integrated sparingly and should comprise a small percentage of a meal’s total volume. Fish and poultry are the preferred animal proteins, as they tend to be lighter, less fatty, and generally healthier than red meats. A major source of healthy fats, olive oil, is the primary cooking oil of the Mediterranean Diet. Because preparation methods stress pickled and fermented foods, light amounts of sweeteners, and a reliance on seasoning and herbs, many dishes have a light and fresh quality while providing the concentrated nutrients and probiotics that are bioavailable in fermented and raw foods.
Just as important as the food consumed in the diet’s guidelines, physical and social activity are vital components of the Mediterranean diet. Tables are a place to gather, and this diet encourages social dining and sharing of food as an activity that promotes family togetherness, camaraderie, and mindful eating as a part of a healthy diet. Social eating tends to slow consumption, make us more aware of our eating habits through the eyes of others, and increase social accountability for consumption — all vital supports to healthy eating. Social eating often leads to social activity and physical activity, which are also strong supporters of general health.
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