Low-carb, calorie-counting, low-fat, intermittent fasting, vegan, raw food — is your head spinning yet? Deciding to go on a diet is hard enough on its own, but sometimes, choosing the right one for you is just as challenging.
Many diets are only about weight loss — eat less or eat healthier, and you’ll drop the pounds. But some diets have added benefits for different areas of your health, such as heart health, brain functioning, and even lifespan.
In general, there is a certain amount of calories — usually 2,000 — that you need each day. From those calories, there is also a recommended amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. These amounts are all based on the 2,000 per day recommendation, but everyone will have their own individual needs. Your physician or nutritionist can tell you exactly what’s best for you.
Three diets — the ketogenic (keto), paleolithic (paleo), and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet — may affect your overall health in more ways than one. Here’s what you should know about each and what they can do for you.
The Ketogenic Diet: High Fat, Low Carb
Generally, popular ketogenic resources suggest an average of 70 to 80% fat from total daily calories, 10 to 20% from protein, and 5 to 10% from carbohydrates. For a 2000-calorie diet, this translates to about 165 grams fat, 75 grams protein, and 40 grams carbohydrates.
Normally, your body uses glucose (sugar) from carbohydrates to create energy. But on the keto diet, there’s not enough glucose for your body to use, so this makes your body burn fat instead of glucose for energy.
Keto-friendly foods include:
- Low-carb vegetables, such as spinach or kale
- Meat and poultry
- Coconut oil
- Plain Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
In reaction to eating mostly fat, your liver will make more ketones — compounds in your body that break down fat cells — which helps you lose weight and become physically stronger. This is called going into ketosis.
Other Health Benefits of the Keto Diet
Diets that resemble the keto diet have been used for hundreds of years to combat many diseases and conditions. In addition to weight loss, going into ketosis may also:
- Reduce seizures from epilepsy: The way the keto diet changes your metabolism also impacts a specific bacteria in your gut that silences neurons that cause seizures. It’s been shown to be effective for ⅓ of adults with epilepsy who are resistant to traditional anti-seizure drugs.
- Slow the growth of cancer: The keto diet can actually help reduce tumor growth and even enhance the way your body responds to traditional treatments, such as chemotherapy.
- Enhance your memory: The keto diet may spark the growth of a bacteria in your gut that play a role in your cognitive abilities, meaning it can fight cognitive decline from diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
- Increase your lifespan: Eating a high-fat, low-carb diet can slow the aging process, making you live longer than if you were on a normal diet.
What Are the Risks of the Keto Diet?
While there are many benefits to the keto diet, there are some drawbacks because of restrictions on certain food groups. For example, you may experience:
- Difficulty following the diet for long periods of time
- Risk of heart and vascular disease because of foods high in saturated fat
- Bad breath
- Stomach problems, such as nausea, vomiting, and constipation
- Trouble sleeping
Also, people with kidney disease may want to avoid the keto diet, as it could worsen their condition.
The Paleolithic Diet: Eat Like Your Ancestors
Often referred to as the caveman diet, the paleolithic (paleo) diet consists of only eating plants and animals that people ate during the Stone Age, including:
- Lean meat
- Olive oils
On the diet, you don’t eat what you can’t find in nature — dairy products, foods with added salt, and refined fats or sugars, such as in cereal or bread.
Good fats (saturated fats) are found in foods such as fish and nuts, and bad fats (unsaturated fats) are found in foods like cheese and butter. Bad fats can lead to high levels of insulin (a hormone that controls blood sugar), which can cause you to gain weight.
By eating foods with higher amounts of good fat, your insulin levels may be healthier, allowing you to lose weight.
The food you eat ends up in your blood, which can affect your insulin levels and affect your weight. Eating a paleolithic-type diet can help you lose weight because you’ll have more good fats than bad fats, leading to healthier insulin levels.
Other Health Benefits of the Paleo Diet
While some people are on the paleo diet to lose weight, there are other benefits of following this eating plan:
- Lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes: Reducing the level of bad fats in your blood makes it healthier. High levels of bad fats in your blood require your heart to work harder, which can cause heart and vascular disease. It can also heighten your insulin levels, leading to diabetes.
- Improve your heart health: People on the paleo diet may produce more of a molecule called interleukin-10 — which counteracts inflammation (swelling) and protects your blood vessels. Low levels of interleukin-10 and inflamed blood vessels increase the risk of a heart attack, so interleukin-10 may reduce that risk.
What Are the Risks of the Paleo Diet?
The paleo diet entirely cuts out some foods — many of which have important health benefits, such as:
- Dairy, which can help prevent osteoporosis
- Whole grains, which have fiber and can reduce your blood cholesterol levels, lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke
- Beans and legumes, which have key vitamins such as vitamin B, folate, potassium, and zinc
It can also be difficult to stick to the paleo diet for long periods of time, as a number of foods are restricted.
Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH)
DASH is a flexible, easy-to-follow eating plan — and it doesn’t require any special foods. Instead, it gives you daily and weekly nutritional goals. It’s all about balancing food groups and avoiding unhealthy foods.
The plan recommends eating:
- Whole grains
- Low-fat dairy products
- Vegetable oils
It also suggests you limit foods high in saturated fat, such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils — like coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils. You should also avoid too much sugar in your drinks or food.
You can follow DASH to improve your health or to lose weight. If your goal is to lose weight, simply eat fewer calories than you burn through exercise and other activities, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
Other Health Benefits of the DASH Diet
The DASH diet is very simple, but very effective. By eating enough healthy foods and avoiding unhealthy ones, your body can benefit in several ways including:
- Improve your cholesterol levels: Saturated fat has a lot of cholesterol, and too much cholesterol can build up in your arteries, putting you at risk for heart attack or stroke. The DASH diet recommends avoiding foods with saturated fat, such as high-fat dairy products and sweets.
- Lower your blood pressure: When there’s too much cholesterol in your arteries, there’s less room for the blood to flow through, making your blood pressure rise. This can lead to heart problems, such as arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) or heart attack.
What are the Risks of the DASH Diet?
The DASH diet is all about eating healthy. You’re not completely restricting any foods — and you’re prioritizing the healthy ones. Because the DASH diet is all about balanced nutrition, it doesn’t have any risks.
Eating Healthy on Any Diet
Not sure which diet is right for you? Think about what your end goal is and what you’re willing to do to accomplish it. Can you cut out entire food groups? Are you willing to track your calories? What other aspects of your health are you looking to improve aside from your weight? Answering these questions can help you decide on the best diet for you.
Talk to your health care provider about the best way to approach the diet you choose to make sure you’re staying healthy and getting the nutrients you need. And once you choose a diet, find ways to stick with it. Grab a friend to join you, keep a meal planning chart on your fridge, or write inspirational quotes on a sticky-note to put in the fridge. A diet will only be successful if you put in the work.