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What's The Best Diet: Paleo, Vegetarian, Vegan, or Raw Food?

Holiday Nutrition and Fitness Tips

The aim of this post is to simplify what is often a convoluted marketing scheme to get you to buy books, purchase expensive food, and/or follow a so-called expert nutritionist. Choose the best diet plan for yourself: Paleo, Vegetarian/Vegan, or Raw Food Diet?

Paleo Diet

Claims: You'll feel fitter, healthier, and lead a disease-free life.

Theory: The current human diet is filled with carbs and processed foods, so why not return to the Paleolithic period 10,000 years ago and eat like cave men and women? Clean out the fake food and pasta and start hunting and gathering for animal proteins and plants.

How does the Paleo Diet work?

Paleo diets follow simple rules – if cavemen didn't eat it, you shouldn't either. No refined sugars, dairy, grains or legumes (beans). Your diet consists of red meat, poultry, fish, fruit and veggies. What you eat and the amount depends on your specific needs or plan if you follow one.

Pros:

  • Meat lovers are happy
  • Low sodium (salt)

Cons:

  • No grains (wheat breads, pastas)
  • No dairy (cheese, milk)
  • All that meat and produce can be expensive

Can you lose weight?

A 2010 randomized trial involving 773 subjects and published in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed that high protein, low glycemic index diets were the most effective strategy to keep weight off.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

Yes. In a 2009 published study, "Over a 3-month study period, a Paleolithic diet improved glycemic control and several cardiovascular risk factors compared to a Diabetes diet in patients with type 2 diabetes."

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

  • Vegetarian & Vegan - With such a heavy emphasis on meat, this diet isn't vegetarian- or vegan-friendly.
  • Gluten-Free - The diet emphasizes foods that are naturally gluten-free.
  • Low-Salt - Very restrictive on salt intake.
  • Kosher - Yes, you may substitute Kosher options.
  • Halal - Up to your discretion to ensure food conforms.

Vegetarian & Vegan Diets

Claims: Can help shed unwanted fat and chronic disease.

Theory: The body can sufficiently be fueled with a meat-free menu that supports weight loss and reduces risk of disease.

How do the Vegetarian & Vegan Diets work?

There are several denominations of vegetarianism. You must first choose which kind you want to be.

  • Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian: Excludes meat, seafood, and poultry and includes eggs and dairy products.
  • Lacto-Vegetarian: Excludes eggs, meat, seafood, and poultry and includes milk products.
  • Ovo-vegetarian: Excludes meat, seafood, poultry, and dairy products and includes eggs.
  • Pesco Vegetarians: Mostly veggies. Eat fish in addition to eggs, milk, and milk products.
  • Vegan: Excludes all animal products, especially meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Does not require consumption of whole foods or restrict fat or refined sugar.

Pros:

  • Nutritionally sound
  • Heart Healthy
  • Abundant help with recipes and meal planning (online & books)

Cons:

  • You may miss the meat.
  • Can be lots of work to prepare meals.
  • May be deficient in B12 (produced by bacteria, not plants and animals) & essential fatty acids (omega 6 & 3) often found in fish & meats. It must be noted these can also be found in ground flax seeds, flax oil, walnuts, and canola oil.

Can you lose weight?

More than likely. Research shows vegetarians tend to eat fewer calories, weigh less, and have a lower BMI (body mass index) compared to meat eaters.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

Yes. There is evidence to suggest that a plant based diet is associated with a significantly lower risk of coronary artery disease and stroke.

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

  • Vegetarian and Vegan - Choose one that fits your lifestyle
  • Gluten-Free - Yes, just make sure your choices are certified gluten-free
  • Low-Salt - Generally, eating mostly fruits and veggies keeps the sodium low.
  • Kosher - Yes, you may choose only Kosher ingredients
  • Halal - Yes, but you must ensure your food conforms

Raw Food Diet

Claims: Raw food contains natural enzymes and nutrients that aid the body in reaching optimal performance.

The Theory: The Raw Food Diet came to be in the late 1800's with Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner of Switzerland (creator of muesli). Raw foods have higher nutrient values than foods that have been cooked and the heating of food above 104-120 degrees (F) starts to degrade and destroy the enzymes in raw food that aid digestion. Heated fats and proteins are to be avoided as they are deemed by many raw faddists to be carcinogenic.

How does the raw food diet work?

Simple preparation of fruits, salads, meat, fish and dairy. Rice and grains require sprouting or overnight soaking in many cases to become digestible. Many raw faddists believe it's best to soak nuts and seeds before eating to activate their enzymes and deactivate their enzyme inhibitors. Freezing food is acceptable with some raw-foodists actually viewing it as harmful, though not as harmful as cooking.

Pros:

  • Heavy doses of nutrient rich fruits and veggies
  • Nearly guaranteed weight loss
  • Favorable cholesterol levels

Cons:
May contribute to vitamin B12 deficiency

Can you lose weight?

Likely considering many raw-foodists eat fewer calories or fewer "bad" calories.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

82% of patients with diagnosed heart disease who followed his program had some level of regressionof atherosclerosis.

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

  • Vegetarian and Vegan - Most likely easiest for them to follow, since it revolves around plants-based foods.
  • Gluten-Free - Yes, gluten-free sources such as beans ,nuts, and lentils are staples in the diet.
  • Low-Salt - Certainly.
  • Kosher - Yes, you may choose only Kosher ingredients.
  • Halal - Yes, but you must ensure your food conforms.

Findings

Although the following diets all have significant "Pros & Cons," the single approach to dieting and nutrition that is "best" is not certain. What is certain is that the traditional "Western" diet which is characterized by high intakes of red meat, sugary desserts, high-fat foods, refined grains, and sugary drinks is flawed. A diet rich in vitamins and minerals derived from mostly plant based foods is proven to significantly impact your fat-loss, cardiovascular health, and performance in general.

For the military athlete: Of all the dining facilities or DFACs I've had the pleasure of frequenting, all supplied ample daily quantities of fruit and vegetable options; both raw and prepared. The key is to find a diet that you can adhere to and aligns with your lifestyle and schedule. Personally, I've tried all the aforementioned and in term of overall well-being and performance, the Paleo diet was the best fit for me and my carnivorous ways. I have, however, significantly reduced my intake of red meat and increased my intake of raw fruits and vegetables. I subscribe to a 75% to 25% fruit/vegetable to meat routine and can notice a sizable difference in my ability to shred fat, reduce fatigue, and stay conditioned.

Tee Major is a certified Group Fitness and Nutrition expert that has served the Army in Iraq and Air Force in Kyrgyzstan as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom & Operation Enduring Freedom. He is currently serving the Navy on Coronado Island outside of San Diego. He also runs a fitness site dedicated to "serving others so they may serve" at www.teemajor.com.

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