Like fitness gadgets and prancing workouts, different kinds of diets had their one-hit-wonder moment over the last few decades in the health and fitness industry. These diets tend to promise quick results by following a strict set of cookie-cutter rules that tends to fall short on science-based evidence. If science were to pick which diet would get the gold medal for the best results, then there would be no real winners because most diets tend to cherry-pick information on food science.
Yale University’s Dr. David Katz, who is a practicing physician and researcher at the campus’s Prevention Research Center, has become one of the leading spokesperson for debunking diets and raising public awareness of the truth about dieting. He is not interested in diets; he’s only interested in the truth, he claimed.
Katz and his colleague, Stephanie Meller, compared eight diets: Low-fat, low-carb, low-glycemic, Paleolithic, Mediterranean, mixed/balanced (DASH), vegan, and others (e.g. juicing, raw foods). Overall, low-carb and any type diets that emphasize heavily on meats and animal fats were the least promising in long-term health or weight loss. However, diets that promote longevity and disease prevention consist of “minimally processed foods close to nature — predominantly plants,” according to Katz. The Mediterranean diet falls closely to Katz’s simple idea since it is rich in dietary fiber and antioxidants with moderate consumption of meats, fish, and alcohols. Compared to low-fat diets and the average American dinner plate, the Mediterranean diet is also high in the “good” fats, such as omega-3 unsaturated fats.
Even though the Paleo Diet walks in sync with the minimally processed food mantra, Katz criticized a few things regarding its interpretations on what early humans ate. Katz and Meller noted that if Paleolithic eating habits are based mostly on meat, then there is “no meaningful interpretation of health effects is possible.” Unless Paleo devotees can clone real mammoths, Irish elks, or extinct plants that thrived in Stone Age, there is no best way they could imitate close to what early humans ate with modern food sources.
Diets by themselves do not contribute to longevity and optimal health. Studies of various cultures around the world have found a few societal pockets that have a high percentage of people who are over 80-years-old and live a relatively high quality of life. These pockets are called “blue zones,” which include Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria Island, Greece; Loma Linda in California; and Nicoya, Costa Rica. Even though these cultures are very different from each other, they all share simple ingredients to have a more meaningful and independent life: Family and community support, daily physical activity — not necessarily “exercise” — less stress and smoking, and having a positive attitude. Most of these people adopt a mostly plant-based diet with little meat and dairy –with the exception of Sardinian cuisine, which includes cheese, pork, shellfish, and wine. No diet books, gyms, or self-help books are required for these people.
Despite the progressive research of nutrition and health sciences, Katz commented about the lack of progress in disease prevention since he completed his residency in 1993. Around the same time, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a review that stated that about 300,000 cases of death in 1990 could have been prevented with proper diet and exercise. Even with all the knowledge that is available for the public, Americans are no better off in improving their health than over 20 years ago. Since there is no “best” diet for everyone, sticking with eating more real foods than processed foods is still a better choice. As the blue zones demonstrate, attaining a healthier long life isn’t just about what to eat; it’s also about how individuals interact with their environment, people, and community.
By Nick Ng