My Uncensored Opinion About Keto, Paleo, Vegan, Intermittent Fasting, and Other Diets

I have been personal training for almost 11 years now.  For the last 8+ of my life, I’ve served clients in Portsmouth, NH, Kittery, ME, and the broader Seacoast area.  This year we started serving clients in Kingston, NH.  Fan though I am of fitness, I am the first to tell you that nutrition is responsible for 70% of the results.  Whether it’s weight loss, fat loss, muscle gain, functional strength, or overall health, workouts alone won’t get you there.

My background isn’t in nutrition, but I’ve read a lot, learned a lot, and seen a lot.  I have observed a few hundred successful and unsuccessful attempts at nutritional change by my clients over the years.  Below are my uncensored opinions on a few different diets that are out there.  They’re my opinions, not facts, but they’re based on a lot of observation and experience.  Where possible, I try to differentiate between how these diets work in theory and how they often work in practice when real people try to follow them.  While trying to keep things brief, I hope it’s informative for you : )

First, virtually any schema for eating better will likely work at first or a little.  I’m a fan of any diet that promotes a reduction in overeating, refined sugar, and processed foods while encouraging more mindful eating.  I tend to not be a fan of diets that require a near religious zealotry or diets that have been co-opted by empty marketing.  I also don’t like diets that encourage an unhealthy relationship with food and body image.

Most of the below diets would constitute an improvement from eating whatever you want, whenever you want, as much as you want, no matter how crummy it makes you feel.  Unfortunately, that’s normal in our country.  Any attempt to improve from that is admirable and will have some good effects.  Many of these diets can also work short term because they reduce your caloric intake.  Often those early benefits aren’t unique to that diet, it’s simply a matter of eating fewer calories.

Keto.  The Ketogenic diet seems to pop up as the hot “new” thing every couple of years.  The idea is to reduce carbohydrate intake to an absolute minimum (less than 50 grams per day).  I’ve seen many clients try it, get excited with initial results, and then fail to achieve sustainable results.  Initial results are often from a loss in water weight more so than actual body fat reduction.  If it causes you to reduce a previously large intake of highly processed, sugary carbs, then you’ll see some benefits.  At the end of the day, I don’t think staying in ketosis is sustainable for most people just looking to maintain a healthy weight.  If you’re obsessive and it’s what you’re into, then it will work.  There are also some interesting findings in using Keto in a medical setting to prevent seizures. If you’re a regular person that just wants to feel better and eat healthier, I don’t think keto is the best choice.

Paleo.  The Paleo diet is all about eating more like our hunter-gatherer ancestors.  The basics of paleo are pretty common sense and hard to argue with: don’t eat processed stuff and focus on eating mainly fruits, vegetables, and lean meats.  I’ve seen paleo work well for a lot of people, even with variations in strictness.  The key is to try to stick with mostly paleo, most of the time.  That will usually be good enough to get to and maintain a healthy weight, have good energy, and still have some wiggle room to enjoy some treats periodically.  Advice: stay true to the spirit of this diet.  By that I mean, don’t buy processed food that comes in a box that says “paleo” on it.  That’s not how it works.  That’s just differently marketed junk.

Vegan.  This is not going to make me friends but overall, I am not a fan of a strict vegan diet.  I love the emphasis on getting plenty of fruits and veggies.  I also love the emphasis on plant based protein.  That said, it’s virtually impossible to get enough protein from plant sources without overeating overall.  When you don’t get enough protein, sugar cravings are a lot harder to fight and there are plenty of vegan sugary foods.  In practice, many who set out to be vegan ironically end up filling the void with a lot of processed food.  I had a client that was having skin and autoimmune issues.  They went away as soon as she shifted from a vegan diet (with a lot of vegan processed foods) to a whole food diet that included animal products.  You could fairly say “that sounds more like a processed food issue, not a vegan issue”.

So what about someone who does everything “right”?  Virpi Mikkonen is an award winning blogger and author of 4 cookbooks about plant based eating.  She certainly did everything right.  Even so she developed rashes on her face and early menopause.  Once she incorporated meat and eggs into her diet her symptoms went away, she had more energy, slept better, and felt increased motivation.  She is not the first prominent vegan that “did everything right” that developed health issues directly attributable to deficiencies from their strict vegan diet.  Weirdly enough, if you asked me what the perfect diet is, I’d say vegan but with some eggs, fish, and lean meats.  I know that sounds oxymoronic but my real problem with the vegan diet is what it’s missing, not what it includes.

“But you don’t actually need that much protein” is a new argument I have heard from vegans.  The clever ones will be quick to cite a study that says you actually need way less protein than what everyone else is saying.  Here is the problem with that in the real world: I can accurately measure body composition with my InBody machine.  So “enough protein” doesn’t need to be an academic debate.  We can look at your actual body composition and make a judgement with your real data.  The vast, vast, vast, majority of the time I can vegans on this machine, they are not able to maintain healthy muscle mass.

Intermittent Fasting.  Like keto, intermittent fasting (IF) gets really popular every year and a half.  Unlike keto, I like IF for many people, though it’s not for everyone.  Here is what I like about it: It’s simple.  You have a window of time to eat, and a window of time to not eat.  That’s easy enough.  Most people start with a 16 hour fast that looks like not eating from 7pm until 11am.  You basically skip evening snacking, which is great, and then skip breakfast.  As you could imagine, this will cut down on overconsumption.  You’ll also see some benefits by giving your digestive system those fasting times.

I encourage caution with IF in a couple of circumstances.  You still need to make sure you are fueling your workouts, which can be tricky if you like to workout during your fasting window.  Adequate protein consumption is more challenging, especially if you get into more aggressively long fasting windows.  If you’re prone to anxiety or panic attacks, you might not react well to the fasting periods.  Lastly, you want to make sure you are not binging and purging.  Intermittent Fasting should not be alternating between starving yourself and gorging yourself.  If you are prone to obsessing about food or your weight, IF might not be the best plan for you.  Otherwise, go for it!  Try to focus on whole foods with lots of fruits, veggies, and lean meats during your feeding window to make sure you give your body everything it needs.

Food pyramid / MyPlate.  Oh government nutritional guidelines.  How I wish I could believe in them.  If they were truly these impartial guidelines designed to improve the health of the country, that would be great.  The impartial part is the issue.  The USDA gets a lot of its funding from food manufacturers.  A study of the most recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee showed that 95 percent of the panel had financial ties to a food industry actor.  This unfortunately causes some blind spots and biases.  It also explains in part why refined grains and simple carbohydrates seem to be recommended so much.  The old school food pyramid is actually not too far off.  If I were to redo it, I’d make fruits and veggies the bottom, then meat/fish/eggs, and have those refined carbohydrates closer to the top of the pyramid.  (As I matter of fact, I did redo it and HERE it is).

Calories In / Calories Out.  This is the most flexible.  Eat whatever you want within the calorie range you’ve established.  Remember though being the most scientific and logical isn’t the same thing as being the most practical.  To make this work, you need to be good at accurately food logging.  To accurately log your food, you need to be willing to measure your food with a food scale.  I also think this method is a little reductionist.  It’s predicated on the logic that one calorie is one calorie.  Max Lugavere recently said “that’s sort of like saying one mile is one mile” but I think we intuitively know that a mile being uphill or downhill dramatically changes how we experience the mile.  The same is true of the quality of the calories consumed.  100 calories of candy has the same calories as 100 calories of walnuts.  But everything besides calories is different and that will change how you feel after eating them.  To be fair, there’s no rule in CICO that says not to focus on the quality of the food.  It just often happens.  Again, if you’re capable of accurate food logging and of staying within your calorie limit, despite sometimes having foods that are easy to over consume, you’ll still do finel.  I’m not against it.  I just think most people aren’t computers that will magically log and eat exactly what they’re programmed to.

“Clean” Eating.  This is a broad category of thinking more than a specific diet.  It’s almost like the inverse of CICO.  The idea is that if you eliminate ultra processed foods, pesticides, artificial ingredients, etc you will naturally be less prone to overeating and poor health.  There is a lot to like here but I think you should still have some cognizance of serving sizes.  All natural peanut butter is still very easily over consumed.  Terms like “organic” and “non gmo” have also morphed into meaningless marking tools often times.  I’ve seen Non GMO salt, which is an oxymoron.  (As a reminder, salt doesn’t have DNA.  There are no genetics to modify).  I do like the dirty dozen and clean 15 lists put out by the environmental working group.  They test food each year for pesticide residues. This helps you decide when it’s worth it to buy organic vs when it’s a marketing gimmick.  I think the focus on food quality is a good one.  In practice, it’s very easy to get sucked into the marketing.

Noom.  In the last year I have seen a handful of clients get solid results in a sustainable way using the noom app.  I like what I’ve heard about it from them.  They encourage strength training, which I love.  They have you log your food enough to get a real sense of what you’re eating, address food quality, and they address behaviors around food.  That incorporation of the psychological component is awesome.  So much of our nutrition woes are actually behavior and psychological.

Pyramid scheme juices cleanses / supplement MLMs.  These drive me nuts.  They prey on primarily female insecurities about weight.  They employ manipulation tactics normally only seen in cults.  They tell you not to eat real food, drink their crummy shakes, and then starve yourself.  It’s outrageous.  When someone you barely know and haven’t spoken to in years sends you a “Hey Girl!” message, run!  Don’t walk.  Run away.  I sometimes catch heat for going so hard against the pyramid schemes.  I have sat down with too many crying women who’s self esteem was shattered by the manipulation of a “friend” or neighbor involved in one of these schemes.  It’s mean and ugly so I will call it what it is.

Okay so after ALL of my smack talk, how do I think you should eat?

  1. Do what works for you; and stop doing anything clearly isn’t working for you.  One of the above mentioned diets might work well for you, particularly the my new food pyramid I linked above.

  2. Make whole foods like fruits, veggies, and lean meats your staples.

  3. Eliminate processed foods, added sugar, high fructose corn syrup, seed oils, highly refined carbs, and alcohol from your every day.  A sweet/savory treat or a drink is fine on occasion but should not be part of every day.

  4. Drink plenty of water

  5. Take a multivitamin/greens powder, a fish oil pill, vitamin D in the winter, and a probiotic.

  6. Pay attention to how your food makes you feel.  It is much easier to listen to your body’s natural feelings of hunger when you follow steps 1 through 5.

If you made it all the way to the end of this novel of a blog article, you should be a client at my gym.  How about half off your first month?  Fill out the form at the top or bottom of this page and I will take care of the rest : )


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