Food terms like gluten-free, raw, plant-based and macrobiotic catch on faster than their definitions making it hard to be knowledgeable on what they really are without some extensive research. And, even when you know what they mean, it can be difficult to determine whether a particular way of eating is right for you.
To take the time and guesswork out of it, here are some definitions and questions to ask yourself in order to decide whether a raw, macrobiotic, gluten-free or plant-based diet is a healthy choice for you.
Let's start with the basic definitions:
Gluten-Free: Limiting your intake of gluten means you are cutting out many starchy, refined carbohydrates, which can help your weight and health.
Eating gluten-free is a must for those with celiac disease, who face real risks from ingesting gluten. For those with gluten sensitivity, the restriction may not be as critical, but is a way to help control adverse reactions such as headaches or fatigue.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye products. Most cereals and breads contain gluten. Gluten-containing grains include wheat, barley, bulgur, couscous, matzo, spelt and rye. Some oat products have questionable amounts of gluten. Examples of gluten-free grains include brown or wild rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat and amaranth.
Eating gluten-free is not carbohydrate-free as many would think. It can be easy to increase your carbohydrates by eating many gluten-free products. If you're trying to lower your carbohydrate intake, you'll have to try a different method.
Pros: Essential for a system that does not tolerate gluten and helps reduce health concerns of those who are sensitive
Cons: Requires restricting all gluten-containing products, as well as diligent label reading and education.
Raw: Eating raw means consuming nutritionally-dense organic uncooked and unprocessed plant foods. A raw foods diet includes raw vegetables, fruits and raw plant fats such as seeds, nuts, avocado, olives and coconuts.
At least 75 percent of food consumed should not be heated over 116 degrees Fahrenheit. Raw food advocates believe that cooking destroys enzymes in food, while consuming uncooked organic fruits and vegetables helps retain nutrients.
So, is this an advantage? Plant enzymes were designed for plants, not humans. We have our own enzymes that help us digest our food, so whether or not plant enzymes are destroyed does not affect our systems.
In addition, many phytonutrients -- which help protect our health -- are more readily absorbed with cooking, AND food-borne pathogens are killed or denatured by cooking, which protects our health.
Pros: Consuming high-nutrient foods and plenty of fiber without eating processed foods.
Cons: Possible bloating, gas and stomach issues from high levels of fiber; challenges in obtaining enough protein, calcium, zinc and Vitamin B12; requires a lot of food preparation.
Macrobiotic: The macrobiotic diet is the application of the macrobiotic philosophy to food and nutrition, of which the diet is just one aspect. It is a gradual elimination diet to avoid red meat, animal fat, eggs, poultry and dairy products.
The macrobiotic diet is composed mainly of whole grains as the staple combined with vegetables, fish, legumes, soups, seaweeds and soy products. It emphasizes locally-grown produce.
There are seven levels to the macrobiotic diet with the seventh level requiring eating only brown rice for weeks or sometimes months.
Pros: Elimination of processed foods and increased amounts of nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables, whole grains and fish.
Cons: The time it takes to educate yourself about the macrobiotic philosophy and way of life, and the time it takes to apply these principles to your whole lifestyle -- including your diet. Those with a sensitivity to grains may not be able to tolerate this way of eating and it can be unbalanced, and low in nutrients, vitamins, minerals and protein.
Plant-based: This is the latest term for vegan and it means eating only vegetables, fruits, grains and plant-based protein sources such as soy, beans, nuts and seeds. A plant-based diet eliminates all animal fat, eggs, meat, poultry and dairy products.
Pros: Elimination of processed foods and increased amounts of nutrients from fruits, vegetables and good fats.
Cons: The time required to cook and prepare meals. This way of eating also requires a lot of diligence to make sure that all of your nutrient needs are met in terms of protein, calcium, B12, etc. For those with carbohydrate or soy sensitivities, this way of eating may not benefit your system.
What to Consider:
Now that you understand these terms, is it healthier for you to eat according to these philosophies? If you have celiac or gluten-sensitivity, then eating gluten-free is a necessity. For everyone else, here are some factors to consider:
1. Your time, schedule and lifestyle: Converting to any of these lifestyles -- except for gluten-free -- requires much time spent in the kitchen. Having a truly a healthy raw, macrobiotic or plant-based diet means committing a lot of time to food preparation and possibly changing your eating patterns. This could involve not eating out or at a friend's home unless they provide foods that are consistent with your eating plan.
2. What is your body type/genetics? If have an insulin resistant, diabetic or apple-shaped body type, protein is of the essence -- and eating a plant-based or raw diet may be challenging unless you are extremely diligent about getting your protein. Our individual metabolisms vary, so taking into account how your body processes food is of ultimate importance if you decide to make a change.
3. What are your goals? Are you trying to be healthy, lose weight or join a way of life with like-minded people? Being healthy can mean choosing one of these diets or just cutting out processed packaged foods. Losing weight can be managed with a variety of methods and not just one particular way of eating. Remember, just because one person has success does not mean that way of eating is for everyone.
Flex Your Diet
All of these diets require time and dedication. If you want to embrace a specific food lifestyle --and have the time and energy to commit to it, while at the same time making sure your nutritional needs are met -- being raw, vegan or macrobiotic may be an option.
In my opinion, health is not defined by being vegetarian or not vegetarian, or eating raw, macrobiotic or plant-based. Health is consuming balanced, whole, real foods that your great-grandmother would recognize: foods which are not manmade, that don't have a label. A good rule of thumb is usually less than five ingredients.
So, the next time you're at a dinner party, maybe say, "I'm a flexitarian." People will wonder what you're up to, and that is called individuality!
Follow Susan B. Dopart, M.S., R.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/smnutritionist