Health & Safety

April 4, 2014

Diet face-off: How 7 nutrition trends stack up

The fight against fat has morphed into a battle of diets with disciples ardently promoting or defending their choices.

The experts may never agree on the “perfect” diet for weight maintenance, proper nutrition and optimal health, although some menus are better than others.

But the diet-savvy do agree on this: Find something that works for you — your tastes, schedule and body — and you’ll raise your chances of success, upping the likelihood of a lifetime of health.

Marine Lance Cpl. Ashton DeFusco went vegan eight months ago out of “moral, health and environmental reasons,” but adapts to lacto-ovo vegetarianism when she’s in the field and on deployment, since veganism is too strict to maintain in those settings. Is it a problem? No, she says: She lost weight, gained muscle and feels great.

“If you are educated and knowledgeable about your nutrition intake you will have no problems. Even in Afghanistan!” she tells OFFduty.

Seven of troops’ favorite diet trends compared, including the best-selling books that made them mainstream and what independent scientists have to say:


The books: “The Paleo Diet,” “The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet,” “The Paleo Diet for Athletes”

The claims: Can lead to weight loss by burning stored fat; improves health by reducing blood cholesterol and fatty acid levels; stabilizes blood sugar, allergies and inflammation response.

What to eat: Fruits; vegetables; lean meats — preferably grass-fed, antibiotic and hormone-free — seafood; nuts; seeds; and fats/oils from nuts, seeds and fruit. Avoid dairy, grains, processed foods and sugars, legumes, starches and (sadly) alcohol.

Pros: Easy to understand: If it couldn’t be hunted or gathered in the Paleolithic era, it shouldn’t be eaten. If done correctly, the diet can be rich in fiber from fruits and veggies and packed with nutrients such as colorful phytochemicals, Omega-3s and vitamins.

Cons: Could be pricey for organic meats, fruits and vegetables, and Paleo adherents need to watch their protein intake. Other cons? Breadless sandwiches and no social drinking. Even faking it with a Diet Coke is out, since the only real Paleo beverage is water.

What scientists say:

Good: Several independent studies since 2008 have showed that the Paleo diet improves glucose tolerance when compared to a Mediterranean diet and lowers fatty acid composition in the blood when compared to a low-fat diet.

Bad: A study published March 4 by University of Southern California researchers found that people who ate a diet high in animal proteins in middle age were four times more likely to die of cancer than those who consumed a low-protein diet. “High protein” was defined as 20 percent or more of daily caloric intake; most Paleo diets do not provide a framework for how much animal protein should make up a daily diet.

Chow-hall tips: Tough but doable. For breakfast, choose fresh fruit and eggs, lean ham, bacon or sausage. Squirrel away hard-boiled eggs for later. At lunch and dinner, get the the sauteed, grilled or baked protein entrée (unless breaded), and find simply prepared vegetables and the salad bar.

MRE friendly? Not at all. When’s the last time you saw “grass-fed pork rib” printed on the side of a beige bag of goodness? Even if you opt for the protein-only packets (brisket, lemon-pepper tuna), remember, they are packed full of preservatives. Readers suggest making your own Paleo packs containing jerky, nuts and dried fruit.


The books: “Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health”

The claims: For those who have celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder that destroys the lining of the small intestine — it’s necessary. Proponents say it also can eliminate digestion problems, skin diseases, inflammation and diabetes.

What to eat: Anything that does not contain wheat, grain or barley. This means no cakes, cookies, breads, flour — or beer.

Pros: If you don’t replace the gluten products in your diet with gluten-free varieties, you will end up eating fewer complex carbohydrates and might lose weight. Many adherents say they feel better and have more energy.

Cons: No pasta, beer or bread unless you learn to love gluten-free noodles, rice beer and other gluten-free products.

What scientists say:

Good: For those who have celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is a requirement to prevent malnutrition.

Bad: Many other claims about gluten-free diets — that it can treat autism or cure chronic fatigue syndrome, for example — are not substantiated by independent research.

Chow-hall tips: According to readers, it’s tough to go completely gluten-free in military dining facilities because of hidden flour in meal prep, breading and the abundance of carbs.

MRE friendly? No. There are no gluten-free MREs.


The books: “The Official South Beach Diet,” “Sugar Busters,” “Enter the Zone,” “The Glycemic-Load Diet: A Powerful New Program for Losing Weight and Reversing Insulin Resistance”

The claims: Stick to one of these diets and you will lose weight: eight to 10 pounds in the first two weeks for South Beach; one to two pounds a week for others. Also, since you’re eating lean meats and plenty of fresh vegetables, you will improve your cardiovascular health.

What to eat: Loads of vegetables and lean meats, beans, nuts, low-fat cheeses, fats and oils such as olive and canola.

Pros: With a set list of foods that are acceptable, these diets are easy to understand.

Cons: Starting a low-carb diet can be tough because carb withdrawal sometimes feels like the flu. Glycemic-index versions of more moderate diets are complex and a challenge to follow, with strict caloric intake and eating schedules — not easy for anyone with an inflexible schedule.

What scientists say:

Good: Some independent studies show that a low-glycemic diet does result in weight loss, boost metabolism and stabilize blood sugar.

Bad: Cutting out too many carbs can produce high levels of cortisol — the stress hormone — and C-reactive protein, a protein found in the blood that rises in response to


Chow-hall tips: Pick lean meats such as chicken and turkey (leave off the skin), fish and shellfish, lean boiled ham, low-fat cheeses, eggs, low-fat milk, beans, nuts and nearly all vegetables.

MRE friendly? Some. Go for the beans and meat options, including tuna or chili and beans, Mediterranean chicken. Steer clear of anything containing pasta.


The books: No single book, which makes sense, given the varied diets of the Mediterranean region. Most popular on Amazon is “The Mediterranean Prescription: Meal Plans and Recipes to Help You Stay Slim and Healthy for the Rest of Your Life”

The claims: May promote weight loss if the dieter tracks calories; reduces the risk of heart disease as well as cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

What to eat: Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains, with fish, seafood and poultry several times a week. Olive oil is favored over butter. Avoid red meat; anything made with processed or refined sugar and sweets.

Pros: Easy to follow and high in fiber. Cheese and yogurt are allowed in conservative amounts, and red wine is recommended in moderation.

Cons: Constant cooking is time consuming, and you may not lose weight unless you incorporate calorie counting into your daily routine.

What scientists say:

Good: Countless studies have connected this eating plan to lower risks of heart attack and stroke, and some have suggested the diet can slow or prevent memory loss. It may also reduce the risk of diabetes.

Bad: Research has not uncovered any harmful effects or drawbacks to this diet.

Chow-hall tips: Dining facilities are trying to be more heart healthy, but it still may be a challenge to find vegetables that aren’t soaked in butter or protein that is not breaded or served in gravy. Opt for fruit and vegetables, fish, seafood, salads and small portions — no more than a cup — of pasta. Carry olive oil along if the facility only offers butter, vegetable oil and ranch dressing.

MRE friendly? Sort of. One MRE even has the diet’s title in its name: “Mediterranean Chicken.” Still, MRES are not the fresh-from-the-coast nutrition called for in the Mediterranean diet. Look for MREs such as vegetable lasagna, spicy penne pasta, chicken pesto pasta and ratatouille.


The books: Free guide available online from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

The claims: “DASH” stands for “dietary approaches to stop hypertension.” Advocates say it lowers blood pressure and may help with weight loss.

What to eat: Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy. Cut out red meat, sweets and salt.

Pros: Includes healthy carbs and starches, unlike some other diets; encourages healthy fats over unlhealthy and trans fats.

Cons: It’s what doctors have been telling us to eat for years — and is hard to stick with in this fast-food, sugar-laden society.

What scientists say:

Good: DASH does lower high blood pressure, linked to heart disease and stroke. It also increases good (HDL) cholesterol and lowers bad cholesterol and triglycerides.

Bad: Research has not uncovered any harmful effects or drawbacks to this diet.

Chow-hall tips: Changes in the past few years at many military dining facilities support this diet, with lean meat, vegetables and salad bars, low-fat rice dishes and vegetarian options.

MRE friendly? Not perfect, but like the low-glycemic index/lower-carb option, go for the beans and meats, including tuna or chili and beans, Mediterranean chicken.


The books: “Eat to Live: The Amazing Nutrient-Rich Program for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss,” “The New Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone,” “The Flexitarian Diet”

The claims: By going meat-free, you can be kind to animals while eating healthy and staving off chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

What to eat: Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat a mostly plant-based diet supplemented by eggs and dairy products. The emphasis is on fruits, vegetables and healthy grains over processed ingredients.

Pros: The happiness of knowing no animals died for your dinner.

Cons: Giving up that medium-rare New York strip, crunchy Chick-Fil-A sandwich and Thanksgiving turkey.

What scientists say:

Good: A 2012 study of Seventh-Day Adventists in California found that vegetarians had fewer gastrointestinal cancers, especially among lacto-ovo vegetarians, and that vegetarians who also ate fish had some protection against respiratory and urinary cancers.

Bad: Vegetarians should plan carefully to ensure they are getting the appropriate amounts of nutrition, especially iodine, protein, iron and Vitamins B-12 and D. Getting these necessary nutrients is a little easier for vegetarians who consume eggs, milk and cheese, so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Chow-hall tips: Yes. Choose vegetarian entrees, salad bar, milk and cheese from the sandwich bar or salad bar.

MRE friendly? The military does offer vegetarian rations, including vegetarian lasagna, veggie burgers, penne pasta in spicy sauce and cheese tortellini.


The books: “Veganist: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World,” “The China Study,” “Forks Over Knives” documentary and book, “The Kind Diet”

The claims: Eating no animal-based protein helps guard against some cancers, diabetes, inflammatory diseases, high blood pressure and heart attacks.

What to eat: Fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains.

Pros: Not only were no animals sacrificed for your sustenance, none were subjected to the industrial indignities of milk- or egg-gathering, either.

Cons: No animal-based proteins, at all. Say goodbye to brie, butter and boiled eggs.

What scientists say:

Good: Vegans eat more fruits and vegetables than omnivores, and higher consumption of fruit and vegetables is associated with lower blood cholesterol, lower incidence of stroke and a lower risk of mortality from heart disease.

Bad: The vegan diet may be deficient in a number of nutrients needed for brain, bone and cardiovascular health, such as Omega-3s, vitamins D and B-12, calcium and iron. Supplements are recommended if enough of these nutrients aren’t consumed through food.

Chow-hall tips: Fruits, vegetables and wheat bread. Ask about ingredients; while there usually are signs indicating how something was cooked, you don’t want to accidentally eat rice made with chicken stock.

MRE friendly? Not at all. Vegetarian MREs are lacto-ovo.

(This article originally appeared in the March 24 edition of Air Force Times)

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