You know that your food choices inherently affect how you feel, but with influencers from famous doctors and celebrities to your favorite yoga teacher touting healthy-eating fads, it can be difficult to separate the sound advice from the sensationalized.
Meanwhile, researchers are constantly pumping out contradictory food-health studies, because nutrition science is complicated. And each time you overhaul your diet, it can be a shock to your system—whether good or bad. While no one starts a new diet expecting to feel worse, the truth is that without proper education, customized meal planning, and advice from a qualified dietitian, nutritionist, or healthcare provider, restricting or drastically altering what you eat can put your body at risk for weakness, fatigue, anemia, impaired neurological function, and a whole host of other ailments.
The bottom line? It’s crucial to know and avoid the common pitfalls of popular diets to ensure you’re fueling your body with everything it needs—which will better serve you in the long term. You’ll also want to be mindful about how well your diet fits into your overall lifestyle. “The primary reason most diets don’t stick is because they simply aren’t sustainable,” says Seattle-based nutritionist Carole Freeman, who specializes in low-carb diets and helps her clients implement long-term dietary change. “With any diet, ask yourself: Are you eating nutrient-dense, whole foods that you find delicious? Do you look forward to your meals? And does the diet provide you with hours of sustained energy and feelings of well being?” If you don’t answer yes to all questions, something needs to shift.
Here, we look at four diets that are trending among yogis right now—paleo, vegan, macrobiotic, and ketogenic—and provide expert advice for how to approach meals and supplements in order to feel your best.
The Vegan Diet
Lots of yogis embrace veganism—a strictly plant-based diet and lifestyle that excludes the use and consumption of animal products and by-products—not just as a way of eating, but as a complete way of being. For many, the vegan philosophy is considered a practice of ahimsa (non-harming), one of Patanjali’s five yamas—moral and ethical guidelines for following a yogic path, as laid out in the Yoga Sutra. For health, environmental, or ethical reasons, strict vegans don’t buy or use any animal-derived products or substances. This includes dairy, eggs, silk, wool, leather, honey, gelatin, and certain soaps and cosmetics.
A vegan diet has the potential to be exceptionally healthy because when done right, it’s packed with anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense, low-calorie plant foods, according to Castle Rock, Colorado–based nutritionist Jen Birge, MS, RDN, who specializes in food sensitivities. Fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds, beans, peas, and whole grains are high in fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals—“all micronutrients that help your body run smoothly and reduce inflammation,” says Birge.
By cutting out meat products, including those that are heavily processed and high in saturated fats, research shows that vegans reduce their risk for chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. To this end, vegan diets are associated with lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, healthier blood-sugar levels, and reduced risk of cancer. In fact, a 2013 study published in the medical journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention found that vegan diets confer lower risk for overall and female-specific cancers than other diets. And an added bonus: New research, published in June in the journal Maturitas, found that vegan women experience milder menopausal symptoms than meat-eaters.
Vegans should absolutely take a vitamin B12 supplement (which will aid in red blood cell formation and neurological function) because they won’t be eating meat, dairy, or eggs. They should also consider upping omega-3s, since off-limits fish and fish oil are main sources of these essential fatty acids. A 2017 study in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics suggests vegans supplement with algal DHA—an omega-3 derived from algae that’s essential for brain and eye function. Walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds are also excellent omega-rich options, says Birge.
Low iron can also be a concern for some herbivores, because one of the two types (heme) is found only in meat. That said, high iron stores is a known risk factor for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes in older adults, so no one should supplement high doses of iron without advice from a health-care provider. Instead, the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition recommends that vegetarians monitor their iron levels and adjust diets and supplements accordingly.
TRY Sundown Naturals B12 tablets, which are time-released for better absorption, and Garden of Life Minami Algae Omega-3 Vegan DHA to ensure you’re getting adequate omega-3s.
See also Vegan Diet
The Ketogenic Diet
Organic, healthy fats, proteins, and full-fat dairy—plus high-nutrient, low-carb leafy green veggies—are the bread and butter of the ketogenic diet. In fact, there’s a formula to this style of eating: 70 percent healthy fats (think olive oil, avocado, and ghee), 25 percent protein (fatty fish, lean meats, nuts, seeds, and eggs), and 5 percent carbohydrates (mostly from fruits and vegetables). Because of the strict carbohydrate allowance, which generally equates to about 20–30 grams per day, sugary fruits and starchy veggies (berries, root vegetables) are restricted. Cheese, butter, heavy cream, and full-fat yogurts can be enjoyed freely, but milk, which is high in lactose (a sugar that spikes blood sugar) is limited. Unlike paleo, which is more about whole-food choices, the keto diet focuses on manipulating the macronutrients fat, carbs, and protein to change the body’s metabolism.
Originally introduced to treat epilepsy in the 1920s, this way of eating has exploded in popularity in the past 15 years—thanks in part to its success treating illness and inflammation by restricting insulin production. Insulin is a hormone our bodies produce to metabolize carbs—it carries glucose (carbs and sugar) through the bloodstream to be used as fuel. When glucose isn’t readily available, our bodies naturally metabolize fat for energy instead. When we metabolize fat, our livers produce compounds called ketones, which act as a powerful and steady energy source. People in ketosis—when ketones in the blood are at least .5 mmol/L—report decreased appetites (fat keeps us fuller longer than carbs can) plus increased energy, mental clarity, and focus.
Research has found that high insulin levels are an underlying cause of chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s, dementia, fatty liver disease, gestational and type 2 diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancers—and ketosis can be a powerful antidote. “We’re actually seeing a reversal of chronic diseases in people eating keto,” says ketogenic-diet implementation expert Carole Freeman. And preliminary research on mice, published online in May for the journal Experimental Neurology, found that a ketogenic diet reduced pain sensitivity and promoted peripheral nerve growth (the nerves that help transmit signals from the brain).
During the transition to ketosis, which takes about three to five days, the body rids itself of its carbohydrate-based energy stores and starts the process of turning fats into ketone bodies. Once you start shedding carbs, you’ll be flushing water and minerals too, because we store water alongside the carbs we don’t burn off (i.e. water weight). “That’ll be the most miserable time of the transition,” says Freeman. “This electrolyte imbalance can lead to feelings of lightheadedness, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, headaches, and body aches. Plus, refined carbs act on the same part of the brain as opiates, and when we wean off these substances, brain detox can feel very similar to a drug withdrawal.”
TRY Nuun Electrolytes Effervescent Hydration Tabs as you start the diet. Once in a continuous state of ketosis, you’ll want to continue supplementing with sodium (2–6 grams), potassium (200–800 mg), and magnesium (140+ mg). A great option is Country Life Magnesium-Potassium-Aspartate tablets, which deliver 600 mg magnesium and 198 mg potassium per serving.
The Paleo Diet
Though it’s been 16 years since Loren Cordain published paleo’s eponymous tome The Paleo Diet, this style of eating continues to be a favorite among yogis and Americans in general. Paleo is about getting back to the basics, and the accepted rule of thumb goes something like this: If a caveman ate it, it’s fair game. This means foods like beans, peanuts, and dairy are off limits, but many meats and plant foods can be enjoyed without fretting over calorie consumption. Fresh, whole-food ingredients like colorful vegetables (both root and above ground); seasonal fruits; protein-packed fish, meats, and eggs; and a hearty dose of healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocados, and natural oils like olive and coconut) make this diet satiating and chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
While it’s widely accepted that eating red meat leads to heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses, recent studies suggest that significant health benefits come with a paleo lifestyle that focuses on lean meats and big-picture eating habits emphasizing fresh, whole foods. A 2014 study published in the journal Lipids in Health and Disease found that eating paleo for two weeks improved several cardiovascular risk factors, including blood pressure and cholesterol, when compared with eating a low-fat diet rich in whole grains.
Naturally occurring, healthful fats have also been shown to support hormone production and promote cellular integrity and joint lubrication, says Kate Callaghan, a holistic nutritionist in New Zealand. Protein from organic, grass-fed, lean meats provide the amino acids that serve as the building blocks for a whole slew of important body functions (think growth and repair of muscles, skin, hair, nails, enzymes, and neurotransmitters that control mood).
Meanwhile, the absence of grains, legumes, dairy, and heavily processed oils (like vegetable, soy, and canola) promotes nutrient absorption, says Kelly Schmidt, RD, LDN, who’s been living with type 1 diabetes for the past 26 years and eating paleo since 2009. (A 2009 study published in the journal Cardiovascular Diabetology concluded that over a three-month period, a paleo diet, when compared with a standard diabetes diet, improved glycemic control and several cardiovascular risk factors in patients with type 2 diabetes.) Diets that are high in refined starches, sugar, and saturated and trans fats trigger inflammatory responses in the body, causing a chronic state of distress, but “a whole-food paleo diet offers a template for healing and reducing inflammation,” Schmidt says.
Variety is key when it comes to eating paleo the right way. “I’ve had a number of clients come to me who say they eat strict paleo, but their diet is lacking diversity,” Schmidt says, which means they may be lacking the vitamins, minerals, and fiber their bodies need. For example, general elimination of dairy and legumes can cause deficiencies in B vitamins, calcium, and vitamin D, which can be detrimental to the effort you put in on your mat. Low B vitamins can disrupt energy, focus, and mood, says Callaghan, while low calcium can be problematic for bone health. Boost B vitamins by incorporating organic meats, nutritional yeast flakes, or shellfish a few times per week. “Just 50 grams of liver per day contains more than 50 percent of all of your daily vitamin and mineral requirements,” says Callaghan— and get plenty of calcium by eating lots of sesame seeds, almonds, and broccoli.
While everyone can benefit from a good multivitamin, it may be even more important for paleos: One study in the journal Nutrients found that paleo dieters’ long-term avoidance of certain carbohydrates—namely fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans—leads to a decrease in key nutrients iodine, sodium, and calcium, as well as “significant reductions” in thiamin, riboflavin, beta-carotene, folic acid, iron, and vitamins A, C, and E.
TRY Vital Nutrients Multi-Nutrients multivitamin with iron and iodine; it’s one of the rare single supplements we found to contain all the key nutrients listed above—minus sodium. “Take your multi with food,” says Callaghan. “And the fat-soluble vitamins paleos need—A, D, and E—should always be consumed with fattier meals for optimal absorption.”
The Macrobiotic Diet
As yogis, we’re constantly thinking about balance, and the macrobiotic diet was designed with the quest for equilibrium in mind. The movement was founded in the 1930s by Japanese-born George Ohsawa, and it’s a style of eating (and being) based on Japanese traditions. It draws on the theory of balancing yin and yang—contrary forces that are believed to be complementary. Many yogis have adopted a macrobiotic philosophy, which focuses on balancing the energy and properties of the foods we eat. Yang foods are denser, heavier, and generally warm (red meat and poultry, for example), while yin foods are light, diffusive, and cool (like citrus and tropical fruits).
The idea is to achieve harmonic nutrition by combining yin-and-yang-balanced foods, like grains, with fresh veggies and lean protein (read: tofu) into satiating meals that revitalize the mind and body. Foods that are extremely yin (alcohol, caffeine, sugar) or yang (pork, beef, eggs) are rarely consumed, and foods that are fairly yang (fish, whole-grain bread) must be balanced with those that are equally yin (beans, fibrous fruits). Cooked whole grains like brown rice, barley, oats, wheat, corn, and rye make up about 40–60 percent of this diet, with locally-grown fruits and vegetables, beans, and legumes generally making up another 30–40 percent. Seafood, nuts, and seeds are consumed in moderation—just a few times per week—while most animal products and highly processed refined foods are avoided.
Macrobiotic devotees believe this way of eating can treat or prevent cancer—but so far, research is inconclusive. Findings from a 2015 study in the journal Nutrition and Cancer indicate that a macrobiotic diet plan has potential for disease prevention, but it ultimately called for further study. What we do know is that eating a mostly plant-based diet that’s high in fiber can lower your risk for heart disease and certain types of cancer, and a macrobiotic diet can fit this bill. Similarly, a new study published in February in the journal Metabolism found that a diet characterized by whole grains, legumes, and fruits and vegetables—when compared to a diet high in refined grains and added sugars—may have beneficial effects on blood-sugar regulation, which reduces inflammation.
This diet may also help you activate your parasympathetic nervous system (also called the rest-and-digest system). The key macrobiotic principle of creating a habit of mindfulness around the foods we eat promotes relaxation, aiding in digestion and the absorption of nutrients, says nutritionist Charles Passler, creator of the Pure Change detox program. (The high-fiber aspect of the macrobiotic diet also contributes to these benefits.) Passler says that a macrobiotic diet staves off diabetes because it’s low in sugar, and it promotes heart health and healthy blood pressure because it’s rich in minerals, antioxidants, and cholesterol-lowering plant sterols.
“Unfortunately, for some of my patients, the macrobiotic diet doesn’t provide enough calories and protein—leading to muscle loss and fatigue,” says Passler. To combat this, he recommends a plant-based protein powder (with 20 grams of protein per serving) once or twice a day, blended with chilled water.
Calcium, magnesium, and iron also tend to be low in people who eat macrobiotic, so yogis who make macrobiotic food choices should consider a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement.
TRY Nuzest Clean Lean Protein, which is derived from pea protein. It has 19–21 grams of protein per serving and no added sugars. For a multivitamin, go with American Health’s More Than A Multiple, which has gender-specific formulas that are time-released and packed with vitamins and minerals that macros need.
See also Is Yoga Enough to Keep You Fit?
About Our Pro
Lindsay Tucker is a writer and YJ editor in Denver, Colorado, covering all things wellness and lifestyle. Read more at lindsaytucker.com.