Everything you need to know about the 5 most popular diets of 2020
Should you try low-sugar, paleo, keto, intermittent fasting, or low-carbon eating? A nutritionist weighs in.
If you’ve spent three minutes online lately, you’ve probably seen posts about the newest, cleanest, hottest, healthiest, most life-changing way to eat EVER littering your feeds. Wondering whether these trends are on point—or total BS? WW’s head of nutrition and wellness Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, weighs in:
1. Low-sugar diet
What it is: Most low-sugar diets focus on reducing added sugar from your meals.
Is it healthy? Yes. Eating a low-sugar diet or simply cutting back on your sugar intake may help you reach your weight-loss and wellness goals and decrease long-term risk of chronic disease, including type II diabetes, heart disease, and some lifestyle-related cancers.
After all, many people tend to overconsume sugar—sometimes without even knowing it. That’s because sugar is added to many foods beyond desserts, like beverages (including soda, sports drinks, sweetened tea, and fancy flavoured coffees), flavoured dairy products (like coffee creamer), crackers and chips, and even some healthy-sounding products like protein powder.
You might even find added sugars in foods that appear to be super healthy, like fruits and vegetables that aren’t in their whole form. For example, fruit juices and smoothies, dried and sweetened fruit, and pureed and sweetened sauces and condiments can be loaded with sugar.
How to try it on myWW™:
- Choose whole foods in their natural state. That means oranges instead of orange juice, tomatoes over ketchup, baked potato rather than flavoured potato chips, etc. On myWW, all foods can fit into your SmartPoints® Budget. But because unprocessed ingredients are either ZeroPoint™ foods (which you don’t have to weigh, measure, or track) or lower in total SmartPoints than their processed counterparts, your Budget will go further if you choose whole foods prepared in ways that are nourishing for your taste buds and your body.
- Read labels and check for sneaky sources of added sugar. If you see words like “tapioca syrup,” “evaporated cane juice,” “brown rice syrup,” “agave nectar,” “fruit juice concentrate/fruit juice puree,” “maple syrup,” “honey,” “molasses,” or “date syrup,” you’ll know where your sugar is coming from. (Often, foods with higher amounts of these ingredients will be higher in SmartPoints value, so consider how you’ll fit them into your daily SmartPoints Budget before you load up your grocery cart.)
- If you love dessert, include it in your daily SmartPoints Budget. Because sugar is one factor used to determine a food’s SmartPoints value, all myWW colours are designed to help you adopt a lower-sugar pattern of eating over time. (In other words: There’s no reason to eliminate your dessert!) While you can choose to allocate your SmartPoints toward sweets, the program and the in-app experience naturally help nudge you toward foods with fewer added sugars. To help you stretch your Budget and reduce your overall sugar intake, consider saving SmartPoints for that brownie you want later by skipping the sweetened latte you typically drink with breakfast. Voila!
2. Plant-based diet (aka low-carbon diet or climate diet)
What it is: This approach to eating focuses mostly (or only) on foods from plant sources. It often calls for eating less meat, dairy, packaged products, and imported products; many experts believe this will reduce your carbon footprint and slow the rate of climate change to benefit the planet.
Is it healthy? “Overall, plant-based diets are rich in important antioxidants that help your body stay healthier, particularly because they’re loaded with vitamins and key minerals,” London says. They also contain immune-boosting nutrients like ascorbic acid (vitamin C), carotenoids (vitamin A), and vitamin E, as well as zinc, selenium, and copper—plus compounds such as flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants associated with boosting immune function.
How to try it:
- Think “more produce, more often.” Plant-based eating is just that—plant-based, not necessarily vegan or vegetarian, if that’s not your bag. So while you don’t have to eliminate any food groups for adherence, you can consider ways to add more vegetables (and fruit!) to your day. Try including an extra veggie side at dinnertime or adding a piece of fruit to your lunch. You’ll reap the benefits in nutrition, and it’ll help you feel fuller for longer. Bonus: On myWW, fruits and non-starchy veggies are ZeroPoint foods on every colour—so packing them into your day won’t impact your SmartPoints Budget.
- Fill your shopping cart with plant-based protein. Pulses like beans, chickpeas, and peas are typically lower in saturated fat and sodium than red meat and processed/deli meats. (They tend to be cheaper, too.) Stocking up on these staples is smart for your body, your wallet, and the planet.
What it is: Reduced-carbohydrate diets, such as the ketogenic diet, have become increasingly popular in recent years. What differentiates the keto diet is that it’s extremely low in carbs, with just 5% to 10% of your calories coming from carbohydrate food sources. Lots of people assume keto is a high-protein diet, but it’s actually much higher in fat.
Is it healthy? While the keto diet may offer some health benefits to certain demographics, the general answer: not exactly. “There’s not much research that backs the elimination of any single nutrient or food group in helping you keep off weight for the long-haul,” London says, adding that research has linked long-term adherence to the keto diet (for the treatment of pediatric seizure disorders) to long-term complications, including bone loss, organ-function abnormalities, micronutrient deficiencies, and gastrointestinal problems.
Adults interested in keto dieting for weight loss, beware: “Any time you have to nearly eliminate an entire food group from your diet, you eliminate all the various health benefits from some of nature’s most nutrient-dense foods,” London says, citing fruits and veggies, which are permitted only in limited quantities on the keto diet, plus whole grains, legumes, and dairy products. “These are a big part of a healthy pattern of eating,” she says.
What’s more, to replace the nutrients found in eliminated foods, keto dieters often need dietary supplements, which the FDA doesn’t regulate and may interfere with medications or introduce new risks. “When you rely on dietary supplements and animal foods on the keto diet, it gets expensive,” London says. And don’t forget potentially unpleasant side effects like “keto flu” and “keto breath.”
How to try it:
Since WW is backed by nutrition science, we’re not advocates for heavy-duty restrictions when it comes to weight loss. After all, carbohydrates (like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) are the preferred source of energy to fuel the body. If you’d still like to try it, our new myWW program can help you discover more nutritious carbs and promote healthier eating habits overall. To start:
- Choose unsaturated fats. Plant-based sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats from veggies, legumes, oils, nuts, seeds, avocado, and more are welcome—and encouraged—across all myWW colours.
- Notice the types of carbs you’re eating. On WW, you can use your SmartPoints Budget any way you’d like. But as you start tracking the foods you eat, take note: Are the carbohydrates you’re choosing refined (i.e., crackers, chips, or doughnuts in the break room) or whole grains and produce? “Choosing more nutrient-dense, unprocessed carbs regularly is part of a health-promoting pattern of eating,” London says.
- Build meals around ZeroPoint foods (depending on your colour). Seafood, low-carb vegetables, low-fat poultry, eggs, plain nonfat Greek yogurt, and berries are staples of the keto diet, and are included on the Blue and Purple ZeroPoint lists.
What it is: Intermittent fasting—or IF—is an approach to eating that requires you to partially or fully abstain from food and caloric beverages for a given period of time, like only eating within an eight-hour window each day.
Is it healthy? “There’s not a strong or large body of evidence in humans on intermittent fasting for long-term health or weight management,” London says. That said, if timing meals and snacks helps you plan them more strategically or get to bed earlier (more on that below), this approach to eating could benefit you. “If you know you’ve only got a certain amount of time to eat, you may be more primed to plan ahead for those times in which you are eating, so that you don’t waste time or graze mindlessly,” London says, adding that tracking during the hours when you’re not fasting can help, too.
How to try it:
- Plan ahead for meals and snacks. Prep some quick and easy items—apples and cheese, whole-grain crackers and peanut butter, or defrosted batch-cooking—so that you have food ready to go during your non-fasting window. Caloric restriction during the day can lead to overeating at night, so having a meal plan in place is a smart move.
- Go to sleep earlier. Getting to bed at a reasonable hour—a crucial component to weight loss, since getting seven hours of sleep per night as been linked to weight management, reduced risk of chronic disease, and improved metabolic benefits—can help you limit the amount of time you spend eating. So after your last meal, brush your teeth, shut down your computer, turn off your TV, put your phone on “do not disturb,” and say goodnight to late-night snacking!
5. Paleo diet
What it is: Paleo is a dietary plan where you eat foods that are similar to what might have been eaten during the Paleolithic era, which dates from approximately 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago.
A paleo diet typically consists of ingredients that would have been obtained by hunting, fishing, and gathering—that means lean meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. A paleo diet limits foods that became common when farming emerged, so no
dairy products, legumes, grains, refined sugar, salt, or highly processed foods are permitted.
Is it healthy? While the paleo diet could offer some health benefits for certain people, any time you eliminate an entire food group, you risk nutrient deficiencies and feeling deprived, which could lead to overeating and a reversal of any weight loss. Plus, “there’s no scientific rationale behind some of the arbitrary restrictions placed on various foods and among different types of paleo diets,” London says. Instead, opt for making conscious choices about the types of carbs you eat. London recommends plenty of fresh produce, 100% whole grains, legumes and pulses, and nonfat (plain) dairy products, which help form the basis of a healthy eating pattern.
Following an approach to weight loss that restricts entire food groups is unlikely to be sustainable–and doesn’t help people develop and maintain long-term healthy habits.
How to try it:
- Lean on your ZeroPoint foods. On WW, each colour—Green, Blue, and Purple—offers a different way to achieve a healthy pattern of eating, including a wide range of ZeroPoint foods. Many of these foods are compatible with paleo, including fruits and vegetables, and (depending on your colour) lean meats and fish.
- Use your SmartPoints Budget for foods that aren’t 0 SmartPoints but fall into the paleo eating approach. Nuts, seeds, and healthy oils and fats, which are permitted on the paleo diet, can easily fit into your SmartPoints Budget. WW’s simple-to-follow SmartPoints system naturally encourages you to eat a balance of foods to ensure that your body gets the nutrition it needs—so dig in!