Eat more plants, go gluten-free, toss animal products out the window completely: The list of dietary guidelines out there goes on and on.
Each year, a staggering number of fad diet plans crawl out of the woodwork, each one claiming fast results and noticeable weight loss.
Some, though, go beyond the branded weight loss promises. Today, more and more sources are touting eating plans devoted to being a healthier you, not just a skinnier one. But are any of these diets really better for you?
A FAREWELL TO MEAT:
Alexis Zontini, a first-year graduate student studying food and nutrition sciences, said the early 1970s were when vegetarian cookbooks came out and the vegetarian movement really got started.
“The focus was on getting the appropriate protein substitutions and complementary plant-based protein sources since the goal was to not eat meat,” she said.
When Maddie Rettig was in the third grade, she decided she could no longer support the practices of animal cruelty and became a vegetarian.
“For a while, when I first started, I was a vegetarian except for pepperoni on pizza, but then it became so normalized to me that I didn’t see (meat) as food,” said Rettig, a freshman studying anthropology and political science pre-law.
In a 2012 Gallup Poll, 4 percent of men and 7 percent of women considered themselves vegetarians.
Within the vegetarian world, though, there lay different degrees of vegetarianism. Those who do not eat meat but eat fish, for example, are referred to as pescatarians.
Rettig said she also considers gelatin to be meat since it is made from bones, so she does not allow it in her diet either.
“Red meat is really not meant for humans to digest, but we’ve adapted to it as a society,” she said. “The biggest problem is all the chemicals they add to it.”
Rettig said most of the red meat comes from corn-fed cows — which means instead of getting meat and muscle, people are consuming mainly fat.
Eliminating red meat from a diet can lead to a decrease in dietary cholesterol and saturated fat, which both have an effect on heart health, Zontini added.
Becoming a vegetarian comes with its own set of challenges, though. With a diet that has minimal animal products, the result is a lack of protein and vitamins, especially B12, which can only be found in animal products. Zontini said special attention should be paid to this nutrient.
“When I was little, I started having a lot of protein deficiencies,” Rettig said. “My mom is a nurse, and she helped me to get the vitamins I needed.”
She has to take a B12 supplement every day. Iron deficiencies are also common in vegetarians, Rettig said.
For those who become vegetarian without prior research, Rettig said it is important to be fully aware of the other food groups and to re-proportion their plate to make up for lost nutrients.
“It’s really about eating healthier as a vegetarian, because if you’re not paying attention to the other food groups, (then) you just cut out meat, and you’re only eating junk food,” Rettig said.
A FIGHT FOR THEIR RIGHTS: VEGAN
Shortly after vegetarianism made its way into the media, veganism took hold.
“There were remaining questions and concerns about a vegetarian diet, which lead to people eliminating all animal products from their diet,” Zontini said.
Kelsey Morton became vegan in July 2010 because she was bored and wanted to try something new, she said.
“I was really interested in the diet,” said Morton, a freshman studying communication studies. “I think since I wanted to do it so much, I didn’t really have a problem with (the transition).”
She lost 30 pounds within the first year and has kept off the weight ever since.
“Overall, I feel just more energized,” Morton said. “I feel energy after I eat instead of tiredness. A lot of people feel really full and tired, but I don’t. I feel good.”
Vegans take their diets a step further than vegetarians, cutting out all animal products and byproducts. That means no red meat, poultry, fish, eggs or dairy. Morton also cuts out gelatin and does not often eat honey. Many vegans take the animal rights angle even further, going so far to remove fur, leather and any clothing made from animals out of their lives.
To avoid vitamin deficiencies, Morton takes a B12 supplement daily, along with other essential vitamins. She gets her protein from soy, tofu, different types of rice and natural protein bars.
“Even though we still emphasize appropriate protein intake in vegetarian (and vegan) diets today, so much research has been done since the ’70s that we now know that we have been overestimating the amount of protein humans need on a daily basis,” Zontini said.
Morton said she has not really experienced many drawbacks from her vegan diet. She did, however, have a kidney stone surgically removed a year and a half after becoming vegan. The doctors linked the formation of the kidney stone with the start of her vegan diet, Morton said.
Being vegan does not mean you have to miss out on the delicious pleasures of a typical diet, Morton said. She uses soy, coconut and rice milk for recipes calling for dairy and uses a banana to replace an egg.
“For cakes, it’s just a box of cake mix and then a bottle of carbonated pop,” Morton said.
FROM DISEASE TO DIET:
The gluten-free fad started when information about Celiac disease and non-Celiac gluten sensitivity became more prominent over the past few years.
But the truth is, those without the disease or gluten sensitivity might be better off by not cutting out gluten.
“Celiac disease has existed for centuries,” Zontini said. “Interestingly, the hypothesis in the 1920s was that all carbohydrates caused the symptoms of the disease, when in fact, it was finally discovered in the 1960s that gluten, a wheat protein, was the culprit.”
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley products, Zontini said. This includes breads, cakes, cookies, condiments, cream soups, pizza, pasta, soy sauce and sometimes oats.
“My junior year of high school, I started getting really sick and couldn’t go to school,” said Grace Driscoll, a freshman studying journalism and former Post reporter. “So I started taking different foods out of my diet. The minute I took out all gluten, I felt a million times better.”
Driscoll has non-Celiac gluten sensitivity.
She said the transition was difficult at first because a person with a normal diet doesn’t really think about what foods contain gluten. Even the dye in Diet Coke has traces of gluten, Driscoll said.
She did not see many changes in her body after becoming gluten-free but found she was more energized.
“I just feel more energy and less lethargic,” she said. “I’ve heard people say they’re not as cloudy or foggy anymore.”
A lot of people choose to become gluten-free because they think it is a weight loss diet, Driscoll said.
“The downfall to that is they still eat bread and cookies that are gluten-free, which actually have more added sugars and fat to compensate for the flavor,” Driscoll said. “When you replace all normal food with gluten-free food, it’s actually unhealthier.”
Although many do lose weight on these diets, the key is having a balance no matter what restrictions someone has.
“The key is to be informed and educated about how to eat a balanced diet when eliminating food groups,” Zontini said. “There are plenty of overly processed food products that are labeled as vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free that may seem healthy, but they really are not.”
DINING HALLS: HASSLE OR HELPFUL?
Yet when many students on diets head to college, they face the added obstacle of navigating dining hall selections.
Ohio University’s dining halls offer different options to accommodate those on special diets. They use icons labeling the food gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian and offer a dietician to help set up meals for students.
“If a student requires special diet items that we do not have in stock, Culinary Services is able to quickly purchase sundry items from our vendors,” said Dan Pittman, assistant director for auxiliary sales. “We are also prepared to purchase special food items locally in order to meet any immediate needs.”
Each dining hall has a service where students can call an hour ahead and request a specific meal to meet their diet’s standards.
“It’s kind of a hassle to call in every day an hour before,” Rettig said. “It is nice that they do offer that though.”
Morton said she is not able to go to dinner with her friends often because she has to work around the time constraint.
A recurring complaint for those on restrictive diets is the actual variety found in the dining halls. Morton said Shively is the best because it offers a vegetarian section, but even that gets hard for vegans.
“It’s possible to eat vegan or vegetarian on campus, but that would include probably eating a salad for every meal, but I’m like most people (in that) I still want to eat a hot meal,” Rettig said.
Pittman said there are approximately 40 students currently in the special diets program, with gluten-free being the most requested special diet.
“There are some people that have problems with the diet because they don’t like vegetables or they relied on fried foods,” Driscoll said. “You have to be persistent and know that you can’t eat it.”