Today we live in a world of thousands of eating lifestyle options, and you know what, it’s downright confusing! What’s the difference between Whole30 and Paleo? What does your friend mean when he says he has a Caveman diet? And what exactly is a Ketogenic diet? If you are confused by all the terminology, you’ve come to the right place.
The Government’s Food Guidelines
Most of us grew up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid, which helps explain why 71% of American adults are overweight or obese. The government’s latest set of dietary guidelines are for years 2015-2020. In this round, you might notice that the traditional food pyramid has given way to a plate depicted with the recommended proportions of proteins, vegetables, grains, fruits, and dairy.
The government’s interactive website has specific recommendations based on the number of calories you want to consume. Here’s a look at the daily checklist provided at the 1,600 calorie level and how you can meet the guidelines.
- 1.5 cups of fruit (1 cup 100% fruit juice + 1/2 cup fresh fruit)
- 2 cups of vegetables (1 cup 100% vegetable juice + 2 cups leafy salad greens)
- 5 ounces of grains (2 slices of bread + 1 ounce of cereal + 1 cup rice or pasta)
- 5 ounces of protein (2 eggs + 2 ounces of lean meat + 1/4 cup cooked beans)
- 3 cups of dairy (1 cup of milk + 1 cup of yogurt + 2 ounces of processed cheese)
- DAILY LIMITS: sodium (2,300 milligrams), saturated fat (18 grams), sugar (40 grams)
And there are your current recommendations! It remains a high-carb dairy-laden diet. And in case you are wondering about the sugar? One 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar. Then under these guidelines, it’s perfectly fine to enjoy a can of Coke a day. This approach to nutrition has failed Americans. Just look at the data I compiled from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Here’s the truth: Today’s average woman weighs the same as the 1960s average man!
The Paleo Lifestyle
What is the Paleo lifestyle? It depends on who you ask! To avoid contradictory information, let’s look at one of the most popular experts on the subject – Robb Wolf. Robb is the author of The Paleo Solution Diet and more recently, Wired to Eat. In brief, the Paleo diet is based on foods that our human ancestors ate during the hunting and gathering Paleolithic era, which dates from approximately 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. Now few Paelo enthusiasts kill their own meat or dig their own roots, so they depend on modern agriculture (small organic farms preferred) for their food.
The basics of Robb Wolf’s plan is this: Eat fruits, vegetables, lean meats, seafood, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats. Do NOT eat dairy, grains, processed foods and sugars, legumes, starches, or drink alcohol. The thing that I like about Robb’s approach is that it builds in flexibility and recognizes that not every body responds the same way to food. Paleo requires a major shift in thinking, especially compared to the federal guidelines. So there you have it in a nutshell.
Mark Sisson, of Mark’s Daily Apple (a wonderful resource, by the way), is the author of The New Primal Blueprint. The Primal eating style is very similar to the Paleo approach: avoid grain-laden, sugary, processed and otherwise unhealthy foods. And similarly, Mark acknowledges that we need to build in flexibility for the occasional splurge or “too lazy to cook” day. Protein takes precedence in the Primal approach.
So what’s the difference between Paleo and Primal diets? Mark’s Primal approach includes more food groups. Take a look at the food pyramid he offers in his 21-day challenge. Healthy fats include dairy products, such as butter, and perhaps best of all, INDULGENCES! Yes, it’s perfectly cool to enjoy a glass of wine and dark chocolate on the Primal diet. And here’s an interesting point: Mark has been moving toward a Ketogenic diet (his new book is the Keto Reset Diet).
Keto Diet Takes on the Food Pyramid
Ketogenic (Keto) diets seem to be all the rage these days. What exactly is a Keto diet? Again, there are variations of Keto diets depending on which expert you follow. One of the most popular Keto experts and recipe creators is fellow Wisconsinite Maria Emmerich. Maria’s blog features a Keto Calculator that will estimate the proportion of fat, protein, and carbs needed to maintain or lose weight. If we use the average weight for women (166 pounds) and a body fat percentage of 30, here’s a comparison of recommended fat/protein/carb percentages to maintain weight and to quickly lose weight.
The high-fat Ketogenic diet, which was originally developed to treat epilepsy in children, is in direct opposition to the government’s food guidelines – carbs are extremely limited and about HALF of your daily caloric intake is from fats. While you can consume the cursed saturated fats (yes, even lard), a balanced intake of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fats is encouraged. Natural sugar substitutes, dairy, and nut-based flours are all okay on the Keto diet.
How does Whole30 Fit In?
- Foods with carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites
- Baked goods, junk foods, or treats with “approved” ingredients.
The creators of Whole30 – Melissa and Dallas Hartwig – forbid all the “goodies” so that you can reset your body and change your eating lifestyle for good. I won’t lie: the program is tough! But how does it fit in with Paleo, Primal, and Keto approaches? It’s really pretty basic. As long as you avoid the items on the list, you can eat whatever you like in the proportion that best suits you. In other words, you can try a Keto diet with Whole30 – you just can’t get your fat from dairy (with the exception of ghee). Or you can jump right into Paleo, provided you avoid baked goods and treats. Perhaps it’s easiest to think of Whole30 as a very strict version of Paleo.
Two Biggest Game Changers: Sugar and Dairy
I’ve tried Paleo, Primal, Keto, and Whole30 approaches. The most profound diet experience I ever had was the result of an elimination diet (The Plan), which made me hyper-aware of the impact of particular foods on how I felt. And readers know that I am a strong advocate of Whole30, again based on my personal experiences. While there are variances among the diets, the two variables that are likely to have the biggest impact on your health and your ability to lose weight are sugar and dairy.
We all know that sugar is not good for us, but what about other sweeteners? Whole30 has very strict rules about sugar: no sugar, maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, coconut sugar, date syrup, stevia, Splenda, Equal, Nutrasweet, xylitol, etc.. The only exception is fruit juice when it is included as an ingredient in a recipe. Paleo and Primal diets avoid refined sugar, but allow natural sugars such as honey and maple syrup. Keto diets tend to rely on “natural” sugar alternatives that are low on the natural glycemic index, such as Swerve, stevia, and monk fruit.
So what about dairy? Whole30 and Paleo restrict all dairy, although they make an exception for ghee. Primal and Keto diets include dairy (although there are dairy-free Keto cookbooks). But a lot of people simply cannot stomach dairy – 65% of the human population is lactose intolerant. As the daughter of a dairy farmer, it pains me to say that dairy might not be the best choice for your diet.
So What’s a Person to Do?
I promised to guide you on the differences between Paleo, Primal, Keto, and Whole30 diet approaches. While I’m hoping this overview has been helpful to you, it doesn’t answer the question, “What’s the Best Approach for ME?” You’re absolutely correct! Only you can answer that question. Believe it or not, there is no single diet that is perfect for all of us. You’ve got to experiment. If you can maintain a healthy weight and keep your energy and mood up while enjoying an occasional muffin laced with maple syrup, go for it. If mozzarella-topped broccoli is the only way you’ll eat your vegetables and it agrees with you, enjoy! If you follow a long-term plan that has way too many rules, you’ll be constantly reminded that rules are meant to be broken. You gotta live!
I promote Whole30 for two reasons. First, Whole30 tunes you in to how your body reacts when you add specific foods back into your diet. Second, the recipe selection is FANTASTIC. So if you’d like to give Whole30 a try, I have a terrific collection of delicious recipes that I turn into a weekly menu plan delivered to your inbox every Wednesday – Check out my Healthy 7 program. Whatever path you choose, make it work for your body. Develop a strong base of healthy eating habits. Limit your splurges to special occasions. And toss in an intermittent fast every now and then. Here’s to a happy and healthy you!