Tried and True vs. Trendy: Expert Advice on Healthy Eating and Dieting

bathingsuitThe snow has melted, spring flowers are peeking up in the garden and that means that swimsuit season will be upon us in just a few weeks. What to do to get in shape to bare it all? Hit the gym, book a waxing appointment and make a vow to begin a diet. Though some diet to feel healthier, some to lose weight and others to make permanent changes in their eating habits, everyone wants to know which diets are safe, healthy and will result in permanent weight loss.

Which diet to choose? Fifteen years ago the Atkins Diet was the rage... that was until experts warned about the risks of eating a high fat diet. Then there was the Scarsdale Diet which put our Village on the map, followed by the South Beach Diet. Later on Snackwells became the staple of a fat-free diet fad until it came out that they contained high amounts of sugar to compensate for a reduction in fat.

Today, trendy dieting tends to eliminate whole food groups. Are they healthy? Are they safe? Do they work to improve health and/or reduce weight? I spoke with Daria Ventura, MS, RD, CDN, an NYU educated registered dietician. Daria has had her own nutrition and consulting service in Westchester for 10 years and is the nutrition consultant for Mohawk Day Camp and Country Day School in White Plains. We spoke about the most common eating trends of 2014: gluten-free, Paleo, intermittent fasting, and for quick weight loss or health kick-starts, cleanses. U.S. News and World Report recently ranked popular diets under the guidance of many nutrition experts, so this is discussed as well. They ranked diets based on short-term and long-term weight loss, whether they were easy to follow, nutritional value, safety, and whether they were beneficial for people with diabetes or dieting for cardiovascular health benefits.Tarnower

Gluten-free advocates claim that humans weren't meant to consume gluten and that even if one doesn't have celiac disease or complete gluten intolerance, it is likely that many ailments are caused by gluten in the diet. Restaurants and food processing companies have jumped on this bandwagon and the gluten-free industry is now a multi-billion dollar endeavor, offering more and more gluten-free packaged goods. Many restaurants market gluten-free food and charge additional for it. According to Daria, gluten-free dieting eliminates some food groups entirely, so there is a concern for things like getting enough fiber and potassium. "Processed gluten-free foods often have more sugar and more fat to make up for the loss of gluten", she said. "You need to add things like sugar and fat back in for taste and texture." The jury still seems to be out on this one, and U.S. News has yet to rank the gluten-free diet.

The Paleo diet is based on the theory that our current eating habits are the cause of the more common diseases of our time like heart disease and type II diabetes. Paleo dieters advocate going back to the way cavemen used to eat- essentially foods obtained via hunting and gathering, claiming that not only will it promote weight loss, but it will increase athletic performance and can help one get rid of acne as well. Not that you'll see many Scarsdalians in loin cloths picking berries off bushes along the Hutch, but the premise of the diet is to eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats like lean meats. Off limits is refined sugar, dairy, whole grains, and legumes. The diet decreases one's intake of processed foods and trans fats which is healthy in and of itself, but Daria chimed in to say, "Again, you're eliminating whole food groups that are important for overall health, like fiber which fills you up, and like dairy which provides you with calcium and vitamin D." It's expensive to maintain a Paleo lifestyle, and U.S. News and World Report ranked it dead last out of 31 currently popular diets. There is very little solid scientific data to support a Paleo diet, thought it's popular among celebrities like Megan Fox and Jessica Biel. And who wouldn't live like a cave-woman for a while to have bodies like theirs? (On a side-note, the average lifespan at birth for a human born during the Paleolithic era was 33 years. Does Jessica Biel know this? She's 32.)
Intermittent Fasting (IF) is becoming more popular, according to both Daria and U.S. News. The diet allows the dieter to eat anything for five days a week, then eat a very low calorie (500-600 calories) diet two days a week. On fasting days, foods eaten should be low-glycemic foods. The theory behind IF is that humans are meant to live by way of feast or famine. Daria reported, "There is still very little confirming if this is healthy or not, as you are not meeting your caloric needs on fasting days, and this may be associated with headaches, irritability, and hunger. It doesn't seem sustainable." U.S. News ranked it #28 out of 31 diets.

juicecleanseJuice and food "cleanses" are also popular here in the village (and among celebrities). Daria pointed out, "Our body is designed to clean itself- it's why we have a liver and kidneys." However, she does advocate a "cleanse" (and preferably a whole food cleanse) if it is used to jumpstart weight loss or put your self in a healthy mindset. Again, cleanses often eliminate whole food groups, are very expensive if you purchase them, or are very time consuming if you are making the products yourself.

So, what are healthy and realistic ways to lose weight, feel and be healthier, and maintain this lifestyle? Daria tells her clients that weight loss occurs by reducing the number of calories in the diet; plain and simple. She looks at each client individually and builds a personalized plan. She suggests keeping a journal and tracking your food intake, noting your most challenging times of the day. For example, if you're an evening snacker, focus on reducing your nighttime calorie intake and forget the rest of the day. It just might work without altering your entire diet. "I also encourage measurable, realistic goals and lifelong healthy eating habits," she added. "It's okay to splurge," she said, "but plan for it, and recalculate after to get your self back on track." Daria recommends choosing healthy, unprocessed foods but not eliminating any food group entirely for optimal, long-term health and weight loss. "Also," she warned, "look out for health claims on labels that may not be true. Just because it's at Whole Foods doesn't mean it's healthy or healthier. Understand what you're putting into your body and read ingredient lists. Usually, the shorter the list the healthier the food."

U.S. News and World Report ranked National Institutes of Health proven diets as the top diets of 2014. The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) got the first spot and it consists of a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy while eliminating most foods that are high-calorie, high-fat, and high-salt. Clinical studies back DASH diet results. Dieters lowered their blood pressure and cholesterol while getting rid of excess weight. The TLC diet is similar, but with the primary goal of reducing cholesterol. The TLC diet cuts back on saturated fats in the diet and loads up on fiber. U.S. News ranked the TLC diet as the #2 overall diet and is safe for children as well.

The best diet for shedding pounds, according to U.S. News, went to Weight Watchers. Around since the 1960s, Weight Watchers was designed to encourage people to lose weight as a community and make healthy choices based on learned knowledge about food. The "points" program was initiated to allow people to make choices for themselves while never having to eliminate anything entirely. For example, one can choose a 300 calorie sweetened coffee drink, or a 300 calorie smoothie, but Weight Watchers aims to educate the dieter so that he or she might conclude that the smoothie would be the better choice because it is filling and provides greater nutritional value. This diet has been proven to be safe while promoting both short-term and long-term weight loss.

DariaSo, what is Daria making her family of four for dinner tonight? A honey roasted turkey that she'll roast at home, a garden salad, roasted asparagus, and baked sweet potatoes. And she's hoping they'll all eat it!

Daria Ventura does private nutritional consulting and can be reached at or 917-923-5610.