What's the Best Diet: Paleo, Vegetarian/Vegan or Raw Food?

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Cornelius Cheatham demonstrates how to make a veggie burger during a cooking class.
Cornelius Cheatham (blue shirt) demonstrates how to make a veggie burger during a cooking class on the USACE compound at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, May 6, 2012. (Karla Marshall/U.S. Army photo)

The aim of this post is to simplify what is often a convoluted marketing scheme to get you to buy books, purchase expensive food and/or follow a so-called expert nutritionist. Choose the best diet plan for yourself: Paleo, vegetarian/vegan or raw food?

Paleo Diet

Claims: You'll feel fitter, healthier and lead a disease-free life.

Theory: The current human diet is filled with carbs and processed foods, so why not return to the Paleolithic period 10,000 years ago and eat like cavemen and women? Clean out the fake food and pasta and start hunting and gathering for animal proteins and plants.

How does the Paleo Diet work?

Paleo diets follow a simple rule: If cavemen didn't eat it, you shouldn't, either. No refined sugars, dairy, grains or legumes (beans). Your diet consists of red meat, poultry, fish, fruit and veggies. What you eat and the amount depends on your specific needs or plan if you follow one.

Pros:

  • Meat lovers are happy

  • Low sodium (salt)

Cons:

  • No grains (wheat breads, pastas)

  • No dairy (cheese, milk)

  • All that meat and produce can be expensive.

Can you lose weight?

2010 randomized trial involving 773 subjects and published in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed that high-protein, low glycemic index diets were the most effective strategy to keep weight off.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

Yes. In a 2009 published study, "Over a 3-month study period, a Paleolithic diet improved glycemic control and several cardiovascular risk factors, compared to a diabetes diet in patients with type 2 diabetes."

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

  • Vegetarian & vegan: With such a heavy emphasis on meat, this diet isn't vegetarian- or vegan-friendly.

  • Gluten free: The diet emphasizes foods that are naturally gluten free.

  • Low salt: Very restrictive on salt intake.

  • Kosher: Yes, you may substitute kosher options.

  • Halal: Up to your discretion to ensure the food conforms.

Vegetarian & Vegan Diets

Claims: Can help shed unwanted fat and chronic disease.

Theory: The body can be fueled sufficiently with a meat-free menu that supports weight loss and reduces risk of disease.

How do the vegetarian and vegan diets work?

There are several denominations of vegetarianism. You must first choose which kind you want to be.

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Excludes meat, seafood and poultry but includes eggs and dairy products.

  • Lacto-vegetarian: Excludes eggs, meat, seafood and poultry but includes milk products.

  • Ovo-vegetarian: Excludes meat, seafood, poultry and dairy products but includes eggs.

  • Pesco vegetarians: Mostly veggies. Eat fish in addition to eggs, milk and milk products.

  • Vegan: Excludes all animal products, especially meat, seafood, poultry, eggs and dairy products. Does not require consumption of whole foods or restrict fat or refined sugar.

Pros:

  • Nutritionally sound

  • Heart healthy

  • Abundant help with recipes and meal planning (online and books)

Cons:

  • You may miss the meat.

  • Can be lots of work to prepare meals.

  • May be deficient in B12 (produced by bacteria, not plants and animals) and essential fatty acids (omega 6 & 3) often found in fish and meats. It must be noted these also can be found in ground flax seeds, flax oil, walnuts and canola oil.

Can you lose weight?

More than likely. Research shows vegetarians tend to eat fewer calories, weigh less and have a lower BMI (body mass index) compared to meat eaters.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

Yes. There is evidence to suggest that a plant-based diet is associated with a significantly lower risk of coronary artery disease and stroke.

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

  • Vegetarian and vegan: Choose one that fits your lifestyle.

  • Gluten free: Yes, just make sure your choices are certified gluten free.

  • Low salt: Generally, eating mostly fruits and veggies keeps the sodium low.

  • Kosher: Yes, you may choose only kosher ingredients.

  • Halal: Yes, but you must ensure your food conforms.

Raw Food Diet

Claims: Raw food contains natural enzymes and nutrients that aid the body in reaching optimal performance.

The Theory: The Raw Food Diet came to be in the late 1800s with Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner of Switzerland (creator of muesli). Raw foods have higher nutrient values than foods that have been cooked, and the heating of food above 104-120 degrees (F) starts to degrade and destroy the enzymes in raw food that aid digestion. Heated fats and proteins are to be avoided, as they are deemed by many raw advocates to be carcinogenic.

How does the raw food diet work?

Simple preparation of fruits, salads, meat, fish and dairy. Rice and grains require sprouting or overnight soaking in many cases to become digestible. Many raw foodists believe it's best to soak nuts and seeds before eating to activate their enzymes and deactivate their enzyme inhibitors. Freezing food is acceptable, with some raw-foodists actually viewing it as harmful, though not as harmful as cooking.

Pros:

  • Heavy doses of nutrient-rich fruits and veggies

  • Nearly guaranteed weight loss

  • Favorable cholesterol levels

Cons:

May contribute to vitamin B12 deficiency

Can you lose weight?

Likely, considering many raw-foodists eat fewer calories or fewer "bad" calories.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

Eighty-two percent of patients with diagnosed heart disease who followed his program had some level of regression of atherosclerosis.

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

  • Vegetarian and vegan: Most likely easiest for them to follow, since it revolves around plant-based foods.

  • Gluten free: Yes, gluten-free sources such as beans, nuts and lentils are staples in the diet.

  • Low salt: Certainly.

  • Kosher: Yes, you may choose only kosher ingredients.

  • Halal: - Yes, but you must ensure your food conforms.

Findings

Although the following diets all have significant pros and cons, the single approach to dieting and nutrition that is best is not certain. What is certain is that the traditional Western diet, which is characterized by high intakes of red meat, sugary desserts, high-fat foods, refined grains and sugary drinks, is flawed. In general, a diet rich in vitamins and minerals derived from mostly plant-based foods is proven to impact your fat loss, cardiovascular health and performance significantly.

For the military athlete: Of all the dining facilities I've had the pleasure of frequenting, all supplied ample daily quantities of fruit and vegetable options, both raw and prepared. The key is to find a diet that you can adhere to and aligns with your lifestyle and schedule.

I've tried all of the aforementioned, and in terms of overall well-being and performance, the Paleo diet was the best fit for me and my carnivorous ways. I, however, significantly have reduced my intake of red meat and increased my intake of raw fruits and vegetables. I subscribe to a 75% to 25% fruit/vegetable-to-meat routine and can notice a sizable difference in my ability to shred fat, reduce fatigue and stay conditioned.

Tee Major is a certified group fitness and nutrition expert who has served the Army in Iraq and Air Force in Kyrgyzstan as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom & Operation Enduring Freedom. He is currently serving the Navy on Coronado Island outside of San Diego. He also runs a fitness site dedicated to "serving others so they may serve" at www.teemajor.com.

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