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Paleo and Atkins and Keto, oh my! Looking for a basic explanation of the internet's most popular diets? Look no further. This basic breakdown explains the science and nutrition behind each trending diet. 

 Image of someone standing on a scale reading, 'HELP!'

One of the most frequently asked questions for a dietitian is "how can I lose weight," followed by "what about the ________ diet? Does that work?"

Quite often fad or trendy diets are just that, a trend. They may cause slight weight loss at the beginning but they usually cut out a whole food group, or multiple food groups. This leaves your body lacking the essential nutrients and fuel it needs, so the diet cannot be sustained for long periods of time. Let's take a look at some of the trendy diets that have surfaced.

Atkins (and Low-Carb) Diets

Directs participants to avoid carbohydrates such as breads, pasta, milk and sometimes even fruits and veggies. The bottom line is your body needs carbohydrates for your brain and other organs to work correctly. Instead of cutting out your body's main fuel source, try simple swaps to incorporate healthy carbohydrates. Whole grain breads, whole grain cereals, whole fruits and sweet potatoes are great options.

Master Cleanse

10-day directive to drink a concoction of lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper several times a day, along with nightly herbal tea and a quart of salt water in the morning. The concept is to cleanse the GI tract, but it only provides 700-1300 calories and lacks major nutrients like protein, calcium and iron. Following this diet can lead to loss of lean body mass. You will likely regain your "old" weight or pack on additional pounds after returning to your normal eating habits.

Cabbage Soup Diet

Based on an all-you-can-eat idea for specific items such as cabbage soup. Similar diets may encourage excessive consumption of bananas, celery or grapefruit, but any diet that relies on 1-2 food groups cannot last long.

Raw Food Diet

This increasingly popular diet requires the majority of your calories to come from uncooked/unprocessed foods. The belief is that eating anything cooked over 115 F will destroy enzymes that provide health benefits. This diet does have some positive aspects in encouraging high quantities of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains. However, following this diet precisely is not practical for most; it requires a lot complicated preparation and can be very pricey. Also, some of the processes that fruits and veggies go through actually boost the bioavailability of several key nutrients, primarily the phytonutrients.

As a general rule, if you are questioning whether a diet is too good to be true, it probably is. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it promise a quick fix?
  • Are there recommendations made to help sell a product?
  • Does it eliminate complete food groups or never to eat certain foods?
  • Does it suggest fast weight loss (more than three pounds a week)?
  • Does it encourage permanent change?

My approach to losing and maintaining weight is simple: everything in moderation and portion control. Finding the right balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat to keep your body properly fueled is key. Individualization is important because we all have different goals, different schedules, different tastes and different bodies. Generally speaking, increasing fruits and veggies, using lean meats and low-fat dairy, and making at least half of your grains whole grains are practices that I encourage everyone to follow. Exercise should also be incorporated into your daily life. Weight loss the healthy way is usually slow and steady, and individuals who lose weight this way are often more successful at maintaining weight loss.

For more diet and exercise tips, check out It's a free government site with easy-to-use diet and exercise trackers.

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