Despite what you hear in the media, the science of healthy eating is well-established. Instead of following the fads, rely on the fundamentals: stay away from processed foods and eat lots of vegetables.
Does any one diet regimen stand out above all others? Is there any consensus at all? Well, yes. And yes. But you wouldn’t know that if you just read the headlines.
Recently, vegetarian diets were found to be associated with “poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life.” But only a few weeks later, research found that “Eating seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day reduces your risk of death at any point in time by 42 percent.”
Whom to believe?
Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, sought to find out after the Annual Reviews asked him to compare the evidence for every mainstream diet.
In the recently published study, he and Stephanie Meller assessed the efficacy of seven different diets, from low carb and low fat to Mediterranean and vegan, and found that—surprise!—no specific diet is much better than the next. The evidence, instead, supports several common themes: Eating lots of vegetables is good for you. Probably the best. And stay away from processed foods. Do this and you’ll perform better physically, mentally, and more than likely lengthen your lifespan.
“Our paper basically revealed the truth and what we’ve been telling people forever,” declares Dr. Katz, who claims to have no “dog in the fight,” for one diet over any other. “Eating more fruits and vegetables is good for you.”
As for the reliability of the Austrian anti-vegetarian paper, “Your eyebrows go up,” says Dr. Katz. “The methodology doesn’t pass the sniff test.” For one, dietetically, very few Austrians eat fruits and vegetables. “So among the ones who say they do, who are they and why?”
In his experience, there are two groups who are vegans and vegetarians. “People who’ve eaten according to this diet their whole lives. And those who have cancer. So it’s their doctors who’ve advised them to go on this vegan or vegetarian diet.” But it wasn’t reported that way in this Austrian study. “So it’s just a very deeply flawed study.”
Besides, not all vegetarians are created equal. It’s easy to eat a vegetarian diet rich in fats and simple carbohydrates, which are terrible for you, says Dr. Aaron Baggish, associate director for the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital. “And for athletes in particular, if they’re on a vegetarian diet, they tend to eat a lot of simple carbs.”
If, however, you’re consuming minimally processed foods and plenty of fruits and vegetables—whether you’re Paleo or vegan—you’re eating pretty healthily. “Eating wholesome foods is the cornerstone,” says Dr. Katz. “Especially for athletes.” (Complex carbs take longer to break down, and so continue to provide you with more energy.)
What most distresses Dr. Katz is the overattention placed on this or that diet, and not enough on applying what we do know. Constantly adjusting or changing one’s diet according to the latest breakthrough regimen (Lose weight! Run faster! Eat whatever you want!) is just missing the old-growth forest for the faddish trees.
“All we really need to do is commit to the fundamentals of what we know,” says Dr. Katz. “The theme of healthy eating is well-established, and the evidence is incredibly consistent—across years, across cultures, across everything.”