Nutrition Advice

Alternative Diets: What You Need to Know

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Eating specialized or alternative diets has been trending in the dietary space for decades. With promises of everything from a slimmer figure and younger-looking skin to optimal health and longevity (some of which may be true, some just hype), it’s no wonder so many Americans are eliminating problem foods from their daily diet.

According to Alysse Calcaterra, R.D.N., a registered dietitian at Henry Ford Health System, people are starting to move away from conventional eating habits and turning to alternative diets in hopes of achieving optimal health. “When you eliminate certain foods or ingredients from your diet, it is important to understand you may also be removing key nutrients,” Calcaterra says. Some cases may even require specific supplements to ensure you’re meeting your recommended daily quota of nutrients.

Here are four popular specialized diets and the nutritional pitfalls you need to watch out for.

  1. Vegetarian/Vegan. There are a variety of vegetarian diets, ranging from lacto-vegetarian (which includes dairy products) and lacto-ovo vegetarian (which includes both dairy and eggs) to vegan (which doesn’t include any animal products).

    What you may be missing: Iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), DHA and EPA. Many of these nutrients can be obtained through plant sources when eating a balanced, well-planned vegetarian diet.

    How to protect yourself with plant sources: You can get needed alpha-linolenic acid from chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, hempseeds and their oils; iron from fortified cereals, baked potatoes with skin, dried beans, tofu, spinach and even dark chocolate containing 45 to 65 percent cacao solids (in moderation of course); and zinc from beans or legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. As many health experts advise, individuals following a vegetarian diet, especially vegans, should consider taking a vitamin B12 and vitamin D supplement since both vitamins are found primarily in animal products. If you’re not able to stomach the idea of fish oil, take an algae-based supplement for the omega-3 fatty acids.
  1. Dairy-Free. Milk and dairy foods are a key calcium source for many Americans. Trouble is, folks who go dairy-free skip cow’s milk, cheese and yogurt, and potentially loose this important nutrient.

    What you may be missing: Calcium and vitamin D, both of which support bone health.

    How to protect yourself: You can get calcium from many sources besides dairy, including vegetables like kale, turnip greens, collards, broccoli and Chinese cabbage. Plus, most fortified plant milks (such as almond or soy milk) boast the same amount of calcium as cow’s milk (about 30 percent of your daily quota per serving). “Other non-plant sources include sardines, canned salmon, calcium-fortified tofu, shellfish, dried beans, calcium-fortified orange juice, blackstrap molasses and almonds,” Calcaterra says.
  1. Gluten-Free. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten-related disorders is an umbrella term including celiac disease, non-celiac gluten-sensitivity and wheat allergy. People who have celiac disease need to avoid gluten-containing foods because their natural defense systems react to gluten by attacking the small intestine. But avoiding gluten can lead to nutrient deficiencies if you are not following a balanced diet.

    What you may be missing: B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate), fiber and iron.

    How to protect yourself: “Many naturally gluten-free foods provide these nutrients, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and gluten-free whole grains such as amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, teff and millet,” Calcaterra says. Few products labeled as gluten-free are enriched with vitamins and minerals, and many of these processed gluten-free products have more added sugar and fat than their gluten-containing counterparts. Your best bet: Choose less processed, more natural food sources and eat a variety of foods.

    Related Article: Ancient Grains: What’s Old is New Again

  1. Raw foods. A raw foods diet consists of foods that are uncooked, unprocessed and mostly organic, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds and beans. And while many people who eat a raw foods diet are also vegetarian, some people who follow this regimen consume unpasteurized dairy products, raw meats, eggs and fish.

    What you may be missing: People who eat only raw foods may fall short on vitamin B12, iron, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and vitamin D, particularly if they’re not consuming animal products. In fact, the nutrients of concern are similar to those for vegans and vegetarians.

    How to protect yourself: Since cooking can potentially eliminate harmful bacteria, following a raw foods diet is not recommended for people who are immune-compromised or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Plus, keep in mind that certain vegetables, including tomatoes, pack greater punch when cooked because nutrients are better absorbed.

Eliminating certain foods can be therapeutic. In fact, functional medicine and integrative nutrition therapies emphasize healing through food and that often means a well thought-out elimination diet, followed by reintroduction of foods. The key is focusing on sustainable changes instead of quick fixes that are idealized through restricted “fad” diets.

The best advice to achieve overall health and wellness is still the same: Eat a variety of whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds while keeping processed and refined foods to a minimum.

To find a doctor or registered dietitian at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

For more healthy eating advice and recipes, visit our EatWell section and subscribe for weekly emails of our latest posts.

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