NEW YORK (MainStreet) — It’s the number one New Year’s resolution: Lose weight. But here’s a hard fact: without a plan, you won’t succeed. That’s where a diet enters and, this year, there could not be a sharper face-off than the wildly popular plant-based Mediterranean diet and its arch-rival, the trendy protein-based Paleo diet (aka the caveman’s diet). Of course, it's about more than just being healthy: the thinner you are, the fatter your wallet is likely to be.
The Mediterranean diet of course portrays itself as the traditional way of eating in the lush Med - a little fish, some fruits and lots of vegetables, from grains through leafy greens and tomatoes. There is very little beef or pork, because, mainly, they do not happen on the historic Med table. With Paleo, scratch everything that was invented after human beings left their caves. That means no dairy, no grains (absolutely no rice or pasta), no refined fats, no sugar. What cavemen ate were meat, fish, nuts, vegetables and fruit. It’s a significantly less inclusive diet than the Mediterranean, and the logic behind it is that our digestive systems came about in the cave era and today we are fat because we are eating foods we cannot properly digest.
Know this: many health professionals scorn the Paleo diet. In a recent U.S. News and World Reports diet ranking, it placed last. The magazine noted: “Experts took issue with the diet on every measure. Regardless of the goal – weight loss, heart health or finding a diet that’s easy to follow – most experts concluded that it would be better for dieters to look elsewhere.” As for the Mediterranean, it placed third and, noted U.S. News and World Reports, “With its emphasis on fruits and vegetables, olive oil, fish and other healthy fare, the Mediterranean diet is eminently sensible.”
Not so fast, however. What matters is not what experts say, it’s what works for the individual dieter - and, face it, we are a nation of expanding waistlines. Said registered dietitian Lisa Hugh, “For most people, finding a diet that they can stick with is really the important thing, even if it is not ‘as good as’ another diet. If it is better than what they were doing before, it will probably help them lose weight and be healthier.”
Camilla Carboni, co-author of Paleo Cleanse, is an unabashed fan of the caveman diet.
“I would definitely say that the Paleo diet is much better for you than the Mediterranean diet," she said. "The Mediterranean diet includes grain and restricts red meat intake. While we have advanced in terms of technology, our digestive system has not and the human species was not equipped to eat grain products, causing inflammation within the body, but is certainly equipped to eat red meat.”
Rabia Rahman, a nutrition instructor at St. Louis University, offered a contrasting viewpoint.
“By removing dairy and grains, people [on the Paleo diet] are at risk for missing out on key nutrients, particularly calcium, which is present in dairy products and fortified cereals; vitamin D, which is in dairy; and fiber from legumes and whole grains," Rahman said. "To avoid developing a deficiency in these important nutrients, those who follow this diet need to supplement with fish oil, calcium and vitamin D.”
Note however: although Rahman is openly skeptical about the Paleo diet, the point is made: there are workarounds that up the diet’s safety.
Melissa Rifkin, a dietitian at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, added that in her opinion - because it is so restrictive - the Paleo would be very hard to stick to longterm. “Not more than 90 days,” she said. But for the dieter who wants to drop 10 or even 20 pounds, that probably can happen in 90 days.
So which is better? Colin Darretta, founder of nutritional supplement company WellPath Solutions, offered a pragmatic evaluation.
“At the end of the day, the right diet is the one that you can stick to," he said. "If you’re someone who loves carbohydrates, fish and dairy then you can live a very healthy lifestyle on the Mediterranean diet. Similarly, if you like your red meat, eggs and nuts then the Paleo diet may work well for you. There is no use trying to pigeonhole yourself into a diet that isn’t sustainable because it’s comprised of the sorts of foods you don’t like to eat – on the contrary you’re far better off doing a good job at a diet you enjoy and are less likely to cheat on.”
That’s the key. We are a people who go on diets January 1...and who fall off diets maybe January 3. Try both diets. Stick with the one that is easiest for you - and you have the only vote.
—Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet