Every time you scroll through social media, another popular diet is being hailed as the “next big thing” in the world of health and wellness. But, regardless of whether you’re a yo-yo dieter or just recently packed on a few extra pounds while sheltering-in-place, choosing the right eating plan to suit your personal tastes and preferences isn’t always as easy as it seems.
“Choosing the right diet really depends on your cravings,” says Amy Shapiro, RDN, CDN, the New York City-based founder of Real Nutrition. “Paleo is a little bit more meat-focused, but you don’t want to eat a 12-ounce steak, just because it’s grass-fed. Plant-based is great—you can still eat pasta, pizza and french fries, in moderation. Whatever diet you’re focusing on, you still have to watch your portion sizes. And, as we continue to age in our 40s, 50s [and beyond], eating fewer carbohydrates really does seem beneficial for preventing weight gain.”
Still feeling overwhelmed by all of the options? Try opening your fridge first to evaluate what’s inside before you begin perusing Pinterest for new recipes. If you tend to gravitate towards leafy green salads (even if they’re topped with croutons or crunchy wontons!), you’ll probably prefer a plant-based plan. Or, if a world without bacon or cheese isn’t a world you want to live in, then the fat- and protein-heavy keto diet might be right up your alley.
Regardless of whether you choose keto, paleo, or plant-based, try to remember that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Even if your BFF dropped 50 pounds on paleo or your cousin swears by keto for fast weight loss, you’ll never see the same results if you despise the taste of beef or can’t live without carbs. So choose the plan that sounds the most appealing to set yourself up for success from the start.
“My easiest recommendation is for everyone to make sure that half of your plate is filled with vegetables that are high-fiber, high-volume, low-calorie foods loaded with antioxidants,” says Shapiro. “Take the other half of your plate and cut that into two quarters. One quarter should hold complex carbohydrates. Those are unprocessed foods, which are popular in all three of these diets. Then one quarter should be 4-5 ounces of lean protein. That’s about the size of a deck of cards, so not too large.”
Here, Shapiro shares her favorite tips and tricks for maintaining a healthy diet without sacrificing your social life.
What It Is: Keto, short for ketogenic, is a low-carb, high-fat diet that promotes lowering your carb intake and upping fats. This popular plan, which has won rave reviews from celebs like Halle Berry and Jenna Jameson, incorporates plenty of healthy fats like olive oil and avocados, fatty fish, poultry and leafy greens. What’s not on the menu? Pasta, rice, or potatoes.
Date Night: When eating out, you’ll want to move the bread basket out of arm’s length. Shapiro recommends ordering salmon cooked in coconut oil with some kale and cauliflower. Or request a steak cooked in butter, along with a small portion of broccoli. “You’re limited to 5 percent carbohydrates and plants are carbohydrates on keto,” she says. “So try to have just one serving of them.”
Happy Hour: Not sure how to navigate happy hour? Rest assured, you can still join your friends for a cocktail after work without breaking your diet. “Skip the wine because grapes are high in sugar, but you can still have spirits,” says Shapiro. “Tequila and mezcal with lemon or lime club soda are totally on the table.”
Sunday Brunch: Maybe you can’t have waffles or French toast, but that’s no reason to forgo Sunday brunch with your family. If a big, fancy breakfast is pretty much your idea of heaven, feel free to indulge as long as you don’t overdo it. “Cheese is fine on keto, so order an omelette with cheese,” says Shapiro. “You can have that with a side salad or even a side of avocado.”
What It Is: The paleo diet, aka “the caveman diet,” consists primarily of foods found during prehistoric times. That means you’ll be eating plenty of meat, nuts, fruit, vegetables and whole foods, but avoiding most grains, sugar and legumes. Famous fans include Jessica Biehl, Matthew McConaughey and Megan Fox.
Date Night: Dining out on paleo isn’t too different than dining out on the keto diet, with a few minor exceptions. “The thing that we don’t encourage is grains, beans or lentils,” says Shapiro. “So you can order fish with grilled vegetables and a sweet potato. You can order steak with broccoli and asparagus. You can start with a salad that has shrimp in it or tuna tartare. This one’s a little bit more flexible.”
Happy Hour: Like keto, paleo followers should forgo all wine in favor of shots or low-cal mixed drinks instead. “Wine is made from grapes which are high in sugar,” says Shapiro. “Try tequila and mezcal because they are really clean and have zero sugar and zero grams of carbs.”
Sunday Brunch: Rest assured, you’ll still have plenty of options even if you are avoiding pastries and breakfast sandwiches. “Your meal would be mostly protein focused with a little bit of vegetable,” says Shapiro. “So you can order an omelette with spinach or an omelet with cauliflower. Or you could do an egg and onion scramble with a side of avocado.”
What It Is: Overall, plant-based diets are far less restrictive than paleo and keto. However, anyone following a plant-based plan should avoid or significantly minimize beef, poultry, and fish consumption. And, if you decide to adopt a vegan eating plan, that means eggs, dairy, and honey are off-limits too. Luckily, though, carbs, fruit and vegetables are still on the menu!
Date Night: Nowadays, most restaurants offer at least one plant-based option. And usually, it’s even more. “You can order whole wheat pasta with vegetables,” says Shapiro. “If you’re at a Japanese restaurant, you can get vegetable sushi with brown rice or tofu with vegetables in a sauce. It’s really just focusing on filling your plate with lots of plants and some lean vegan protein or a healthy fat like half an avocado.”
Happy Hour: Thankfully, there’s no need to give up wine if you’re a vegetarian, so feel free to raise your glass! Mixed drinks and shots are also on the “approved” list. “When you’re plant-based you can have anything,” says Shapiro. Just remember, the drink menu isn’t calorie-free so try to limit yourself to just one or two drinks, even on special occasions.
Sunday Brunch: Enjoy! Just about anything goes, as long as it isn’t derived from meat or animal byproducts. Vegans will also want to steer clear of the omelette station, waffle bar and yogurt parfaits. “Avocado toast is always a good option,” suggests Shapiro. “If you’re vegetarian, you could also do scrambled eggs or whole wheat pancakes.”
No matter which diet you choose, just remember that eating fewer processed snacks and more whole foods—along with getting plenty of exercise—is the real key to long term results. And always be sure to consult your doctor before starting any new eating plan. “This will help you to make sure whatever diet you are taking on works well with any medical condition or medications you might be on,” says Shapiro. “It’s important to make sure there are no interactions between them for overall health and wellness.”
Dana Meltzer Zepeda is a freelance writer who has contributed to People, Livestrong, USA Today, Self, Runner’s World and Yoga Journal. She resides in Orange County, Calif. with her husband and two kids, where she can usually be found running or practicing yoga when she isn’t hard at work writing about the latest health and wellness trends.