With school, extracurriculars, and everything else high school students have to prioritize, health usually takes a back burner. Sleep, stress management, and clean eating can be forgotten amidst the whirlwind of everyday life. Sometimes healthy eating is thought to be something to worry about in the future as an adult dealing with health problems. Healthy eating, however, has many short-term benefits to teenagers. Unprocessed foods, natural sugars, and carbohydrates provide energy and help regulate a healthy sleep schedule, hormonal balances, and pH levels. The more natural a food is, the better it will be, and eliminating sugars and other processed foods not only reduces risk of illness later in life, but it also gives the energy needed throughout the day to maintain the demanding lifestyle that most teenagers live. Here are some of the four most popular diets that claim to focus on healthy eating rather than weight loss.
1. Mediterranean Diet
Countries in the Mediterranean Basin have long enjoyed much higher life expectancies than people in the United States and have lower rates of chronic illnesses. The Mediterranean diet does not include a strict list of foods you can and cannot eat, rather it describes the adoption of certain characteristics of the diet of people in those countries. This diet emphasizes eating vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, potatoes, whole grains, herbs, spices, and extra-virgin olive oil daily. Seafood, poultry, eggs, and legumes should be eaten weekly. Dairy products should be eaten in moderation, and red meat should be limited. Added sugars, refined grains, trans fats, refined oils, processed meats, and any other highly processed foods are strongly discouraged. The Mediterranean diet places focus on these plant-based foods because meat (especially red meat) and eggs contain saturated fats, which are linked to high cholesterol. Over time, high cholesterol levels cause arterial plaque, which leads to heart disease. It is important to remember that variety is vital and there is no wrong answer for the combination of foods you choose to incorporate.
2. Gluten-Free Diet
Gluten is a kind of protein present in grains, primarily wheat, barely, and rye. Some people have noticeable gluten sensitivities or suffer from Celiac disease, which makes them unable to eat gluten. Even if this doesn’t affect you, wheat and its proteins still have detrimental health effects. Most people have sensitivities to gluten but don’t realize it until they cut it out. Gluten contains no nutrients; it is simply a protein that holds grains together. Some of its major problems include gut inflammation, increased intestinal permeability, other gut and gastrointestinal issues, increased risk of autoimmune diseases, brain damage, and skin damage. There are a plethora of sources on the internet about gluten and its contested issues, so doing your own research is very important. A gluten-free diet avoids grains like wheat, barley, rye, triticale, malt, and brewer’s yeast. Unless labeled gluten-free, grain products, snack foods, and certain alcoholic beverages contain it. Like the Mediterranean diet, your focus should be on unprocessed foods and the incorporation of meats, fish, eggs, dairy, fruits, vegetables, potatoes, nuts, and seeds. Instead of eating gluten-free breads and pastas, try higher-nutrient, gluten-free grains like quinoa, rice, tapioca, buckwheat, sorghum, corn, millet, amaranth, arrowroot, teff, and oats. For those of you who like to bake, try almond flour, coconut flower, or tapioca flour.
3. Vegetarian Diet
Vegetarianism generally describes the avoidance of meat, poultry, or seafood. An increasingly popular lifestyle choice, people choose to become vegetarians for a variety of reasons ranging from health to animal rights concerns. As always, variety is vital, as is an emphasis on unprocessed foods. While there is some skepticism about the true health merit of vegetarianism, studies have suggested that vegetarianism may lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes, but that might be linked to the elimination of red meat and processed meats. As a diet that promotes long-term health, vegetarianism is not necessarily the best option. There is sufficient concern that vegetarians lack certain key nutrients, such as protein, Vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and Omega-3 fatty acids. For this reason, it is important to maintain a healthy amount of dairy, eggs, legumes, and nuts in your diet, and possibly include supplements if you are experiencing any deficiencies.
Veganism is a more restrictive version of vegetarianism, in which you cut out all animal products such as eggs and milk. Because vegans don’t eat dairy products, they are much more at risk for bone damage. Calcium, Vitamin D, and Vitamin K intake is essential to prevent this. Many green vegetables are typically high in calcium, but the incorporation of soy milk and rice milk can help. Vitamin B12 can also be found in soy and rice milk, and Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in flaxseeds, walnuts, and soy. Supplements are also always an option.
4. Paleo & Keto
The Paleolithic diet is based on the theorized diet of pre-agricultural humans. This means cutting out processed sugar and foods, dairy, legumes and grains. The paleo diet is one of the more restricting dietary plans, but can help lower the risk of chronic illnesses associated with grains and other processed foods. Like the others, variety is the key to success. Removing foods from your diet is not a solution unless you replace these losses with nutrient-rich substitutes.
The Ketogenic Diet focuses on low-carb and high-fat foods. Like the Paleo diet, the Keto diet fights the risk of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and Alzheimers. While the Keto diet is much more structured and specific than the other dietary plans on this list, it recommends avoiding much of the same foods--processed sugars, grains, starches. However, it goes much further by restricting most fruits, root vegetables, and legumes.
Both the Keto and Paleo diets are extremely restricting and could cause nutrient deficiencies or other health issues if done without guidance from parents and/or a medical professional.
Before starting any of these diets, talk to a parent or doctor to decide if this is the right plan for your body and lifestyle. In addition, not following these plans in their entirety can still give you many long-term and short-term health benefits. Healthy eating means being mindful of what you put in your body, not how much. Adopting certain aspects of these plans that work for you is likely to be more successful in the long-run rather than obsessing over strictly subscribing to these plans.
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