As long as people have lived, there have surely been dietary trends – those most eaten foods and favorite diet plans. But in recent years, food fads have proliferated. There are so many modern diet trends that it can be difficult to get your head around exactly what you should and should not eat.
Let's take a look at some of the most common modern diet trends and analyze them briefly from a health and sustainability standpoint:
Plant-Based/ Vegetarian/ Vegan
There are plenty of plant-based diet variations out there, but the general idea remains the same. These diets exclude meat, and sometimes also eggs, dairy products, and other animal-derived products. Since meat and other animal-derived products can be high in calories, switching to a predominantly or entirely plant-based diet can help people to lose weight.
From an environmental standpoint – restricting or eliminating meat and dairy from your diet is one of the best things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint. Factory farming takes a massive toll on our environment, so switching to a plant-based diet – especially including home or locally grown produce, can really boost individual sustainability and help you live in a more eco-friendly way.
One important thing to think about, however, is what is replacing meat in the diet. There are plenty of local, sustainable sources of protein and nutrition, but seeking out the most sustainable, seasonal, local options is key.
A balanced, well-planned vegetarian diet can provide all of the nutrients we humans need to survive. However, a vegan diet will always be short on one basic nutrient: B12. If you do not eat at least some eggs, milk, cheese, etc, you will need to supplement with B12. Strict vegan diets are healthy for adults, but not recommended for young, growing children.
But in a vegetarian diet, it can be more challenging to meet basic nutritional needs. This is why some people choose a more flexible approach. The flexitarian diet involves a mostly plant-based diet, with plenty of fruits, vegetables, pulses, and whole grains, but allows for dairy and meat products in moderation. A Mediterranean diet might be described as one type of healthy flexitarian diet, for example.
A sustainability-minded flexitarian might choose to avoid all factory-farmed meat but to occasionally eat meat reared locally in a truly sustainable way. When everything is taken into account, very occasional meat-eating may be the most environmentally friendly option. (Since vegan protein sources can also have carbon and environmental cost).
Intermittent fasting diets involve restricting calorie intake on certain days or between certain times. This can be an effective way to lose weight, as long as people don't binge eat during eating periods to make up for the fasting times. It can be healthy and bring a range of benefits for most healthy adults. But can cause problems for those with certain conditions, or trigger people with eating disorders.
Since intermittent fasting restricts the amount of food eaten, it can reduce food purchases overall. And reducing consumption is a key part of sustainability. However, it is important to make sure that food purchases are well planned, so that food does not go to waste on fasting days.
High Protein/ Low Carb Diets
High protein and low carb type diets like the keto diet, the Atkins diet, and the paleo diet all have both pros and cons. Each has been shown to have certain benefits and can aid in weight loss. But any restrictive diet can also pose problems when it comes to making sure that we have healthy and balanced diets.
When it comes to sustainability, one thing to bear in mind is that high protein diets or diets that severely restrict carbs often (though not always) involve eating a lot more meat and animal-derived protein. Since eating meat increases an individual's carbon footprint considerably, this is something important to think about when trying to decide whether this type of diet is for you.
Of course, there are plenty of other diet trends to consider. As you consider them, it is of course crucial to think about your own health and to always follow the science. But it is also a good idea, wherever possible, to think about how your diet affects the environment too. By carefully analyzing all our food choices, we can make the right choices for ourselves, other people, and the planet.