There seems to be 3 main categories when it comes to researching diets, and strong emotional reactions to the question of which diet is the healthiest.
They are the following:
1). The Mediterranean diet
2). The Vegetarian diet
3). The Ketogenic diet
Most other popular diets could be described as subtypes of the 3 listed above. The subtypes vary by degrees in philosophy, but overall they can all still be classified under the general heading of one of the 3 diets listed above.
There are a few characteristics that all of these diets have in common. They all emphasize pure ingredients consisting of whole foods in as fresh and natural a state as possible. They also all share one other important characteristic. They all include a large portion of vegetables in the diet. The difference therefore lies in the inclusion or exclusion of meat, or grains.
Are all of these diets healthy then? One of them surely has to be the best? Before answering that question, we must first ask another very important one.
What is out of balance in my body?
When you know the answer to that question, it is very clear which diet is the best for you at this time in your life.
1). Mediterranean diet:
Let’s first examine the Mediterranean diet. It is representative of most farming cultures around the world. The Mediterranean diet is high in complex carbohydrates consisting of grains, and or root vegetables, which typically take up half the portion of a typical meal. The remaining half, then consists primarily of mixed vegetables, and a smaller portion of animal protein, fat, and spices. In Chinese Medicine terms this diet is considered as being fairly balanced. It is high in foods that contain a lot of energy, and nourishment, and contains a large portion of vegetables that contain fiber and help encourage transportation and circulation in the body. However, the large amount of high caloric nutritionally dense foods are suitable for people that are physically active either through work (as in traditional agrarian societies), athletic exercise, or for growth and regeneration. This sort of diet is best suited to growing children, athletes, and people that are moving all day long. Individuals who do a lot of aerobic exercise will feel exhausted if they do not include grains, and or root vegetables.
Conversely, individuals that do not get a lot of exercise will be consuming too many carbohydrates that metabolize in the body as sugar, and when not burned are stored as fat. In Chinese Medicine this excess of nutritionally dense, moistening foods will accumulate as damp, and phlegm in the body. When damp and phlegm accumulate it obstructs yang, and makes people tired. The damp and phlegm encourages the growth of bad gut bacteria. This is probably the most common health problem associated with the western diet in industrialized countries, caused mostly by refined sugar, white flour and grains. For many people that sit at desks all day long, and get very little exercise, the Mediterranean diet, high in complex carbohydrates, is unhealthy.
The body type of a person that typically thrives on a Mediterranean diet will most likely be in Chinese Medicine terms a Wood type: thin, sinewy, muscular, energetic, and slightly nervous in temperament. Physically, they will look something akin to a long distance runner.
Traditionally, this is what most agrarian societies look like, from working in the fields, walking up and down mountainsides, and doing hard physical labor.
The Mediterranean type diet then is one that builds and accumulates yin, and is most suitable for people that have a Chinese Medicine diagnosis of Liver Yang hyperactivity, Yin Deficiency, or Blood Deficiency, and sometimes Qi Deficiency.
2). Vegetarian diet:
The vegetarian diet eliminates the animal protein portion of the Mediterranean diet. It consists then of 50% grains and root crops, and 50% other vegetables. Animal protein is very warming, and nutrient dense. Therefore the absence of animal protein makes this diet the most Yin; cooling, dispersing, and cleansing of the three types. However, there is a high risk of imbalanced eating while on this diet, especially with tendencies to eat too much refined flour, sugar, bread, and pasta. A raw vegan diet that eliminates sugar and carbohydrates also makes this diet even more cooling and dispersing. Therefore it is easy to damage one’s digestive fire with too many cooling and dampening foods. It is important then that warming spices such as ginger, garlic, cardamom, and chilies be added to meals, and that meals are cooked and served warm.
Following a Macrobiotic version of a vegetarian diet can help ensure a person is a balanced vegetarian. If a vegetarian or vegan shows further signs of weakness and fatigue they will need to add more warming foods that are rich in protein, such as nuts, and fermented organic soy products. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to maintain a long-term healthy pure vegetarian diet, as it is very difficult to get B12, and conjugated linoleic acid. Both of which are essential to a healthy nervous system, cardiovascular system, and as a cancer preventative. For this reason vegetarians are encouraged to eat eggs, and/or raw dairy products, and/or fish. Some evidence suggests Sha Ji (Sea Buckthorn Berry) contains as much Vitamin B12 as animal liver, however it is not clear whether it can actually be assimilated in the body. Mushrooms are the only vegetarian source of conjugated linoleic acid, and it is recommended they be consumed regularly.
Since a vegetarian/or vegan diet is the most cooling, and dispersing of the diets, it is not surprising that diets such as Gerson therapy (juicing) have been used to combat certain types of tumours, and inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.
The body type for a person that would do well on a vegetarian diet are those of the Chinese Medicine Fire type: Those with strong builds, red faces, restlessness, thirst, hypertension, and inflammatory conditions such as gout. The vegetarian diet is well suited to those with too much pathogenic heat, as it is very cooling, and dispersing.
3). Ketogenic Diet:
The Ketogenic diet eliminates grains, and other complex carbohydrates such as root crops. A meal on this diet consists of 50-60% of the plate being animal protein, and the other remainder being mixed vegetables. Although there are variations, often beans, legumes, and dairy products are also eliminated from this diet. The popular Paleolithic diet is included under this category even though it may not produce ketosis, as it is not as rigid in regards to carbohydrate restriction.
The ketogenic diet eliminates large amounts of carbohydrates in order to create a state of ketosis in the body. The goal of this type of diet is to strictly eliminate sugar from being metabolized in the body. When carbohydrates are broken down they metabolize as sugar. While there are different types of sugars, and glycemic indexes, all sugar triggers a pancreatic secretion of insulin. The goal of a ketogenic diet is to have the pancreas favor glucagon secretion over insulin. When this occurs the body stops storing sugar as fat, and instead uses fat as a fuel source.
Therefore in Chinese Medicine terms it is considered a Yang strengthening diet. Grains are considered to be more moistening and dampening with less nutrition than vegetables. The ketogenic diet effectively reduces damp, phlegm, and damp-heat (as long as alcohol, spicy and fried foods are also eliminated). Since animal protein is warming and obstructive, cooling and dispersing vegetables are the preferred pairing to balance this type of diet. Cooling and dispersing vegetables consist primarily of green vegetables, cruciferous veggies including cauliflower, and other green vegetables like celery, zucchini, and cucumbers, etc. As long as the choice of warming and cooling foods remain balanced this diet is beneficial for many health problems.
Many of the chronic illnesses associated with the western diet are caused by pathogenic phlegm, damp and damp-heat. It is not surprising then, that the ketogenic diet has shown to be very effective in the treatment of type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic syndrome type diseases, such as PCOS. This diet has also been used effectively to prevent childhood epileptic seizures, a disease in Chinese Medicine associated with pathogenic phlegm.
The Okinawan diet has gained a lot of attention due to the large population of centenarians. Many articles and publications have described it as a diet that is high in carbohydrates like that of a Mediterranean diet. However on closer inspection, it is actually closer to a Paleolithic diet. They don't eat rice as a staple, preferring to eat primarily a type of sweet potato. The average calorie intake in Okinawa is very low, less than 2100 per day per resident. This is because they eat primarily green vegetables, and animal protein. The Japanese diet is regarded globally as being a high protein diet, due mostly to their large consumption of seafood. The Okinawans’ eat 203% more protein than the national average in Japan, and 309% more green vegetables. Sugars only comprise 26.5% of the Japanese national average.
The typical body type for a person that would do well on a ketogenic diet would be those of a Chinese Medicine Earth or Water type: Large swollen abdomen, a rubbery or puffy appearance, pale, tired much of the time, and may possibly have water retention such as ascites, or edema.
The ketogenic diet and it’s various subtypes such as the Paleolithic diet are best suited to those with a Chinese Medicine diagnosis of damp, and/or phlegm, that may be obstructing the kidneys, or for Spleen and Kidney Yang deficiency with damp excess.
While it is less cooling and dispersing than the other two diets, it can also be suitable for those where damp, and/or phlegm block Qi and produce signs of yin deficiency with Yang excess (such as internal wind and heat), when balanced correctly with the appropriate cooling vegetables as in the case of a strict ketogenic diet. Metabolic syndrome disorders tend to fit this sort of pattern and symptoms tend to improve with a ketogenic diet.
The best diet is the one that addresses your own unique health imbalance’s.
Now it should be clear that every diet could be a medicine or a poison depending upon your own unique characteristics and imbalances. The correct diet is the one that addresses your current state of imbalance. While it is good to maintain a strong sense of will power and adhere strictly to a diet for the purpose of rebalancing the body to regain wellness. It is also detrimental to become so fixated that you lose sight of the purpose of a particular diet. For long-term health and longevity, it is important a person remains flexible and adaptable.
Once you have addressed your health imbalance and gained significant improvement, it will most likely be necessary to appropriately adjust your diet. If you blindly adhere to a strict diet and it starts to resemble more of a religion than a tool, you will most likely cause other health imbalances.
If a ketogenic diet is the best choice for your current health condition, at some point you may want to start adding more complex carbohydrates. If a Mediterranean, high carbohydrate diet is appropriate for you, there may be a time as you age, or are more sedentary that it is best to reduce your complex carbohydrate intake. If you are suffering from a severe inflammatory condition, you may want to consider a vegetarian diet for 6 months to 2 years, and then you may want to start eating some animal protein again.
Therefore the best diet, is the one that addresses your current health imbalance.
Alchemy Wellness Centre is located in Byron Bay, NSW Australia
RJ Singer is a registered Acupuncturist, and Chinese Medicine Doctor with AHPRA and AACMA. He is also a highly regarded QiGong Healer and Teacher, and Feng Shui Consultant. RJ’s area of special interest is in the treatment of stubborn and difficult chronic disease, and all types of painful conditions.
Katrina Hillis is a Kinesiologist, and a registered Remedial & Relaxation Massage Therapist with AMT, who specialises in helping people overcome emotional issues and life transitions working holistically to balance the body, mind and spirit.