How to improve restrictive diets with a few tweaks – low-carb, low-fat, vegan

I’m not a big fan of low-carbohydrate diets, or most restrictive diets that target one macronutrient for that matter. For one thing, I’ve been doing hard exercise since I was 10 years old and I’m not about to stop anytime soon. You need optimal quantities of carbohydrates and a reasonable quantity of quality fats and protein for health and performance: ask any professional sports nutritionist or athlete. (As opposed to some of the quacks one reads on the net.)

Even so, healthy eating requires that you eat a good proportion of those carbs and fats as quality carbohydrates and fats and proteins —  fibrous wholegrains, fruits and vegetables, beans and nuts, or lean meats, and unsaturated oils.

AvocadoBut let’s say you like low-carb Atkins type diets (20% carbohydrate) or an Ornish very low-fat diet (10% fat) or a vegan diet with no animal products; yet some aspects of the diet just doesn’t work for you and you struggle to stay with it, which is not surprising because less than 10 percent of people who try such restrictive diets actually maintain them for more than about 6 months.

For example, you don’t exercise well on low-carb or you get too lean and lose some muscle on very low-fat or vegan. The answer to this problem is just to move the baseline a little to modify the existing diet to a point where you can follow, more or less, the general principles of the regimen you like, yet maintain a quality eating pattern day in, day out. You adjust the eating rules so that the pattern moves closer to what you’re comfortable with, yet without compromising dietary quality or your preference for that particular dietary style. You do this by implementing healthy eating principles within the confines of your dietary approach. Here’s how you might do this with various restrictive diets.

How to improve a low-carbohydrate diet and stay on track

Low-carbohydrate diets are still somewhat popular, although many followers are moving emphasis to healthy fats and a little more quality carbohydrate in order to sustain them. I will ignore keto diets here because they don’t have much scientific credibility for the general public.

1. Increase carbohydrate consumption to around 40% of total energy intake.
2. Keep saturated fat and trans fats low (under 10% saturated and trans). This means choosing lean and low-fat animal foods and including more vegetable protein.
3. Include plenty of high-fibre or low-GI carbohydrate and eat more fruit. If you don’t like wheat or gluten, eat wholegrain rice, buckwheat or polenta, and choose more berries or low-carbohydrate fruits like oranges or other citrus.
4. Some might argue that 40% is not low-carb, but this site is not called Food, Fit, Fusion for nothing — I expect an exercise program — and this is the minimum quantity of carbohydrate you can get away with if you want to hit the workout hard, week in, week out. Even then, it is probably not ideal for many heavy exercisers.

How to improve a very low-fat diet and stay on track

Ornish very low-fat diets have been used in heart disease rehabilitation with some degree of success. The Pritikin Diet of 20 or more years ago was very similar. At 10-12% dietary fat, this is a very restrictive diet for most people. A few changes might not alter the overall utility, and may even improve the success of it for most people.

1. Increase fat intake from 10% to around 20% of total energy of the diet.
2. Add some wholefood vegetable fats like avocado, and nuts like almonds, Brazil nuts and walnuts. You can keep the screws on added oils and just increase plant-based fats in whole foods.
3. Avoid plant sources with saturated fats, for example palm oil and coconut oil.
4. Continue to avoid added sugars and refined carbohydrate foods.

How to improve a vegan diet and stay on track

Vegans eat no animal foods at all — meat, eggs or dairy. A little care is required to get the best out of a vegan diet.

1. We’ll make similar changes to the vegan diet as for the very low-fat, Ornish type diet – without the meat and dairy. Aim for at least a 20% fat diet.
2. In my experience, vegans often under-eat, especially those who do a reasonable amount of exercise. The quantity of fibre in vegan diets can be up around the 50 to 60 grams/day mark, about 3 times the average intake. This amount of fibre, although likely a healthy quantity, is very filling and can reduce appetite.
3. The dietary constituents on the low side – other than the sometimes deficient B12 — are likely to be fat and protein, especially for raw food vegans or, unusually, fruitarians. Vegans should ensure they consume plenty of nuts, avocado, bean foods, plant milks (not coconut) and the regular stir fry — and not get into the habit of existing on salads, fruits and bread and cereals and pasta.

Summing up

There you have it — your cake and eat it too — as long as it’s a bran and blueberry oat cake.