Paleo and raw diets top the list of most popular eating plans—but what does that say about healthy eating in America?
Remember when Atkins was all the rage? Then it was replaced with the South Beach Diet, and later Weight Watchers ("I LOVE Bread")? Fad diets come and go—but the latest two most popular ones beg an important question about American eating habits: why do our attempts at healthy eating involve such extremes when #balance might just be the best thing for your health and fitness routine?
ICYMI, paleo dieting is pretty popular. And though it might feel so 2014, the caveman craze is far from over. In fact, a recent Grubhub study found that paleo orders increased by 370 percent in 2016, making it the most popular dietary-specific choice for the year. (And Grubhub isn't the only company to find that paleo is currently king in the dieting world.) To no one's surprise, raw diet orders came in second place, with a 92-percent increase last year. Apparently, when it comes to ordering healthy food, the country is split between ordering high-fat, meat-heavy dishes, and 100-percent produce-fueled food. Call me a traditionalist, but both of these seem a bit extreme.
Why the Paleo Diet & Raw Diet Are So Popular
How is it possible that the top two diets in America are basically total opposites?
The appeal behind paleo and raw dieting boils down to two things, according to Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D., adjunct associate professor of cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, eating psychology specialist, and author of Bright Line Eating: The Science of Living Happy, Thin, and Free. One, the fact that both have scientific narratives ("People are really attracted to knowing the 'why' underneath what they're doing," says Thompson), regardless of whether there's truth in these narratives or not.
And people really do feel better when they're on these diets. About 60 percent of the typical American diet comes from ultra-processed foods, says Thompson. Both the paleo diet and raw diets ditch this ultra-processed food and replace it with whole foods—which just happens to be the basic recipe for healthy eating success. "If you just stop eating processed foods and start eating more vegetables, you'll have that feel-good benefit regardless of the diet you're on," says Thompson. But because people switch to raw dieting or paleo and dramatically increase their vegetable and whole food consumption and cut the processed crap, the narrative of both diets gets passed along with raving reviews.
When Extreme Dieting Actually *Is* a Good Idea
Problem is, "diets" are hard to stick with, and lots of experts suggest the 80/20 rule for healthy eating longevity. So why are people picking paleo and raw—arguably the two most extreme diets on the spectrum—in order to put their healthy eating knowledge to use?
"The extreme approach works really well for some people," says Thompson. You likely fall into one of two personality groups: the abstainers or the moderators. The former works better with clear boundaries and "off-limits" items, while the latter finds that the occasional indulgence actually strengthens their resolve and heightens pleasure, according to Gretchen Reuben, the author behind the concept. "An abstainer will actually do better with an extreme kind of diet," says Thompson. "A moderator will do better if they avoid a strict diet."
There's one time when abstinence—and extreme dieting—does work better for both types of people, and that's when addiction comes into play. "If you have someone whose brain is addicted to sugar and flour, for example, then choosing to abstain from them completely is actually the moderate choice," says Thompson. (See: 5 Signs You're Addicted to Junk Food)
So if you find that you're happiest and healthiest outlining your diet per the paleo, raw, or some other plan, there's no shame; going all-out with your healthy eating might be best for you. But if restriction ends in binges or makes you completely miserable? Moderation might be your happy medium. As long as you're eating whole foods, lots of veggies, and cutting out ultra-processed Franken-foods, your body will handle the rest just fine, says Thompson: "There's no one-size-fits-all solution."