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Decoding your diet: What’s the best healthy eating plan for you?

CINCINNATI — It seems like magazines and websites are filled with advice about how to eat healthy.

But is it really that hard?

WCPO talked to local dietitians to get the skinny on things like gluten-free foods and the Paleo diet, which is also known as the caveman diet because of its emphasis on meat and fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as standbys like calorie-counting and cutting out processed foods.

Here’s the breakdown:

Calorie Counting — It’s the oldest trick in the book, and follows the basic rule that in order to maintain a certain weight, you have to burn as many calories as you consume. 

The first rule to remember is that the quality of a diet plan cannot depend on calorie numbers alone, said Lauren Niemes, executive director of the Cincinnati Nutrition Council .

While calorie-counting plays a large part in weight management, it does not necessarily require that would-be dieters put their allotted calories toward vitamin-rich products. For example, a person who sets a calorie limit for his-or-herself could still fill that quota with cookies and ice cream, as long as the number of calories they consumed did not rise above a certain number.

To ensure healthier eating habits overall, Niemes recommended that people begin by following USDA recommendations for fruits, vegetables and whole grains, sources of nutrients that many Americans neglect.

The bottom line: Calories and portion control play into other food plans, especially if the goal is to maintain or lose weight, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of healthy eating.

Gluten-Free — Cutting out gluten , a protein found in wheat, is necessary from people with Celiac’s disease and helpful for some with gluten sensitivities, but many people are trying the diet as a way to, in theory, cut out empty calories from baked goods.

“It’s kind of the low-carb diet repackaged,” Niemes said..

 It doesn’t hurt to try going gluten-free and see if you feel better, Monica Smith, registered dietitian at the Northern Kentucky Health Department said, but with the popularity of the diet have come gluten-free alternatives for virtually everything.

“The gist originally was to cut out the crackers (and other wheat foods),” Smith said, “… if you’re just swapping those out for a gluten-free product, like gluten-free brownies, that’s not necessarily healthier or going to help with weight loss.”

Smith compared the diet to the Atkins craze, which cut out carbs and high-starch foods: New products marketed are good for people with gluten allergies, as they allow them to try foods they ordinarily wouldn’t have, but make an actual lifestyle change more difficult, gluten-free or not.

Sarah Couch, University of Cincinnati professor of Nutritional Sciences said she’s heard anecdotally that a gluten-free diet can make patients feel better. The risk, however, is in missing out on B vitamins and fiber that must then be made up for with other foods.

The inherent challenge is that because wheat foods are such a staple in American diets, “it becomes very restrictive and it can also be very expensive,” Smith added.

The bottom line: This eating craze could help if you replace cookies and chips with fruits and vegetables, but could lead to many of the same eating habits or nutritional deficiencies if you’re not careful.

Paleo — Marketed as the “caveman diet ,” this plan rules out anything that ancient ancestors couldn’t hunt or gather for themselves. That means that packaged foods are a no-go, as are slightly less modern foods like bread and cheese.

“The main concern with that one is that you’re cutting out two whole food groups,” she said, “So there could be a lack of nutrients.”

She added that healthy foods from the grain and dairy food groups could be cut as well, and higher-fat proteins could be substituted in.

“For someone who enjoys grains and rice, yogurt and milk, that may not be a great diet for them because they’re going to feel deprived,” Smith said.

The good part about the Paleo diet is that processed foods are virtually eliminated, Couch said, but proponents need to find ways to supply themselves with vitamins and fiber, as well as calcium from the two missing food groups.

“The fad diets or those diets that restrict food groups are something that people should adopt very thoughtfully … carbohydrates aren’t the bad thing, the foods that that they are in are,” Niemes said. “I encourage people to experiment and find a diet that is sustainable.”

The bottom line: While avoiding excessive sugar and salt could be helpful, replacing nutrient-rich whole grains and dairy products with more protein could hurt your waistline or your health.

Cutting White Flour and Sugar – It’s no coincidence that the last two eating plans focused on reducing processed food intake. If these empty calories aren’t doing anything for our bodies, why not try cutting them completely ?

“Sugar in and of itself isn’t going to be harmful,” Niemes said. “White flour doesn’t contribute much beside calories.” Foods that contain both, like donuts or

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