Lifestyle Diets for Better Living

Paleo, DASH, Ornish and flexitarian: There’s a food plan for everyone.

At age 16, Denise Vansant began suffering from migraine headaches that worsened in college. Looking back, she partly blames her diet. “I was eating terrible food,” she admits. Things didn’t improve when she started juggling a full-time job and marriage. Then, a series of illnesses in her family prompted her to examine what she was eating. While looking for immune-boosting foods, she stumbled upon the Paleo approach.

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Banish the thought of cavemen gnawing on raw antelope legs. The Paleo diet takes inspiration from a time when there were no processed foods or refined sugars. People ate lean meats—game was wild, after all—vegetables and fruit. Those following a Paleo lifestyle don’t eat dairy, most grains or legumes.

Vansant noticed results after starting the diet. “Not only has it made me healthier, but I’ve got so much energy,” she says. The Rehoboth Beach resident is so enthusiastic that she started Cave Girl at the Beach, which provides Paleo foods to go, sold at Good Earth Market in Rehoboth Beach and at the Rehoboth Beach Farmers’ Market.

For Vansant, Paleo is a lifestyle. “I never say diet,” she says. “When I hear ‘diet,’ I think of something temporary like Weight Watchers or Atkins. To me, Paleo is all-encompassing.” Paleo is not the only way of eating that’s making news these days. Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) was developed to lower blood pressure and emphasize healthy habits. The Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease, now available at Beebe Healthcare, is for people with cardiovascular concerns. An increasing number of people are calling themselves a “flexitarian,” meaning that, while they primarily eat a plant-based diet, they’ll occasionally eat meat, fish or chicken.

Back To Our Roots

Of these four lifestyle diets, Paleo has received the lion’s share of the press. Many CrossFit enthusiasts have embraced it, and like Vansant, some people go Paleo to address a chronic condition. Consider former Delaware resident Diane “V” Capaldi, who says the Paleo lifestyle has eased the often crippling effects of multiple sclerosis.

Diagnosed with MS in the 1980s, Capaldi learned about Paleo via a TED talk by Dr. Terry Wahls, author of “The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine.” At that point, Capaldi—who’d moved from Wilmington to Venice Beach, Calif., to avoid the East Coast’s exacerbating weather—was at her wit’s end.

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She went gluten-free on Jan. 1, 2011, and she went Paleo on Jan. 1, 2012. She noticed results within 21 days. The continuous sharp pressure in her palms ebbed, as did the tight sensation she’d often felt around her chest. She had feeling in areas along the left side of her body, which had been numb. Capaldi, now known as PaleoBOSS Lady, has a popular blog, and she’s written several cookbooks, including the “Paleo Perfect Party Series,” which includes “Badass Brunch.” She also does yoga regularly, and she’s reduced her stress. While her symptoms can flare up, she’s able to live an independent lifestyle without expensive medications.

“It’s about eating consciously,” she says of the Paleo lifestyle. “I read labels, and I typically only eat what I can trace back to the source. For the most part, it’s meat, fish, fruits and vegetables.” Vansant would agree. At the Rehoboth Beach Farmers’ Market, she’s known for her roasted pepper spread and cauliflower tahini. She usually sells out of her wraps, which are bound with lettuce leaves instead of tortillas.

Photograph by Kevin Fleming

Denise Vansant’s Cave Girl at the Beach provides Paleo foods to go.

Diane “V” Capaldi says the Paleo lifestyle has eased the effects of multiple sclerosis.

Many enthusiasts became familiar with the Paleo diet via the Whole30 Program, which follows the same concepts: Certain food groups, such as sugar, grains, dairy and legumes, could negatively impact one’s health. Participants follow the diet for 30 days to see how they feel and experiment. 

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Heather Hook of Wilmington is one of them. Hook decided to try the Whole30 when she couldn’t slide into a little-worn suit for a professional event. She hadn’t realized how much weight she’d gained until she had to put the suit back on the hanger and wear something else. She and 30 friends formed a Facebook page to encourage each other for the next 30 days.

Giving up sugar was an initial challenge. “You don’t realize that so many things have sugar in them, from alcohol to salad dressings,” she says. She didn’t lose significant weight, but she felt more energetic—and she stopped craving sugar. She continued following the principles and has since lost 40 pounds. That little-worn suit fit beautifully the last time she needed it.

She and Vansant are more relaxed about what they eat when they travel. At home, Hook says it helps to plan her meals for the week. “You feel dumb and awkward when you go out, asking for no sauce or a specialty plate, but most restaurants will adapt,” she says.

Eating For Health

Like the Paleo diet, DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) stresses vegetables and fruits—up to four-to-five daily servings of each. Sweets are limited to less than five servings a week. It also espouses a low-sodium, high-potassium diet to help lower blood pressure, and it promotes whole-grain products. DASH has been shown to lower the risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure, some types of cancer and type 2 diabetes. No wonder DASH has gotten high marks. U.S. News and World Report ranked it first overall on a list of 35 diets.

There’s also a version of DASH for people trying to lose weight. “The DASH eating plan happens to be perfect for weight loss because it’s based on foods that are naturally filling and satisfying … it is a plan that people enjoy following for a lifetime,” says Marla Heller, a registered dietitian and author of “The DASH Diet Action Plan” and, most recently, “The DASH Diet Younger You: Shed 20 Years—and Pounds—in Just 20 Weeks.”

You can go on the DASH diet without enrolling in a program; there are several books and websites devoted to the subject. Heller offers free support groups on Facebook. She suggests starting with the right amount of fruits and vegetables each day as a foundation. Then add the low-fat and nonfat dairy, nuts, beans, seeds, lean meats, fish, poultry and eggs. Next, incorporate the mostly whole grains and heart-healthy fats.

Turning Back The Clock

Unlike the DASH diet, the Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease is a structured approach, developed by Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito.

Medicare and several private insurers may fund the program if the insured meets certain criteria, such as having had a heart attack in the past 12 months, stable angina, a heart valve repair, a coronary artery bypass, a coronary angioplasty or coronary stenting or a heart or lung transplant. (Interested participants that don’t meet an insurer’s criteria can pay themselves.)

The diet stresses plant-based foods, predominately fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains. Fat is limited to 10 percent of the total daily calories, and cholesterol is limited to 10 milligrams or less per day. There’s no caffeine other than some green tea, and tobacco is verboten. (Some say it’s more challenging to give up coffee than red meat.)

Participants attend 18 four-hour sessions (two sessions a week), where they learn to prepare plant-based meals and introduce fiber into their diets. “Most people don’t eat enough fiber, and if you add it too quickly, it can lead to digestive problems,” explains Debra Dobles, a registered dietitian and the Ornish dietitian and medical nutrition therapist at Beebe Healthcare. Participants also learn to cook without oils.

Exercise and stress reduction are key elements. “Many of the participants have gone through a tremendous amount of health and personal stress,” Dobles says. They learn meditation and yoga. There are also group discussions. “It’s a motivator,” she explains. They provide “love and support.” The program at Beebe is expected to start in late spring.

Exercising Your Culinary Flexibility

Flexitarians primarily follow a plant-based diet, but they are “flexible,” meaning they eat meat, poultry or fish in moderation, according to the Mayo Clinic. They may go meatless several days a week—or more. “It’s a rapidly growing trend for lots of reasons,” says Patricia Haddock, president and co-founder of VegRehoboth, which organizes the Rehoboth Beach VegFest. (It’s scheduled for July 12-14 this year.)

“While not yet completely vegetarian or vegan, these people know that plant-based meals are better for their health, for the environment and for animals,” she says. “We see so many [flexitarians] at our events. They eat mostly plant-based and do it on their own terms—without any rigid rules. Every meat-free meal helps.”

Gretchen Hanson, owner of Hobos Restaurant & Bar in Rehoboth Beach, would agree. “Everyone knows that eating more plant-based meals is better for you. Period,” says Hanson, who holds classes to teach home cooks how to make dishes without animal products. Think of meat as a flavoring or garnish, Hanson says, rather than the focus of the plate. Not only is this a healthy way to eat, but it also makes steroid-free, grass-fed and organic products more affordable.

Photograph by Kevin Fleming

Gretchen Hanson of Hobos Restaurant & Bar in Rehoboth Beach prepares a healthy dish. 

Proceed With Caution

The four lifestyle diets share some characteristics, namely incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet. But there are differences. The Ornish diet, for instance, favors beans. The Paleo diet does not. The Paleo diet allows coconut oil. The Ornish diet steers participants away from saturated fats. Even olive oil is out for Ornish followers seeking to reverse heart disease. “For one person, an avocado is great. For another, it’s not,” Hanson notes. “I might thrive on oat milk. Another person can’t eat oats.”

No matter the diet, keep it simple. All these plans turn their backs on refined sugars and packaged products that have a lengthy list of unpronounceable ingredients. Advises Hanson, “Cook from scratch with no processed foods.”

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