Special Diets 101

What's vegan food? Is organic food better? Who eats gluten-free?

Colorful icons and highlighted boxes are popping up on food packages, new designations are appearing on restaurant menus, and new terms are all the rage in advertising of food items.  "Non-GMO," "gluten-free" and other tags have joined the ranks of "cholesterol-free," "nonfat," and "sugar-free." The giant food industry is quick to jump on new eating trends in order to expand their sales, and they are constantly flooding the supermarkets with new concoctions to cater to special dietary needs (not necessarily in the interest of good nutrition). Huge corporate food producers have bought up small niche companies in order to add "healthy" divisions to their offerings (General Mills owns Cascadian Farms and Muir Glen; Kraft owns Back to Nature; Dean owns Horizon and Silk; Kellogg owns Morningstar Farms, and the list goes on and on).

Food labels and designations can be confusing and might turn you off from a product, just because you don't understand what they mean. Do all vegetarian burgers taste like cardboard? Are gluten-free cookies as good as "the real thing?"  Of course, there is an element of trust with buying any labelled food product (is it truly organic?), which is a subject for discussion in itself. But if you are curious about these new dietary terms, here's a short guide to the most frequently used diet terms flagging foods today.

Note first that by "diet" I don't mean weight-loss diets (which I personally believe are destined to failure) or diets prescribed for specific health issues (like coronary blockages). I am an advocate of an every-day LIFESTYLE DIET. From my own research, experience, and practices, I know that I can maintain normal weight and good health through nutrition… combined with other living habits such as regular exercise, unpolluted air and water, adequate sleep, no smoking or prescription meds, limited alcohol or caffeine, and low stress. Thankfully, I don't suffer from any chronic diseases or major ailments. I'm not overweight, I have lots of energy, I rarely get sick, and my memory is pretty sharp... so I must be doing something right, huh? I believe in being responsible for my health. Years ago I observed friends who discarded a lifestyle of overeating and indulging in non-nutritious foods only after suffering a heart attack or getting cancer treatments. It just made sense to me to start following a path of prevention through eating healthy food. I've investing lots of time educating myself and continuously learning about different foods and how to prepare them, and I enjoy sharing my knowledge to help others.

My homemade gluten-free pumpkin bread, from organic butternut squash I grew
My own lifestyle diet is a combination of several of those listed below, but I'm not totally rigid. As you know from reading this blog, I like food which tastes good and doesn't make me feel like I'm missing any pleasures of eating. My diet is rich with plant foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, herbs). I prefer organically produced whole foods, favor foods locally raised and produced, eat gluten-free and non-GMO, limit seafood to wild-caught options, drink green tea, use raw apple cider vinegar and honey daily, drink daily green smoothies, opt for red wine when drinking alcohol, choose free-range poultry products, look for meat and dairy items without added hormones and antibiotics, and I love very dark chocolate. I limit sweets, and use sweeteners such as stevia from my garden (fresh, dried, and in a tincture), local honey, sorghum syrup from nearby Mennonites, maple syrup from Vermont friends, and some agave and coconut palm sugar. I avoid processed foods, trans fats, and most imported foods (particularly from countries whose food production systems introduce many toxins). I mostly cook from scratch, and I don't knowingly eat foods which contain artificial sweeteners, chemical additives, nitrates, fake flavorings, artificial colorings, chemical preservatives, and other non-food ingredients. I was surprised when a friend started chuckling, overseeing me offered a handful of candy and spontaneously reacting with the reply: "No thanks, I don't eat food that color."

Manufactured foods turn me off. I recently started boycotting products from manufacturers who contributed to the campaign against GMO labeling in California, figuring they must want to include GMOs in their ingredients. When the processes of refining foods results in loss of nutrients - as when the bran and grain are removed from wheat to make white flour - manufacturers "enrich" their products by adding replacement vitamins and minerals - these don't belong on my plate. I don't eat "super-foods" to which manufacturers have added ingredients which they think are deficient in my diet, like vitamin D in orange juice. I don't eat "fake foods," like imitation crab.
Organically grown strawberries fit the "whole food" designation
Or like Cool Whip, invented as a substitute for whipped cream, and originally did not even include any dairy components. Its ingredients list frightens me, and I don't want most of these things in my body: water, hydrogenated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, skim milk, light cream, caseinate (a milk derivative), natural and artificial flavor, xanthan and guar gums, polysorbate 60, sorbitan monostearate and beta carotene for coloring… no thanks! I'm also fussy about the details - I love salmon and appreciate its health benefits with omega-3 fatty acids, but I refuse to buy farm-raised salmon, bred in foreign polluted waters, dosed with antibiotics to counter the poor living conditions, and fed artificial colors to give it "red" flesh for eye appeal. Also, I'm not attracted to "cheap" food (I am suspicious of it too); I am willing to pay higher prices in order to stick to my preferences, because it's worth it to me and good quality food is one of my priorities. I admit to occasional deviations from my lifestyle diet though; if a friend invites me to a dinner of homemade pasta (with wheat flour), I don't decline, and I enjoy the meal (though it might make me gassy hours later). But if I know a dessert is made with Splenda, I happily pass.


The lifestyle diet list below is by no means exhaustive or definitive, but you can use it as a general guide. I am not claiming that any one of these diets is exclusively beneficial or even better than another. I don't even believe that all of these are necessarily healthy - I know vegetarians who are hooked on diet soda and sugary desserts, I've seen gluten-free crackers that are unnecessarily laden with starches and sugar, and I've met raw foodies who look like walking skeletons. There are those who choose one diet or another for reasons other than nutrition too, like vegetarians focusing on animal rights. I merely hope this article will help you understand some dietary options and allow you to make better choices about what you eat.


Organic foods are those grown and produced without using synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. They also not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, chemical ripening, or chemical additives. They do not contain genetically modified organisms (see below), artificial food additives, and, in the case of livestock, have not been treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. Proponents cite evidence that organic food is more nutritious, safer and more healthy than conventional food. Many advocates of organic food argue that it avoids introducing known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) and other toxins into the diet and also results in more flavorful food.

Organic food has become a very highly regulated industry, under regulations set by the USDA (which also allows other certifying bodies, like Oregon Tilth). Organic certification product labels indicate that government regulations and established standards are adhered to, and third-party inspectors have insured the organic procedures. To receive official organic certification and display labeling as such, producers must pay. Some small operators opt to avoid these fees even though they maintain the same organic growing and production practices; you might encounter this among vendors at farmers' markets or local farms.


Whole foods are those which undergo minimal or no processing and/or refining. They are offered close to how they are produced by nature. They are not genetically modified (see below), colored, made by synthetic methods, or laden with additives. They do not contain added ingredients. This is more a category of foods than a type of diet. Whole foods might be used to describe foods such as dried beans, minimally treated fruits and vegetables, wild caught seafood, spices, herbs, raw unprocessed dairy products, whole grains, nuts, seeds, free range eggs, organically raised meats. Obviously, the chain which goes by the name Whole Foods offers much more than this definition; it's a health food supermarket. Proponents believe that eating the whole foods can help prevent and heal diseases, since they offer more complex nutrient profiles and include naturally occurring substances which are often lost in processing. Whole foods are generally offered in their natural harvested state, and are also sometimes preserved with methods such as dehydration, canning, or freezing.


Vegetarian diets are plant-based, concentrating on vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices. Vegetarians, by definition, exclude red meat, poultry, game, and seafood. One vegetarian I know says she doesn't eat anything which ever had eyes!

More specific definitions of vegetarians exist. Ovo-lacto (or Lacto-ovo) vegetarians do not eat animal flesh of any kind, but consume eggs and dairy products (cheese, yogurt, cow's milk, etc.); lacto-vegetarians nix eggs and eat dairy products; ovo-vegetarians nix dairy and eat eggs.

Vegans (I've heard it pronounced "vee-gans" or "vay-gans") restrict their food choices further than vegetarians, excluding all animal products from the diet (including food items like honey since it's produced by bees, or baked goods which use dairy milk solids, or gelatin products since gelatin comes from animal bones and other parts). Many vegans extend their animal-free choices to health and beauty aids, clothing and furnishings (no leather, sheepskin, suede, wool, furs, down), drugs, and many other non-food products, for ethical reasons.


A gluten-free diet avoids the protein "gluten," found in grains most commonly used to make flour, such as wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten provides the elasticity in doughs used for breads, and modern wheat varieties have been hybridized in ways which have resulted in increased gluten content. Many derivatives of these grains are also ingredients in a wide variety of processed food products, including flavorings, seasonings, condiments, and sides.

A growing number of people are eliminating glutens because they are sensitive or intolerant to ingesting glutens. Some, like me, follow a gluten-free diet for improved health, finding it brings relief from allergies, skin problems, joint pain, acid reflux, digestive problems, and other ailments. Researchers now believe that a third of us are likely gluten intolerant/sensitive. Others who must totally avoid glutens suffer from the autoimmune dysfunction called Celiac disease. These sufferers can have dangerous reactions even to minute gluten residue from cooking utensils and surfaces, like grills used to cook wheat flour pancakes and then used to fry eggs, or a rubber spatula used to mix standard cookie dough and then used to stir a rice dish. Non-gluten grains (like oats) processed in factories which process wheat might be contaminated with gluten and can cause serious problems for those most sensitive.

For this reason, food products marked "gluten-free" are supposed to contain no gluten-laden ingredients and are supposed to have been processed and prepared in environments where no gluten products have been used or handled. Alternatives to foods commonly made from wheat include non-gluten grains (oats, corn, rice, quinoa); starches (tapioca, corn, potato); nuts and seeds (sorghum, buckwheat, millet, almonds).


Non-GMO:  Genetically-modified organisms most commonly refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption whose genetic composition has been altered, using molecular biology techniques. Genes from one species (sometimes from plants, sometimes from animals) are inserted to different plant species, often using a virus or bacteria as a carrier. Plants have been modified in the laboratory to introduce traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or insects, or longer shelf life. Soybeans and corn are the top two most widely grown GMO crops, with cotton, rapeseed (or canola) and potatoes trailing behind.
Non-GMO eggplant growing in my garden

Proponents of GM foods hail them as the answer to feeding the exploding world population. Opponents site many problems and risks, including unintended harm to other organisms, reduced effectiveness of pesticides, cross-breeding of GMO plants into non-modified crops, sterilization of plant seeds, and other damaging effects to the environment, human health and economic concerns. There are hosts of known and unknown effects on human health from GMO food crops, and those who eat non-GMO foods aim to avoid unexpected and negative impacts on their health.


The Paleo Diet (also called Primal Diet or Grain-Free Diet) is onbe I've encountered while looking at gluten-free blogs, and I had no idea what it meant. It is based on the simple premise that if cavemen from the Paleolithic era (10,000 to 2.5 million years ago) didn’t eat it, you shouldn’t either. Paleo advocates say we should eat the way humans ate when they were hunter/gathers. These humans predate the agricultural revolution during which grains reigned; they ate what nature offered. Followers of the Paleo diet believe our modern diet differs enormously from that of the distant past, which the human digestive system remains the same, with numerous health problems resulting. This diet eliminates refined sugar, dairy, legumes, and grains. It focuses on meat, fish, poultry, eggs, fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds. Foods allowed are generally gluten-free, grain free and high in protein.


Raw Foods are those which have not been cooked, processed, microwaved, irradiated, genetically engineered, or exposed to pesticides or herbicides, and some advocate a diet based totally on eating raw. Foods allowed include fresh fruits, berries, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and herbs in their whole, natural state. Proponents say cooking obliterates most of the vitamins in food and nearly all of the immune-boosting plant nutrients. Dehydrated foods are allowed, but only those dried below specified temperatures.


Glycemic Index Diet is based upon eating from its list of “good” carbs - bran cereal and many fruits and veggies, like apples and carrots, for example - to control appetite, delay hunger, and promoting weight loss. “Bad” carbs, like white bread and instant mashed potatoes, are quickly digested and released into the bloodstream, spiking blood sugar and making you hungry sooner. The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of a carb’s effect on blood sugar. Good carbs are lower on the glycemic index. They are digested slowly, so you feel fuller longer, and your blood sugar and metabolism don’t go out of whack. This way of eating is suggested for cutting risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. To eat this way, you track where different carbs fall on the 0-100 GI index. You fill up on low-GI carbs (55 and under), eat smaller amounts of medium-GI carbs (56 to 69), and limit high-GI carbs (70 and up). Lists of carbs in each category are available online.


Now you are armed with knowledge to design a lifestyle diet which you can follow!