What is the Best Diet?
Our diet, or the food and drink we consume, is the most powerful determinant of our overall health and wellness. It can be our best ally, or our worst enemy. Unfortunately it can be difficult to know how to build a healthy diet with all the conflicting dietary plans out there. Should you follow a low carbohydrate diet or a low fat diet? What about the Paleolithic diet that many CrossFit athletes swear by? Or the Mediterranean diet full of olive oil, lentils, and red wine? Or should you completely eliminate all animal products and go vegan?!? It doesn’t help that new studies are coming out each week confirming either what we know or telling us we’ve had it all wrong this whole time, or what was once bad is now good, and vice versa. The controversy over fat is a great example of this (and something I will tackle in another blog post soon!).
So, is there one “best” diet that everyone should follow and that I recommend to all of my clients? Well, that’s a yes…..and a no. While we all need vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, and carbohydrates to be healthy, the amounts we need are based on our bio-individuality. There is no one-size-fits-all diet, and each of us has our own nutritional requirements. Some things that can affect the amounts needed include our age, if we’re dealing with an illness or injury, and our activity levels. We also have different cultural backgrounds and beliefs that may affect what foods we consume. I take all of these factors into consideration when working with clients.
It’s important to note that there have been no rigorous, long-term studies comparing contenders for the best diet laurels using methodology that precludes bias and confounding, and for many reasons such studies are unlikely. In the absence of such direct comparisons, claims for the established superiority of any one specific diet over others are exaggerated. The weight of evidences strongly supports a theme of healthful eating while allowing for variations on that theme (Katz & Meller, 2014).
According to Katz and Meller’s findings (2014) the fundamentals of virtually all eating patterns that are health promoting and disease preventing have certain aspects in common:
- The diet is comprised of minimally processed foods direct from nature.
- The diet is comprised of mostly plants.
- Any animal products (if the diet includes them) come from animals that were fed a species appropriate diet (i.e. pasture raised chickens/eggs, grass-fed cows/milk/butter/yogurt, wild caught fish). So again, a mostly plant based diet even for the animals.
I think journalist and author Michael Pollan stated it very succinctly in his book In Defense of Food: An eater’s manifesto – Eat Food. Not too Much. Mostly Plants.
When we base our diets on real, whole foods (foods that do not need an ingredient label because they have ONE ingredient, the food itself – blueberries, bell peppers, wild salmon, pasture raised eggs, avocado etc.) we are supplying our body with a multitude of nutrients perfectly packaged by nature. It is difficult to over consume real, whole foods and take in excess of what our body needs. Whole foods nourish us, keep our blood sugar levels stable, and reduce food cravings and energy slumps. This helps us maintain a healthy body weight, and decreases our chances of developing chronic diseases like type II diabetes mellitus, atherosclerosis, and cancer.
Just as our diet composition is so important to our health, the diet composition of the animals we consume is also important. Commercially raised animals are fed a diet of primarily grains which fattens them up and gets them ready for processing faster. For example, cows are meant to eat primarily grass, but are often fed corn and soy because it’s cheaper. Grazing in the pasture and eating grass is a cow’s species appropriate diet. The high intake of grains causes inflammation in the animal, fattier meat, higher levels of pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids, and lower levels of vitamins and minerals. All of this gets passed along to us and affects our health.
Variety is another significant factor in a healthful diet. The more variety in the types of foods we consume the more variety of nutrients we will get. So, mix up your meals! Don’t eat the same exact breakfast every day or the same sandwich for lunch etc. Eating with the seasons can be helpful in building variety into your diet. Eat those apples in the fall, squash in the winter, and berries in the summer when they are in season. Eating with the seasons can also help cut down on your grocery bill as seasonal fruits and veggies, especially if they are grown locally, tend to be less expensive. I live in New York and I can tell you the fresh strawberries are very expensive here in February and March because they are coming all they way from Southern California! You can check out what fruits and veggies are in season near you by visiting: www.seasonalfoodguide.org.
I listed a number of diets or eating structures above (low carb, paleo, vegan etc.) and they can all be health promoting if they are based around real whole foods, mostly plants, and animal products from animals fed species appropriate diets. That being said, many of them can be very hard to stick with long term and can make it difficult to get all essential vitamins and minerals your body needs to be healthy. For example, vitamin B12 which is necessary for normal maturation of red blood cells and preservation of the myelin sheath that surrounds neurons can only be found in adequate amounts in animal foods. No plant foods offer adequate amounts of B12 and someone who follows a vegetarian or vegan diet may be deficient in this important vitamin. As a nutrition consultant it would be my job to help a client who follows a vegetarian or vegan eating pattern how to make sure they get adequate B12. This could be from booster foods such as nutritional yeast, incorporating more dried shiitake mushrooms or purple nori, or a B12 supplement.
If you feel like your current dietary patterns are not supporting your health and wellness goals or you’ve tried every “diet” out there and still know deep down you can feel better please consider working with a Board Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant®. I can help you create a nutrition and lifestyle plan based on your individual needs and food preferences. I offer a no strings attached 20 minute Nourish to Flourish Strategy Session where we can discuss your health concerns and goals and I will answer any questions you have about my practice and how I may be able to help you. I view our work together as a partnership, where we will co-create a wellness vision and plan to help you achieve your goals. Please e-email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 716-712-4623 to schedule your free session!
Katz, D. L., & Meller, S. (2014). Can we say what diet is best for health?. Annual review of public health, 35, 83–103. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev publhealth-032013-182351
Pollan, M. (2008). In defense of food: An eater’s manifesto. The Penguin Group.