I’m a bit of a nutrition nerd, even if I don’t always follow what I learn. If you come to my house, you’ll see bookshelves lined with books about nutrition, often conflicting each other. I’ve tried almost every “diet” out there, from low carb, to paleo, to high carb, high fiber, to vegan…and everything in between. Recently, I’ve been studying nutrition even more intently as part of a training I’m preparing for. (More on that another time.)
There are a few things that are confusing about nutrition for me and they might also be confusing for you. Let me break those down first.
- Nutrition Research is ALWAYS changing…and contradicting itself!
- Special diets for different health issues (or to avoid those issues) often conflict with each other.
- While one person might thrive under a specific diet…another won’t.
Let’s hit #1 first…
Nutrition Research is ALWAYS changing…and contradicting itself!
I think this might be one of the top reasons people just give up altogether. Remember when fat was bad and carbs were good? We all ate high fiber cereals and bagels like crazy but avoided scrambled eggs. Eating dietary cholesterol was BAD. Then, researchers came back and said “NO!!! IT’S THE CARBS!!!” and everyone went Paleo, avoiding carbohydrates and eating tons of meat. More recently, phytoestrogens in tofu were bad for you and would give you cancers…now research is showing that they’re actually not bad for you after all. I can see why it seems impossible to choose a healthy diet. Today’s super food might be found to kill you tomorrow…so why NOT eat pizza?
Special diets for different health issues often conflict with each other.
This one has driven me nuts every time we’ve met with a registered dietitian to talk about my husband’s diet. He has a mix of chronic illnesses that are sadly very common in the US; type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Given that this triad is so common, I thought it would be easy for a dietitian to recommend a diet to address all 3.
I was wrong.
When he was in the hospital for his triple bypass, the RD who came to see us recommended a standard low fat, high fiber diet for his heart disease. When she finished, I finally asked, “Won’t what you’ve just recommended wreck his blood sugar, since it’s so high in carbohydrates?”
“Oh yeah,” she responded, “You’ll definitely want to watch those.”
“Ok, can you recommend a diet that does that and addresses his heart disease?”
After some fumbling around she admitted that we’d need to talk to his endocrinologist about that. His endocrinology team recommended a diet low in carbs, but as you might expect, it was higher in some things that the heart disease diet didn’t recommend. There really was no one diet for all the issues that my husband had. Don’t even get me started on the craziness that ensued when we added in cancer treatment and later an ostomy. Just feeding the poor man often feels like Mission Impossible with a list of maybe 3 foods that won’t wreck some health issue. Is it any wonder so many people just give up?
While one person might thrive under a specific diet…another won’t.
While blood type diets or some kind of futuristic gene type diets might just be scams, there is some truth to the idea that diet may be more individual than we ever thought. I have friends who are extremely healthy on extremely low carb keto and I have others who are insanely healthy on a high fiber diet. Some of it is what they’re doing…a bodybuilder needs different nutrition than a long distance runner and both of them need different nutrition than an office worker, but some of it also comes down to our individual bodies and what feels best to us. I for one can’t function on too low of carbs, my brain just shuts down. I also don’t do well on too high of carbs, either.
Again, if you’re trying what’s working for others and it’s not working for you…it can be REALLY tempting just to chuck the whole thing!
So…besides all this depressing stuff…what have I learned?
In all my reading and research and the programs I’ve been taking and studying, as well as my mad scientist experiments on my family (who are wonderfully patient when I turn the kitchen upside down and suddenly change everything we’re eating), what I’ve found is actually pretty simple and is some of the few principles pretty much every successful diet follows.
- Cut out processed foods.
- Cook at home.
- Eat mostly plants, particularly low carbohydrate plants.
- Eat a variety of foods as close to their original state as possible. (Fruits versus juices, whole nuts versus nut butters, etc.)
- Be mindful of what you’re eating.
And that’s it. When you compare diet religions (and really…diet systems often take on an aura of religion about them), the one that is best for you is the one that you can stick to and that mostly follows those 5 principles. What do my high fiber, high carb friend AND my keto friend have in common? Both base most of their diet in the produce section and the bulk of it is low carb vegetables. My higher carb friend throws in some high fiber carbs to fuel his runs and my keto friend throws in more cheese to keep him full, but both are eating a lot of home cooked veggies.
There has never (to my knowledge) been a study that came out and said, “Eat less broccoli” or that zucchini were going to give you a dreaded disease and any registered dietitian is going to be happy if you’re eating more vegetables and less processed junk. Looking back, every time I’ve lost weight or we’ve improved my husband’s bloodwork numbers, whether it was when we did the Whole 30 or when we went Whole Food Plant Based, the one common denominator was that we were eating a ton of plants and they were being cooked at home.
Beyond that, it comes down to a system that works for you. Because I struggle with eating proper portion sizes even of healthy foods, I use a system that makes it easy for me to keep track of that with containers. For others, counting calories or points helps or keeping a food log. Still others prefer a system that divides up their plate each meal. Whatever works for you to be more mindful of what you’re eating will usually help you stop overeating.
So…will eggs kill me? Probably not, especially if I’m eating them as just one part of a healthy diet that has a mix of foods and a lot of plants.
The key is finding something that you can stick to long term, without feeling so deprived that you binge the minute you get a chance. Some people can have a cheat day or follow an 80/20 rule, but for others that first treat becomes a binge and they need to find healthier treats instead. The key is getting to know yourself and how different foods make you feel as well as what healthy eating system works best for you and fits with your life.
And I’m here if you want a cheerleader and sounding board.