Today’s guest post is by Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD, author of Nutrition By Carrie. Carrie’s post is full of sound advice on the common denominators of healthy diets.
What’s the healthiest way to eat? That depends on who you ask.
At times, it may seem like everyone from your neighbor to your coworker to the latest best-selling diet book author claims to know the One Perfect Way to eat for weight loss or health, but odds are that these dietary advocates disagree with each other in some fundamental ways. So, who’s right…and who’s wrong?
The truth is this: There is no one single way to eat for good health, no one perfect diet. When someone sings the praises of a specific way of eating, they may have found the diet that works best for them, and probably for some other people, too. But that doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.
As a species, we humans are quite similar on a cellular and genetic level, yet as individual specimens we can be amazingly diverse. That’s why your neighbor may have endless energy on a vegan diet while a paleo diet makes your coworker feel like they’re on top of the world. Ironically, these two dietary patterns appear to be polar opposites: The paleo diet includes meat but excludes grains and legumes, while the vegan diet includes grains and legumes but excludes meat and other animal products. How can both diets work? The answer lies in what they have in common.
What healthy diets have in common
I know paleo dietitians and vegan dietitians who eat wonderfully healthy, balanced diets. Their food provides high-quality fuel for their bodies, but they also enjoy what they eat. Yes, their diets have some big differences, but they have two huge similarities: They include lots of vegetables and they minimize highly processed foods.
Lots of vegetables and minimal processed foods. Those are the common denominators of a healthy diet. From there, you can fill in the blanks to suit your taste buds and unique physiological needs by adding your choice of quality fats (nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, fatty fish) carbohydrates (whole grains, fruit, starchy root vegetables) and plant- or animal-based protein (legumes, soy, fish, sustainably raised meat, poultry, eggs, dairy).
We need a varied diet in order to get the vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients required for optimal health and wellness, but there are endless combinations of foods that will get us to that goal. While we all need carbohydrates, fat and protein, there is no “magic” ratio that we should be striving for.
The nutritional big picture
When working with clients, I see problems arise when they focus on what they DON’T eat (like meat or grains), instead of being thoughtful about what they DO eat. Failing to see the big nutritional picture can easily lead to a “healthy diet” that isn’t so healthy, after all. For example, a paleo diet that includes lots of processed meats, paleo cookies and coconut milk ice cream with very few vegetables isn’t terribly healthy. Neither is a vegan diet that is low on veggies, high on white bread, pasta, vegan cookies and soy ice cream.
Taken to extremes, fixating on avoiding meat or sugar or gluten can make us dogmatic about our diets, even turning our dietary choices into a core element of our identities. (“You are what you eat” shouldn’t be taken literally.)
An intuitive approach
It’s a wonderful thing that there are many ways to eat healthfully and well, but it means that to find your optimal diet, you need to trust your body to tell you what that diet looks like. For many of us, it can be hard to relearn this intuitive approach, which we all had when we were small children!
To start, let yourself choose from quality, nutrient-rich foods, and pay attention to how you feel. Do you feel energized for hours when you eat oatmeal for breakfast, or do you need more protein from, say, eggs or Greek yogurt? Do you run best on three square meals a day, three meals plus snacks, or six mini meals? Do you feel energized after eating meat, or tired? Are there certain “healthy” foods that make you feel bloated? Then they probably aren’t healthy foods for you!
Keep in mind that while it may feel easier to simply adopt a ready-made dietary formula, it’s rarely sustainable or satisfying. Investing in yourself by learning how to forge your own personal, intuitive path can help you enjoy the act of eating while realizing improved health and wellness for the rest of your life. It’s about finding that sweet spot between eating to live and living to eat.
Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD, is a Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition columnist for The Seattle Times. She provides in-person and virtual nutrition counseling and coaching via www.carriedennett.com and blogs at www.nutritionbycarrie.com. She enjoys cooking, baking, vegetable gardening, reading traveling and going on long walks with her husband and golden retriever.