A new year is upon us and with that many of us are taking stock and re-assessing aspects of our lives, especially our diets! Even if you aren’t into the New Year’s resolution thing, you may still be thinking about how you might improve your health this year. This kind of thinking typically results in promises to ourselves that sound something like this: I’ll eat better, exercise more, go to bed earlier, and stress less. Sound familiar? If one of your thoughts or resolutions is focused on eating better but you’re not sure where to start or need some diet tips, then this article is for you.
WHAT’S NEW IN DIET AND NUTRITION?
A lot has happened in the area of diet and nutrition over the last year. New studies have come out, fad diets have gained momentum, and the US Departments of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Agriculture (USDA) have released new dietary guidelines. The good news, despite all of this, not much has changed in regards to what will help you stay healthy. Most of the new studies have reinforced what was already known and the new dietary guidelines are in keeping with this. What we know… a plant-based diet low in animal products leads to better health and greater longevity, added sugar is not our friend, saturated fat is still bad for our hearts and blood vessels but not as bad as we once thought, teenage boys and men, in particular, are eating too much red meat, processed and red meat have been recognized as known and probable carcinogens (respectively), and once thought to be a health risk, dietary cholesterol has finally been absolved of that dubious status.
Fad diets have been around for ages but what I’ve seen increasing over the last several years is the number of physician-promoted nutritional plans and products. In a 2010 study, many physicians were found to have less knowledge in some areas of nutrition than their own patients! In addition, when tested on topics in nutrition, surveyed physicians got the right answer only half of the time. It takes extra effort and interest on behalf of the physician to educate themselves about nutrition, it’s simply not a normal part of their medical training. So yes, many of those physician-promoted nutritional plans are just fad diets meant to sell supplements and programs. What’s common in these plans is a combination of some sound nutritional planning mixed with some “medical” advice which is usually there to make their plan different from the freely accessible DASH, Mediterranean or other recommended diet plans. The problem is, this “medical” advice is often wrong.
Along with this, some physicians are sharing their own health stories and the diets they claim got them back to health. Now it’s great to share stories so others may learn, however, medically recommending a diet based on the results of one person is, well, unethical. What if a drug company were to test a drug on a single individual and it worked so it marketed it to everyone? See where I’m going here. This kind of strategy also plays on the hopes and fears of those suffering from diseases where conventional therapies fall short. That’s not to say that there isn’t value in the anecdotal and professional experience of physicians, there are lots to be learned from the accumulation of experiences from individuals’ stories. But be wary! Just because a diet or supplement has a “doctor’s” approval or recommendation, doesn’t mean it’s the best or even a sound plan for you and your health.
WHAT’S YOUR HEALTH GOAL?
So how do you know what diet or eating plan is right for you? First, you have to determine what your health goals are. Are you trying to lower your blood pressure? Lose weight? Prevent a specific disease? Or are you looking for an eating plan that will support your health in general? It’s important to know what your goals are because while all of the best eating plans/diets share the same fundamentals, reduce processed food, saturated fat, and sugar intakes, eliminate trans-fats, eat whole, plant-based foods with small amounts of animal products, you want the diet to address your specific needs. Let’s say for example your goal is to lower your blood pressure, then along with following the healthy diet fundamentals, you’ll want to follow a diet that has special considerations for what is known to influence blood pressure, like salt intake. So take stock of your health and decide where you want to be 6 months and a year from now. This will help you choose a diet best suited to helping you reach your health goals.
WHERE TO START?
Now that you have your health goals figured out, where do you find the right diet? I suggest starting with this year’s US News and World Reports ranking of diets. It’s not that I think the rankings are so great but it has all of the popular and arguably the best diets listed with lots of information. It’s an outstanding place to start to become familiar with the different diets and where you can find more information. You really can’t go wrong with any of the top 5 diets listed in the Best Overall category. I’m particularly partial to the Mediterranean diet. Why? Because it has a tremendous amount of research behind it that goes back decades and includes 10s of thousands of individuals studied. In addition, there’s a tremendous amount of latitude in the Mediterranean diet that allows you to individualize it to your tastes. If you look closely, you’ll see that the top 3 diets are modifications of the Mediterranean diet.
MEDITERRANEAN DIET CONSIDERATIONS
If you do consider the Mediterranean diet there are a few things to know. Dr.Catherine Itsiopoulos at La Trobe University, Australia, a leader in the Mediterranean diet in the “prevention and management of cardiovascular disease and diabetes” research, estimates that there are at least 30 different Mediterranean diets. These range from the Roman diet, heavy with breads and pastas, to the Southern Spanish and Greek diets. Dr. Itsiopoulos believes that while all of these diets have healthy properties, primarily due to the olive oil and tomato intake, the Cretan diet is the healthiest, due to the very high vegetable and fruit consumption. So be aware that not all Mediterranean diets are the same or have the same health benefits. These differences are what often lead to confusion and frustration when trying to follow this diet.
OTHER DIET CONSIDERATIONS
Other factor involved in choosing a diet, besides your health goals, includes your food preferences (likes and dislikes), health state, food intolerances and allergies, and food availability. There may be an adjustment period but you have to like and enjoy the foods that you eat. If your diet is filled with foods you have to force yourself to eat then this is not a long-term option. Ultimately your willpower will break down and you’ll go back to your old eating habits. And as we know, what we eat serves us best when we eat well over a long period of time. In addition to your likes and dislikes, you should avoid foods that you are allergic to or are intolerant of. Allergies and intolerances only serve to drive up your inflammation and that’s not going to help your health. If you have a chronic health condition, you should consult your physician and find a nutritionist experienced with counseling individuals with your disease. In fact, if you’re completely befuddled by all the diets, then getting help from a certified nutritionist is one of the best investments in your health that you can make. A good nutritionist can work with you to identify your diet deficiencies while taking into account your health goals, and food preferences to create an individualized eating plan.
Finally, here’s a few more tips to keep your diet healthy and sensible:
- Eliminate added sugar. Saturated fat has taken the wrap for sugar for decades. New data have demonstrated that sugar may be the bigger culprit in driving up cholesterol levels, contributing to chronic inflammation and increasing our risk of preventable diseases. Avoid foods like cereals, breads, pasta sauces, salad dressings etc., that have added sugar. Don’t avoid whole foods with naturally occurring sugars like whole fruits and dairy foods (unless you’re intolerant or allergic, obviously!). The sugars occurring in fruits and dairy also come with other benefits so don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
- Eat your green veggies. I can’t emphasize this enough. We simply don’t eat enough vegetables and particularly the green ones. These vegetables are powerhouses, packed with vitamins, minerals, and healthy phytochemicals while being incredibly low in calories.
- Chose a diet with diversity. To maximize the nutritional content of foods, eat a variety of foods. When you get stuck in a food rut and eat the same things all the time you run the risk of missing out on certain vitamins and minerals not to mention certain phytochemicals and good fats. You also run the risk of limiting your gut microbes to certain populations that are not as healthy as those associated with a diverse diet.
- Eat it raw, eat it cooked. Like eating a variety of foods, eating both cooked and raw vegetables will help you maximize their nutritional content. When you do cook, opt for a quick steam, boil* or microwaving.
- Cook at home more. Eating out isn’t the luxury it used to be, in fact, it’s become quite common. From fatfood (oops, I mean fastfood) to fine dining, we’re eating more meals prepared outside of the home. Unfortunately, this isn’t good for our health. Prepared food, even from the best restaurants, carry with them more calories, fat, salt, and sugar than home-cooked meals.
- Eat what you love, love what you eat. Elimination diets tend to work only in the short-term. Adopt a healthy diet with foods that you love. Learn to cook healthy versions of your favorites or allow yourself to have your favorites on occasion.
- Avoid restrictive diets. Be cautious of any diet that has you eliminating whole categories of foods. Unless you have a medical reason to do so, avoiding healthy, whole foods can be a mistake. If you are allergic to certain foods, are intolerant or have a chronic condition like Inflammatory Bowel Disease or Diabetes, then these are good reasons to avoid certain foods or food groups but otherwise resist the temptations to join the latest restrictive fad diet. Avoiding whole categories of foods can leave you nutritionally unbalanced, cause you to acquire nutritional deficiencies, and have you missing out on some pretty significant health benefits.
- Do it for the long haul. Good nutrition will support your health for a lifetime so adopt a diet you can stick with and modify as needed. Your body will reap the benefits.
* A new study released after the writing of this article suggests that vegetables fried in olive oil may provide superior nutrition to those boiled. You can read the article HERE
DO I NEED TO FOLLOW A SPECIFIC DIET?
No, not necessarily. If you have a firm grasp of the fundamentals (re-read the bolded text above) then you can probably manage a healthy diet on your own. However, you should consider tracking your food intake for a week or so, if you don’t already, to ensure that you are getting enough minerals and vitamins and to be sure that you have the right balance of macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates). I find that most people’s diet is deficient of some vitamins or minerals on a regular basis when they eat on their own. You may want to use one of the diets as a guideline and modify it to your needs and likes. I do this myself with the Mediterranean diet. BUT be careful that you don’t modify out the healthy aspects of the diet! And remember, if in doubt, seek out an experienced nutritionist to work with you.
Until next time, stay well!
Dr. Tobi Schmidt