The Perfect Diet?
With so much conflicting information on the best diet to follow or the ‘right’ foods to eat, all promising the Holy Grails of weight loss and vibrant health, it’s no surprise people are lost in their confusion as to which approach to take. So what is the best diet to follow?
Working as a nutritional therapist, I’ve seen time and time again the confusion that surrounds food and dieting. And it’s no wonder, thanks to the increasing array of conflicting dietary approaches, each promising effortless weight loss and vibrant health. Few could have ignored the increase in health and diet advice available in the bookshops and online during the past few years. Healthy eating is now enjoying, more than ever before, a huge surge in interest and popularity. ‘Clean eating’ has become something to be held in esteem, and our increasing thirst for such advice and recipes has made celebrities out of wellbeing writer and bloggers, who are scoring book deals and smashing best-selling records.
We are being sold the merits of quite different and often conflicting dietary approaches, including vegan, vegetarian, paleo, primal, Mediterranean, raw, sugar free, gluten free, dairy free, low calorie, low fat, low carb, alkalising, detoxing, and the list goes on. Previously forbidden foods are now superfoods and skipping meals, while once considered a no-no, has become a popular dietary approach thanks to the media coverage of intermittent fasting. Some diets work well in the short term but are hard to follow for very long, and many are downright harmful to health. So which approach is best?
Wouldn’t it be convenient if there really was one perfect diet for everyone; but sadly this never has and never will be the case. What you eat just isn’t and shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. We are all biochemically individual and have different needs when it comes to the amount and types of food we should be eating, and our nutritional needs vary from day to day, month to month and over the course of our lifetime. While a low carbohydrate approach, for example, may be therapeutically useful in certain situations and may suit one person at one time in their life, it may not suit them or even be necessary in the long term, or be right at any stage for their partner or colleague.
Starting from a basic standpoint, children’s nutritional needs are very different from those of an adult, women’s needs are different from men’s, pregnant women’s needs are different from those of non-pregnant women, and an elderly person’s needs are different again. Add in other factors such as seasons, stress, exercise, genetic variations, food allergies and sensitivities, illness and disease, all of which can have a bearing on nutritional needs, and it is clear to see why we shouldn’t all be eating the same diet in order to be healthy. Recognising our individual needs may make dietary choice feel confusing, but on the whole things have become far more complicated than they need to be.
We have become so reliant on someone else telling us which foods are OK to enjoy, and as a result we have lost the ability to listen to our own internal cues and guidance when it comes to knowing what is best for us or our families at any one time. We expect diet books and blogs to solve our health problems and work miracles, but alongside our diverse biochemical needs, most of us have inherited and developed a unique emotional relationship with food. From infancy we can quickly learn that food can be used as a reward or punishment, as a comfort or an integral part of celebrations. We model our eating behaviour on our parents, our peers and as a result of media coverage showing us how we should look.
Our modern idea of healthy eating and the perfect diet has also been heavily influenced by what we know now as flawed research on low-calorie and low-fat dieting, leading to many following punishing diets without long-term success. Indeed, the nation has steadily become fatter over the past 50 years despite such dietary advice. Busy, expensive lifestyles mean that we are focused on how we can save time and money when shopping for and preparing food, as well as when trying to lose weight.
Processed foods have become commonplace in most households for this reason, and while these options may be tempting and despite any health claims the manufacturers may make, the reality
is that compared to unprocessed foods they are devoid of nutrients and instead tend to contain plenty of salt, sugar, sweeteners and additives. Despite the clever messages and health claims displayed on the packaging, the motivation behind the sourcing and choice of ingredients will only ever be about profit.
An insider in the business once told me that when it comes to processed food, you really doget what you pay for – if it’s cheap, it’s because the ingredients will be of the very poorest quality. The manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to cut spending and grow profit. It’s no coincidence that rates of diabetes, obesity, cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disease, depression and anxiety have increased dramatically since processed foods became mainstays of our diet. What you eat, after all, is all your body has to use to carry out its huge array of complicated biochemical processes. Upset the balance with too much salt, sugar, chemical additives and refined carbohydrates, remove any vital nutrients and things start to go wrong.
This way of eating has taken us a long way from where we started. We evolved over millions of years eating foods found in nature – predominantly meat, fish, nuts and seeds, vegetables and fruit. It wasn’t until the agricultural revolution that cereal grains and dairy products became an ever-increasing part of our diets, and then following the industrial revolution processed foods became more widely available.
The trouble is, our bodies just haven’t caught up yet. We evolve incredibly slowly and while we may look different in many ways on the outside than we did millions of years ago, we are still essentially the same on the inside. Beyond hunting and gathering, we’ve also forgotten those time-honoured traditions of eating with the seasons, fermenting and preserving food, soaking foods that may be hard to digest like cereals and nuts, or using many parts of an animal for best health and ethics, including organ meats and bones to make broth. All of these ancient processes nourish our bodies and keep an essential connection with, and respect for, the food we are consuming.
Ancient approaches like Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda look at food preparation food choice and healthcare in a very different way. The five elements of nature – water, wood, earth, fire and metal – are recognised as being inherent in everybody in differing amounts from person to person, and depending on the season, the health concern and stage in life. Dietary advice from such traditions brings a deeper understanding of the body and its interaction with food and with nature. It flows and fluctuates and allows for self-care, compassion, healing and nurturing on a more profound level. It seems clear that there is no such thing as a perfect diet. The old saying ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’ may not be far off the mark, but more than that, it’s about shaking off the belief that what may suit us now is fixed forever, that our diets should always be clean and perfect or that food is either good or bad, right or wrong.
Neither should food be cheap, fast and squeezed into our busy lives. That’s not to say that it should be expensive, complicated or time-consuming either, but it should be given the resources and attention it deserves, moving it higher up our list of our priorities if we want to be well. It’s time to rethink what ‘real’ food means to us, being flexible in our approach to food by connecting back into ourselves as our lives wax and wane, allowing it to bring us nourishment, joy and healing every day.
Being flexible in our approach to food by connecting back into ourselves as our lives wax and wane, allowing it to bring us nourishment, joy and healing every day.
Republished with kind permission from Wallnut Magazine. All rights reserved.
Illustrations: Michael Driver