There is a lot of confusion around what makes a healthy meal plan. As a wellness coach, I frequently get questions like…
Should I go Paleo?
Should I try Weight Watchers to help me with portion control?
I heard from my friend that going vegan is not only good for our bodies but ALSO good for the environment. Maybe I should try it?
I was thinking about trying the Whole-30 program. What do you think?
What are your thoughts on Dean Ornish’s diet?
Should I do Atkins?
It goes on and on….
The truth is…there is no such thing as the perfect diet. Period. There are as many good ways to eat as there are people on the planet.
BUT – I will say that I have definitely seen some awful diet plans out there. Some of them are legitimately terrible for your health. How can you tell the difference between something worth trying…and something you should steer clear of?
- A good nutrition plan advocates for eating real food (and most will advocate for eating a lot of non-starchy vegetables) What constitutes real food? Your great-great grandmother would recognize it. It is a single ingredient (Potato. Strawberry. Broccoli.)
Why real food? Real food is what the body was originally designed to digest. If you’re staring at a diet plan that insists you need this product or that packaged good or this supplement…you’re probably not looking at something that you need to mess with. Are there exceptions to this rule? Sure. I have seen highly successful medical weight management programs use product within a larger behavior-change ecosystem that includes emotional support and education. But that is a therapeutic method. And its only ever intended to be used for a short period of time. Following that short period…the recommendation is ALWAYS to eat REAL FOOD.
2. A good nutrition plan balances your blood sugar.
What do I mean by this? Basically…when you eat in a way that balances your blood sugar…you are eating in a way that optimizes your metabolism. Think of your metabolism as being similar to a camp fire. If you load up that camp fire with too many wet logs…what happens? The first goes out. That’s what we do with a Standard American Diet (SAD). We overwhelm our bodies with too many heavy calories. Could we “burn” it off with exercise? Theoretically. But that would mean a lot of exercise. Just like a campfire with wet logs would have to include a LOT of lighter fluid and no short amount of pine needles.
This is why, initially, when people go on “diets” they tend to lose weight. It’s kinda like taking off a wet log. The fire bursts to life again!
If you don’t put enough firewood on the camp fire, the fire eventually burns out. By then – you could something as light as newspaper on the thing and nothing will burn. In the same way, if you go too long on too few calories, your body’s metabolism dwindles. And then – even though you’re not eating much, nothing seems to burn off. So it doesn’t serve you.
The best way to handle it is to balance the timing and quantity of your meals meals so that your blood sugar is balanced (you are neither eating too much at once, or skipping meals altogether) AND the meals are balanced with regard to the nutrients on them.
Why is it so important to eat this way? Well…to give you an idea…this chart shows what typically happens in your body when you eat each of the different macronutrients. The yellow line is showing what happens when you have a soda. Your blood sugar shoots WAY up, and then crashes down below fasting levels leaving you hungry for more. The complex carbs (oats and kidney beans) have fiber in them – so the sugar doesn’t shoot up QUITE as high…and as a result your body doesn’t have to kick it back down too low. Protein (from the salmon) actually lowers your blood sugar first, and then raises it modestly.
Bottom line? When you eat a balanced meal, you get in a small amount of energy into your body steadily over the course of several hours. That leaves you feeling grounded and energized (rather than feeling like you’re on a sugar high initially, and then a sugar crash over time).
The more balanced your blood sugar, the better your metabolism works, the fewer cravings you have for more food and the better you feel in terms of overall energy.
3. A good nutrition plan is one that you could foresee being able to sustain long-term (as in…the rest of your life).
THIS is perhaps the most IMPORTANT element. And it’s the one most everyone forgets about. Why do you think it is that there are thousands of diet books out there? Why do you think it is that every one of them is making money? The answer? Because EVERY ONE OF THEM will work (so long as it balances your blood sugar and has you eating real food at a portion that is right for your caloric needs).
Do you want to try intermittent fasting? Go for it! Can you sustain that lifestyle for years to come? I certainly can’t. But I know plenty of people who say they are able. What about Paleo? I wouldn’t be able to sustain that for years, but there are a lot of people who say they feel amazing on it, and are able to sustain it without any problems. Weight Watchers? Fantastic! Which one is the best? All of them. And none of them. It really depends on YOU.
The good news is that you get to be a participant in your own health. You get to be part scientists, and part artist with how you decide you want your meals to look and in what way they will serve you. The bad news is that you have to be a participant in your own health. There is no paint-by-number approach that will work well for everyone. Some people have allergies to certain foods. Some have cultural reasons for not being able to eat certain foods. Some people participate in spiritual practices that call for fasting. Others have absolutely no restrictions at all.
So basically it always comes back down to this: there is no such thing as the perfect diet. But if you’re eating real food, balancing your blood sugar by watching the timing and portions of your meals, and you’ve found a way to do it that fits your temperament and your life circumstances so that you can actually enjoy your life? You’ve probably found a nutrition plan that is perfectly tailored to you. And that’s what REAL health is all about anyway.