The word “diet”, while an appropriate one to describe what we eat, has a negative connotation because most of us equate it with some sort of restriction. Therefore I don’t use it, and prefer the term “food philosophy”.
Few of us approach our food choices with complete abandon these days – avoidances abound and it’s driving us all crazy. To be sure, some of us need to limit or eliminate certain foods due to intolerances or allergies. However, if you’re healthy and want to stay that way, or even if you are diabetic or weight loss is a goal – it’s about portions, personal preferences and overall consumption. Restrictions do work for weight loss, but only temporarily, and no one wants to yo-yo their way through life – we want to be confident in our choices now and for good. C’mon with all this nonsense!
When we sit down at a restaurant with a companion who orders their meal expressing culinary avoidances, it provokes a visceral (no pun) reaction, doesn’t it? Are they healthier than I am? Should I have what they’re having – even if is sounds lame? The answer is no. What works for your best friend, work colleague, yoga or CrossFit buddy may not be right for you. There isn’t one food philosophy that is superior. The point of food is to nourish your body and derive pleasure from it without overdoing it. There are lots of tricks I put in a client’s toolbox to help with this, while allowing them to skip the cauliflower crust “pizza” topped with kale and turmeric-infused vegan cheeze if it’s not a true turn on.
We are in the midst of a lot of unnecessary food fear and single nutrient obsession. Bottom line, despite a lot of very compelling marketing, there is no one food or “diet” that is going to ruin, preserve or rescue your health. For example, please be kind to yourself and get over it with “gluten” unless you have celiac disease – in which case, it’s permanently off the menu. Celiac disease is not an allergy or intolerance, it is an autoimmune disorder wherein the body attacks itself when gluten is ingested. This is diagnosed with a simple blood test, it affects roughly 1% of the US population, and for that small percentage it is very real. If you have concerns about wheat or gluten, visit your internist, you’ll know for sure within days.
That said, I personally avoid certain grains and dairy, and even some vegetables and spices because after A LOT of very attentive trial and error, I reluctantly recognized these foods upset my digestion, trigger my rosacea or make me frustratingly foggy. I make a decision with every meal that offers temptation – “is the food hangover worth it”? Most of the time it’s a “no”. If I were invited to Italy however, I’d probably deal – I would compromise for the experience because eating a bowl of pasta with a sprinkle of parmesan won’t send me to the ER, it would simply make me uncomfortable – and taste spectacular. I have the luxury of making an informed choice. You can too.
Some of us have no food-related issues at all and some of us threaten our lives if we consume certain ingredients. Most of us are somewhere in between. Knowing how you react to foods, if you truly do at all, is key. Don’t assume, do the hard work and genuinely figure it out. This is something I focus on helping my clients determine, once and for all.
So let’s dive into today’s most popular diets food philosophies:
Vegan: I’m going to limit my comments to food practices and not the ethical reasons many people choose a vegan lifestyle. A vegan food philosophy done well – lots of fresh veggies and fruits, whole grains, beans and legumes, and incorporating healthy fats while avoiding all animal and animal-derived products, is way of eating that offers a variety of well-documented health benefits.
A caveat for beginners: It’s easy to call yourself a vegan while making a habit of french fries and soy ice cream – that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re also not taking about “fake food” – there’s nothing nutritionally attractive about tofu dogs, chick’n nuggets or vegan dairy products. Eat them if you like them, but know that they are not more nutritionally sound than the well-made real thing. If you’re committed to veganism, you’re better off indulging in animal-free foods the way nature intended. If you can’t pronounce or recognize the ingredients as something you’d keep in your fridge or pantry, forget it.
I was a strict vegan for 12 years and loved it. I first started eating this way when I was 19 to see if it would help alleviate chronic migraines, fibromyalgia and problematic skin – unfortunately, it didn’t. I stuck with it because I loved eating this way. It was completely satisfying; I definitely had more energy and my mind was more focused. I started reintroducing fish, chicken and dairy when my two sweet boys came into my life. While I do love being in the kitchen, I don’t need “short-order cook” on my resume. It’s also never been my jam to convert a loved-one to a way of eating that doesn’t allow them to enjoy themselves. And while there is nothing wrong with raising vegan children, do bear in mind that little bodies are growing rapidly and need far more calories and nutrients relative to their weight than adults. If they’re eating, growing and are healthy, wonderful! My kids just weren’t down with hummus and loved roasted chicken. I made the necessary adjustments.
Paleo: Everyone knows someone who is a Paleo devotee. To be simple, a Paleo diet asserts that we should eat the way humans did roughly one million years ago because our ancestors didn’t suffer the tragic wide-spread food-related diseases that literally plague us today (type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and perhaps certain cancers). What I love about the Paleo philosophy is that it shuns processed foods and artificial sweeteners. Everything else about it should be taken with a grain of, um, salt? However, if a lot of animal protein makes you happy, and you can easily go without grains, cheese, legumes, white potatoes and don’t mind limiting fruit – then have at it! I will say I’m a bit confused that maple syrup and honey are acceptable, but cane sugar is not. Once each of them hits your bloodstream – they are virtually identical. Hard truth: We aren’t suffering because we started eating the occasional slice of bread. We are suffering because we think 5 slices dipped in olive oil and parmesan is an appetizer to our appetizer.
Ketogenic: Keto and Paleo often get confused. They both involve a significant restriction of carbohydrates. The difference between Paleo and Keto is that the ketogenic diet was initially developed in the 1800’s to help manage epilepsy, and saw some success. With the advent of anti-seizure medication, it fell out of favor. Now that patients are looking for alternatives to pharmaceuticals, we’re hearing about it again. And it may in fact have medical applications; the jury is out. But, if your goal is to lose weight, or practice a healthy food philosophy, I personally believe there are better alternatives.
A ketogenic diet strictly limits carbs and insists upon a greater than currently advised amount of fat as a primary source of fuel. It does have the potential benefit of encouraging rapid weight loss – mostly because you’re barely eating. Our brains and muscles rely upon carbohydrates to function properly. If no carbohydrates are available, our bodies will start burning fat for fuel, which results in a state of ketosis. This initially causes a good deal of fatigue. Another unsexy side effect is sickly sweet breath – similar to what is experienced with uncontrolled diabetes. All of that said, a ketogenic diet can be an effective method for quickly losing dangerous pounds, but is not likely to become a sustainable and satisfying lifestyle. And while we now know that fat found in food does not make us fat – and even saturated fat is no longer a dietary devil (trans fats still are) – we currently have no idea how a diet that consists of 70%-80% of calories from fat affects the body long term.
Raw: Eating a portion of your daily foods in their uncooked, natural state is certainly beneficial. Some nutrients suffer when exposed to heat – primarily vitamin C (we don’t suffer a vitamin C deficiency in the modern world). Some nutrients are better absorbed after a little breakdown. And fiber – one of the most important health-promoting components of what we eat – doesn’t suffer at all. Mind that I wrote “a little breakdown” – cooking the crap out of your vegetables does destroy quite a bit of nutritional value. Stick to quick cooking methods like steaming and sautéing. Boiling is not advised unless you’re going to also consume the broth. Charring – even for veggies – does appear to have a potentially carcinogenic effect, so should be done sparingly. To eat entirely raw eliminates a huge number of food categories from your philosophy. Again, do it if you dig it, but it just isn’t necessary.
Juice Fasting: Juicing is a fantastic way to incorporate veggies and fruits that you might not normally eat whole (beets and pungent greens are a good example). Fresh juice allows you to get almost all of the nutrients provided by the ingredients, minus most of the fiber (unless you don’t strain it out). Just be mindful that juice fasting – which involves consuming only juices for several days – has zero proven health benefits. Juices are a nice addition to, not a replacement for, whole foods. You don’t need to drink only liquids to give your body a nice rest and up your nutritional game.
Gluten-free: Gluten is a protein found in primarily wheat, barley and rye. It’s what gives bread and pasta it’s yummy, chewy, satisfying texture. If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease, you must avoid gluten or risk serious damage to your digestive system. Adhere to products with Certified Gluten-Free labeling and consume whole foods that are naturally gluten-free. If you do not have celiac disease, it is unlikely that gluten itself is the cause of your health woes and there is no reason to fear it.
Dated & Confused: Fat-free, low-fat, cholesterol-free, sugar-free, use of artificial sweeteners and protein supplements (unless you are an athlete or have a muscle-wasting illness) – are siren songs and have no place in a healthy food philosophy. This is true for two reasons: First, anything you eat that bears a “Low” or “Free” label is highly processed and contains potentially dubious replacements for the lack of fat or sugar. Secondly, naturally occurring fats and sugars are not the enemy – even a little cane sugar is more healthful than sweet-tasting chemicals.
Concerns about cholesterol containing foods – such as eggs and beef – have been thoroughly debunked. Cholesterol is vital to your health and your liver is expert at maintaining a balance. In other words, if you eat cholesterol containing foods, your liver produces less. If you eat very little cholesterol your liver produces more. If your lipid profile (blood cholesterol) is elevated, it is likely due to a genetic predisposition, or a liver that isn’t functioning properly – in which case foods containing soluble fiber, not cholesterol-free foods, are your friend.
Intermittent Fasting: This is an interesting development – gaining in popularity and not without merit. Most of us already fast for roughly 8 hours out of every 24 (it’s called sleep). What intermittent fasting proposes is that we take a few extra hours on either end of our sleep cycle and only allow 8 hours while we’re awake for eating. Alternatively, it means 2 days of very low calorie consumption and 5 days of whatever we’d normally eat. I prefer the former to the latter, but in general this concept makes sense. It’s essentially conditioning yourself to not eat the second you wake-up, snack in bed right before sleep, or raid the pantry at 2am. The point is to develop a healthy eating pattern and exclude extraneous calories when all we really need is to wake-up, hydrate, and start moving; meditate; take a bath; read a good book; watch a great show; have a conversation with a friend; or simply pull up the covers, breathe and put ourselves back to sleep. It’s not a genius concept or at all revolutionary. It’s merely training yourself to understand that there’s a good time for everything, including eating, and the time to eat is when your body is genuinely hungry. If plain logic related to our food philosophy needs a fancy name, as it often does in our culture, then we may call it “intermittent fasting.”
Bottom line, no one needs a restrictive program that discriminates against entire food categories and therefore nutrients and enjoyment. One could argue that carbs are killing us! Red meat is killing us! Dairy is killing us! And they are! But, not because any one of them is inherently evil. It’s because a health promoting serving of any of these is the size of a child’s fist, and we’re eating enough to kill an army.
What we need to do is create a satisfying food philosophy that focuses on consuming mostly plants, learning to love cooking, avoiding processed junk; and to be aware of what constitutes a healthy portion. Eating mindfully and intuitively – in other words when we’re physiologically hungry. And understanding that if we’re eating when we’re not hungry, we’re eating for entertainment value. Nothing wrong with the occasional overindulgence, as long as we recognize it as such and keep it occasional. If that sounds like hard work, I’ve been there and will help you get there too. It’s a journey.