Although nutrition is only one of many areas I work with, as soon as someone learns that I help people improve their health and wellness, the immediate response, almost invariably, is to tell me about a diet or ask me what to eat. The truth is, a one size fits all diet doesn’t exist. When I help someone with their eating, we talk about much more than food choices. We examine their ability to digest and absorb nutrients, explore their goals and motivation to eat better, discover their attitudes and emotions around eating, and we evaluate the possibility of food sensitivities. (Here I offer more information about detecting these: http://adrenalfatigue.org/eliminating-food-allergies-sensitivities-and-intolerances/)
Nevertheless, after we address all these elements, the question of what to eat remains. Since I can’t walk through this whole process with each of you personally, instead of debating which diet is best, I’m going to share five points on which the experts supporting of three of the most popular diets— vegetarianism, The Paleolithic Diet (aka “Paleo”) and the Mediterranean Diet— all seem to agree. These commonalities can be used as guiding principles to evaluate your choices within any diet.
1. Limit refined carbohydrates and avoid gluten if sensitive
First of all, proponents of all of three diets agree on the importance of eating foods with a low glycemic load, that is, foods that don’t cause blood sugar to rise dramatically. Anything made with flour, sugar, or other refined carbohydrates can spike blood sugar, which in turn can contribute to a host of problems including insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, inflammation, and heart disease. In addition, people with gluten sensitivity should definitely avoid gluten containing grains and flours. (The evidence accumulating about gluten’s effects on the body in sensitive individuals is so vast, I’ll revisit the topic in a future blog.)
Veggies and fruits (especially low glycemic fruits, particularly for Paleo proponents) are like superfoods. Each of the diets I mentioned recommends that we eat at least 30% of our calories come from them . Since fruits and vegetables tend to be low in calories, 30% of calories can translate to 50% of the food we eat! Eating a variety of colors provides a range of phytonutrients— natural chemicals that offer protection against a number of diseases, including cancer. Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables also support colon health and slow the absorption of carbohydrates, helping to prevent spikes in blood sugar.
3. Get sufficient Protein
There is no argument that protein and its building blocks, called amino acids, play vital roles in almost every biological process in our bodies. Proteins and amino acids give structure to cells, transport nutrients, repair tissue, protect against infection, and act as messengers to transmit information from one cell to another. Adequate protein also helps to control appetite.
There is, however, some disagreement between dietary advocates about what the source of our protein should be. Obviously, vegetarians believe plant based protein is the best choice, such as from beans, nuts, and high protein grains such as quinoa; Paleo proponents are fine with animal protein but choose to limit grains and legumes; and Mediterranean diet supporters advocate choosing lean animal protein as well as plant based protein. Still, everyone agrees that if you do choose to eat animal protein, it should be cleanly raised— that is wild caught, grass fed, or sustainably raised and free of antibiotics and hormones. If you choose to eat fish, focus on the ones lowest in mercury. (A list of high and low mercury fish can be found here: http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/mercury/guide.asp)
4. Eat quality fats
Low fat diets, once believed to be a panacea for weight loss and health, are now as passé as Beanie Babies, Pokémon and other 90’s fads. As research has accumulated, we have discovered that a high carb, low fat diet is actually counter-productive to vibrant health. One of the main reasons (in addition to those in #1) is that a low fat diet shuns all fats with no distinction among types. In fact, trans fatty acids and partially hydrogenated oils should definitely be avoided, but quality fats, such as coconut oil and omega-3 fatty acids, should not. Two omega-3s, EPA and DHA, are primarily found in wild caught fish, while a different omega-3, ALA, is found in nuts and seeds. These healthy fats support healthy mood, brain structure and function, and reduce inflammation, Coconut oil also supports healthy brains, provides a ready source of energy, may help with weight loss, and has even been shown to help animals handle stress. Nuts, seeds, avocados, virgin coconut oil, and wild caught salmon are great sources of healthy fats.
5. Choose real, whole foods and avoid chemicals
Nobody should be eating a chemistry experiment. Experts agree that natural, whole, organic, and local foods when possible are the best default dietary position. Pesticides, artificial sweeteners, chemicals, preservatives, hormones, and probably GMO foods should be avoided whenever possible.
So there you go, five simple principles to keep in mind as you make choices about what to put in your mouth, regardless of which diet you’re following. I’ve known vegetarians who practically live on macaroni and cheese; I’ve seen people eat a plateful of nitrate-laden bacon in the name of Paleo; and I’ve seen others engulf loaves of whole grain bread believing that’s okay on a Mediterranean diet. Amid all the confusion and disagreement about what and how to eat, when the smoke clears a few fundamental principles remain. Bon appétit, and nourish yourself well.
(For more information about what I do, please visit my website at http://www.lisenaugle.com)