It seems like every time we turn around, there’s yet another diet claiming to be “the one”. There’s Paleo, Keto, Low-Fat, Atkins, Weight Watchers, Lean Cuisine, Whole30, AIP, Low FODMAP, just to name a few. So many people I know (friends as well as clients) are searching for the diet that will give them the health and vitality they seek. Googling for the answer is often not helpful due to all of the contradictory information it produces.
One of the reasons it’s so hard to answer this question is that there isn’t one answer. Each of us is a bio-individual. We all have different ancestry, different genes. As a result, each of us processes food slightly differently. In addition, our bodies change over time. What worked at age 20 doesn’t necessarily work at age 50. Put another way: one size does not fit all. Having said this, there is one thing that all good diets have in common. It’s a fairly simple and intuitive concept but also very powerful.
A healthy diet is a diet composed of nutrient-dense whole foods.
So, what is a “whole food”? In a nutshell, a whole food is an unprocessed food found in nature. Examples are beef, chicken, lamb, eggs, fish, broccoli, beans, avocados, almonds, walnuts…I could go on and on. What you should notice about these foods is that they don’t come in a box or package with a list of ingredients on the side of it. They are simple, unprocessed foods that are found in nature. Eggs are eggs; they’re just eggs. Beef is just beef. In contrast, Raisin Bran is not a whole food. Neither is a bagel or a piece of toast. A Lean Cuisine frozen lasagna is certainly not.
Many of the chronic diseases we face in western society are a result of diets high in processed foods, specifically carbohydrates. We, as humans, evolved with our environment. As we evolved, our food sources evolved with us. It stands to reason that our bodies would thrive on the foods that nourished us for millennia. Since the beginning of the 20th century and especially starting in the 50’s and 60s, the food we eat in the United States has become increasingly processed. The epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease as well as others are a direct consequence of our consuming these processed foods.
At one extreme, there are foods that are clearly whole foods such as beef, chicken, broccoli, beets, potatoes, eggs, whole milk. At the other extreme, there are foods that are clearly highly processed “fake” foods like breakfast cereal, corn chips, frozen dinners, diet coke. Of course, there are lots of things we eat that fall somewhere in between. For example, what is orange juice? Is it a whole food? Well, it’s not; it’s a partial food. It’s the juice of a whole food (an orange). As it turns out, this matters. The digestion of fruit juice impacts the body differently than eating the entire fruit. Obviously, fruit juice is closer to a whole food than that diet coke is, but it’s still not a whole food. So then, what is bread? What about cheese? Yogurt? Honey? I’ll leave these for you to ponder. Just ask yourself: if you picked up one of these items in a grocery store, would it come with a list of ingredients? And, would those ingredients be whole, unprocessed foods themselves?
“Nutrient-dense” refers to the idea that our food should contain all the nutrients it ought to contain. Much of the commercially raised foods (animal products as well as fruits and vegetables) are nutrient deficient. This is usually a result of farming practices that are oriented towards quantity and not quality. This is why it’s important to know where your food comes from and how it was raised/grown. I’ll cover details of this in a future post. Here’s one little disappointing nugget: organic doesn’t necessarily mean nutrient-dense.
Now, once your diet consists of nutrient-dense whole foods, the next question to answer is what proportions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates work for your body. This is where much of the bio-individuality comes into play. Conventional wisdom (and US government policy) is that a diet high in carbohydrates and low in fat is the healthiest. This kind of diet doesn’t work for many people, myself included. While it can work for some, I don’t believe it results in optimal health. It’s based on flawed science from the 1970’s and has been perpetuated by more bad science, politics, and money. Instead, a diet that is higher in high quality fats and lower in carbohydrates is more compatible with how the body works and how we have eaten historically, as a species. Wait, what? Fat is good for you? Yes, it actually is. In fact, it’s critical to health. Whether you thrive on 70%, 50%, or 30% calories from fat depends on how your particular body works. But, it’s very difficult to be truly healthy at 10%.
In summary, a healthy diet includes whole foods and excludes processed ones. The human body is a wonderful machine that functions optimally when given high-quality fuel. Properly raised whole foods are full of the nutrients our bodies need. Processed foods are products designed by food companies to maximize profit at the expense of your health. Avoid them. With respect to the diets I mentioned at the beginning of this article, none of them can be called the “best”. However, the ones that focus on whole, unprocessed foods are going to be healthier than the ones that don’t.