No one completely understands human nutrition. If you google “Fat loss diet”, you get over 11 million results. How can there be that many experts on nutrition? More importantly, how can they all be right? Over the last few years, numerous fad diets have emerged: Atkins, Zone, South Beach, Paleo, high carb, low carb, carb cycling, intermittent fasting, eat grapefruit, don’t eat fruit, stand on your head. Alright the last one is a joke, but you get the point. Yet, each one ensures that this is the most effective way to live healthier and feel great. Better yet, they have the research to prove it! One thing we know about research, you can spin the results to show almost anything. So what is everyone holding back? There is no right answer, and there never will be.
Diets make money
That’s the bottom line. Branding a really popular method of eating is a sure fire way to sell books and make money. Dr. Atkins net worth was over $100 million dollars which was largely boosted by his book outlining the do’s and dont’s of his high fat diet. You can bet that T. Colin Campbell made a pretty penny off his book “The China Study” (read it free here) and his newly released documentary “Forks Over Knives“. Americans are eager to clamp on to something, especially any diet that embraces eating high-fat foods and losing weight.
Contradicting Evidence is Everywhere
As I mentioned before, each authority figure is only going to point to information supporting their claims. Even the USDA allegations that high consumption of meat and saturated fat were linked directly to cardiovascular disease were largely over exaggerated (subscription required). It is hard for the mass public to scrutinize stories and research presented to them, and these big guys know that! If something doesn’t look to be going their way, it’s easy to brush it under the rug.
Diets aren’t one-size-fits-all
The best diet is one that works for you. There isn’t a right or wrong answer. If pasta dishes are your favorite meals and you were raised on high carb diets, it probably isn’t feasible or realistic for you to go on a low carb diet. You’re going to feel terrible. If you have to make drastic changes to your lifestyle in order to accommodate your eating habits, they probably aren’t sustainable, and long-term change is what we’re looking for.
General suggestions we “understand”
I prefer not to use the word “know” since there may be a study coming out tomorrow that says eating apples is the worst thing in the world. Science is constantly changing. That being said, here are some general tips that I believe everyone would agree on:
- Hydration– specific values will vary, but hydration is key in both weight loss and general health. Drinking a glass of water before your meal will help you feel more full, but will also aid in digestion. Key times to drink: first thing when you wake up in the morning (yes, before your coffee).
- Ingredient lists– If you can’t explain, don’t eat it.
- Expiration dates are good– Food should go bad. If it doesn’t, you probably don’t want it.
- Colors– Your foods should resemble a spectrum of colors, not just brown and yellow.
- Eat out sparingly– There are some fantastic restaurants that have healthy alternatives. However, eating out means you have less control over what goes into your food. Plus, the portion sizes are out of control. If you have the option, the smaller portion size is probably plenty.
- Calorie track– Everyone should track their food for repeated brief periods. Even if you consider yourself “healthy”, it can be informative to write down everything you eat for two days every month. I can hear the shouts now. “A calorie isn’t just a calorie!”. “All calories are not equal!” It’s true that the body interprets each food differently depending on several things (age, activity level, circumstances, sex, etc). The proper name is nutrigenomics, essentially, how the foods we eat transfer into our gene expression. However, keeping a food log makes you keenly aware of what the hell you’re eating.
- Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full– If you eat past 8pm at night, you aren’t going to wake up morbidly obese, nor are you going to sprout a tail and oink in the morning. Just don’t eat until you can’t move anymore, and then lay down to sleep for the night. I think that makes intuitive sense.
- Chew your food– No one is going to take it away from you (most likely). Take your time. When we stuff our faces, we don’t even realize how much we have eaten.
- Understand common portion sizes– Understand how much you are eating. 3 oz of meat is roughly equal to the size of a deck of cards. (more here)
The takeaway: the best nutritional plan is one you can follow. If you want to follow a mainstream diet, choose one that works with your cultural background and current lifestyle. Small changes are probably necessary, but if you have to change everything you eat, be wary!