I am a big believer in the (scientifically supported) idea that there is no such thing as one “best” diet. If it were this easy to find a winner, the entire genre of diet self-help books would be gone, and a diet “bible” would stand in its place. With so many ideas out there, how can you choose the best food plan?
At The Functional Kitchen, I put a lot of emphasis on developing individualized diet goals and habits that will lead my clients to their version of optimal health. This differs from person to person, but there are a few core principles that make a diet worth trying:
1. Lots of non-starchy vegetables: Everyone knows that veggies are important, but did you know that you should get 6 to 10 servings of veggies every day? One serving equals 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw veggies. The vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients in veggies help your body reduce inflammation which is key to preventing and reducing the severity of chronic disease. Plus, veggies are loaded with fiber which helps you feel full and moves everything along through your digestive tract.
2. “Clean” protein: Grass-fed, organic, and/or free range meat and poultry, wild-caught fish, organic beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds provide needed protein to the body. The human body does not store protein, and we need a steady supply to support muscle maintenance, muscle growth, and toxin removal. It is important to choose "clean" and minimally processed sources of protein as often as possible because they have a higher amount of omega-3 anti-inflammatory fatty acids. Highly processed proteins like lunch meat, cured meats, and breaded and frozen pre-cooked products typically have additives and higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids that increase inflammation.
3. Plant-based fats: Eating more fat used to mean that you would get fat. SO not true! Current research shows that adding plant-based fats like nuts and extra virgin olive oil as desired in the diet leads to better control of metabolic syndrome and decreased waist circumference. Plant-based fats like nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, coconut, coconut milk, and cold pressed nut, olive, coconut and avocado oils provide anti-inflammatory omega-3s and polyphenols.
Be on the lookout for these diet red flags. They may seem like helpful ideas or tools, but they will not bring your body in balance and support long-term health:
1. Lots of processed food with sugar or artificial sweeteners: I’m talking about you, bars and shakes! Back in my early days as an RD, I regularly put patients on a partial liquid diet using premade protein shakes (cringe!). A plan like this provides mealtime structure with little effort, but it will not provide needed phytonutrients and plant-based fats that provide the body with supportive nutrients that allow the metabolism to run optimally. In addition, premade shakes are loaded with additives, artificial sweeteners, and highly processed protein powders that increase inflammation. A diet geared toward optimal, long-term health will help you find ways to make whole food meals, not replace them.
2. Limiting clean protein sources: I am not a fan of diets that encourage avoiding animal protein. It is very difficult to eat adequate protein and get all the needed amino acids without relying on processed foods on a vegan or vegetarian diet. Plus, it is really easy to become a junk food vegan or vegetarian with a diet full of processed foods and inadequate veggies.
3. Emphasis on low fat or fat free foods: Have you ever looked at a label of fat free salad dressing or low-sugar ice cream? They are loaded with additives, stabilizers, and other "junk." Repeat after me - eating fake, inflammatory foods makes you less healthy!
If you want some real ice cream, treat yourself to the real deal every so often. You will be way more satisfied by a trip to your favorite ice cream store than that several-ingredient half gallon sitting in your freezer.
4. Avoiding non-starchy vegetables: Taking paleo or keto to the extreme by cutting out all sources of carb, including the small amounts in non-starchy veggies, is not a good idea. I’m all for a low carb diet approach, but when you take out fiber, your gut and liver will suffer. Fiber is necessary to feed good gut bacteria and give bulk to your stool so detox byproducts can be released. Also, non-starchy vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that decrease inflammation and support the thyroid and adrenal glands. Without these vitamins and minerals, your metabolism will suffer.
5. Diet delivery programs: Friends, there are lots of programs out there that will provide each and every meal to your doorstep in convenient freezer packs. There are even meal programs that deliver fresh foods to your doorstep. Some of these programs can be helpful to cut down on meal prep during busy times. If you do not have a good understanding of what foods you need to eat, you will not be able to maintain the program when you (inevitably!) will have to eat something different than what is in your freezer meal. Also, they get boring and expensive after a relatively short time. Understand and own your diet - eating is one of the most important things you do each and every day!