What is the perfect diet?
I probably listen to more debates on this subject than most people. But I suspect you’ve probably come across it. Maybe you’ve been looking to improve your own health. After all, you are what you eat. Or maybe you have friends or family who’ve experienced life-changing effects through dietary changes, and are passionate about sharing their knowledge with others. Either way, when it comes to making food choices, you may feel a little confused.
The problem is not a lack of information. It’s the overwhelming amount – often contradictory.
We are Way Past the Canadian Food Guide
Gone are the days when moms can just refer to the good old Canadian Food Guide to plan family meals. Perhaps with good reason. If that guide was meant to improve the health of successive generations, it was undeniably a failure. We’ve increased chronic illnesses, obesity, and childhood conditions like asthma, eczema, and autism. And we’ve produced a generation with a life expectancy lower than that of their parents. Whether the advice was impossible to follow, or just outright wrong, that colourful rainbow didn’t do anyone any good.
But with the fall of our government-sanctioned guidelines, what are we to turn to?
How many diets have you tried?
Have you considered vegetarianism? It’s kinder. It’s good for the environment. And really, have you ever met an unhealthy vegetarian?
Maybe you should step up your game, and go full vegan. After all, milking cows is cruel. Making chickens lay eggs for you is basically slavery. And is there any other animal that eats the discharges of other species? Gross.
Then again, have you seen how much weight people can lose on keto? They look amazing. And they eat bacon. It’s like a weight loss miracle.
Of course, if you really want to get in touch with your inner caveman, there is nothing like paleo. It’s like, super natural. It’s how we evolved, man. If you didn’t gather it from the bush or kill it with your own hands, is it even worth eating?
Join WeightWatchers. Order food from Jenny Craig. Count your calories. Track your meals on an app. Turn every meal into a smoothie. Add protein powder to all of them. No, wait, green powder. Or wait – what about both? Yes, both. Also, eat broccoli. With nothing on it. Raw – because cooking your food kills it, obviously. If it’s a little tough, maybe just blend it up in your smoothie. Except now, broccoli is no longer a thing. If you really want to be healthy, you need to eat broccoli sprouts. In fact, eating nothing but broccoli sprouts is probably the perfect diet, if ever there was one.
Is your head spinning, yet? Mine is.
The Perfect Diet: does it exist?
There are new diets coming out all the time. With arguments and science – some good, some not-so-good – backing up every one of them. Very smart, well-educated, and well-intentioned people on all sides. So, assuming you don’t have the time to test every one of them out, who do you trust?
As I mentioned in my post on Naturopathic Nutrition, I believe there is no one right way to eat. There is no single perfect diet. And the people I tend to trust are those who acknowledge that fact. No amount of scientific evidence or personal experience can convince me that a single diet is right for everyone, because everyone is different. So if someone is telling you that they know how you should eat, without knowing you, I would question that. Because you are an individual.
People are Different
We have different tastes – not just in food, but in music, in clothing, and in art. Beauty. Architecture. Colour. Lawn maintenance. Smells and textures. Politics and pets. I don’t like onions, and I never will. I don’t care how good they are for me. But you may love onions. They may make your taste buds sing. I would never want to take that away from you. Just as I would never try to choose your clothing, or redecorate your room.
We’re different biologically. We’re genetically unique. We come in an array of heights, weights, and muscle tones. Skin, hair, and eye colours. Blood types and metabolisms. Immune systems and microbiomes. We have different weaknesses, different illnesses, and different medical backgrounds. The food that sustains others may be poisonous to you.
We live different lives. We live in a specific time and place. We had different childhoods. We have different jobs, obligations, and opportunities. We made different choices. The food that is available and practical for someone else may be unavailable or unrealistic for you.
We have different goals. Some of us want to run marathons. Some of us want to be able to climb the stairs. Some of us want a reason to get out of bed in the morning. To take care of our families. To give our children a healthy start in life – or be able to have children in the first place. To get rid of acne or menstrual cramps. Reaching these goals requires different strategies, and different levels of commitment.
You are an individual. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
How To Choose a Diet
There are many healthy diets to choose from. And they can, and should, be individualized to meet your specific needs. As a Naturopathic Doctor, I can help guide you through the decision process. Here are a few things I’ll ask you to consider, as you make that choice.
Many people have some idea of what a healthy diet for them would be. You may feel drawn drawn toward certain foods without understanding why, or have a sense that other foods aren’t good for you. These feelings may be called intuition, or instinct. We’ve all experienced this: we’ve met someone we liked (or didn’t like) instinctively; or backed away from a situation that simply felt dangerous, without being able to express exactly why. The most common explanation for this phenomenon is that subconsciously, our brain is constantly gathering information about our environment, and putting that information together to guide our decisions – often through emotions or physical sensations, rather than conscious thought.
But we don’t have to follow our instincts. We can consciously override them. And when it comes to food, we do this all the time, for a variety of reasons. Our intuition may contradict what we’ve been taught about “healthy” eating. It may be counter-cultural. It may be difficult to avoid certain foods that are pervasive in our society. We may not know how to access or prepare the foods that intrigue us. Or we may have lost touch with our intuition all together.
Try to imagine what your ideal diet would look like. Do you see a clear picture? A vague notion? Or do you come up blank?
Another exercise to try is to imagine you are in charge of a small child – a younger version of yourself. How would you want to feed that child? What does he or she need to grow up strong and healthy?
If you’re not used to listening to your intuition, it may take some time to become sensitive to it. Pay attention to how you feel while you’re eating. Don’t let yourself be distracted – by work, TV, or anything else. Take note of the physical sensations and the emotions you feel, both during and after meals. It can be helpful to write these notes down, and read them over at the end of a week. Sometimes, seeing them on a page is what it takes to discover a pattern.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to separate our intuition from our desires. We may intuitively know something is bad for us, but crave it anyway. In these cases, evidence can come in handy.
While there’s lots of contradictory evidence out there, it’s not a bad idea to pay attention to it. Sometimes, the evidence is simply overwhelmingly pointing in one direction. Think about cigarettes. Cocaine. Sugar. There might be a part of us that wants these things, but it’s not our intuition.
Evidence doesn’t have to mean scientific research, either. It could be the fact that you get heartburn every time you drink red wine. Or that your diarrhea is miraculously cured when you stop drinking milk. We all took Science in school – you’re qualified to run a few dietary experiments on yourself. Though it’s easier with help, of course.
Believe it or not, has a lot to teach us about food. While the dietary experiments of our recent past may constitute more of a cautionary tale, generations before us managed to thrive under harsh and varied environments. Obesity, diabetes, and even heart disease are modern phenomena.
If you’re not sure if a certain food or way of eating is good for you, consider its history. How long have people been eating that way? Long enough to observe any health effects in those people? What about in their children? Were they healthy and happy, or were they plagued with rickets? Not every health problem is caused by diet – hygiene, living conditions, and other cultural practices have a huge impact, as well. But food is generally a foundation of any successful society. If a group of people couldn’t feed themselves in a way that provided for all their nutritional requirements, they didn’t survive.
On the other hand, if a particular food or system of eating has little or no history, that’s reason to be sceptical. There may be many good arguments in its favour, but without a history of use to look back to, it’s impossible to predict all the health effects. Think margarine. Not so long ago, it was touted as the healthy alternative to butter. Innovation isn’t always bad, just be sure you’re considering the risks.
By tradition, I’m referring to your specific cultural and family traditions.
While you are definitely an individual, you are also shaped by those who came before you. You share some genetic commonalities with the people you’re most closely related to. The specific bacteria in your gut was inherited partially from your mother, who inherited it from her mother, and so on, for several generations. So if both your parents are lactose intolerant, chances are, so are you. If you’re Inuit, you’re probably less tolerant of carbohydrates, and more prone to developing type 2 diabetes, than someone with Irish and Italian heritage. And if you had a Polish great-grandmother, you may be largely made up of perogies.
This doesn’t mean that the right diet for you is exactly what your ancestors ate. But it’s one factor to consider.
Sticking To It
Figuring out what you should eat is one thing. But no diet will do you any good if you can’t stick to it.
Some of us think we know how we should eat. But we seem powerless to actually do it. Why is that?
Lots of reasons.
Sometimes, it boils down to priorities. We may cite a lack of time, money, or skill. But usually, we could work around those issues, if they were important enough to us. We could sacrifice other activities to free us the time required. Give up certain expenses or create a budget that allows for healthier food. Read a book, watch a YouTube video, or ask an older friend or family member for help learning a long-lost art.
Sometimes, it goes deeper than that. Sometimes we want to change the way we eat, more than anything, but we feel we’ve lost control. If that resonates with you, I recommend taking the Food Freedom Quiz by Susan Pierce Thompson.
And sometimes, we just need a little guidance. Someone to hold our hand, to reassure us that we’re on a good path. With so much information coming at us from so many different directions, it’s important to have a trusted source of medical knowledge. To help us listen to our intuition. To warn us of possible dangers. And to help us find ways to overcome the obstacles that are sure to arise.
Naturopathy & Diet: Individualized Guidance
In Naturopathic Medicine, we know how important food is. We know how it affects health. And we know that your diet has to be right for you.
If you’re tired of stumbling in the dark, looking for answers, or failing to follow through on your own resolutions, it’s time to stop trying to do it alone. Book an appointment with me, or another Naturopathic Doctor. We can analyze your diet. Search for food sensitivities. And help you develop a plan that works for you.
The perfect diet doesn’t exist. But a diet that helps you reach your full potential? Yeah. We can help you find that.