What is the best diet for health?
I write this at a time where many of you may have been bombarded with different post-Christmas diets, all claiming to be the miracle cure to reduce your weight, cure your illness and detox your body. You may be confused about which one is best, worried about why you don’t seem to have the willpower to stick to the latest diet and end up feeling a total failure when you don’t get the results that were promised.
The inconvenient truth is that none of these fad diets is likely to work in the long run, and often they come at a cost to our wallets and our health; both physically and mentally. And, if you repeatedly try and fail at these diets, the harm can increase over time.
With so much conflicting nutritional information, it can feel like a minefield trying to understand what advice to follow. The truth is, there is no one perfect diet and anyone who tells you there is, is probably trying to sell you something.
Different diets work for different people. We are all unique and it is a matter of finding what works for you and makes you feel good.
The word diet is synonymous with weight-loss. If we use this definition of diet then the only factor that matters is a calorie deficit. If all we want to achieve is weight-loss, we can use any diet that suits us to achieve this deficit; no one diet is superior to another.
For example, Ketogenic diets are often promoted as the ultimate diet for weight-loss. However, the research suggests that low carb is no better than conventional weight-loss methods in the long term (Bueno et al., 2013).
Low carb diets have been found in the research to often be more difficult for people to sustain over time, which can lead to lack of adherence and weight regain. Due to the nature of the diet, certain nutrient-rich foods are restricted, which could put you at risk of deficiency and the keto diet has been shown to elevate LDL-cholesterol (or ‘bad’ cholesterol), which could increase your risk of cardiovascular disease (Kirkpatrick et al., 2019).
Keto or low carb diets can be useful in certain applications if supported by a health professional, but are not appropriate for all, highlighting that we need to be informed of all the facts before deciding to embark on a ‘diet’.
Working with a Registered AfN Nutritionist or Dietitian can help you to understand how you can approach weight-loss in a safe, healthy and sustainable way.
Of course, there is so much more to consider than just weight-loss in regards to the foods that we eat. We need to think about health, and some of the diets out there may promote behaviours that are restrictive, supportive of less healthy foods, or only focus on weight-loss as a motivation to undergo the diet.
Many of you may have been dieting for years and still, you haven’t achieved what you were hoping for, blaming yourselves and being blamed by those within diet culture. Maybe happiness isn’t at the end of the dieting rainbow, after all. Maybe there is a different way?
What if we stop thinking about diets as a weight-loss tool and start thinking about diets in terms of a lifestyle to promote health, well-being and happiness. What if our diet is just the way we habitually eat, and this can be flexible to support different needs and values, rather than filled with rules and restrictions?
Flourishing health is a concept that defines health in terms of our physical, psychological, philosophical and social needs (VanderWeele et al., 2019) and this is what I aim to achieve with my clients. Food should be a joy in our lives and can give us much more than just physical nourishment, it offers us social connectedness, celebration and understanding of cultures, religions and others.
It is possible to nourish our bodies to promote health without having to sacrifice this joy or be made to feel guilty for eating certain foods.
Through learning skills that allow us to listen to our internal cues and by having a basic understanding of the principles of what makes a balanced diet, we can start to have freedom with food again, where all foods are allowed and we learn how to eat them in a way that makes us feel good.
How to make dietary changes
Some key aspects to think about when making dietary changes are:
Are you able to maintain this change in the long term?
Diets that involve restriction of certain foods or food groups can be difficult to sustain, leading to feelings of failure and becoming stuck in the yo-yo diet cycle.
Is the diet worth it?
The pursuit of improved health and well-being is important, but sometimes we can be trying to achieve this at all costs. How does your dietary pattern impact your mood, energy levels, social life or other areas of your well-being? If you are sacrificing other areas of your life to maintain a certain way of eating then perhaps the balance has been lost?
Is your diet well planned?
Many people are turning to alternative ways of eating, an example of this could be veganism. This can be done in a healthy way, but only with careful planning. Make sure you understand what nutrients you may be missing out on and how to replace those before removing whole food groups from your diet.
Ask yourself if this is necessary. For example, being vegan based on your beliefs and ethics is worth the effort but vegan diets are not automatically healthier than any other diet. So, if health is your motivation, there may be other ways to achieve the same outcome but in a way that suits your lifestyle better. The ‘health halo’ effect of some of these diets mean people are misinformed that it is a healthier way of living.
Keep it simple
Some of the most basic changes to your diet will probably have the biggest impact on your health. Nutrition is renowned for being difficult to draw definite conclusions from the research due to its complexity, however, there are certain dietary patterns that have been shown to be more healthful and reduce risk of certain diseases and improve life expectancy.
Remember, no one food will make you ill, or is toxic, or can heal. We can’t reset our hormones, detox ourselves or any of the other claims you may read. Those messages are tempting as they look to give you a solution to your problems, and quickly. But, in the end, you may find you spend a lot longer in the pursuit of health than if you just took the balanced approach in the first place.
Focusing on overall dietary patterns is a more effective way of approaching food to improve your health, rather than singling out and denying yourself individual foods. This means we do not have to eat in a certain way every day, just look to achieve balance over time. With diet, it tends to be long-term adherence that is most important, so finding a way of eating that becomes your lifestyle rather than hopping from diet to diet is most likely to lead to supporting your health in the long term.
The Mediterranean diet
One of the most health-promoting dietary patterns from the research appears to be the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce the risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease (Rosato et al., 2019) and type 2 diabetes (Schwingshackl et al., 2015). It is thought that it is the diet as a whole (rather than specific foods) along with lifestyle factors, that means this dietary pattern is supportive of health.
The characteristics of this diet are that it is high in fibre through the inclusion of a variety of plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts beans, cereals and grains and inclusive of unsaturated fats such as olive oil and oily fish. Meat and dairy are often consumed, but in lower amounts than a traditional western diet.
To move your diet towards a more Mediterranean pattern you can look to include:
- At least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Try and eat a variety of types and different colours.
- Unsaturated fats such as olive and rapeseed oil, in substitute for saturated fats such as butter, coconut oil and ghee.
- A portion of nuts and seeds each day.
- A portion of oily fish a week for Omega-3 fatty acids (Mackerel, salmon, herrings, sardines etc.).
- Have around three portions of wholegrains a day. Examples such as wholegrain bread, rice, pasta, oats or wholegrain breakfast cereals.
- Have at least two meat-free days a week.
- Include pulses like lentils, beans or chickpeas in meals at least twice a week.
You don’t need to make lots of changes at once, just make small changes in one or two areas to begin with and then keep adding more as you feel willing and able.
Nutrition is important to health but it is not the silver bullet, and it seems that it is not the food alone that leads to health benefits in dietary patterns such as the Mediterranean diet. Having a healthy social network, taking time to relax, physical activity and having purpose are all seen to be factors alongside the diet which together create a lifestyle that promotes health and well-being. So, consideration of these areas alongside dietary changes can make a real positive impact on your health.
So, when trying to make dietary changes, remember there is no magic solution. Balance is usually what will offer us the ability to meet our physical, mental and social needs to create a way of eating that moves us towards flourishing health.