The internet - and real world - are full of people dishing out advice about what you should and should not eat, myself included. You have probably seen something about why each of these is the life-saving, waist-slimming cure to all your problems: Mediterranean, anti-inflammatory, Paleo, vegan, vegetarian, Atkins, low-fodmap, gluten-free, dairy-free, high-fat, low-fat, high protein, low-glycemic... the list is never-ending. So which one is REALLY the way to go?
None of my clients are on the same diet (diet as in food choices/patterns, not starvation plans), and I am not on the same diet as any of my clients. Why? Because no one diet is right for everyone. Our bodies, lives, and needs are all incredibly different. As they say, "One man's meat is another man's poison."
It can take time to figure out which specific diet is best for you (food journaling, elimination diets, trial-and-error... or you could hire me to help!), but luckily, there are basic principles that work for everyone.
10 Principles of a Healthy Diet
1. Eat real, clean food.
Spend most of your time and money at the grocery store around the perimeter. Your great-grandmother would recognize a tomato, but a Pop-Tart would look like a child's art project when all the materials they had to work with were stale bread, leftover icing, and neon paint. Ensure that what you eat is as free from pesticides, toxins, antibiotics, etc. as possible. That means buy organic when you can (especially meat and dairy, and the dirty dozen) or better yet, start a small garden of your own! Eat meat if you'd like, but it is important to think about what the animal ate - if your great-grandmother would have said "cows eat grass, not corn!", listen to her.
2. Count ingredients, not calories.
If a "food item" is processed and full of ingredients that you don't recognize, your body probably won't recognize them either. Counting calories is stressful, and creates an unhealthy, numbers-based relationship with food. Plus, you don't need those numbers; your body will tell you when you have had enough to eat, if you learn to listen to it (see number 7).
3. Be smart about sweets.
By all means, do not give up chocolate, but all sweets are not created equal (see numbers 1 and 2), and our bodies can only process so much sugar without repercussions. The American Heart Association recommends adults eat at most around 30g of sugar a day (30 grams is 6 teaspoons; 4 g = 1 tsp). The easiest way to stay under this limit is to stop drinking sugar in soda, sweet tea, fruit juice, and sweetened coffees. Also, be aware that not all sugar affects your body in the same way. I am a fan of stevia and lo han/monk fruit for 0 gram options, but maple syrup, real cane or coconut sugar, and honey are all good choices, too. Try to steer clear of the artificial and non-natural sweeteners, especially things like aspartame and high fructose corn syrup.
4. Eat a lot of plants, mostly vegetables, some fruit.
You don't need to think about each micronutrient like a checklist to hit throughout your day, and if you eat a diverse diet, you probably don't even need that multivitamin. But you do need nutrients, because your body runs off of what you get from food. No nutrients, no you (eventually, and in the short term, a fairly miserable you). The best way to get everything you need is to quite simply eat plants, every day, several times a day. Switch it up. Pick different colors, pick what is in season, pick what you love. Eat at least 3x as many vegetables as fruits (see number 3).
5. Eater fewer grains, and keep them whole.
Human beings have been eating grains for a long time (though not forever, I hear you Paleo folks), but we didn't eat tons of processed grains at every meal, every day. Most Americans eat far more carbohydrates than they need, and the best way to get that number to a healthy range is to take it down to 1-2 servings of whole grains a day. This could mean rice, oatmeal, or wheat (if you are one of the remarkably lucky people who can feel great and eat wheat).
6. Embrace fat, and get it from a variety of good quality sources.
Low-fat foods are loaded with sugar to make up for the flavor they lose, and there is no health benefit to eating a low-fat diet. The connection between saturated fat and heart disease has been debunked, and there are loads of fat-soluble vitamins and other benefits to eating fat. It will keep your blood sugar stable so you don't crash after a meal, and let's be honest, what doesn't taste better with butter? My favorite sources are: grass-fed ghee and butter, coconut oil, bacon grease and olive oil. Steer clear of processed seed oils like canola, and step far, far away from anything partially hydrogenated (margarine). Foods like avocados, nuts, and good-quality meat are also good sources.
7. Pay attention to how food makes you feel, and stop before you are full.
"Not too much" is important here. If you eat until you feel stuffed, you are eating past the point of satiation and taking in more than your body needs (or wants, even if your taste buds disagree!). Slow down when you eat and stop when you don't feel hungry anymore. You can always save those leftovers for lunch tomorrow.
8. Enjoy your food while you eat it (be mindful).
While I understand the appeal of plopping down on the couch and catching up on TV during dinner, food is meant to be appreciated. "Devote your attention" to the meal that you (or someone you love perhaps) put effort into preparing. Think about the flavors and textures, breathe in through your nose, consider where your food came from and what went into bringing it to your mouth at this moment. Not only is this a great way to ease into mindful awareness, it will also slow you down, help prevent you from overeating, and you will get to truly enjoy your food.
9. Eat for your microbiome.
Almost every authentic cuisine in the world has at least one fermented food that provides healthy probiotics, so you can take your pick: kefir, Greek yogurt, sauerkraut, miso soup, kombucha etc. These microbiome bugs make up 5 pounds of our body weight, and there are far more of them than there are of us! We have co-evolved with the bacteria that live in our digestive system and they need to be properly fed and nourished, too. Eating too much sugar can throw off the balance in a negative way; eating probiotic foods can help in a positive way.
10. Eat what you like (but try new things).
If you don't want to eat something, don't. Your body really does know best. That said, your body only knows best once it is sure what you are eating isn't poison, so your taste buds may reject something 8-10 times. If you have tried it on several occasions and haven't developed a taste for it, you may move on. Also, sweet is the only flavor we are programmed to like from birth (for breastmilk); all other tastes (sour, bitter, salty, unami) have to be developed. So get out there, be adventurous, and then eat what you want to eat.