Understanding how to eat a healthy diet has never been so confusing. In this time of internet fads and celebrity diets, it’s difficult to navigate what the ‘right’ diet is or understand what it means to be healthy. With the range of diets spanning from paleo to vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, keto, FODMAP, fasting etc., the list not only seems never-ending but also contradictory. To further confuse the matter, the fact that most of these diets are also backed by published research means that no single diet has proven to be scientifically superior.
However, the truth of the matter is, there is no ‘one size fits all’ diet. The research behind these diets exist because they can be very effective when used in a therapeutic context to treat certain conditions. For example, the ketogenic diet has been used since the 1920s as a very effective treatment for epilepsy, and in recent decades has also shown efficacy in cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, and neurological disease1. However, following such a high-fat, low-fibre diet not only reduces antioxidant intake, which play a vital role in maintaining health, but can have deleterious effects on the gut microbiome and increase the level of certain bacteria in the gut that can promote inflammation2. So, with any diet that tends to cut out large food groups, there are pros and cons to consider.
When most people change their diet, they see improvements in their health no matter which diet they choose to follow. This is because when we change our diet, we spend more time focusing on what we’re eating, and less time eating absentmindedly. We are more conscious of what we’re eating, how we’re eating, when we’re eating, and why we’re eating. The choices we make around food go beyond just sustenance; they also encompass ethical, sustainable and psychological reasoning. When we choose a diet that satisfies our health, our values, and our psychological satisfaction, we find it much easier to stick to this pattern of eating, and therefore gain the most health benefits from it.
The other reason why we can feel good on vastly varying diets, i.e. paleo or vegan, is that the commonality between all these different diets is they cut out processed and inflammatory food, and increase plant food. Rather than getting caught in the details of why specific diets differ, why not focus on how they are similar, and what that means for the health of everyone following them?
In order to be healthy and enjoy eating (because let’s face it, eating is one of the greatest pleasures in life and should be enjoyable!), let’s focus on what makes up a healthy diet, and how you can supercharge your current diet without having to follow trends or unsustainable long term diets:
- Eat more plants! The current Australian Dietary Guidelines state we should be consuming a minimum of 5 serves of vegetables and 2 serves of fruit each day. That’s around 7 cups of plant food daily as a minimum. Ideally, we want to aim for 9 serves per day, but if you can get to 7 you’re doing pretty well.
Sneak in fruit and vegetables wherever you can. The more plants you’re eating, the less room you will have for other, less healthy choices. When choosing your fruit and veggies, try to ‘eat the rainbow’ every day. Colour = antioxidants, and antioxidants keep us healthy by protecting us against ageing, the development of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis and neurodegenerative diseases3.
- Include herbs and spices in the diet. These are some of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet, and they also make our food taste incredible. Who can say no to a delicious curry, pesto, or herby salad?
- Include protein with every meal and snack. Nuts, seeds, eggs, cheese or natural yogurt, legumes (i.e. lentils, hummus, mixed beans, etc.), tempeh or tofu, fish, poultry. Try to limit your red meat intake to one serve per week.
Aim for a mixture of plant and animal protein daily if you’re a meat eater. If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, complete sources of plant protein containing all essential amino acids include soy products, hemp seeds, chia seeds, quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth.
- Look after your microbiome. Our gut microbes play a huge role in keeping us healthy, and have wide ranging influences, including the ability to influence our mood, our metabolism and weight, our blood sugar regulation, our immune system, our cardiovascular system, our gut health, and even our risk of developing cancer. So how do we look after our microbiome? By eating more fibre, which is what you are doing by increasing plant food (i.e. your 7 serves of vegetables and fruit daily and your vegetarian protein sources). See how it all starts to tie in with each other with a few simple changes? If you really want to supercharge your diet, add in some naturally fermented, probiotic rich food such as sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, miso, kefir, etc.
- Grains and pseudo grains aren’t the devil. Unless, of course, you have immune reactions to the proteins in the grains, or your microbiome is out of balance and you can’t digest the fibre. However, this leads us back to why we might use diets therapeutically. For most of us who don’t have these reactions, whole grains are an excellent source of fibre, minerals and vitamins. If we are including them in the diet, our dinner plate should be around 1/6 wholegrains, 1/6 quality protein, and the rest vegetables.
- Drink more water, aim for around 8 glasses per day. Fundamentally, we only need 3 things to stay alive – food, fluid and air. It stands to reason then, that the quality of the things that we put in our body directly relate to the quality of our health. Choose water over soft drinks, energy drinks, coffee, flavoured milks, processed fruit and vegetable juices and other processed drinks.
- Reduce the amount of processed food you eat, including sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed meats, soft drinks, refined vegetable oils and margarines. Food should look like how it grows in the ground, so an easy way to tell the level processing is by how far removed it is from this. You can also check the ingredients, and if it’s a long list, or there are more non-food ingredients than food ingredients, it’s a good indicator to stay away from that particular food.
Following a healthy diet doesn’t have to be a complicated and confusing process. For the most part, we understand what we need to eat to be healthy, we just sometimes lack the motivation or the inspiration to do it. If the thought of dietary changes seems overwhelming, start with a few simple changes; snack on fruit or vegetables instead of cakes or chips, create your own vegetable or legumes dips and enjoy them with seed or wholegrain crackers, add extra salad to your wholemeal sandwich at lunch, hide extra vegetables in the meals you cook, swap out healthier choices in some of the unhealthy meals you might eat (try homemade burgers with extra salad, or refried bean tacos with fresh salsas), throw some extra fruit or vegetables in a smoothie, explore flavour through herbs and spices rather than fat, salt and sugar.
A healthy diet is about balance, so ensure that you’re getting the good stuff in 80% of the time, and if you want to eat the bad stuff, try to keep it at 20%, but enjoy it in its full glory. Don’t go for the low fat or diet options of the foods you love, enjoy what you’re eating and don’t feel guilt around it. Feeling relaxed and stress-free when eating will ensure optimal digestion and nutrient assimilation, so the most important thing to remember when choosing any diet is making sure its enjoyable, delicious and sustainable.
Monique is available for individual consultations (https://www.naturalperspective.com.au/) or workplace workshops including cooking demonstrations and education sessions to Active & Thriving customers.
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- Paoli A, Rubini A, Volek JS, Grimaldi KA. Beyond weight loss: a review of the therapeutic uses of very-low-carbohydrate (ketogenic) diets [published correction appears in Eur J Clin Nutr. 2014 May;68(5):641]. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2013;67(8):789–796. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2013.116
- Tagliabue A, Ferraris C, Uggeri F, et al. Short-term impact of a classical ketogenic diet on gut microbiota in GLUT1 Deficiency Syndrome: A 3-month prospective observational study. Clinical Nutrition ESPEN. 2017 Feb;17:33-37. DOI: 10.1016/j.clnesp.2016.11.003.
- Pandey KB, Rizvi SI. Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2009;2(5):270–278. doi:10.4161/oxim.2.5.9498