In this modern age, the options are endless for which diet you could go on. Whether you’re thinking Keto, paleo, Whole 30 weight loss diet, Atkins, South Beach, Zone, blood type… the list goes on, and on, and on!
What proponents of these diets don’t tell you is their motive. More often than not, creators and perpetuators of these diets are in it for the money, not your well-being. This is made clear by the research that tells us diets. don’t. work. (For the purpose of this article, we use ‘diet’ to mean short-term drastic changes like a two-month keto plan).
Well, if diets don’t work, what are you to do to achieve your health goals?
The answer is simple: Build a sustainable and balanced lifestyle that incorporates a balanced pattern of eating. Paying mind to dietary guidelines will help you do this, but ultimately you should strive to have an eating pattern that is optimized to meet your specific needs.
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There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ diet and studies show most dieters regain the weight they lost on the diet within a year.
What actually works is finding your optimal balanced eating pattern.
Balanced eating patterns are sustainable and promote good health.
You can find your optimal eating pattern by setting SMART goals based on your unique needs.
What Does ‘Balanced Eating Pattern’ Mean, in 30 Seconds?
A balanced eating pattern is a way of eating that works for you as an individual. Fad diets try to fit you into a mold and say you’ll get the same results as everyone else. And if you don’t get the same results, you’ll be told you were doing the diet wrong! But the more probable reality is the diet was wrong for you.
Establishing a balanced eating pattern takes time and requires attention to your unique needs. It includes considering dietary guidelines established by health professionals, what foods you like or dislike, what your schedule looks like, how often you prefer to eat at restaurants or get takeout, how your body processes food, what deficiencies you have, and any medical issues you may have.
Why Diets Don’t Work
Diets fail for numerous reasons with a main one being unsustainability.
Every diet involves some form of restriction. For keto, carbs are restricted. For the Whole 30 weight loss diet, baked goods, junk food, and ‘treats’ are among the long list of restricted items. Restriction like this creates a forbidden fruit phenomenon: Your mind is more likely to fixate on the things you can’t have, making your diet unbearable to sustain long-term. This will sound familiar to you if you’ve ever identified as a yo-yo dieter (someone who tries one diet, loses weight, gains the weight back, tries another diet, loses weight again… you get the picture).
An extreme example of the forbidden fruit phenomenon comes from the Ancel Keys Starvation study conducted during World War II. Male volunteer test subjects were put on a very low-calorie meal plan (read: diet) and one result was food obsession. Some of the men read cookbooks obsessively or doted over pictures of food, and meal times became the highlight of their days. And even though they expressed commitment to following the diet at the beginning of the study, once the dietary restriction had been in full effect, many of the men were prone to sneaking food when they could! It took a team of researchers and chaperones to make sure the subjects kept with their diet — sounds sustainable, right?
While modern-day diets aren’t as extreme as the Ancel Keys diet, they still are likely to set you up for failure; if only we could all have a team of chaperones to keep us on track with our diets. The clearest path to success is to find your optimal, balanced eating pattern and to find ways to make it easy to stick with.
Finding A Balanced Eating Pattern: Dietary Guidelines and the Factors They Account For
Dietary guidelines are based on swaths of statistical data from studies involving thousands of subjects. Averages are crunched, and we’re told a normal person eats 2000 calories in a day, gets 1000mg calcium per day, eats four servings of fruit and five servings of veggies each day, and so on.
From a public health perspective, general guidelines are helpful because they promote a message that can help improve a country’s specific health concerns. For example, heart disease and diabetes are big problems in the United States. When you learn the general dietary guidelines are to limit sugar to keep your heart healthy, you’re more likely to make a healthier choice. A 2002 study helped to confirm the notion health information shapes food choice (for better or for worse).
Dietary guidelines typically take several factors into account, including:
The increasingly sedentary lifestyle humans are adapting,
The decrease in time spent outside and exercising, and
The increase in access to highly processed foods.
Over the decades, each of these factors has negatively impacted the health of the general public in some way. Whether it’s back pain from sitting at the desk all day, vitamin D deficiency from not getting enough sunshine, or poor dental health due to too many sweets, dietary guidelines are put in place to remind you nutrition is one of the variables you can manage even if your life seems restricted by modern requirements.
But for deciding what to eat on a day-to-day basis, general dietary guidelines are kind of useless. A 5’2” woman with hypothyroidism is going to have different dietary needs than a 6’4” man on a college basketball team; the averages simply will not work for everyone.
Why Foods Do Different Things to Different People
There’s a multitude of reasons why different people digest the same foods differently. Here are just a few:
1. Digestion. Calorie amounts for foods were originally determined using bomb calorimetry, a method of burning a pure form of the food and noting the temperature change of the surrounding environment. Bomb calorimetry gave us standards we use today to estimate calorie content:
One gram of protein = 4 calories
One gram of carbohydrate = 4 calories
One gram of fat = 9 calories
A food manufacturer will determine how many grams of each macronutrient is in their item and go from there. Food manufacturers do try to account for things like indigestible fiber which ultimately won’t impact calorie content, but it’s not an exact science. A package may say the food is 200 calories, but you might only digest 180 calories due to the way your body processes the fiber in the food!
2. Health conditions. There are countless health conditions that could impact the way you digest food. If you have diabetes, a milkshake could send you into diabetic shock; if you don’t have diabetes, you could drink that same milkshake like it ain’t no thang. With hypothyroidism, you could gain weight on a meal plan while someone with a similar physique and normal thyroid function maintains weight. If you’ve had a cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal), you know you can’t digest fat like most people can. And if you have celiac disease, you know it’s in your better interests to refrain from eating that banana bread, no matter how good it smells (sobs silently inside). Because there are so many conditions that can impact the way you process food, it’s imperative to pay attention to how you feel, monitor blood work, and get any abnormal symptoms checked out by your doctor.
3. Genetics. Nobody processes food like you do (not even your identical twin, if you have one). A 2015 study highlighted this fact by showing despite eating identical meals, a study group of hundreds of people showed enormous differences in the way their bodies processed those meals (the measured variable was blood glucose response). This study further strengthens the point that general dietary guidelines are not appropriate for individuals to try to adhere to.
What happens when you don’t get your optimal nutrition in a day?
The truth is, a single day of poor eating isn’t going to ruin your health. Heck, even a week isn’t going to send you to the grave any sooner (yes, it’s okay to ‘cut loose’ a little bit on vacation). Rather, long-term and deeply ingrained patterns of eating are what have the potential to be the most detrimental to your health.
Over time, poor food choices can lead to altered lab values (such as cholesterol, triglycerides, vitamins, minerals, and your sugar panel), increased blood pressure, weight gain, diabetes, and a plethora of other chronic diseases.
This is why consistency matters! You should be striving to have a relatively healthy and balanced pattern of eating that works for you and is consistently sustainable. An ‘off’ day here or there isn’t what’s going to ruin you; a consistently poor pattern of eating is what will bring you down.
A One-Size-Fits-All Diet Doesn’t Exist. Here’s How to Find YOUR Optimal Eating Pattern.
Our advice is to find a balanced eating pattern that’s optimal for you. Because your body is so unique and does not digest food the same exact way as anyone else, it’s not ideal to follow a diet created by and for anyone else.
Finding your optimal eating pattern may sound daunting, but it isn’t all that complicated. In general, a good place to start is the dietary guidelines which recommend you consume mostly whole-foods and focus on lean proteins, whole grains, healthy fats, and lots of fruits and veggies. It’s okay to have sweets occasionally but always with an eye to moderation.
Now, stick with us for this next part: Consider using SMART goals to help you establish some healthy eating patterns. SMART goals aren’t just for your quarterly review at work; they can also help you achieve your health goals! It may or may not work for you, but if you’re a goal-oriented person or you just want to give it a shot, here’s how you could do it:
Let’s pretend you’re trying to drink less soda - think of a goal that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-constrained to help you cut back. If you drink soda every day, a goal might be to aim to drink soda only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for the next two weeks. Once this goal becomes a habit, work on another one; continue this pattern and before you know it, you’ll have a generally balanced eating pattern!
If you already have a balanced eating pattern, you may want to figure out what eating pattern is truly optimal for you; you can use SMART goals in tandem with at-home lab testing to figure this out. For example, your lab results might indicate your iron is low. A SMART goal for you might be to add spinach to your smoothies three days a week and see how your iron levels are after a month.
By optimizing your eating pattern over time, you can nip nutritional deficiencies and hormonal imbalances in the bud to save time, money, and energy in the future, while improving your quality of life today!
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