From Keto to Paleo to Vegan to Mediterranean to Carnivore and more...how are we supposed to know which diet is best for us? The only thing I can tell you for sure is that there is no one diet that works best for everyone. As it’s been said, “One man’s food is another man’s poison.” Also, what works for you now might change over time, which makes choosing what to eat even more confusing. However, I am here to help you take steps toward understanding how to personalize your diet to match your unique needs, so you can optimize your health and well-being. Here is a quick self-assessment you can use to evaluate your current diet and make steps towards healthier choices for your body:
1. Do you have the basics right?
Everyone can benefit from cleaning up their diet a bit. This means reducing/eliminating the ultra-processed, refined foods that come in bags or boxes. Look out for things with ingredients you can’t pronounce, added sugars and/or highly unstable, inflammatory vegetable, bean and seed oils (such as soybean, canola, safflower and sunflower oils). Focus on the real (from mother nature), highly nutritious foods that humans have become well-adapted to eating, like meat and fish (if you’re not a vegetarian), wild fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, some starchy plants and some ancient, whole grains (like quinoa or wild rice). Aim for the highest quality versions of these foods that your budget can afford (i.e, organic, grass-fed, wild, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, etc.). I think food journalist Michael Pollan captures this best with his philosophy, "Eat (real) food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
2. How are your nutrient levels?
Have your physician check to see if you are deficient in any essential key nutrients that can be addressed through your diet or supplementation. These nutrients include things like Iron, B12 (especially for vegetarians), Calcium, Zinc, Magnesium, Copper, Vitamins A, D, and K (and more).
3. What else could it be?
At this point if you’re still feeling sick and have low energy, your physician can test you for a whole range of disorders, based on your specific symptoms, to see why your body isn’t functioning properly. You might have certain food allergies/sensitivities such as celiac disease (meaning you’re unable to digest wheat), other digestive disorders, auto-immune conditions or hormonal imbalances. Based on the test results, your physician and/or health coach can suggest what foods to add or eliminate to help restore your body back to health. The optimal diet for someone who is suffering from SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) is very different than for someone who’s suffering from Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.
4. What are your specific health goals?
If you have certain goals in mind, you can adjust your macronutrient ratios (the balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats in your meals) to support these goals. For instance, if you are looking to run a marathon or compete in an endurance event, you might want to have more carbs in your diet to support your intense training, since it’s the quickest and most efficient fuel source for your body. If you want to lose weight, you can increase your protein, as it is the most satiating of the macronutrients and you will feel fuller with smaller portion sizes. For brain health and greater mental focus, you might prioritize healthy fats, coming from things like avocados, nuts/seeds, high-quality coconut, olive or MCT oils, grass-fed butter or ghee. If you are interested in tracking your macronutrient intake, three top-rated, easy-to-use apps that you can check out are: Livestrong's MyPlate, MyFitnessPal and MyMacros+. For more information on how to calculate the ideal macronutrient ratios to support your health, based on your health status, activity level, age, genes, and other critical lifestyle factors, you can read this article, written by Dr. Chris Kresser.
5. How can I go from good to great (in terms of diet)?
At this point, you should be feeling pretty darn good, but if you want to feel even better, you can play around with meal frequency and timing. That means you can space out the time between your meals, so you can allow your digestive system to rest and repair. One way you can do this is by eating an early dinner (for example, by 8pm) and then delaying your morning breakfast for 1-3 hours later than normal, so you leave approximately 10-16 hours between meals. This is known as intermittent fasting and by doing this you are not only giving your gut a chance to reset, but you’re also extending the time your body is in fat-burning mode, which can result in weight loss and you don’t have to do this type of fast everyday to experience the benefits (you can start with 1-3 days and see how you feel). Citing numerous scientific studies, Dr. Valter Longo, Director of the USC Longevity Institute and founder of the Longevity Diet, also shows that a Fasting-Mimicking Diet (FMD), which includes normal eating for most of the month and then five days of a semi-fasting regimen, benefits several markers of health, including the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes; as well as helps treat other neurodegenerative and auto-immune diseases. Please note that you should work with a qualified healthcare provider who understands the risks and benefits of intermittent fasting and can help determine if it’s right for you.
Some of you might be thinking, “I already have a pretty clean diet, not struggling with physical health conditions and can’t imagine adjusting my diet any more than I’m already doing... so now what?” As a holistically-minded health coach and meditation teacher, I’d be remiss to leave out all the other lifestyle factors that play into optimal physical health. Beyond getting your diet right, you’ll need to make sure you are also getting enough high-quality sleep, moving your body with exercise that feels good, managing your overall stress levels with meditation or mindfulness-type practices that keep you out of fight-or-flight mode and finding ways to cultivate more joy in your life, even if that means allowing yourself a treat now and again.