The world of nutrition and diets can be a confusing place. There are so many different diets that claim to be the perfect diet for humans and the optimal way to eat. I remember once reading a quote, “If you are not confused about nutrition then you haven’t studied it enough” and I find this to be so true. If you have been in the world of health and wellness for a while, you will have seen many nutrition trends come and go and often competing with each other for attention. In the last ten years alone we have seen the rise of vegan and plant-based diets (high carb low fat), paleo, keto and carnivore diets (low carb high fat) as well as gluten-free, dairy-free and sugar-free diets..
I could go on but I’m sure you see my point. Each time a new nutrition paradigm is discovered there is a huge hype and a torrent of evidence to demonstrate that this is the perfect diet which will solve all of our health problems. Vegan nutritionists and doctors believe that animal products are the cause of all diseases of the modern world, including high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease and that eating a diet based on mostly plant-based foods will help us to live a long and healthy life. On the other hand, proponents of animal-based keto and paleo diets proclaim that sugar and carbohydrates are the devil and should be avoided at all costs. They believe that there are toxic compounds in plant-foods that wreak havoc on the body and that training your body to become a fat burning machine will help you to stay fit and lean and keep disease at bay.
Both sides have theoretical research, data and anecdotal evidence to support their ideas but how can this nutrition paradox exist? And what does this say about what is the perfect diet for humans? As I have said before, I believe that humans we are very adaptable creatures and we are able to survive in many different environments on a variety of diets. This is why we have been able to spread across the globe and build societies from the tropics to the snowy mountains of Siberia. When it comes to the perfect diet to thrive, I think this really comes down to the individual and the environment they live in. There are so many factors that affect what and how much you should eat to be healthy that it is truly impossible to state that one diet or specific way of eating is optimal for everyone, everywhere. Honestly, I think this idea is crazy!
According to Marc Davis in his book, Nourishing Wisdom, there are five key factors which can influence your dietary needs at any given time:
- Health conditions
These things taken together account for changes in the quantities and types of foods that you need to eat at any time. For example, a male athlete living in California has very different dietary needs to a sedentary elder in Alaska or a pregnant working woman in London. There is no way that we can apply a one-size-fits-all diet to these cases. Perhaps these are extreme comparisons but even within the span of your own life there will be differences. Your activity and stress levels fluctuate as you move through your life and every year most locations in the world experience the natural shifts in weather and pace of life with the changing seasons. For women we also move through inner “seasons” each month following the hormonal rhythms of our menstrual cycle which changes our appetite and cravings as well as macro and micro-nutrient needs.
For many of us, trying to control our diets or our bodies is a natural response to the stresses of life. Change is always inevitable and often uncomfortable and we can turn to strict dietary rules or control of our bodies shape or size as a way to feel a sense of stability. Part of the holistic health journey is learning to accept and flow with these changes in our bodies and our diet rather that resist against them and create further stress and tension. When we learn to relax and listen to our bodies messages about what it needs at any given time, we take the pressure off ourselves and find that there is a natural intelligence that comes through. If we start a new exercise program, we may naturally feel hungrier and crave foods higher in protein. If we move house or change jobs, the stress may increase our appetite and cravings for sugar to calm the nervous system or on the contrary, shut down appetite all together. The body is always looking out for your and trying to do what it thinks is best for survival.
In my holistic health coaching practice, I have clients that come to me with a range of issues. Some want to lose weight in a healthy and sustainable way, others have been through years of restrictive dieting and want to regain a monthly menstrual cycle or overcome symptoms of a low metabolism such as fatigue, low mood and other symptoms of hormonal balance. Some clients live very active lifestyles with work, family and regular exercise and others have lower energy requirements due to a slower paced lifestyle. Each case is different and the dietary suggestions I make depend on the individuals’ lifestyle, health data and history, current health status and their goals. This can involve changes in the recommendations for how much to eat, when to eat, which types of foods to consume and in what ratios. Working with clients over several sessions, we can tune into what works and what doesn’t and find what is the perfect diet for them.
As an example, a metabolically healthy person with a few extra lbs to lose can afford to increase the fruit and vegetable consumption and lower fat consumption to reduce the overall calorie density of their diet and help them to lose weight without feeling deprived. A low calorie density diet can be the perfect diet to lose weight for many people. However, someone who is metabolically compromised and suffering from digestive and hormonal issues due to not eating enough food or enough variety of food is likely to feel worse on a a low-calorie density diet and is more likely to need to eat less fibre and more calorically dense foods to support their body in healing and recovery. When it comes to plant-based foods, it is not as simple as more is better. If you are already consuming 8-10 portions of fruit and vegetables a day, drinking 2L of water and wondering why you are still feeling rubbish then it is time to take a look and see what else needs to change.
I always recommend clients to keep a food diary, not to track calories or macro-nutrients but to see how their body responds to different foods and meals. A food diary is an amazing tool for anyone looking to improve their health and find the perfect diet as observing your bodies’ reactions can tell you a lot about your state of health and what you need to stay balanced. It is quite trendy nowadays to restrict foods such as gluten and dairy and to include “superfoods” like kale and spirulina but what if these foods don’t agree with you? Keeping a food diary can help you to understand the foods that digest well for you, keep you feeling full and energised for longer as well as any problem foods or combinations of foods that leave you feeling hungry an hour later or tired and sluggish for days. You might even find that certain foods work well in one situation and not in another, perhaps you can digest a particular meal but that same meal causes bloating and reflux if you eat in a stressful environment such as at your work desk.
I also encourage everyone to explore the local food culture in the area they live as traditional meals prepared with locally produced ingredients are more likely to support you in the environment you live in compared to copy paste recipes prepared by someone on the other side of the globe made with imported and mass-produced ingredients. Traditionally, people were more aware of the connection between us and our environment and more conscious of how different foods can be used to support us through environmental changes. Last year I moved from the UK to Greece and my diet completely changed. It was very disorientating but eating Greek cuisine daily and shopping for seasonal produce in the local market was very grounding and was a big wake up call for me to understand the importance of allowing changes in the diet and adapting to the climate that you live in.
I think this is one of the huge problems with the raw vegan movement. Yes it may work in certain locations where fresh, water-rich food is needed to keep your body cool and hydrated or perhaps for short periods of cleansing and detoxification for those with specific health conditions. But is a raw vegan diet is perfect for humans who live in colder climates or who are underweight and need to consume a higher amount of calories? I would argue not. Perhaps it is the perfect diet for a specific human in a specific life situation but no more than that. The same goes for the keto or carnivore diet. For someone who has deprived their body of nutrients present in animal products, maybe consuming large quantities of these foods can be therapeutic for a time to rebuild nutrient stores and rebalance their body but the problems arise when we hold on to these restrictive diets longer than necessary. Once our bodies start to react with cravings for foods outside of the diet, it is important to listen and not remain stuck in the idea that this is the perfect diet.
So where do you start with finding what is the perfect diet for you? I have lots of resources here on my website to help you assess your current state of health and find a nutrition path that works for you. If you need more tailored advice and a personalised holistic health and nutrition plan tailored to your current situation and your goals, you can reach out to me for support via my holistic health coaching program.
Over to you…
I hope you found this article interesting and it gives you “food for thought”. Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you. Like this post to support my business and follow along with my blog for more articles on nutrition, yoga and holistic health practices to support balanced hormones and overall better health.
If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, please contact me or check out the nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I am a qualified Public Health Nutritionist and hatha yoga teacher and my specialty is helping women to balance their hormones and heal their body and metabolism after chronic or restrictive dieting. I would love to work together with you to move past any health blocks and get you feeling your best again!