There are so many diet books out there in stores, on TV and online. Each one offers “the answer” to what ails us. High fat, low carbs, no carbs, high protein and the list goes on! Each plan offers a set of promises from increased energy and better sleep to weight loss and improved metabolism. There are many claims and guaranteed results. All these choices create a lot of confusion for people and bring up as many questions as there are diets. Questions like: Which one is the “right” diet for me? How do I decide what’s right? How can certain nutrients like fat or carbs be both good and bad? What will work best for me?
Here’s the short answer… There is no one size fits all diet for everyone. I have counseled hundreds of clients and have found that it’s not that simple. We all have a unique history, constitution and lifestyle. To decide the best option, we need to look deeper into our individual story including topics like body type and history. This is such an important component to unlock the mystery of what is the best eating plan or diet for you.
The Idea of the Diet
First, let us consider the whole idea of a diet. In a global sense, we use the word diet to connect a culture, region or nationality to the food that is commonly consumed there. Think Mediterranean diet, Asian diet, etc. These are historical and often ancient eating patterns that were adapted to that region based on the food sources available or easily grown there.
For the average American when we think diet, we think of a short term plan that includes some type of food restriction that will hopefully lead to weight loss. Research shows us that “diets” don’t really work since they usually include changes that people let go of once they finish the “diet”. Then any gains they made are lost and the cycle continues. Because of this, we know that in the long run, these types of ‘diets’ are not really an effective choice. Yet there are new diets popping up every day and people jumping on board with the newest plan. The reasons people choose these plans are to feel better, reduce weight and improve their overall health. What if there was a way to achieve these goals without a quick fix short term plan? Let’s begin by looking at the how and why of that process and learn the 7 keys to unlock the answer for you.
Let Go of the Short Term Diet
The First Key in this process is to let go of the idea of a short term diet. They don’t work and in order to make sustainable healthy changes, we have to think more long term. When we are in the market for a diet, we are usually looking to improve our health in some way and often to lose weight. To make the best choice for change, it’s important to look at the ways our bodies have gotten out of balance that put us in the market for a “diet” in the first place. That imbalance might show up as extra weight, low energy, blood sugar issues, high cholesterol or insomnia, just to name a few. Generally, these changes happen over time or after a significant health challenge like a diagnosis from a doctor or moving into a new phase of life like motherhood or menopause. Most of the time we can trace it back to a time when we first noticed that our body started to change. People will often say things like, “5 years ago I seemed fine” or “after I had that bad sinus infection I didn’t feel the same” or “I was under a lot of stress for several months and after that I never got my energy back.” We all have our own story. This story is helpful when ‘putting the pieces together’. When we take our history into account we can make more effective changes.
Considering our individual health challenges and goals, what research does tell us is that a more long-term lifestyle plan is effective to sustain changes. That plan should include several pieces like: moving your body, reducing the impact of stress as well as paying attention to what you eat. Just focusing on food alone is not enough to feel better, improve your health and make lasting changes. As I mentioned before, most people have a story of where and how things started for them. That is an important step in choosing the best plan for you.
Get to the Root of the Problem.
Let’s review this Second Key through the philosophy of Functional Medicine. The basics of Functional Medicine are simple: get to the root cause or causes of why someone doesn’t have energy or is overweight. This approach doesn’t just try to fix symptoms but looks deeper at why. To illustrate this approach, consider a tree with its roots in the earth. If the tree is “sick” we want to not only look at the leaves which are like the “symptoms” but also look at the roots of the tree or the “cause” of the problem. This means we have to look at the person’s whole life story including their personal medical history from the time they were a little kid, family medical history, day-to-day life including work and family life as well as the foods they eat and don’t eat. This is an important step to creating a plan that someone can follow for the long term. This is also why one diet does not work for every person.
Write Your Story
The Third Key is writing your story. While you may not have the training in Functional Medicine to put all the pieces together, I have found it to be so helpful for patients to reflect back on their story. This can help us learn more about our tendencies and may help us decide what to change in our lifestyle.
Here are the kinds of questions to ask yourself:
What was my health like when I was little?
Am I someone who always gets colds and flu?
Can I remember a time when I felt great?
What is my family’s health history? (Mother/Father, Grandparents, Siblings) For example: Do I have a family history of diabetes?
Do I have a history of allergies?
Do I have a history of dieting or food cravings?
Functional Medicine practitioners use all of this information to help create a more personal plan. This is called personalized medicine which is the opposite of one-size-fits-all.
Create Your Personalized Plan
That leads to the Fourth Key: Personalized plans. Crafting a plan that is specific to you and your story will likely lead to better results. For example: you are a female who is peri-menopausal and your doctor told you you are pre-diabetic. You have had some challenges with your weight since you were little and several of your family members have Type 2 Diabetes. We know you need to avoid simple carbohydrates like pasta and bread, among other dietary and lifestyle changes to help your body rebalance which can lead to weight loss and improved blood sugar levels. As you go forward you are likely someone who will have to be pretty consistent with these changes, keeping an eye on your choices and quantities of carbohydrates for the long term. You are the person who may be more likely to gain weight. This is because both your family and personal history shows that you may have a stronger tendency.
Another example: you are a female who is peri-menopausal and things in your life have recently changed. You got a new job which has you eating out a lot, having much more quick packaged food and reducing your exercise. Your doctor told you that your blood sugars levels are higher than usual. We learn that no one in your family has any challenges with Type 2 Diabetes and you have always been able to maintain your weight easily. In this scenario, we would likely create a similar plan as the prior scenario with similar dietary focus, by limiting simple carbs as well as lifestyle changes. The difference is that after your body rebalances, you may tolerate a few whole grains as part of your carbohydrates as you go forward. You might find things change more quickly or more easily.
This is a simple example of how a similar person may have different plans based on their story. As the foundation of a personalized plan, there are some basics that can be true for everyone.
The Basics of Good Nutritional Support for the Body
The Fifth Key uses these concepts to create a framework and then we can personalize based on the person’s individual story.
5 BASIC Do’s:
- Eat plants; especially the colorful ones. They contain vitamins, minerals, and phyto-nutrients which are powerful compounds that give veggies and fruits their color and fiber which helps detox and make beneficial bacteria in our gut. These bacteria keep our immune system healthy.
- Legumes and beans are an excellent source of plant protein and good fiber.
- Fats like olive oil, olives, avocado and coconut oil should be eaten at every meal. 1 TBS of olive or coconut oil or ¼ of an avocado is a good start. Nuts and seeds are also part of this group.
- Lean and clean protein like poultry, beef, fish, and eggs are important to have at each meal.
- Water helps the body detox and lubricates our joints, cells, eyes and tissues in general.
5 BASIC Don’ts:
- Stay away from plans that include packaged foods with long lists of ingredients even if they are gluten free, fat free, diet friendly, all natural, etc. If you don’t know what it is or can’t pronounce it, it’s best not to eat it.
- Stay away from plans that limit or avoid a whole group of foods like: No fat, ZERO carbohydrates, and low protein.
- Stay away from plans that focus on one food group like: High fat or high protein.
- Stay away from processed and concentrated ‘Sugar’ in all of its forms as much as possible, including: Splenda, Equal, Truvia, white/brown/raw sugar, molasses, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, white grape juice concentrate. Sugar in its more natural forms should be limited: raw honey, coconut sugar, whole leaf stevia, maple syrup.
- Don’t skip meals on a regular basis.
5 areas that need to be more personalized, and are more dependent on your story:
- Wheat, rye, barley and grains in general
- Gluten free grains and products like rice, millet and quinoa
- Dairy products
- Fruit quantity
- Protein sources and types
As we look at the whole picture of your life we also need to include movement or exercise and consider the impact of stress.
Movement and Exercise
The Sixth Key is movement. Research is consistently telling us that exercise and moving our bodies is a really important part of being healthy and staying that way. Often when people write their story they will note that things like weight and energy started to shift when they stopped moving or exercising. There are many ways that moving our bodies helps to keep us in balance. The first thing that comes to mind is heart health and muscle building which are the foundation of movement. Building muscle helps us burn calories more efficiently and even helps our bodies detoxify. Muscles have more glucose or sugar receptors to help us balance blood sugar and improve energy levels. Your heart is a muscle that needs to be exercised but this also improves our circulation which helps with digestion, immunity and reducing inflammation. Beyond heart health and muscle building there are other ways that movement improves our health. Increased flexibility and the ability to move easily helps us prevent falls and injuries.
Moving can raise our energy levels, make us feel more vibrant and often puts us in a healthier mindset. The key is to find something you like to do and find simple ways to add it to your daily life. Walking, stretching, dancing, tennis, bike riding, swimming and the list goes on. We all know the adage, “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” Find ways to add short sessions, even 15 minute exercise increments, to improve your health. Here are a few ideas: Walk in the mall during winter months, use your home stairs as an aerobic tool, find 10-15 min videos that use dumbbells/free weights and exercise bands or just dance. Adding this to a personalized plan puts you on the path to staying well.
The Seventh Key is reducing stress. This is such an important key and maybe should have been the first key on our list. Having prolonged stress is a factor that many people report prior to feeling a change in their body or health. We hear a lot about stress reduction today. Life moves quickly with so many responsibilities and often we feel like we are in a constant state of emergency. I have seen so many clients who eat a really healthy personalized diet but they are so stressed that it actually reduces the positive impact of that diet.
What are the effects of stress on your body? It can deplete your immune system, increase your blood pressure, challenge your digestion, increase inflammation in your body and imbalance blood sugar. There are 2 parts to our nervous system which help our bodies as we move through our day and handle life. Part 1: Sympathetic nervous system- a.k.a. “fight or flight” system. Imagine you are running from a tiger. Part 2: Parasympathetic nervous system a.k.a “rest and digest” system. Imagine you are sitting down to a nice leisurely meal with family or friends. The challenge comes when we live our life in Part 1 most of the time. Our body was not designed to be in a state of emergency all the time and this is why it can negatively affect our health. The key here is to activate the rest and digest system and the easiest way to do that is with breath, specifically exhalation. Long deep breaths can help us turn “off the emergency.” Other options include listening to relaxing music, walking in nature and meditation.
Each of us is unique and when you are choosing the “right diet” you need to be creating a sustainable plan that looks at the root of why you need a plan, includes sound basics of healthy eating, considers your personal story, adds movement and includes times to relax. That is the right diet for you.
Holly Niles, MS, CNS, LDN, CFSP is a Functional Medicine Licensed Clinical Nutritionist, Integrative Health Practitioner and Wellness Educator. Most recently, she has been working for several years as part of the nutrition team at Dr. Mark Hyman’s Ultra Wellness Center in Lenox, MA. Working with such a diverse client population has deepened her commitment to the art of Functional Medicine. Her approach is to help patients find practical ways to enjoy making healthy changes to create wellness. She believes that not only is our food a key to creating a well-being but that our food is our medicine.