Healthy eating is a huge subject, and a complex topic. The best way to begin is by asking what it is that you want from your diet. Do you want to slim down? Stop overeating? Have a longer, healthier life?
Let’s begin with the most common concern people have about eating: What is the best diet to lose weight? It’s no surprise that so many are confused. If you’re anything like the majority of people, you have no doubt seen numerous advertisements from the diet market, like detox diets, or super-food diets.
Besides that, Hollywood celebs frequently promote the latest trend diet plans. There is no research that reveals any one commercial diet is best, yet our society still goes back and forth in between dieting and diets looking for a magic formula. However, the secret does not lie so much in the diet plan itself. Rather, it’s more about how dedicated you are to following it.
A Cochrane meta-analysis in 2015 looked at what promoted the success of business weight-loss diet plans. It revealed that it wasn’t less carbohydrates or fat – it was due more to structure and more in-person social assistance. The truth is, diets are simply food rules that affect our eating patterns, or what an economist might call a “commitment device”.
What self-aware people do is enhance their management of spontaneous and impulsive behaviors. So instead of going on auto-pilot, you follow food rules that push you toward specific eating decisions – primarily less overeating. Each fad diet plan has their own magic formula of macronutrients. This could be low-carb, high protein, low-fat, low sugar, or whatever. They will also normally have a gimmick that goes with it. You can eat like a caveman, or utilize a scoring system, or have your meals prepackaged, or it’s endorsed by well-known doctors, etc.
As far as macronutrients go, I believe we spend too much time and energy concentrating on them, and it’s actually more about quality than amount.
Carbohydrates can be healthy in their complex forms (fruits, veggies, legumes, whole grains) but not that healthy in their simple forms (like refined sugars and starches). Let’s be honest, carbohydrates taste amazing, and our society as a whole tends to overindulge in them. Therefore, people who restrict their intake in carbs tend to lose weight. However, when we study relative weight loss results we see something else.
In 2014, researchers took a look at weight and cardiovascular markers of at-risk individuals on low-carbohydrate diets. The participants were followed for approximately 2 years and showed no distinction with those on well-balanced weight-loss diet plans.
Low Sugar Diets
So what about lowering sugar? Well, if I had to choose one word to explain sugar in industrialized societies, it would be “deceptive”.
Large quantities of sugar have gradually made their way into our diets. For instance, lots of beverages will have the equivalent of 8 or more teaspoons of sugar. The typical American consumes approximately 20 teaspoons of sugar a day – and it’s even much more than that with teenagers.
Sugar is obviously found in sweet foods, but it’s also even found in foods we would normally consider healthy, such as cereals, granola bars, and fruit juices. Hidden sugars contribute to excess calories, and that’s where we can get ourselves into trouble.
One interesting side note is that when clients are diagnosed with pre-diabetes, the first thing they do is eliminate sugar from their diet. Nevertheless, when we look at the diabetes prevention studies, it shows that success is less about limiting sugar and more about an overall healthy lifestyle.
A lifestyle change involving exercising 20-30 minutes a day, achieving a 5-7% weight loss, consuming less hydrogenated fats, and getting more fiber can decrease the risk of progression to diabetes by 58%.
Now to low-fat diet plans. In the last few years the fat story has gone from being all bad to not-so-bad. There’s trans-fat (as in fried, fast-foods and packaged baked products) which falls mainly in the not-so-good category. We generally want to eat less trans-fats.
Then there’s hydrogenated fats, which are mostly found in dairy and red meats, and plants, like coconut or palm oil. These aren’t healthy to eat in large amounts, but are fine in moderation.
Then we have monounsaturated fats, or MUFA (mono unsaturated fats). The Mediterranean diet, as an example, is quite high in MUFA. It consists of things like avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and dark chocolate. This type of fat shows health advantages.
Finally, we have PUFA’s, or poly-unsaturated fats. These are the longer-chain fats found in oily fish. Initial research showed some decrease in cardiac events, but more current studies are not so conclusive. Results still show a little benefit, so the idea is to get at least 2 servings a week. Most individuals appear to do much better when they replace saturated fats with MUFA and PUFA fats.
High Protein Diets
How about diets that are high in protein? Once more, quality is more important than quantity. Protein can come in various forms that impact your health in different ways. For example, comparing processed high-sodium ham to a fresh piece of salmon vs. lentils vs. peanuts. Most research indicates that if you consume healthy proteins (such as lean meat, legumes, nuts, and fish) you’ll be better off, especially if it’s spread out over the course of the day, with breakfast perhaps being the most important time.
Other Types of Diets
For Treating Medical Conditions
There are also some diets that show promising results for people with disease. For example, the DASH diet has been shown to significantly reduce high blood pressure.
The low glycemic index diet gradually decreases the A1C blood sugar measurement in people with diabetes by 0.5%. Many individuals have high cholesterol, and studies have shown that the portfolio diet can reduce cholesterol by as much as 35%.
The research for vegetarianism shows that people who follow it do better. It’s difficult to argue that a diet rich in plant-based, unprocessed foods isn’t a good idea. Naturally, many people take the valid position that vegetarian, vegan, or local diets help reduce the burden on our planet.
Conclusion – The Best Diet
So is there a magic formula or totally effective diet? The answer is yes, because diet is really more about culture and basic habits than other factors.
An effective diet doesn’t focus on losing weight, but instead on the health benefits, such as decreasing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and other conditions, and increasing life expectancy.
Looking at all of the evidence, the best overall diet is the Mediterranean diet. Rather than adhering to a lot of rules, it’s more about moderation – eating more vegetables and less meat, having fruits for dessert, etc. This type of diet is more focused on fresh foods, and shopping on the outside aisles at the grocery store.
It’s called the Mediterranean diet, but it’s really a lifestyle. People who live in that region are physically active, and their meals are enjoyed in moderation. Importantly, they also have good social support among them.