As a health coach, two questions people ask me all the time are, “What should I eat?” and “What diet should I follow?” This makes sense: everywhere we look, we see new diet fads, new ways to lose weight, new ways to identify ourselves by what we eat. You can’t host a dinner party anymore without fielding concerns from people about how they’re paleo/keto/vegan/raw/gluten-free/dairy-free/soy-free/high-fat/low-fat/all-carb/no-carb/no-fruit/all-fruit/anti-nightshade/subsisting-on-air-and-sunshine-and-occasionally-vodka.
That last one is made-up. (Probably.) I know someone who lived happily for a year on just ice cream. She may or may not have been me. (She was me.)
And here’s the thing: the question of what to eat isn’t easy to answer. Humans are omnivorous, which means we can eat pretty much anything, and different cultures all over the world eat dramatically different diets and do just fine. Consider that traditional Inuit people eat lots of blubber and almost no carbs, whereas the traditional Japanese diet features lots of white rice (carbs) and very little fat. And here’s the rub: people eating either of these traditional diets tend to be healthy! My grandmother grew up eating bacon and butter and cream and, at 92, was still living at home and tending her own garden.
So what are we supposed to eat?!?
Most research on nutrition suggests that eating a traditional diet – that is, one that your ancestors ate – will keep you healthier. Most research also suggests that eating a modern diet – that is, one filled with processed convenience foods – will make you sicker.
As a good starting point in figuring out what to eat, I really like Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, a book that offers out a number of helpful guidelines to use in deciding what to eat (and what not to eat). Some of my favorites are:
Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food
Avoid products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.
Avoid foods that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients
Avoid products that contain more than 5 ingredients
Avoid products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce
Avoid foods you see advertised on television
Eat mostly plants, especially leaves
Eat animals that have themselves eaten well
Eat well-grown food from healthy soil
Make water your beverage of choice
Don’t become a short order cook
Fill half your plate with vegetables
Limit your snacks to unprocessed plant foods (fruits, nuts, and vegetables)
Plant a vegetable garden if you have the space, a window box if you don’t
While that may seem like a lot of advice to follow all at once, here’s the deal: you don’t need to. Just pick one thing that you can change – something that seems both manageable and sustainable – and start there. Then, after that becomes your new norm, pick one more change. As you start to shift to healthier eating patterns, your body will shift too, and it will become easier to make healthier choices.
Do I recommend drastic dietary shifts to my clients? No. Why? Because every diet has an equal and opposite binge. You can deprive yourself of the junky foods you love for so long… until eventually you cave, and then you feel bad, and feeling bad makes you eat more junky food, and suddenly you’ve lost all the progress you’d made. So I encourage my clients to focus not on drastic, fast change, but rather to take the slow and steady approach.
So, my answer to the “what should I eat?” question is this: The only diet I advocate is one that’s 90 percent healthy, 10 percent vodka ice cream. (Kidding! You get to pick your poison.) This is the 90-10 diet, and it doesn’t require religious adherence, nor does it require you to eat eat just pineapple for weeks on end. You don’t even have to give up donuts.
Shout-out, by the way, to Mr. Bob’s Donuts. I love you, donuts.
See? All things in moderation. Even donuts!
Since I recommend a moderate approach to dietary change, does this mean that I think people doing keto or paleo or sunshine-and-vodka diets are wrong or stupid? No. (Well, maybe my ice cream diet was unwise.) If you’re an adult and you think that the keto diet might help jump-start healthier living for you, by all means, do it. But if you think that a 3-day juice fast will solve all your problems and make you lose (and keep off) 15 pounds, you’re delusional.
Real change is change that lasts.
So pick ONE healthy thing. And do that thing. Not for a month, but forever. Pick a thing you will be content to do forever, and start doing it. Right now.
And if one day you forget to do that one thing, it’s not the end of the world. You can just start anew, every day, and do that one thing, until it becomes second-nature to you, and you won’t have to think about it. Then pick one more thing.
The little choices that we make every single day matter. They add up to how we live our whole life. So pick that one thing, and let’s get started.
What will be your thing? Let me know in the comments!
And, as always, if you think you might benefit from a guide to help you transition to a healthier lifestyle, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me to schedule a free health history consultation. Email me at upstreamhealth.jill @ gmail.com (minus the spaces) to set up an appointment.