Lately, I've started to wonder if the discussion of food has become more of a taboo topic than even religion or politics. Debating the merits of a particular dietary regime has become a world-wide obsession, fueled by the media, the ever increasing amounts of health bloggers and the public's need to find and follow a particular diet & lifestyle 'guru'.
What is the best diet for humans?
This question will probably never be answered conclusively, for a very simple reason- we are all biochemically and genetically unique! The 'perfect' diet is the one that suits you best. It's a diet that makes you feel great and that you are able to back up with blood test results to prove your biomarkers are in a healthy range.
It is very easy to become lost in the on-line arguments on various diets. Paleo or Vegan? Atkins or Alkaline? Every week there is a new book, new regime, new rules to be followed and of course we lap it up.
I suspect the root of this behaviour is linked to how much we humans like to compare ourselves to one another. If someone you know lost weight or gained muscle by following a particular diet, it's natural to wonder whether it will work for you too.
Another human behaviour that we can probably all relate to is our need to be 'right'. If we believe something to be true, you can be guaranteed we will find the research or other evidence to back up our 'truth' so we can defend our food 'religion' against anyone who would question our belief.
Certainly, there are some general principles that can be applied to your diet that will help most people see some improvement in their overall health. However, when it's time to get specific and dive into the nitty-gritty of your health symptoms, a generalised approach is rarely going to work. That is why most people with chronic health issues can benefit from professional nutrition advice, while also making sure to take full responsibility for their own health.
When looking at the research and debates surrounding nutrition, I prefer to crowd out all the background noise and look for areas where there is an overlap in our beliefs and the scientific evidence.
What food principles do we all agree on?
1) Eat food as close to it's natural state as possible
This is a very simple, easy to apply dietary practice that every health expert seems to agree on. If your food comes in a package with anything more than 6 ingredients on the label, then it's not 'natural'. How much or what proportions of these natural foods you should eat is a different matter.
E.g. you might do better with more fruit & veg and less grains, or you might need more protein or healthy fats. Just remember there's no point working out your own ideal ratio of macro nutrients if you're not getting them from healthy sources.
When shopping, look for descriptive terms such as; wild, organic, grass-fed, non-GMO, locally grown, sustainably & ethically sourced with no chemical sounding ingredients on the label.
2) We really need to eat more vegetables
The recommendation used to be to eat 5 fruit and vegetables a day, now that has been changed up to at least 7-9 portions per day, with the emphasis on the vegetables, rather than the fruit.
Eating in this way reduces mortality aswell as cancer risk. Not surprisingly, due to their nutrient content, green vegetables are top of the list. E.g. broccoli, kale, spinach, chard, rocket etc..
Again, which vegetables are best for you to eat can be ascertained by a thorough case analysis and testing if necessary. E.g. those with Thyroid issues may need to avoid goitrogen containing foods, while those with Kidney issues may need to minimise consumption of foods containing oxalates and those with an allergy to deadly nightshade vegetables may have to avoid peppers, potato, tomatoes and aubergine.
The golden rule as always is to remember that we are all unique so what works for you may be different to your friends or family members!
3) We need good fats for a healthy brain, endocrine, reproductive & immune system
This is a big one, especially considering low-fat diets were so popular a number of years ago.
Plant-based fats such as those from avocados, coconut oil, olives, nuts and seeds have been found to have significant health promoting properties and a recent study found that women undergoing IVF who consumed higher amounts of monounsaturated fats had a 3.4 times higher live birth rate than those consuming excess amounts of saturated fats from meat and dairy was associated with fewer eggs and poor embryo quality.
The type of fats sourced from fish such as EPA and DHA are also beneficial for our health, provided you are eating the freshest, wild/organic fish you can find. Tuna is noted for having very high levels of mercury, which can be toxic to fertility so in some cases supplementation may be preferable.
4) Protein is important for our health, but it's best not to over do it.
When talking about protein, it's important to clarify that this doesn't just mean animal protein. However, the difference between plant-based protein e.g. lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, sprouts and animal protein e.g. red meat, chicken, fish, dairy products, eggs is that the latter group has according to recent scientific research had a definite association with cancer risk, whereas plant-based proteins have not.
The research quoted above yielded interesting results, with different types of meat being associated with different types of cancer. Of particular interest is that colon cancer risk for processed meat went down when a given participant was in the higher cereal fibre consumption group but the risk increased if very little cereal foods were consumed.
As a result the advice I give people who find that meat benefits their health is to make vegetables the main focus of your meal and have the meat more as a side-dish or condiment, rather than the main event. This is a balanced approach to meat consumption that should allow you to get the best of both worlds, without putting yourself at increased risk for colon cancer.
5) What about grains? Gluten free, wheat free, no grains (paleo)- it's perplexing?
Confusing is an understatement when it comes to the discussion of grains. Again, I don't like to apply any hard and fast rules because my clinical experience has taught me that we are all different and some people will do well with grains, while others don't.
That said, it is possible to categorise grains according to which are the most and least beneficial for the vast majority of patients;
'White' processed wheat containing products are a problem for most people
They contain nearly no fibre, as it has been removed, along with the bulk of the nutrient content. These foods are typically very high in gluten, which causes a serious allergy response for a person with coeliac disease and may result in intolerance symptoms (e.g. digestive discomfort and lethargy) for many others. Often sugar is an added ingredient, which further exacerbates the symptoms a person may experience. So foods like white bread, white pasta, white rice, doughnuts, pastries, cakes, biscuits etc.. are typically best avoided.
This is where people start to get confused, after all, whole-grain products are better aren't they? Yes it is, but if it's a wholegrain wheat bread, it still contains wheat, which could cause digestive difficulty for someone who is sensitive to the proteins that wheat contains. However, not all whole-grains have the same nutrient profile.
Spelt for example, is an ancient form of wheat, but with a lower gluten content and higher amounts of protein and B vitamins. Many people find they tolerate wholegrain spelt bread just fine in place of their traditional white sliced pan.
Other good options would be rye bread, barley, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa and oats.
Special mention goes to the latter four which are naturally free of gluten. Oats are often processed in a factory that deals with wheat so if you are coeliac you would need to buy oats that are specifically gluten-free, otherwise, for most people the widely available organic jumbo oats are perfectly fine.
Quinoa deserves special mention because it is actually a seed as opposed to a grain, contains all of the essential amino acids and is naturally gluten-free, so it's a nourishing choice for those who are looking to minimise grain consumption.
It is worth noting that there are a number of health conditions that require specialised diets where all grains, including the gluten-free variety are off the menu. However, for the vast majority a small amount of grains are generally well-tolerated, while for those with higher energy output (such as athletes) quite a substantial amount of grains may be required in their diet in order to achieve their calorie needs.
Dairy and soy products will be discussed in a future post as they require more lengthy analysis and discussion.
I hope that helps to clarify some of the confusion surrounding what we should be eating. After all, food should be a source of joy and satisfaction not an exercise in guilt and denial.