“What kind of diet do you follow
…pretty clean, right?”
“Nothing, really. By typical American standards, clean. By fitness culture, athletic and other standards, I eat like a garbage disposal.”
I’m (semi) often asked about diet for fitness and sports performance. I don’t claim to be an expert here. But I’ve had some official coursework, have worked with and heard the stories of hundreds of patients and athletes, and have been interested in this, simply paying attention to nutrition concepts for over twenty years. But I want to be careful here. People seem to be really attached to their way of eating ; ).
It was well over a decade ago that I decided to intentionally avoid any nutrition movement. The organic variations. The low carb. The Zone/Paleo/Atkins. The raw food. The blood type. The vegan. On and on they roll in and out of style. Next week the trend will be to eat something that was forbidden 6 years ago, and avoid something else.
Maybe it’s because I’m not a nutrition expert. I’m not. Maybe it’s because I’ve been blessed with relatively good health (so far) and haven’t been subject to desperation. But I do have an ideal of seeking perspective and truth, wherever they may lead. I have nothing to gain ($) or lose from making soft nutrition recommendations.
Specific diets are justified in the name of health, wellness, or fitness. They explain illness with a clear-cut nutritional imbalance. There are rules, of course. Many diets are bad religion. When obesity, illness, sub-optimal performance, etc occurs (and it will), it’s because of something you did not follow correctly regarding the diet. Pretty soon you’re sitting by yourself at home drinking raw, certified organic beet juice, wondering why you’re still tired and stuffy in the nose.
The diet experts seem to miss that what “works” are the basics that we’ve known for decades: most people (well, Americans anyway) eat too much, eat too many processed foods, and move far too little. They seem to forget that humans have proven relatively resilient through the ages, thriving and healing (miraculously in my opinion) on a great variety of dietary habits. Do they forget that we all eventually wear out, become ill and die?
It is main line science and not fringe dietary conspirators that progress our understanding. For example, we now know that starchy carbs are easy to over eat, natural sources of fat and cholesterol are good for you, and we can benefit from more omega-3 fatty acids. Ethnic variation does exist. Eskimos and native Americans have adapted few pancreatic enzymes, and those populations suffer drastic consequences from eating the standard American diet. Also, it is reasonable to follow a specific dietary regimen for specific conditions like gluten intolerance or genetic predisposition to high cholesterol.
Just like many other areas of life, the diet gurus take an ounce of legit science and run with it, offering answers to every malady with scant evidence for benefit beyond what a generally clean lifestyle provides.
If it turns out that any of the diets do provide above and beyond benefit, I doubt they’re worth the costs. I suspect that all the extreme behaviors are unnecessary at best. Maybe a dose of perspective is the perfect recipe to those of us who imagine that bananas have too many carbs, that organics are essential for good health, or one gram of protein per pound of body weight per day is really needed to achieve a certain aesthetic or level of performance.
While the majority of people throughout the ages have starved and suffered extreme malnutrition, we sit at our computers arguing over whether or not it’s optimal to cook our carrots and homogenize our milk. Would we tremendously benefit from a few weeks of service in one of the many parts of the world where they eat rice for dinner and have no lunch at all?
And now I’ll offer something beyond criticism.
Prior to ascribing to any specific diet and needing proactive or reactive health care, spend at least 3 months at least trying the following:
1. Think of diet in terms of behaviors and choices, not eat this/don’t eat that. Don’t count calories or grams for more than a few days, in order to get an idea regarding portion sizes. Do not take up an off-the-wall restrictive diet that made sense when presented by the person selling it. Instead, keep a written tally of the ratio of wins/losses, the “good” to “not good” choices you make that are compatible with your goals.
You may find that you make good choices 60% of the time, and would greatly benefit from moving that to 85%. A child may thrive on 50% good choices, but a middle age person trying to lose weight may need to stay around 90/10 (%). The same applied to those looking to lose weight / lean out (less total food) as well as the person looking to gain weight/muscle mass (needs a lot more total calories).
2. Try not to over eat. Always easier said than done where food is actually available. Good choices are much more difficult to over eat than poor choices.
3. Get the majority of daily calories from minimally processed foods. Don’t make your definition of good/bad choices into rocket science. Hamburger with tomatoes on a bun is probably okay for most people, even good. Loaded 1/4-pound bacon burger with a huge side of fries and a coke – not good.
4. Sweat some. The perfect diet will not accomplish for your body and mind what physical activity can. Your diet does not have to be -precision- if you build a little formal exercise and a little more informal movement into your life.
5. Rest. As if it really matters – one of my own greatest struggles. Relatively new lines of research into weight loss/gain indicate that the wake/sleep cycle is critical in the regulation of hormonal balance that, in part, drives our appetites and behaviors.
6. Laugh. Truly the best medicine, so keep it light.
7. Have the cake. Have the cake is a state of mind, enjoying life and seeing the big picture. I mean, if you can’t join in to celebrate the birthday of friends and family, then what are you here for? You have approximately 20 other chances during the week to make your own healthy choice, so don’t make your family or friends or party hosts jump through dietary hoops to avoid feeling awkward. Besides, who are we kidding? You can’t afford a small dessert once in a while? If you’re going to skip the birthday cake, you better have diabetes or a national level Olympic event next week.
Have fun. Eat a little cake, and return as you were.
8. Skip the fries. If you really want to have a rule or restriction, make it this: No fried foods. They are almost always nutritionally useless and possibly damaging, and very easy to over-do. Plus, it’s simple to skip the fries without starving or making it a big deal for yourself or others.
9. Serve others. While diet and exercise are both all about my body, my health issues, my performance goals, less self focus seems to cure many ailments.
10. Give thanks. Practice gratitude (see point number 1). Read up on it. Pray. Gratitude may be the closest thing we have to a miracle on demand.
If you disagree with these recommendations or simply have to narrow your focus, at least go with the final two.