Navigating diet advice is hard! There is so much conflicting diet advice out there: Should you go “Keto” and eat more meat and protein? or eliminate meat for a vegan lifestyle? Should you count calories? or abandon diet culture altogether and eat whatever you crave intuitively? Are whole grains good for you or inflammatory?
What’s even more confusing is that opposing sides of every diet argument seem to back their claims with solid research. If we want to eat better for our health, what are we supposed to do and who should we believe?
First, What Can We All Agree On?
If you’re lost in diet confusion and not sure which path to take in choosing the right foods for you, the best thing you can do is slow down and start with the basics. There are actually some food rules that virtually all major dietary experts can agree on. If you start here, and do the best you can, you’ll be taking great steps to nourish your body and your health.
Reduce Processed Foods
Processed foods include any food that comes from a factory instead of a farm, or has a list of ingredients that includes preservatives, colorings, emulsifiers, sweeteners, or other chemicals. White flour and processed grains fall into this category too, as they’ve usually been bleached and stripped of their original nutrients.
Nobody out there is advising you to eat more of these, and virtually every expert agrees they are bad for your health. The trouble is that they are also the most addictive foods, because manufacturers designed them to taste great and trick your body into craving more.
It is almost guaranteed that if you swap out half of the processed foods you are now eating for whole, fresh, real food – you will feel better! If you can eliminate them altogether, kudos to you! Your body will thank you in amazing ways.
Reduce Added Sugars
Nobody in the diet world is telling you that you should eat more sugar, and most everyone agrees you’ll feel better if you eat less. White sugar, candies, baked goods, and sweets of all kinds can do a number on your hormonal balance and your energy stability throughout the day. Sugar is also a major culprit in inflammation – a leading factor in most chronic diseases. If you can swap out even half of the sweets you eat with fresh fruits, nuts, or other whole-food snacks, you’ll be going a long way toward a healthier you.
Increase your Consumption of Fresh Vegetables
While nutritionists may quibble on the virtues of starchy vegetables versus non-starchy vegetables, virtually nobody out there is telling you to eat less of them. To the extent that you can up the vegetables in your life, that’s a positive diet change you can take to the bank. If your typical plate is one-quarter vegetables, can you up it to one-third? or even one-half? For every notch you can dial up the vegetables in your life, you’ll be doing your health a favor.
Also, veggies come in a rainbow of colors. Each type offers specific phytonutrients and antioxidants that are good for you. Try to eat a full rainbow of vegetables – from dark leafy greens to rich red beets, to orange sweet potatoes and yellow squash. The wider the variety the better.
Choose Healthy Fats and Dump Toxic Fat
Virtually every diet expert agrees that you need some fat in your diet, and that you should completely avoid toxic trans fats. This includes hydrogenated oils often found in margarine, spreads like cheap peanut butters, shortenings, commercial salad dressings, fried foods and baked goods. There are lots of arguments about other types of oils and fats, but everyone agrees trans fats are the worst. Trans fats are even illegal to add to foods in 40 countries, and in California. They are so bad for your health, it would be worth it to go to your pantry right now and toss anything with hydrogenated vegetable oil on the label.
Fats that everyone agrees are okay include the natural, healthy Omega-3 and monosaturated fats you get from eating fish, avocados, olive oil, and nuts. These are all great food to include in your diet. Healthy fats help your brain health, your hormonal balance, and cell repair.
Healthy Proteins Every Day
While vegans and carnivores argue about the best protein source, and how much protein you actually need, nobody is quibbling that you need some source of healthy protein in your diet every day – ideally, some at every meal.
If you eat meat, fish, eggs and or dairy products – congratulations! These all offer lots of high-quality protein. Choose the most natural and fresh products you can. If you avoid animal products, you’ll need to be more vigilant about eating plenty of beans, nuts, and whole grains to be sure you’re getting adequate protein each day.
While it is possible to drink too much water, the vast majority of us aren’t drinking enough. All nutrition experts agree that staying hydrated is critical for health. Without enough water, your body simply cannot function at its best. But water isn’t the only way to stay hydrated. Soups, herbal teas, or raw fruits and vegetables are also good sources of hydration
Don’t Beat Yourself Up Over Food
While guidelines above are great for a good diet, it’s also true that for human beings, food is so much more than just the nutrients it provides. Food is central to our family traditions, our holidays, our social settings, and can comfort us or be a way for us to celebrate good times. Being too rigid about food rules isn’t healthy either. We need to be flexible enough to live and enjoy our life! Happiness, fellowship, family traditions, and shared meals are all part of good health too.
Occasionally enjoying an ice cream cone or chips isn’t a reason to beat yourself up inside. Instead, the habits we form over time are what have the greatest impact on our health. Look at good eating habits as an 80 – 20 proposition. Are you making healthy eating choices 80% of the time or more? Then, great! Let yourself enjoy a splurge on your vacation, or have a treat once in a while.
All-or-nothing thinking around food can set you up for an eating disorder or unnecessary guilt. The key is that if you indulge in something that’s not a healthy choice, just get back on track with a healthier choice at your next meal and move on. You haven’t “failed,” and a healthy body can take an occasional food splurge. It’s what you do over time as a habit that makes the biggest difference.
Get Help if You Need It
Although better food choices are among the best things you can do for your health, food can’t cure everything. If you have a health condition, you still need to see a doctor in addition to eating well to rule out serious issues that may require medication or other interventions.
Also, not all foods are tolerated well by all people. Food allergies and sensitivities can make you feel terrible even if the food you’re sensitive to is an otherwise healthy food. In that case, their negative effects block any health benefits. If you suspect you may have an allergy or sensitivity to one or more foods, it pays to get tested and find out exactly which foods might be causing your symptoms.
Also, how we eat and how we view our health and our body size can go off-track due to an eating disorder or psychological condition. Many of us have a lifetime of crazy messages and negative thoughts around food, how our bodies should look, or how we should feel about ourselves that aren’t always true. Compulsive overeating, not eating enough, binging and purging, or creating unrealistic rules around eating are all signals that we need help. Eating disorders and body dysmorphia are incredibly common and widespread issues today. There are many great counselors and programs that can help you untangle a complicated or destructive relationship with food and learn to love and care for yourself in better ways.
Agree to Love Yourself with Healthy Food Choices
We hope you can use these tips above as a compass to guide you through the maze of diet advice and confusion. In the meantime, continue to love yourself with the freshest, most fabulous, health-giving, nourishing and tastiest food that you personally enjoy. You and your amazing body are worth it.
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About the Author
Olivia Hsu Friedman, LAc, Dipl.OM, DACM, Cert. TCMDerm, is the owner of Amethyst Holistic Skin Solutions and treats Acne, Eczema, Psoriasis, and TSW. Olivia treats patients via video conferencing using only herbal medicine. Olivia is Chair of the Board of Directors of the American Society of Acupuncturists, serves on the Advisory Board of LearnSkin, and is a faculty member of the Chicago Integrative Eczema Group sponsored by the National Eczema Association.