Most of us want to eat well. And we should. It is imperative for optimal brain and body function.
While it is obvious that certain foods are not great for us (yes, that Krispy Kreme is not designed to nourish your body), there are plenty of ideas out there on what diet is “best”. Yet sometimes the advice can appear conflicting.
Despite good intentions, with many different camps advocating for a specific diet that they believe is best for all, it can be confusing as to what is the right thing to do!
But is there one diet perfectly suited to everyone?
Many prescriptive diets can be beneficial in certain circumstances. But these circumstances don’t always apply to everyone. While useful for some, for others certain diets can be extreme and difficult to maintain long-term.
With sustainable, healthy and positive eating habits as the ultimate goal, we suggest a nuanced and individual approach to diet: an inclusive focus on eating mostly real, whole food, in a balance that works for you.
Finding your balance
Following a strict dietary regime and undoing years of eating habits is hard. Willpower alone is not sustainable, and it can be exhausting counting and obsessing over every aspect of nutrient intake. Yet, finding your balance, and eating well, can be simpler and more intuitive.
Let’s start with the basics. You have likely heard about eating a “balanced diet”. This generally means having a variety of whole foods covering the macro- and micronutrient spectrum. This includes (healthy) fats, (quality) protein, (whole food) carbohydrates, fibre, water, vitamins and minerals.
Rather than overthinking whether you are consuming too much or not enough of a specific nutrient, such as protein or carbohydrate, there are a handful of studied diets that share commonalities that can be used as a general rule of thumb for eating well overall:
- Consume minimally processed foods, as close to the original source as possible, and foods made up of these ingredients
- Comprise mostly plant foods
- Choose the best quality animal products as possible (if consuming). Meat, poultry, eggs, dairy and fish, are all products of what they eat, live and breathe.
Eat (mostly) real, whole foods
In short, simply focus on what whole foods to include at each meal.
Adopting an inclusive, rather than restrictive, mindset around food choice means focusing on what whole foods to include at each meal. Do this and the foods that do not benefit you, such as excess added sugar and ultra-processed foods, will naturally be bumped off the plate.
In addition, ensure the food is tasty, you enjoy a wide variety of food, and where possible, eat seasonally.
You do you
Keeping in mind to focus on consuming mostly real, whole foods, next step is to work out what foods work for you.
It is good to remember everyone is unique with different levels of tolerance, motivating factors, and approaches for a successful shift in diet and health habits.
For example, with reducing added sugar intake, some prefer to do so gradually while others are better off going cold turkey. Or you may benefit from a slightly higher intake of healthy fats than your partner who better tolerates and enjoys some whole grains.
Age and sex matter, too. A 3 year old, a 43 year old, and a 83 year old will each have different nutritional requirements, as will a teenage male compared with a female of menstruating age.
When attempting to eat well – and build and maintain a positive approach to food at the same time – be mindful and tune in to your body to work out what is right for you. Whether you feel bright and energetic, or a little foggy-brained and bloated, closely listen for your body and brain’s reaction to what you have consumed within 5 minutes, 30 minutes, 2 hours, or even 24 hours, after eating. Your body will be telling you if this food is working for you or not!
This will take time and practice, but you will soon discern what your body needs and can do without.
Know that even small and gradual shifts toward eating more whole foods can make a difference to overall health.
Be kind to yourself
As you begin to listen closely to your body’s needs and move along your journey toward healthier eating, it is important to be kind to yourself when you feel you have eaten something not so great.
For example, let’s say it is Gran’s birthday celebration and she whips out some cake for the occasion. You have been doing your best to keep intake of sugary stuff down, so when a serve comes your way, do you say have to say, “Um…no thanks”? Of course not!
If you want it, you can take your cake with thanks to your Gran, appreciating the effort she has made. Remember, a little added sugar is okay (for most).
However, never feel bullied or pressured into eating something you do not want. It is also okay to politely decline.
But on this occasion, you have had the cake. You like it. And then you regret it, believing that your efforts to eat less of the sweet stuff have gone to waste. They haven’t, and feeling regret, or guilt, will get you nowhere.
We have an attitude that life and diets are black and white, good or bad, all or nothing. For most of us, it needn’t be so extreme.
Nutrition, health and the human psyche are complex, and food choice and enjoyment are heavily intertwined with our emotions. Your self-talk can influence the impact food has on your body. If you choose something sugary or junky, self-talk in the direction of guilt, regret or something as extreme as hate will not serve the greater goal for improved health.
Enjoy the cake (or whatever it is you have had) for what it is, consider it in the context of both the occasion and what you’ve eaten throughout the day, then move on and know you can make a healthful, nourishing food choice next meal.
In the end, remember you are choosing to find your balance and to eat well most of the time in an effort to improve your health. This is a worthy act of kindness for yourself. Just be sure not to sabotage all your positive choices and intent by being hard on yourself when you occasionally have that something you mightn’t consider ideal.
A positive relationship with food
Here are a handful of tips to keep in mind when working out your balance while reducing added sugar intake, improving dietary habits overall, and building a positive relationship with food:
- Focus on all the whole foods you could include, rather than what to ‘restrict’. (Make less space on the plate for high sugar & ultra-processed foods.)
- Play the long game by making gradual, sustainable adjustments.
- Listen to your body and learn what works for you. Let your body reconnect with real, whole foods again.
- Every healthful food choice makes a difference, no matter how small.
- Keep it in perspective. Going overboard at one meal doesn’t mean you’ve ‘fallen off the bandwagon’.
- Be kind to yourself. The occasional ‘sometimes food’ is okay. Enjoy it and eat well at the next meal.
By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut Med)