Updated: Apr 18, 2020
I have spent a large portion of my adult life trying to find all the "keys" to health and maintaining an easy, natural weight. I've read countless books, watched many talks and combed studies on nutrition until I've gone cross-eyed at times. All in search of "The Perfect Diet."
By far, the #1 question I get both in my career and via this blog is "what should I eat?"
Here's the short answer...."I don't know!"
Here's the long answer...."What you should eat depends on everything from your genetics and epigenetics to how old you are, what ratio of hormones your body is producing, how much activity you get, the current state of health in your body and what you've done with your body up until now."
I am absolutely convinced that there is no such thing as a perfect diet. As humans, we have evolved in many different extreme circumstances and somehow still survived. For example, Inuit (who have survived cold, harsh temperatures in often barren conditions for over 6000 years) have a diet that consists mainly of meat! Fatty meat at that. They may eat a little bit of roots and berries in the warmer months but that's about it!
However, it is questionable just how healthy they are in their later years. There is much debate on this as they appear to age faster and have higher rates of osteoporosis and heart disease. People from the low fat/high carb camp will isolate their diet as the cause. People of the high fat/low carb camp will argue that you can't isolate this one variable because they live in some of the most extreme regions of the world which would be very taxing on their bodies.
I belong to neither camp but I have to agree with the high fat people on this one, you can't isolate this one variable. In fact, you can't even reproduce this one variable in the general population to form a study because, after 6000+ years, the Inuit have genetics that are different from ours. The Inuit who didn't thrive from this specific diet were more likely to die and not perpetuate their genetics (genetics that maybe would've thrived on a lower fat/protein diet). This is evolution folks. Evolution isn't some crazy "we came from apes" sci-fi stuff. Evolution is genetic selection. Nature weeds out genetics that are considered weak and do not serve the overall species in whatever environment they are trying to survive.
Another example of this genetic selection (or, some will argue, genetic mutation) is seen in people who are truly not lactose intolerant into adulthood. By nature, it would appear that early after weaning, something "shuts off" inside of us that makes us lactose intolerant into adulthood. However, there are some adult individuals who truly can digest dairy and appear to thrive off of it. This is called lactase persistence. Although there are many theories surrounding the "why" of this, one that seems to be most widely embraced (and makes the most sense to me) is that these people descended from Nomadic herders. There were times when the herders may have had little other sources of food except the milk being produced from their animals. The herders that were able to thrive from consuming this milk (whether it was because they naturally could already consume it or because of a genetic mutation) were more likely to pass on their genetics to the next generation. The ones who didn't thrive, often died before reproducing.
Less dramatic versions of this genetic propensity to thrive on certain diets can be seen all around the world. So, I believe that can be your first clue: find out what your ancestors ate. Not your grandma but the indigenous people of the land(s) from which your ancestors came.
Leaving genetics behind, let's also talk about Ayurveda. Although, I could easily believe the argument that Ayurveda is closely linked to genetics and possibly a better map to follow since a large portion of us would be hard pressed to narrow down all the places of origin from which we descended.
Without getting too deep into this, I'll break it down in the most simple terms I can and then I encourage you to seek out your own answers in this field. Ayurveda is a form of holistic "health care" that was developed in India thousands of years ago. One of the foundations of Ayurveda is determining your doshas. There are three. Pitta, Vata and Kapha. We are all a combination of these three doshas but in drastically different amounts. Some people may be predominantly Kapha (this is usually marked by people who struggle with their weight, have large round features, oily skin and are slow and sluggish) while others are predominantly Vata (struggle to keep on weight, anxious, dry chapped skin). No one person will fit perfectly into any one description but learning what balance of doshas you have in your body can help you to understand what you need to eat, what kind of exercise you need to do, etc. in order to bring your body into balance and thrive.
The key is to balance these doshas. An interesting thing I have observed in myself is that over the past couple of years, I've managed to tip the scales in a different direction within myself. Years and years ago when I learned about Ayurveda, I was a straight-up, hardcore, card carrying Kapha. I was slow, round and mellow. However, I somehow managed to tip myself into Vata territory a few times. Now is actually a perfect example of that. I suddenly am not struggling to keep my weight down, which sounds great, but I am also struggling with bouts anxiety and frenetic energy and dry, chapped skin. And, understanding what I do about Ayurveda, it makes perfect sense to me. I've been eating a diet and doing extreme forms of exercise that tip my scales out of balance in the direction of Vata. To counterbalance this, I know I need to do more slow forms of exercise (more yoga, less Crossfit) and eat more warm foods containing healthy fats.
This may sound like pseudo-science to many but I encourage you to learn about the doshas and how they apply to your life. I have yet to have a friend or a client to learn about their own doshas and not become a believer. Not once!
The next thing we have to consider is what you've done with your body up until now. Maybe your body could, by nature, tolerate a large amount of carbohydrates but you've eaten them in excess to the point where your pancreas is no longer functioning the way it should. Maybe your liver could handle a lot of fructose and/or alcohol but you drank yourself stupid for all of your 20s. Our bodies and each organ therewithin have a certain amount of mileage and then that's pretty much it. We can do some things to restore health to our bodies but someone who has gorged on desserts their entire lives to the point that they develop type 2 diabetes by the time they are 40 (or, like me, just have a general state of insulin resistance as a result) won't ever be able to consume the natural amount of grains and fruits that they were originally born with the capacity to handle.
Which leads me to my final and, by far, most important determinant of what YOUR specific and unique diet should consist. Ask yourself this one question and nothing else will matter:
"How does this food make me feel?"
And you ask this question throughout the entire eating process.
Do I have a strong craving for it? (Often times, we have strong, blinding cravings for foods that we actually have an intolerance to!)
How do I feel immediately after eating it?
How do I feel 5 minutes, 30 minutes, 2 hours after eating it? Do you feel light, satisfied or energetic or sluggish and kind of hungry again? Does your stomach feel comfortable or are you gassy and/or nauseated?
Also pay attention to the fact that some foods will trigger strong cravings for that same food later that day or the next day.
And that neatly leads me into the advice that I feel 100% comfortable giving everyone!
Refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, excess alcohol and processed foods are not good for any of us. If it has an ingredient label it's automatically suspect because that means it's not straight from nature which makes it, by definition, unnatural. Clean water in amounts appropriate for your body (which also varies) is vital. Making vegetables the cornerstone of our diet is important for almost all of us (there are a few--a VERY small few--who may not be able to tolerate vegetables but they are extremely rare and you're almost definitely not one of them so don't even try it my friend!).
Bottom line, tune into your body and the rest will unfold naturally for you. If you watch cows eating grass, you will start to notice that some seek out clover while others seek out wild onion grass. When dogs are sick, they will eat grass at times to correct some digestive issue they are having. We are born with an internal compass that will guide us toward the best food choices. However, our modern lifestyle has us so removed from nature that we can't hear that little voice of intuition. So tune in and, ultimately, let your body be your guide.