Inquiring minds want to know: What is the best diet?
After all, diet is established as among the most important influences on health in modern day society. Optimal eating is associated with all of the following benefits:
Increased life expectancy
Dramatic reduction in risk of chronic disease
Improved body composition
Better physical function and well being
Chances are, if you are well versed in the world of nutrition, you know that the best diet is the one you can stick to. It is individualized based on your unique genetics, physical activity requirements, and preferences. It doesn’t comply to dogma or marketing. It’s fluid and changeable just like life.
In case this is news to you, or you just want to know more, this article will review the components that should be considered when designing your own, unique best diet.
#1: Eat Whole Foods In Their Most Natural State
In a 2017 review of diets published in the journal Annual Reviews, Yale University nutrition scientists David Katz and Stephanie Meller asked, is it possible to determine the best diet?
If diet is a set of rigid principles, the answer is a decisive no. In terms of broader guidelines, it’s a resounding yes.
The scientists compared all the most popular diets-- vegan, low-carb, paleo, low-fat, low-glycemic, Mediterranean, balanced (e.g. DASH), vegetarian—and concluded that all diets have benefits and no diet is clearly best. Interestingly, the same basic dietary pattern exerts favorable influences across a wide spectrum of health conditions—that is, a different dietary profile isn’t necessary to prevent cardiovascular disease versus cancer versus obesity. What works for one, works for all.
One pattern emerges across all diets: Favor whole, minimally processed foods in their most natural state.
There are numerous reasons why avoiding processed foods in favor of whole foods is important:
Processed foods spike blood sugar and raise insulin, increasing diabetes risk of time
Processed and man-made fats cause cellular changes, increasing risk of diabetes, heart disease, and diabetes.
Processed foods almost always have added sugar, increasing calories they contain and leading to a greater insulin release.
Processed foods lack fiber and nutrients, resulting in a poor nutritional profile.
Many processed foods have been designed to be hyperpalatable and stimulate food intake.
Processed foods have a lower thermic effect, which is the number of calories required by the body to digest and assimilate the food we eat. One study found that eating a whole food meal resulted in almost double the energy expenditure as a processed food meal providing equal calories.
The Bottom Line: Eating a diet of whole, minimally processed foods is a surefire way to improve your nutrition and protect yourself from disease and obesity: Vegetables, fruits, beans, boiled grains, minimally processed dairy, fish, meat, and eggs are all foods that fit the bill.
#2: Eat Mostly Plants
In the Western world, plant-based foods, particularly vegetables are often de-emphasized in favor of meat and processed foods. This is a mistake because plant-based foods have a number of health benefits in their own right and they go a long way to mitigating the negative effects of unhealthy dietary components.
For example, although diets high in animal protein provide important nutrients that are not available in vegetarian diets (see #3), they can lead to the growth of inflammatory gut bacteria that can increase disease risk. Including plant-based foods, especially vegetables will provide prebiotics that feed the friendly bacteria in the gut to counter inflammation in the GI tract.
Plant-based foods are also rich in antioxidants that support mitochondrial health and reduce a high free radical load that is associated with heavy meat intake. Additionally, plant-based foods are loaded with fiber that can moderate blood sugar and lower insulin levels associated with carbohydrate-rich foods. In fact, pairing antioxidant-rich berries with high-carb foods like toast or oatmeal has been shown to bring the blood sugar response into a healthier range.
The Bottom Line: Eating a colorful variety of plant-based foods will upgrade any diet, lowering risk of disease and moderating appetite for better body composition. Plan every meal to emphasize fibrous vegetables, including fruits, whole boiled grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes at opportune times.
#3: Eat Organic/Pasture-Raised/Wild Animals
The recommendation to eat mostly plants is not the same as advocating a vegetarian or vegan diet. Rather it highlights the necessity to increase plant-based foods in the typical western diet, while calling our attention to the fact that not all animal foods are equal. In the review of the best diets, Katz and Meller write that animal foods are themselves the products of pure plant foods, and the composition of animal flesh and milk is as much influenced by diet as humans are.
Unfortunately, industrial meat and fish production has resulted in feeding animals diets of processed grains, supplemental fats, and animal parts that are not part of their natural diets. For example, Dr. Sean Lucan writes in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that factory-farmed beef “comes from animals raised on mixtures of genetically modified corn, chicken manure, antibiotics, hormones, and ground up parts of other animals.” In contrast, a beef cow’s natural diet is made up grass forage with the possible addition of a small amount of grain and legumes.
The situation is similar with fish: Wild fish eat aquatic plants like algae and other sea creatures, providing them with a rich nutritional profile that makes wild fish one of the healthiest foods on the planet. Farm-raised fish, on the other hand, live off corn, soy, and other feedstuffs that lead them to be high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are already overabundant in the Western diet. They are also routinely dosed with antibiotics, which can cause antibiotic resistance in humans.
The take away is not that you need to go vegetarian or eliminate animal products. Animal foods provide creatine (essential for athletic performance), carnitine (aids in fat burning), iron (necessary for energy production), and vitamin B12 (essential for cognition and energy levels), none of which are readily available in vegetarian diets.
The key seems to be to invest in organic, pasture-raised, or wild animal products. Nutrition-wise organic, pasture raised beef comes from animals raised on grass and other vegetation, resulting in a higher concentration of omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) compared to grain-fed animals. For example, conventional brain-fed beef tends to have an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 3.5 to 13.6, whereas pastured animals have a ratio between 1.4 and 2.75.
Organic and wild meats are also higher in glutathione, an amino acid composite that protects DNA and cells from cancer. Organic beef and ham have the highest glutathione content of all foods, surpassed only by fresh vegetables like asparagus. Organic, pasture-raised dairy also benefits from higher vitamin K, a nutrient deficient in the Western diet, omega-3 fats, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), an anti-inflammatory compound.
The Bottom Line: Animal products are a nutritionally rich part of a healthy diet. Including them adds variety, texture, and flavor. The key is to familiarize yourself with where your meat, fish, and dairy come from and opt for the most humane, sustainable, and nutritious options.
#4: Adopt Fixed Meal Times
An emerging area of nutrition research that can help reduce obesity and metabolic problems is chrononutrition, or eating specific meals at specific times. In simple terms, the different organs in the body release substances like enzymes and hormones to break down the different types of food we eat in a calculated and organized way. Eating at times that go against your body’s natural biological clock will disrupt your circadian rhythm. It can also lead to the release of hormones, like insulin, cortisol, or ghrelin (all metabolic hormones involved in regulating appetite) at the wrong times. This is associated with metabolic problems and obesity.
For example, the liver is a metabolic organ involved in eliminating toxins and processing carbohydrates and fats. It runs on a 4-hour cycle, which means that meals should be spaced out to take advantage. The pancreas, which secretes insulin also has a circadian clock, which may be one reason that studies show greater weight loss when subjects eat their largest meals earlier in the day compared to at dinner, as most of us do.
The Bottom Line: Avoid grazing and frequent meals in favor of meal times that are at least 4 hours apart. Adopt a set meal frequency, eating at roughly the same time every day. Eating the majority of calories at breakfast and lunch rather than saving up for dinner is recommended if dealing with obesity or metabolic problems.
#5: Take Control of What You Put In Your Mouth
If you feel out of control when it comes to food, something needs to change. Maybe you need to up the proportion of protein or fat. Perhaps you have been restricting carbs and really need to include high-quality carbs in your meal. Maybe you’re choosing hyperpalatable foods that are designed to stimulate food intake, making it that much harder to “eat just one”—think pizza, cookies, chips, and other refined carbs.
Being unable to stop eating is not a healthy way to live psychologically or metabolically. Taking control of what you put in your mouth can be difficult when it seems like everyone has an opinion about what you should be eating. At the end of the day, you’re the one who has to deal with your food choices, so make them count. Food should be a pleasurable experience that adds to your life, not subtracts from it.
The Bottom Line: Figure out a way of eating that allow you to avoid cravings and feel satisfied after meals. Don’t be afraid to experiment!