Tuesday, 20 May 2014

When it comes to diets, one-size-doesn't-fit-all

When I meet people and they notice my weight loss (which is pretty noticeable if you knew me previously), the obvious question is "What did you do?" My standard answer is "diet and exercise! Who knew?" with a big laugh. This is almost immediately followed by "Wow. So WHICH diet? Paleo? Atkins? Low carb?" And this is where things become complex. How I live now doesn't have a trendy name. I followed a series of diet principles based on medical advice and research but I didn't follow a prescribed diet by an internet guru... and I don't think you should either. Let me tell you why. 

Firstly lets look at the word diet and what it means - strictly speaking a diet is simply the food an individual eats on a daily basis. Good or bad, no judgement attached, that's what diet means. By this definition we are all dieting all the time, every time we eat we are taking part in our daily diet.  But in modern times this word has been charged with so much more meaning. We refer to a "diet" as a restriction of our food, as a set of rules or choices, as a formula or requirement to eat a certain way, and the implication that by "dieting" we are somehow restricting or depriving ourselves. And finally there is the Diet with a capital D - the food plan that comes with a name, a trademark, a book, a TV show, a range of supplements and a one true faith to believe in, often with a cult like fervour and a celebrity to endorse it. And in many cases it is sold as the one, the only, way to eat. Diet has become a dirty four letter word and can fill people with fear and dread.

Do I sound a little cynical? Sure. Because I don't think there is one "right" diet for everyone. Many people will "go on a diet" and lose weight, no matter what the diet is, because they are paying more attention to what they eat and being more motivated.  Will that weight stay off? Well it depends if the diet is sustainable, if they like it and if they can live that way for life.   

Lets think about traditional cultures. People from all over the world have ethnic and cultural diets that vary hugely in their content and nutritional makeup.  The Inuit in the Arctic eat a completely different diet to the Japanese, the people of Southern Italy or the Masai of Africa - yet none of those cultures traditionally have issues with overweight or obesity. They are all eating different diets, but you couldn't possibly suggest that each culture has it wrong - yet that is basically what these diet gurus claim when they suggest their way is the only way to go, and it makes no sense.

The important message is there is no single Diet (again I use the capital D) that is suitable for everyone, but a whole lot of dietary principles that are. Its pretty safe to say that any diet based on whole, nutrient rich,  unprocessed food that is close to nature would be good for all of us. Variety and moderation is essential.  And I think there is generally universal agreement that we should be eating a diet that is mostly plants, that avoids too much refined grains, refined sugars, trans fats and processed meats.  This is what all the cultures I mentioned before have in common. They all have eating patterns that feature moderation, variety and whole unprocessed foods (and a whole lot of exercise also!). They also have traditions and culture and social occasions around eating which all adds to healthy eating behaviours (eating with your family as part of an event not at your desk, in your car or in front of the TV. Perhaps the topic for another blog post?)

There is another important point to consider when looking at a diet plan. If this is going to work, if you are going to lose weight and keep it off, then you need to consider if you could keep doing this. The pills, the potions, the extreme exercise routine, the fancy meals with obscure ingredients, the restrictions and elimination. Is it sustainable to incorporate into the rest of your life? Will you need to "cheat" at Christmas or avoid social events? Will you have difficulty sourcing ingredients or be unable to eat out? Because this needs to work long term. Any plan that you undertake short term will have short term results and when you reach your goal weight (or get sick of it) and go back to your previous life, the weight comes right back on (and then some). I'm going to quote Dr Yoni Freedhoff on this topic. He says "Just ask yourself the question "Could I happily live like this forever?" If the answer is "no" then you're on the wrong diet". I couldn't agree more. Any dietary plan that has an expiry date is a recipe for failure. 

The American Diabetes Association reviewed its guidelines for people with diabetes last year and I think its comments are appropriate for all of us. They said a suitable diet should have:
"a variety of minimally processed nutrient dense foods in appropriate portion sizes as part of an eating plan that takes into account individual preferences, cultures, religious beliefs, traditions and metabolic goals". Indeed. 

Eat unprocessed foods, mainly plants, with lots of nutrients, fibre, variety and colour, eat less salt, eat appropriate portion sizes, avoid excesses of anything, think about what you're eating, drink more water, cook more, sleep more, smile more, move more. And make sure you enjoy treats with pleasure and without guilt. And if those general principles aren't enough and you need more specific direction that's tailored to you - be sure to see an Accredited Practising Dietitian, not a TV celebrity or a diet guru. 

 Lyndal @ Lean Green and Healthy

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