WHAT IF you avoided all foods which might not be healthy?
I recently sat down to talk diet with a couple who were knowledgeable about various well-researched diet advice yet still confused—as are most people these days—about what exactly to eat and what to eliminate. I struggle with these questions myself.
This couple was committed to eating the best foods possible and avoiding those which might be harmful, in order to improve their health and well-being. They had already embarked on their journey of eating less sugar and processed foods. I explained that this change, as well as much of the additional advice, was sound and yet, one could not possibly follow all the advice at once.
Why not? Consider first what would happen if you did try to follow all that dietary advice at once.
WHAT WOULD BE LEFT TO EAT?
By themselves, many scientifically proven diets are at least reasonable experiments. If you try accommodate all the restrictions of several reasonable diets, however, you’d make a crazy Venn Diagram of the dietary overlap, and are sadly left with quite a narrow selection of yes-foods:
- Organic cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, kale, and cauliflower)
- Berries and avocadoes (but not other fruits)
- Olive oil
Not only would this be a depressingly limited diet, it is also missing or low in key nutrients (such as protein) and micronutrients that have been shown to be beneficial and may themselves help stave off many chronic diseases.
How did I come up with my list? Here is a selection of well-documented potentially healthy diets, and their dietary no’s.
POTENTIAL FOOD ALLERGENS AND SENSITIVIES
One way to improve your health is to avoid foods that you are allergic or sensitive to. One way to do so is to cut out the top six most common food allergens. Excluding from your diet:
- nuts and tree nuts
- fish and shellfish
Even if you don’t know you are allergic or sensitive to these foods, they may be causing symptoms and/or inflammation in your gut and in your body. To be safe, some experts suggest you might avoid all of these foods, at least on a trial basis, as in an elimination diet (more on these techniques later).
LOW FODMAP DIET
You might also reduce your choices by going on a low FODMAP diet which lowers the amount of certain kinds of carbohydrates which can cause digestive disorders in some people. That means avoiding as much as possible:
- Fructose: fruits, honey, and high fructose corn syrup
- Lactose: dairy
- Fructans (inulin): wheat, onion, and garlic
- Galactans: beans, lentils, and legumes like soy
- Polyols: sweeteners containing sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, maltitol, and stone fruits, such as avocado, apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches, and plums
Some experts suggest trying to eliminate these foods even if you don’t have IBS or another bowel disease, because improper digestion can lead to a host of other systemic problems.
Many studies show that vegetarians tend to live longer and have fewer chronic diseases, and therefore many experts suggest reducing or cutting out animal foods and products. If you’ve added the diets above, you have already eliminated soy, eggs, and dairy products as sources of protein; now imagine the restricted diet above without red meat, pork, or poultry, either.
LOW CARBOHYDRATE DIET
While the lowfat (and resultingly high carbohydrate) diet has been shown to produce more problems than it solves, a low carbohydrate diet, even one as low in “good carbs” as a ketogenic diet, has been shown in a good number of studies to help overweight people lose body fat and maintain muscle mass. Some researchers tout its benefits as an anti-cancer diet. To follow this diet most people include animal or soy products to get protein as you eliminate:
- Starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn
- Grains (even whole grains grain substitutes like quinoa which are all very high in carbohydrates)
- Most, legumes including most beans and bean products
- Sugar, agave
- All fruit juice and most fruits, except low sugar fruits like berries, coconut, and avocadoes
THE ANTI-INFLAMMATORY DIET
Dr. Andrew Weil is one authority on a diet that reduces inflammation and therefore all kinds of chronic diseases and conditions. While we’re subtracting here, I should note that here are a number of foods specifically advocated as anti-inflammatory which are prohibited by the diets above including dairy, egg, poultry, fish, soy, stone fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Below are foods Dr. Weil concludes are inflammatory, and should be reduced or avoided:
- Processed foods and fast food.
- Wheat flour
- Most animal protein
- Saturated fat from animal foods but also including palm kernel oil.
- Safflower and sunflower oils, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and mixed vegetable oils.
- No margarine, vegetable shortening, and particularly partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, and avoid products with these ingredients.
- Avoid conventionally grown crops which are most likely to carry pesticide.
Ok, Rachel, you are saying. Don’t do them all at once. I get it. But what is a strategy for figuring out what is right for me? Here’s one sensible way to eat good foods and determine which questionable foods do and do not work in your system at this time.
WHAT TO DO?
You could skip to the basic healthy diet steps below for health reasons right away, but you might also learn from keeping a pre-intervention food journal. For at least a week, keep detailed records of what you eat and how you feel: hunger, fullness, energy level, emotions, digestion, and in terms of any of your chronic conditions. See if you can find correlations between certain foods and how you felt during and after eating. Pay attention to when you are eating as well and notice if there is a pattern to your reactions to foods depending on when you’re eating them and also under what circumstances (such as with family, alone, over the sink, in the car, at your desk at work).
EAT WHAT MOST EVERYONE AGREES IS HEALTHY: BASIC WHOLE FOOD DIET
Do eat plenty of all the foods under “what’s left” (at top) unless you know (or have a hunch) that a particular food creates discomfort, allergy, or sensitivity in your system. Whatever you eat, go for the least processed, freshest, organic if possible, whole foods. Eat a whole-food meal plan including an abundance of cruciferous veggies, and plenty of healthy fats (doing your best to maximize fats from various fruit (avocadoes), vegetables, nuts and seeds). Drink more water. If you eat meat and/or eggs, or dairy, look for free range or grass-fed. Keep or continue food diary as above.
AVOID THE EASY NO-NO’S
- Processed foods
- Sugar and corn syrup in their many forms, especially soda and packaged food
- Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil
- Food laden with pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics
Continue your food diary. If you “fall off the wagon” pay close attention to how you feel afterward.
Begin or continue an exercise program. Yes, exercise may make you hungrier. But not only does it help burn calories and fat, studies show that exercise helps change the most dangerous kinds of fat into a healthier form. I won’t go into detail here, but I cannot talk about diet and health without mentioning exercise. In brief: you should get an average of at least 30 minutes a day of moderate cardio, in addition to strength, balance, and stretching in your exercise routine. Many studies show that high intensity interval training two or three times a week (in place of moderate cardio those days) for short periods is extremely beneficial in terms of overall health and for weight loss. One resource on the topic I enjoyed was Dr. Jordan Metzl‘s The Exercise Cure.
Give this program (food journal, whole foods diet, avoiding easy no-no’s, and exercise) at least 10 days and see if you don’t already start feeling better and/or losing weight!
EXPERIMENTAL PHASE: WHAT WORKS FOR YOUR INDIVIDUAL SYSTEM?
Everyone is different, and nutritional needs vary across the lifespan. While one diet may be the healthiest for your significant other, it may not serve you as well depending on your metabolism, gut biome, history, medical conditions, food sensitivities or allergies, and even beliefs about food.
CLUES FROM YOUR FOOD DIARY
Eliminate foods that made you feel low energy gave you digestive discomfort or in any way seemed to make you feel unhealthy or increased unhealthy cravings.
To get the most out of your elimination diet and to do it safely and without feeling deprived, get help from a health coach, nutritionist, functional medicine doctor or follow a good book or website. In this case you would likely try eliminating either the six common allergens or eating a low FODMAP diet, usually for at least four to six weeks. (You wouldn’t usually do both diets at once, but could do them sequentially.) If you begin to feel better in any way or begin to effortlessly lose weight, one or more of the foods you eliminated may have been causing you a problem. Then you would add back each food, one at a time, as recommended, to see if symptoms return.
Resource: Segersten and Malterre‘s The Elimination Diet
LOW CARB or ANTI-INFLAMMATION OR OTHER HEALTHY DIET?
If you still have symptoms or need to lose (additional) weight or want to be even healthier and live longer, you may try one of the other diets described above. Leave out any foods you have found to be bad for your system, of course. Be sure to use a professional or a good book to help you not only avoid certain foods, but to consume plenty of the foods that are good for you and acceptable according to the chosen diet. Do I need to mention: one diet at a time?
- Two of my favorite low carb authors: Volek and Phinney‘s scholarly The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living, or their more general guide, The New Atkins, and Joseph Mercola‘s Fat for Fuel
- Dr. Andrew Weil’s Advice on Anti-Inflammatory Diet
WHAT ABOUT MEAT?
While just about all the experts agree that plenty of plant matter is good most people’s health and longevity, it is not clear whether or not a low meat, vegetarian or vegan diet might be the healthiest diet for you at this moment in your life. You can experiment with your food journal on this topic, keeping an open mind about how much, what kind, and if any animal products you might include in your diet.
COULD YOU USE SOME SUPPORT?
If you think you’d like help navigating the confusing world of dietary dilemmas, click the link on the top right side of this page to set up a free initial consultation and find out if health coaching could help you make sense of what to eat for your body’s needs.