Fats are bad for me; fats are good for me. Eat more fresh fruit; don't eat fruit, it's full of sugar. Tomatoes may reduce the risk of prostate cancer; nightshade vegetables like tomatoes are poisonous. I need calcium; I can't have dairy.
Paleo, Raw, Sugar-Free, Low-Carb – it's enough to make your head spin!
The fact that we have so much health information at our fingertips is a blessing and a curse. On one hand it brings invaluable nutrition education to millions, but there is no filter to weed out the bad advice and misinformed opinions. You don't need any knowledge of nutrition to publish an article on health anymore, you just need an internet connection.
And what does 'good for you' even mean? Does it mean it'll help you lose fat? Gain muscle? Avoid disease? Or even eat ethically?
So let's take this moment to explore my philosophy on nutrition and food as medicine. We'll also look at popular diets, their pros, their cons, and why I felt the need to develop the Four-Week Wellness Nutrition Plan.
My ‘Eating Well’ Philosophy
Let’s face it: dieting is hard. It’s restrictive, it puts unrealistic expectations on us, and a small slip-up can easily become a binge when guilt takes over and sends us spiraling in to bad habits. We approach food with an ‘all or nothing’ attitude, and end up see-sawing between kale and Krispy Kremes. So it’s time to wave goodbye to ‘the diet’ and welcome ‘conscious eating’ … okay so I made that term up, but if people can ‘consciously uncouple’, then they can certainly consciously eat.
So let’s forget die-hard diets and focus on educating ourselves about food instead. The main question to ask yourself is this:
Does it nourish my body?
Food is to be enjoyed, but it’s also the delivery mechanism for the building blocks our body needs to be healthy. All the major eating philosophies circulating around at the moment – raw food diets, paleo, low-sugar, 5:2 – have one thing in common: they promote whole foods. The transition from processed, refined products to natural produce is the smartest thing you can do for your body. That’s the kind of food your body evolved with, and it’s the kind of nutrition that it knows how to process.
Overly refined foods are depleted of their vitamins and minerals through their processing and storage. Some vitamins are so fragile that up to 70% are lost by the time they get to your table.
So in a nutshell, nourishing foods deliver your body everything it needs to achieve your health goals. The easiest way to achieve this? Most (if not all) of your grocery shopping should come from the periphery of the supermarket, and not from the aisles. That’s where the fruits, veggies, and meats are. So stick to the outside, and don’t wander in to dangerous territory of packaged goods too often.
Every body is different, and required different nutrition. That’s why I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all diet. But for most people, the following rules should be their guide:
Moderate carbohydrate intake, all comprised of whole-food carbohydrate sources and limited sugars.
Ditch flours, breads, and sugars (yep! I’m including honey and maple syrup in there) in favour of a rainbow of vegetables. Sugars spike insulin, training the body to store fat. That insulin then does the reverse and lowers blood sugar, tricking your body in to thinking it’s hungry when it’s not. We then overeat carbohydrates again and perpetuate the cycle. The end result is unhealthy weight gain and diabetes risk.
So why less complex carbohydrates then? We also live in the age of dysbiosis, where our good bacteria are upset by alcohol, stress, and medications. The end result is a degree of imbalance that allows “bad bacteria” to ferment the carbohydrates in our gut, creating gas and inflammation. They eat them as a food source and in return cause illness. That doesn’t mean I think carbohydrates are bad, but rather that modern humans have such a chronic gut flora imbalance that unfortunately, the bacteria can digest the carbohydrates before we do and cause serious discomfort.
In saying that, I don’t think that grains are the culprit here, and I don’t think that people should be removing these things from their diets if they have no problem with them. Oats, for example, are amazing at lowering blood cholesterol, and feed good gut bacteria. They’re also used in herbal medicine as a relaxing ‘nervine tonic’. So if you didn’t need to, why would you cut them out?
Make 50-60% of every plate out of multi-coloured vegetables, and if you want to, up to a third of that can be root veggies like sweet potato, or whole grains that your body can handle without symptoms. Banish sugar (and artificial sweeteners) but a few pieces of fruit won’t hurt you unless you suffer fructose malabsorption (again, not everyone does!)
Moderate fat intake, focusing on unsaturated fats.
Fats are not the bad guy anymore, not even saturated fats. In saying that, it’s not a free-for-all either, and there is a limit to how much your body needs for physiological processes. A teaspoon or two of uncooked olive or coconut oil is fine, half an avocado is fine, oily fish and small amounts of fat on meats are fine, but deep-fried foods, cheap fatty cuts of meat, and half a cup of salad dressing simply provides too much energy for the average body to handle – unless you are trekking across the north pole or climbing Everest.
Protein at every meal
Protein seems to be the realm of body builders and gym junkies, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s more than muscle: it’s skin, it’s hormones (and therefore energy) and it’s strong tissues throughout the body. It also lowers the glycaemic response of carbohydrates, meaning that the insulin response will be lowered.
Current Diet Trends
Five days eating normally, two days calorie restriction. In my view, this is just the new calorie-cutting diet, and works because overall people’s food intake is being lowered by around 3000-4000 kcal. per week, which would be enough to see a decrease in about half a kilogram of body weight over the seven days. It’s a bit of a fad, but not harmful.
There is a little more evidence to support this kind of diet if you take an ‘intermittent fasting’ approach, where the ‘fasting’ periods are of 16-24 hours at a time. I have seen people do that with some success, because there is a growth hormone surge during fasting, which signals for fat loss.
Regardless of how you do this, the risk is that you feel you can binge on the “off” days. As long as you maintain a healthy diet on those days, this is not a bad approach, but I’d reserve it for short periods of time only, and not make it your ongoing eating philosophy.
Paleo is a good option because it promotes most of the philosophies I talk about, and ultimately leads to a whole foods diet. I don’t like the argument that ‘cave-people ate this’ when in reality diets differ across the planet. An indigenous population in Australia had a very different diet to one in far Northern America. There is no one ‘human diet’ and I think that grains have been unfairly demonised, when the real problems arise with dysbiosis, excess starch consumption, and the rise of refined grains. Some people do have allergies and intolerances, but not everybody.
Again, it’s not a dangerous diet, and I myself eat in a 'paleo-ish' manner, but we should be careful not to get too caught up in its mythology.
This is probably the current trend that makes most sense to me as a nutritionist. As I described earlier, sugar has profound hormonal effects and are more problematic than just the caloric value. Again, a healthy approach (ie – not beating yourself up if you have a peach) is essential.
The confusion around healthy eating and conflicting information is what prompted me to create The Four-Week Wellness Nutrition Plan, a sensible and researched approach to eating. It shares a lot of the best qualities of the diets outlines above, but has been honed and perfected over years of clinical experience.
I initially developed the eating plan for myself, and with four key goals in mind: lose fat, maintain muscle, avoid common dietary irritants, and ensure adequate levels of commonly deficient micronutrients, like B-vitamins and magnesium, are met. It promotes whole foods and doesn't require you remortgage your home to afford the ingredients. It's a simple, targeted approach to improving body composition and overall wellness. Is it the only way to eat? Nope. Is it a good way to eat? You bet.