Every diet is good. And every diet is bad.
Before I go further, let me just say, when I am discussing diet, I do not mean a weight loss plan. I am simply referring to a way of eating. A Vegan diet, a Paleo diet, a Mediterranean diet, a Standard American Diet. You get the point. At its most basic, a diet is simply what you eat. Goals for your diet are a different topic.
When it comes to a way of eating, I am not convinced there is any one particular right or wrong way. Every person is unique. Every person has their own values, health goals, and nutritional needs. Obviously, we all need certain vitamins and minerals. But athletes need a lot more protein than a couch potato. Underweight people need more fat than obese ones. People with food sensitivities need to limit things like gluten or dairy. What is great for one person may be horrible for another. The best thing you can do is figure out what YOUR body needs to be healthy. This is a process of trial and error. Sure, you can spend your hard-earned money on a variety of blood and stool tests to figure this out. Or you can be patient and follow a reliable elimination plan and figure it out for free.
What’s more, even a good diet can be done in a very bad way. You can be a vegetarian and live off of grilled cheese sandwiches and potato chips. You can follow a ketogenic diet and eat only fast food burgers but skip the bread. Done properly, both of these ways of eating can be extremely healthy and beneficial for your health. Done poorly, they can kill you.
Carbohydrates are not always good.
Over the last month or so, carbohydrate consumption has received a lot of press time. Here’s the deal with carbs – too many carbs WILL cause a variety of health problems. Carbohydrates cause a greater insulin spike than either protein or fat, and chronically raised insulin leads to diabetes. Carbohydrates also cause inflammation throughout the body that can lead to a whole host of other problems. Carbohydrates cause obesity (after all, cows are fed grains to fatten them up for a reason). BUT…
Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Carbohydrates from vegetables and whole grains tend to cause fewer issues than simple carbohydrates, fructose (this includes fruit!), and sugar. I personally don’t think carbs are evil, but I do believe they should be eaten in small amounts. And for some people they should be very limited. Many food sources of carbohydrates are also the source of common food sensitivities – gluten probably being the most famous one – so even if you tolerate the carbs themselves okay, you might have problems with other compounds that you ingest with them. So be careful.
Fats are not always bad
For about 60 years, fats have been vilified in our society. But they shouldn’t be. Healthy fats – coconut oil, pastured butter, ghee, avocado oil, olive oil – should be eaten daily. Extremely low fat diets can lead to vitamin deficiencies. Worried about high cholesterol? Don’t be. Consumption of healthy fats will raise your good (HDL) cholesterol. Total cholesterol shouldn’t actually change a great due to eating healthy fats because most of the cholesterol floating around in your blood is produced by the liver, not ingested in your diet.
One caveat here: A diet that is high in fat, low in carb is not necessarily dangerous. However, a diet that is high in fat and HIGH in carb is a dangerous thing indeed. This is the combination that leads to many chronic illnesses. If you’re going to eat fat, make it healthy fat and limit your carbs to those you get from vegetables
‘Heart healthy’ foods are not always healthy
I was recently at the grocery store and passed a section that was labeled ‘Healthier Options’. I was intrigued, so I spent some time reading labels in that section. Every single item on the shelf was highly processed. Every single item was high in calories. Every single item was high carb, low protein, low fat. Every single item had high-fructose corn syrup. They all had oils that have been proven over and over to be disastrous for your health, like soybean oil, safflower oil, canola oil. Most had a long list of preservatives and colorings that I don’t even know how to pronounce. Compare the label of a typical granola bar or trail mix to that of a package of chocolate chip cookies. There’s not actually much difference. Just because a food claims to be ‘natural’, ‘healthy’, ‘organic’ or whatever does not make it so. Remember ‘100% Natural 7-Up’? Do you really believe that any part of 7-Up is natural? Geeze.
Just eat whole foods!
If you change nothing about your way of eating other than this, you WILL be healthier. Eliminate processed foods and replace them with the best quality whole foods that you can afford – be it vegetables, meat, healthy grains, eggs, whatever – and you will be a healthier person. You may still have to tweak your diet based on your personal situation, but you will be healthier.