This is time of year when many people take stock of their lives and resolve to do better in the new year (to read why this is the wrong time of year for major life changes, click here). Common resolutions are to quit smoking, to lose weight, to go to the gym more, to eat better, etc. This is the time of year when "diets" reign supreme: Paleo, Vegan, Zone, High Carbs, Low Carbs, the list goes on and on. But how do you know which diet is the best one?
The short answer is no "diet" is good; what matters is how you eat all the time.
The biggest problem with the idea of "going on a diet" is that it is temporary. You eat in a particular way for a period of time to lose weight, which sometimes works, but then you return to your normal eating habits and you gain everything back. Instead, you want to think about every day eating. Eating food is not something for the short term, it is something you will do for the rest of your life, every day, multiple times per day. Eating should not be about restrictions or deprivation, but about making smart choices that will fuel your body. Start seeing your Food as Medicine.
The best way to eat is to start with eating real food, as opposed to "food-like" substances. If it was naturally grown (not genetically modified) or raised on a farm or caught in the wild, it is food. If it was created in a laboratory, it is not food. One of my favorite podcasters is Sean Croxton, creator of Underground Wellness (of which he is in the process of rebranding). He uses the term "JERF," which means Just Eat Real Food. 90% of the battle is to focus on eating foods that you can recognize. What does xanthan gum or polysorbate 80 look like? I don't know, it is not real food. Food should be one ingredient, unless you've taken many real foods and put them together, like stew or homemade bread. If purchasing foods with a label, there should ideally be 5 or fewer real food ingredients listed.
No real foods are inherently good or bad, however they might be good or bad for you. For example, some people can't eat dairy, while others can. Dairy (from a farm that has pasture raised cows) is not bad for all people, but people who tend to have a lot of phlegm or inflammation shouldn't eat dairy. People who tend toward dryness and heat, like many perimenopausal and menopausal women, can benefit from dairy because it is cooling and moistening.
So what is the right way for you to eat? The way that makes you feel the best. Have you ever noticed that after lunch slump? That usually happens when your lunch contains foods that weren't right for your body in some way. Maybe there were too many carbs and not enough protein and fat. Maybe you ate too little or too much. Maybe you ate foods that you are unknowingly sensitive to. From a Chinese Medicine perspective, feeling tired after eating means that your Spleen is too weak to properly digest the food that you just ate and it is taking more energy than should be required to deal with the food. Keeping a food log is a great way to find out which foods make you feel good, and which don't. Record what you ate and how you felt throughout the day (sluggish, tired, anxious, excellent energy, etc), logging the times of the meals and when you noticed feeling any particular way. Your body knows what is best, you just need to learn to decipher what it is telling you. Not feeling good on a regular basis can often be tied to what you are eating.
Finally, follow the 80/20 rule: If you eat for health 80% of the time, then 20% of the time you can have some birthday cake, or chili fries, or whatever your particular "poison" might be (mine is Ben & Jerry's ice cream--pretty much any flavor). You won't feel good for a short period of time, but you will bounce back very quickly because you have a solid nutritional foundation. 100% deprivation eventually (and inevitably) leads to 100% binge eating, so allowing yourself a small treat 20% of the time gives you the pleasure of decadent food without it completely derailing your health.
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