A colleague recently pointed out how people are often more worried about what their food is “free” of (sugar-free, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, gluten-free, wheat-free, fat-free), as opposed to the important stuff that the food is providing (protein, antioxidant vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytochemicals). Not to mention the enjoyment good food can bring.

courtesy freedigitalphotos.net

I guess I’m becoming a lady curmudgeon, but this is probably one of the more annoying diet trends to me. Why are you spending so much energy on finding foods or ingredients to avoid?

It’s so much better to be grateful for all of the nutrients that you have access to, and can enjoy each day, as they keep your body chugging along.

There’s no guarantee that a particular diet will “prevent or cure” cancer, diabetes, heart disease – or allow you to live forever. But you will feel and function better, while you are alive, when you eat reasonably healthy food most of the time, stay active, and maintain a healthy weight.

Problem is, nobody can agree on what a healthy diet is. And diet is only one piece of the healthy lifestyle puzzle. I’ve given my opinion on it numerous times, but as a society we’ve become so judgey about food. You know, think about the time you see someone buying a box of Hostess Ho-Hos® as a fun treat for their child’s lunchbox – “Oh the horror!!”  – And you may assume “that mother feeds her child nothing but junk!” which may be completely false. You have the right to choose whatever products you want, but putting the country on an organic, vegan or grass-fed beef diet, isn’t realistically going to solve our obesity problems.

“I don’t allow milk in our home. Humans weren’t meant to drink milk from other animals”

“I only buy organic vegetables”

“I do not let my children eat potato chips. We’re having homemade banana chips and agave nectar sweetened tea for my daughter’s 5th birthday”

“I don’t buy packaged cookies, unless they’re made with organic ingredients”

What has eating come to, and where is it going? In my profession, we are constantly battling the popular media who squeaks out premature news on a daily basis. Rather than rely on nutrition experts, consumers get diet and nutrition related news shoved in their face on the daily. And most of the time, it’s completely conflicting. No wonder you’re confused!

Am I the only one who sees the irony in a set of “food rules” that “allow” a powdered protein drink mix, a supplement pill, or a cellophane-wrapped “meal replacement bar”, but bread is absolutely off limits!? [while “Big Food” gets a bad rap, many “health-nut” sources also make a bit of cash – take for example, this $60 powder – and note that this hemp protein product only provides 2 grams of protein per serving]

Now, don’t misread me, protein drink mixes and grab-and-go nutrition bars may have a place in someone’s diet – just as many other packaged foods. But there’s not one plan for all. Be careful however not to tout manufactured foods wearing a “health halo” as superior to another sort of packaged food or treat.

MYTH: Science is not to be trusted, and everyone’s an expert

Nutrition is a science. News about it should be sourced from peer-reviewed textbooks and journals, and from people with degrees in nutrition. Can you benefit from the information a lay person provides who has managed to lose 60 pounds and keep it off for 3 years? Definitely. Should that person be writing up new policy guidelines for nutrition or making public statements about diet and public health? No. Not any more than a person who managed to submit their own tax return should hang an accounting shingle, or write a blog titled “everything you wanted to know about the IRS”.

Is research science flawless? Of course not. But I want my science to come from people with advanced degrees who have read and studied a topic much, much more than everyone else with an opinion on the subject. An “expert” is someone who has been formally educated, and exhaustively continues his or her education (reading, trained, additional formal education) on a particular topic. “Comprehensive knowledge” takes a lot of time, thought, and reading.

In today’s world of Tweets and Internet “news”, it can get difficult to distinguish the experts from the frauds, in any field, for any topic. A colleague tuned me into a recent Twitter conversation in which a “science teacher” called her out for recommending fruit as part of a healthy diet. This guy was damning fruit, claiming it’s “manufactured to contain more fructose”! What are you talking about? And you’re a “science teacher”? Yikes. Buy your kids some science books folks. Fruit is good for you. Don’t eat the entire watermelon yourself.

Despite what you may believe to be true, or want to be true, what is actually true is that our human bodies are pretty darn adaptable. What’s also true is that there are some things in our genes that we don’t have any control over at all. Yes, I firmly believe that diet and exercise can have a positive effect, and in many cases, have a disease-prevention effect to a certain degree. Nonetheless, the basics of including whole foods (fruit, vegetables, leafy greens, intact grains, nuts, seeds) in your diet every day, and balancing it out with small amounts of fat, meat or dairy (or not if you are are Vegan) will sustain you.

The simple answer to “How do I improve my diet?” Buy less packages. Buy more whole food. Create more balance. Period.