One of the questions I often get asked about when I tell people I’m a dietitian is ‘Oh, can I eat (insert food) and be healthy?’ or perhaps a similar question ‘ Is it true that if I eat (insert food) it will burn fat and prevent me from getting cancer' (amongst other diseases)?
These types of question pose a real dilemma to any dietitian because there is no simple yes or no answer. The challenge for the dietitian is to try to give a simple answer without understating the many different facets that will make up a ‘healthy diet’ whilst allowing for individual needs and dietary preferences as well as the needs or restrictions that come with certain health conditions.
Trouble is, this concept is difficult to explain without the answer seeming complex and somewhat disappointing when a ‘quick fix’ was what was hoped for. While it may be a somewhat unrealistic question, it is perhaps not a surprising one. We all lead very full, busy lives juggling work, family and social lives, and it can be hard to devote the time and energy it seems to take to stay fit and healthy on top of everything else. Any short cuts would be gratefully received by most of us!
Unfortunately, this ‘quick fix’ doesn’t exist, if it did, someone would likely have patented it and be exceedingly rich!
Despite this, hundreds of celebrities, fitness experts and nutrition ‘gurus’ attempt to market various products which claim to be the panacea to a great body and perfect health, no doubt making a good living in the process. Sadly, while these glitzy books/DVD’s/ pills and teas seem great at face value and promise the earth, very few of them work for us in the long term.
So what is the bottom line? What are the golden rules for a healthy diet from a dietitian’s perspective? Well, I can’t give a ‘quick fix’ answer, but I do like to keep things as simple as possible so here are my thoughts…
1. Try to make your diet as enjoyable as possible. One common trait I’ve noticed in every dietitian I’ve ever met is that they all love food and eating! Enjoying your food shouldn’t necessarily lead to bad health and overweight. Try to avoid embarking on any nutritional plan which advocates eating in a way that you will not enjoy. You will not stick to it in the long term and make yourself miserable in the process.
2. Make Dietary changes lifelong. Embarking on temporary ‘diets’ for the purpose of achieving a specific goal will undoubtedly always end with the reverse happening once the diet finishes. Make small, achievable changes that you feel confident maintaining in the long run and stick to them. The resulting benefits too will be long term!
3. Variety is the spice of life! Nutritional studies frequently show us that varied diets are the healthiest diets for disease prevention. This is because the metabolic processes that occur in our bodies on a daily basis require many different nutrients in different combinations. Avoid making changes that require you to cut out whole food groups for this reason!
4. Avoid ‘criminalising’ foods. Sometimes I get asked about which foods are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Try to avoid thinking of foods in isolation. It is the nutritional value of the overall diet that counts rather than what happens at one meal or snack. Trying to evaluate your eating habits over a full day or week, this will be more realistic and help to avoid unnecessary and unhelpful guilt!
5. Try to keep overly processed foods to a minimum and eat real food. While preparing meals from scratch will never be achievable 100% of the time for the vast majority of people, it is a good basic rule to be aware of how much of our diet is made up of processed or convenience foods. These types of foods tend to be less nutrient rich and can be higher in empty calories than their less processed counterparts. Aim for foods close to their natural state or those which have been minimally processed whenever you can.
6. Get to know yourself and prepare to succeed! Self awareness when it comes to eating and nutrition is a must! Eating is often something we do automatically, without giving it too much consideration. Most of us will have dietary habits that we’d rather not have, which happen in specific circumstances. For example, getting a take away when we get home late and feel like it’s too late to start cooking. When questioned, most of us can identify these habits as barriers to us achieving our goals, but never give them a moments’ thought day to day. By being aware of what we do and when, we’re half way to solving the problem!
7. Learn about nutrition. But be careful which sources of information you trust. There is so much unreliable information available, and it can be difficult to spot- watch out for messages that seem to say ‘this worked for me so it will work for everyone’ or those which are trying to sell you something. Consider who is giving the advice, and remember only registered professionals are held accountable if they give advice that proves to be detrimental.
So, while it may be a little disappointing that there are no ‘quick fixes’ it will hopefully be encouraging to hear that a healthy diet can and should be enjoyable, include all types and varieties of food and doesn’t have to be terribly complex! Just watch out for whose advice you heed!