If you’re like most of us, you strutted into the year bursting with energy and positive intentions for your life. Optimizing your diet was high on the priority list. But, like most busy people, you hit a brick wall at some point. Do you even know how to make healthy food choices?
Online searches on healthy food habits are dizzying. Trends come and go.
- One peek at social media makes it seem like everyone is doing intermittent fasting.
- Just a few years ago grazing all day long was how you promoted a healthy metabolism.
- Protein-heavy diets are still touted for weight loss.
- But now “plant-based” is all the rage for the sake of the planet and our hearts.
So how do you distinguish healthy, holistic food choices from fads? There is so much nutrition advice out there, it’s easy to walk away with more questions than answers.
Information flies fast in this information age. That means we have to sharpen our skills at distinguishing between emerging nutrition science and fads.
We also have the job of filtering dietary advice for what works for each of us individually. Things would be oh-so-easy if one-size-fits-all approaches worked for everyone. Dieticians would be out of business! But the more we learn about nutrition, the more we understand how much it depends on our particular bodies and the genetics we inherit.
1. Be wary of “miracle diets” and food trends.
Don’t believe everything you’re told. Stock up on solid nutrition facts (like the ones in this article) to help you evaluate diet trends. Then be wary of any proclaimed miracle diet promoted online, in magazines, or even from trusted friends.
Sure, it’s easy to get excited about the latest juice fasting, and you will be tempted to jump right in. But there are pitfalls to this approach.
First of all, when we change our eating patterns without being super solid on why, we are less likely to stick with it. Why? Behavior science shows that knowledge of nutrition leads to more lasting healthy eating behaviors.
Better to have a measured approach backed by your knowledge of your own body.
Perhaps even more important is the fact that what diet works for our individual bodies and lifestyles can vary wildly from person to person. The more that we learn about nutrition, the more we learn that our genetics play a huge role in what should be on our plates. This is why the field of personalized nutrition is growing so rapidly.
2. “Reset” your metabolism.
While “resetting your metabolism” sounds as easy as switching out the hardware on your computer, it doesn’t have to be complicated. There are simple ways to gently guide your body down the right track. Making healthy adjustments to your metabolism means you will have the energy you need without packing on pounds.
For those who want a clean reset, a good first step is fasting.
The intermittent fast has all but replaced calorie restriction in the weight loss world. Research shows that it can also help with everything from dropping pounds to muscle tone and heart health. Some even state that fasting sets off an evolutionary trigger point that boosts the pathways in the body that slow aging, reverse disease, and enhance physiological performance.
Here’s how it works: When we deprive our bodies of calories, we not only burn fat, but we start producing something called ketones to fuel our brains and muscles instead of regular blood sugar. Proponents of the Keto Diet (a specific diet that restricts carbohydrate intake) say that they function better on ketones than on supporting their blood sugar with carbohydrates and fats.
What does this mean for you? Fasting won’t be for everyone. If you’re not sure if you and your lifestyle are set up for staving off calories for large chunks of time, just keep in mind that, it’s wisest to take in calories between 7 am and 7 pm. And the earlier you can consume calories in the day, the better.
Full fasts and elimination diets
If you’re ready to try a full fast, doing a cleansing fast is a great place to start. Partner with a functional medicine doctor to then go through an elimination diet with food journaling. The point of an elimination diet and food journaling is to learn what foods work for your body, and which foods you should eliminate for good. Everybody is different.
3. Find your personal energy gold.
A core piece of your nutrition approach should be narrowing down the forms of energy that works for your body. This is important and unique to you. Just like anything in nutrition, different foods energize different people. Which foods power us best throughout the day really depends on the individual. This is where it pays to be cognizant of any fads that demonize specific food groups.
Note how you feel after certain food types
For example, Paleo advocates count grains out, while plant-based proponents nix the meat. One way to weed out the fads is if they claim that “humans are meant to eat A” or “humans evolved eating B.” There is actually no such thing!
If you think about the radical diversity of human civilizations and their diets around the world. People have never eaten the same things everywhere. This makes perfect sense.
- If your ancestors herded cattle and drank milk, you will have more enzymes to digest it.
- If you come from a grain-eating lineage… you guessed it! Your body will be better suited for getting its energy from things like rice.
Now, genetics aren’t the only factor that comes into play for your own personal superfoods. Your lifestyle, stress levels, nutrition goals, and health history will help shape them as well.
Your best nutrition comes from understanding how your body processes energy forms.
For example, are you a lean-mean protein fiend, or do you thrive on carbs? Do you let fats in your routine, and is that working? Once you know this, then you can zero in on the meal-timing that works for you.
The three food energy forms to start paying attention to:
The easiest way to work this out is to keep track of how you feel after eating certain foods.
- Does pasta make you crash after a few hours?
- Then try sticking to meals and snacks on the low carb side of things. For example, “Paleo” diets are low carb and eliminate all grains. Similarly, Ketogenic diets stick with foods that are lower on the glycemic index.
- Are processed meats slowing you down?
- Pay attention to your energy levels and digestion after eating things like deli meats or sausage. If you feel sluggish and dehydrated, opt for whole-muscle cuts of meat, or make sure you select clean-label sausage only and pair it with high fiber foods like beans or whole grains.
- Does sugar sneak its way in on a daily basis?
- If so, you are certainly not alone. It’s easy to get tripped up on what carbohydrates are ok for you.
- One handy tool is the glycemic index. It is a scale that tells us how quickly foods break down into blood sugar and how severely they will cause an insulin spike. In short this means that foods high on the scale (like pastries and white bread) wear out your body’s sugar-processing machinery faster.
Think carefully about the different “diets”
In general, lower carbohydrate diets like Paleo work well for folks with weight loss goals, whereas marathon runners might need more carbs to power them through their workouts. Protein is a great energy source that sustains us better throughout the day than things like grains and fruits, which we burn off faster. Carbohydrates have their place too, but will power you longer throughout the day if they are paired with protein and fiber, such as a whole grain bread.
The Ketogenic diet is very similar to the Paleo diet. When we deprive our bodies of higher-glycemic foods, we not only burn fat, but we start producing something called ketones to fuel our brains and muscles instead of regular blood sugar. Proponents of the Keto Diet say that they function better on ketones than on supporting their blood sugar with carbohydrates and fats. Research even shows other health benefits such as fighting inflammation.
(We should add here that because eating Keto can agitate certain conditions, always work with a trusted professional when making big dietary changes like this. There is no diet that is perfect for everyone.)
Use an elimination diet
The key here is to find a time when you can press the pause button, and zero in on how you feel after certain foods. So many of our eating habits are subconscious.
The best way to unravel your body’s needs is with an elimination diet.
You don’t need to do this alone, however. A functional medicine practitioner will work with you and help you understand how your body responds to different foods.
If you are not ready to seek help yet, try at least to keep a food journal, recording how you feel after different types of food. Food journaling always seems like a lot of work at first, but the knowledge gained will pay off long into the future.
Don’t forget to check out different versions of a food. Different versions of the same food can make you feel different, and have wildly different nutritional profiles. For example, you might try fresh vs frozen berries, pastured meats instead of conventional, or wild caught fish vs farmed fish
4. Create a healthy relationship with fats.
If you were around during the 80’s and 90’s, you learned to think of fat as the enemy. “Fat Free” meant health conscious, and all the popular diets were centered around keeping as much fat off the plate as necessary.
Cut to present day, and we now know that fat is a valuable part of the diet. While fat is calorie dense, it also has a big role in things like inflammation, immunity, joint health, and vitamin levels which gets vastly overlooked.
Figuring out which fats are “the good ones” can be a little complicated, but here are a few key points to keep in mind:
- Not all saturated fat is the same.
- Omega 3 fats are generally good saturated fats and prevent inflammation.
- Omega 3 fatty acids are found in:
- cold water fish
- nuts like walnuts
- olive oil
- Look for polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (found in nuts and olive or peanut oil) .
- Always balance fat with lots of fiber for heart health.
- Balance animal fats with plenty of antioxidants (found in your brightly colored vegetables and berries).
- Pastured meats will have higher quality fats, with more Omega 3 fats, than non-pastured meats.
Thankfully we are out of the fat-fearing decades of the 80’s and 90’s. However, as with all things, fat is good for most of us to consume in moderation and by making thoughtful choices.
5. Stop counting calories and start counting superfoods.
A lie has taken root in our society: It’s that being health conscious means restricting calories.
This lie is especially harmful to women. It creates an expectation of deprivation and cold calculation around eating. Where is the pleasure in eating?
This culture of deprivation also leads to the yo-yo effect. This is where drastically cutting calories helps you drop weight. But then… after a period of time, it comes back and is harder to shed the second time around. The returned weight not only delivers a punch in the gut to our self esteem, it’s also really hard on our body’s metabolic machinery.
Eating should be a joyful process focused on abundance.
One thing that helps us get into an abundance mindset is to focus on what our food is doing for us. We can start by learning about foods that have exceptional benefits to our bodies, also known as superfoods.
Superfoods are fun, healthy food choices, because you know you’re packing a real nutritional punch.
For example, most berries contain a lot of antioxidants, which protect the body from all kinds of damage and dysfunction. In short, antioxidants undo the many assaults that modern life exposes us to, like toxins and the sun. They help protect us from cancer, heart disease, the flu, and so much more.
The foods below pack a punch and do more than their fair share:
- Cacao: Anti oxidants, protective against stroke, lower blood pressure, lowers diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk.
- Blueberries: Antioxidants, anti-aging, memory-boosting
- Basil: Anti-inflammatory, aAnti-microbial, heart health
- Beets: Blood thinner, amino acids, B vitamins
- Cauliflower: Anti-carcinogenic, anti-oxidant, carb substitute
- Turmeric: Strong anti-inflammatory
- Miso: Antioxidant, cardio-protective, probiotic
- Kimchi: Anti-carcinogenic, probiotic
When we include these “nutraceuticals” in our daily routine, all of our tissues are healthier, including our skin! What is more, we feel better and more energetic.
6. Edge out inflammatory foods.
Inflammation goes way beyond redness, swelling and pain. Inflammation happens on a micro-level too. It is involved in heart disease, arthritis, MS, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and most autoimmune diseases.
Not all inflammation is bad. It is part of the body’s healing mechanism, but chronic inflammation is unhealthy. It can be set off by a number of things that we ingest.
Are inflammatory foods the same for everyone? Some of them, yes!
We know that hydrogenated oils or trans-fats (in things like fast food and processed snacks) are universally bad for everyone, and sugar causes production of inflammatory chemicals in the body too. Likewise, your body processes refined carbohydrates in the same way as sugar.
Aside from those main culprits, whether or not a food produces noticeable inflammation depends on your personal food sensitivity. If you can’t break something down properly, it can irritate the gut and cause systemic reactions. That means healthy food choices for you might be different than healthy food choices for a friend or family member.
If auto-immune disease, heart disease, or arthritis run in your family, or you have GI issues, you will want to keep a close eye on these foods as well:
- Gluten: In all wheat, barley, and rye products
- Casein: In dairy
- Omega 6 fatty acids: In vegetable oils like sunflower, safflower, soy, peanut, and grapeseed oils
Other inflammatory ingredients include food additives like MSG and aspartame.
Whatever your nutrition goals are, it’s a good idea to keep a watchful eye on how these items make you feel. If you do any kind of cleanse, only allow them back into the diet very carefully to avoid a reaction.
7. Commit to no-stress eating.
You might feel tempted to scroll past this section, and we get why. You get told over and over how important it is to cut stress and relax. Breathing, yoga, self care… they’re all great luxuries. But..
- What does that have to do with healthy food choices?
- Who has time for that?
- What does it have to do with nutrition?
Well, get this: To properly digest our food, we MUST be in a relaxed state.
And by relaxed we mean not eating on the go, not thinking about work or school, and not too busy feeding others to enjoy our own meal. Otherwise, some form of indigestion is going to end up stopping you in your busy-bee tracks.
Our body has a firm rule: Rest and digest.
Here’s the science why:
- Your nervous system controls all functions of your digestive tract.
- The nerves that are in charge of moving our food through the digestive tract and getting it all to break down will NOT activate if we are in a stressful, fight-or-flight mode.
- Studies show that eating in community and as celebration helps our dietary health.
- Cortisol, the stress hormone, causes weight gain over the long term.
So think about your patterns… Are meals just a necessary fueling that gets squeezed in? Or is there a way to make your eating more mindful so that your body can do its job?
8. Optimize nutrient absorption.
How do you know if your body is absorbing nutrients from the food you eat? One way to tell is whether you feel better when you take supplements.
For example, people who need to take a lot of Vitamin B to keep their energy up could have a gastrointestinal tract that just can’t pull B vitamins out of the food they’re eating for whatever reason. Along the same lines, if someone feels like they are dragging without taking certain supplements or electrolytes, a good thing to do is to check in with your GI health.
We can do our best to prevent this malabsorption from happening by maintaining our gut health. Just as you take care of your skin and tone your muscles, we want our intestinal lining to be toned and healthy as well. This is done by making sure we have enough fiber, using probiotic foods and supplements, and avoiding inflammatory foods. And it turns out, nutrient absorption is related to skin health, weight, and energy levels,
The best way to tell if you are not absorbing your vitamins and minerals properly is to work with an integrative healthcare professional. They will pay attention to your symptoms, your patterns, and lab work to make a diagnosis.
9. Cultivate rewarding body ecology.
Most common health goals can be reached at least partly with cultivating a healthy microflora.
- Healthy skin and hair
- Weight loss
- Strength and performance
- Functional GI system that doesn’t cause discomfort
All of these health goals can be boosted by a balanced microbiome within our bodies.
As a society, we spend so much time worrying about the scary microbes that until pretty recently, we weren’t thinking enough about the good ones. Allergies, cardiovascular health, and diabetes have all been tied to gut microbe population.
As humans have relied more on processed foods and refrigeration and less of fermentation to preserve our foods, we have lost out on a lot of gut bacteria that once protected us. One of the healthiest food choices you can make is to increase the good bacteria in your gut.
If you have a severe imbalance that is causing issues, it can take years to rebuild your gut flora. For the average person simply trying to boost their overall health, the following can really go a long way:
- Cutting out simple sugars
- Upping your fiber
- Ingesting a wide variety of probiotic foods: sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, etc.
- Gardening (healthy soil contains probiotics for our bodies!)
- Avoiding antibiotics
- Avoiding irradiated and bleached foods
10. Up your fiber
Speaking of microbes… Your gut microflora depends on a steady stream of fiber in the diet to break down foods. They also make vitamins like B9. That’s right, the microbes in your large intestine are just in there making vitamins. Amazing, right? And we can support them by feeding them fiber every day from two categories:
Use: Pulls water into & protects the digestive tract
Sources: Apples, Pears, legumes, berries, nuts, seeds
Use: Stimulates digestion
Sources: Grains, vegetables
Minding your intake of fibrous foods is going to help your nutrient absorption, decrease your body’s toxic burden, and of course, make your microbes very happy.
11. Choose healthy energy-boosting drinks.
Psst… do you want to hear a secret that most millenials know? There are way more fun and energizing options than coffee out there for your morning. Not that you have to give up the coffee….but you can also sip on fortifying and energizing drinks throughout the day. And you can skip the addictive, draining effects of coffee on your body.
If you are someone that needs coffee to make it through the day, that is a sure sign that your adrenals are starting to limp along a little bit. Cutting down and replacing at least one of your morning Joes with something like a Golden Milk or Matcha Latte can add a lot to your life.
You can actually start to undo adrenal damage by using adaptogenic herbs, like Ashwagandha powder or Rhodiola.
There are also lots of fun mix-and-match options available, such as Reishi or Chaga mushroom powder for immunity, anti-aging, and immune-boosting benefits. These are a little bitter, so adding cocoa powder and a little of your favorite natural sweetener makes for an alluring sipper. Choose your favorite dairy or non-dairy milk, and add a protein powder if you are working out a lot, especially if you’re the lifting type.
Another energizing choice for summer is adding electrolytes or other concentrates to your water. There areis a myriad of electrolyte brands out there, and you can choose from caffeine and energizing herbs or even calming sleep herbs.
There are other great low-sugar options that can be added to either sparkling or still water, like tart cherry concentrate, and of course the old standard, liver-cleansing lemon-water.
12. Lock in success for the long haul
The key to making nutrition changes stick is to avoid deprivation. Cutting things out in a painful and restrictive way is neither effective nor lasting. A better approach is to consider yourself a lifelong learner when it comes to food, ready to keep exploring the exciting world of food.
By adding exciting and nurturing foods and practices, your healthy food choices won’t leave you feeling like you’re missing anything. Instead, you’ll be distracted by all the new delicious and vibrant things that there are to add. Plus you will simply feel better.
Let your nutrition changes add to your lifestyle. After all, health isn’t about a certain weight on the scale. Neither is nutrition. Joy and happiness have their appropriate places in a discussion of health. Enjoy your food. Explore your food. Discuss the incredible benefits of your food.
And know yourself.
Know what’s good for you and what doesn’t work for you. Know what you love and what you don’t. If you get that far, “diets” won’t distract you. You’ll have something far better to guide your healthy food choices.