The Way to Diet
The word diet is one of the most misunderstood, and one of the most overused for profit. The most common use of the word is in the weight-loss realm. There are so many diet plans on the market, most focusing on a fad theory or a plan that is unsustainable for the average person. One of the most common issues with typical diets is that you follow the plan for a while and lose some weight, but the plan is too severe or too restrictive and you cannot adhere to it over the long-term. Eventually the weight comes back. This has been shown in multiple studies.
My belief is that a common sense, healthy, and simple diet should be part of everyone's life, regardless of weight, age, activity level, metabolism, health, or any other factors. A great diet affects all aspects of our life, not just our body type. Our diet can help boost our immune system, give us more energy, help us sleep better, and prevent certain disease processes. On the other hand, a bad diet can also lead to inflammation, allergies, and a general depletion of our health. On a base level, a poor diet will cause you to die earlier than necessary. The old saying "you are what you eat" is actually true!
When looking through the vast data on the topic, there are some key points that are consistent. One is the idea of calorie restriction...take in at least a little less than you use if you are trying to lose some weight. It is important to remember that we do need calories to power our bodies. This is especially important for those who are physically active, because you should try to increase your caloric intake to more closely match the calories you burn. Beyond that, most people actually eat more than necessary, thus the gradual rise of obesity in this country and elsewhere. The idea to burn more calories than you take in is such a basic principle, but a hard one to follow. Again, the idea is to cut back on your total calories! This may not only be tied to losing weight, but may also play a part in the longevity of our cells and therefore aging, a theory promoted by Dr. Roy Walford at the UCLA Medical School. Similarly, author Dan Buettner, in The Blue Zones, looked at 4 different small populations around the globe where people tend to live longer and he tried to determine if there were any similarities between these groups. One of the things he observed was that they tend to eat less overall, and he advised that we should consume 20% less calories than we currently do. (He also listed other observations that were consistent throughout these groups of people - I will try to write more on that at a future time.)
Another basic ingredient to a great diet is that it should consist of natural items. This means fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, wild-caught fish and free-range meats, and certain spice/herbs that have health benefits on their own. (I will get in to a lot more detail in future blog entries regarding these spices, herbs, and extracts that seem to impart health benefits.) The flip-side to this is that there are many things to avoid. This list includes refined grains, trans-fats, processed foods, excessive sugar and carbohydrates, and artificial colors and sweeteners, just to name some. The takeaway here is to aim for natural, raw, organic foods. The less additives and the less processing and packaging, the better.
In terms of a specific diet plan within the framework listed above, there is not a single diet that is unconditionally the best. However, the Mediterranean diet has been extensively studied and is a great choice. It has been shown to lead to a healthier cardiovascular system (see the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, April 4, 2013, titled "Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet"). Another study from Germany in May of 2021 (from the online issue of Neurology, May 5, 2021) showed how a Mediterranean diet rich in fish, vegetables, and olive oil helped protect the brain from degenerative changes that can lead to Alzheimer's disease. Those people in the study who ate an unhealthy diet exhibited more pathological changes in the brain such as protein deposits and brain atrophy, and they performed worse on memory tests. And yet another recent study in Neurology online (Jan. 4, 2017) showed that people following the Mediterranean diet over 3 years retained more brain volume compared to those who did not follow this diet. The research showed that the Mediterranean diet halved the brain loss associated with normal aging in those following a less healthy diet. And brain volume is linked to brain health, with maintained volume seeming to be protective against so-called "normal" cognitive decline, and even dementia and Alzheimer's.
The Mediterranean diet traditionally consists of a high intake of olive oil, nuts, vegetables, fruits, and cereal grains, along with moderate intake of fish and poultry, and only low intake of dairy items, red meats, processed meats, commercial baked goods and sugary sweets. The reason this is an excellent diet to follow is that it is not based on a fad or celebrity endorsement, it is not limited to only certain types of food groups, and there are many items that can be included to please any person's tastes. It is easily adapted to, and can be followed over a lifetime. Just search for "Mediterranean Diet" or "Mediterranean Diet Recipes" online to get started.
I like to think that the best diet is to have no diet. It is simply changing your habits over time so that this kind of healthy diet becomes part of your new normal. It just becomes what you eat every day. You don't have to attempt to follow some strict plan, you don't have to try to count calories, you don't have to eliminate certain food groups entirely. You just eat the good stuff.
The other thing to remember in this discussion is that we all need exercise as well. We do need to burn calories, and we need both aerobic exercise along with weight training. If you are going to implement a new diet, that is also the time to add in routine physical activity.
So here's to a better diet and a healthier life! Salud!