When people find out that I am a dietitian, I hear a variety of comments regarding diet. Some people tell me they are trying to be “good” by restricting or avoiding carbohydrates or eating a low-fat diet. Others are cutting back on their portions and avoiding soda and sweets. Some may even have decided to adopt a vegetarian diet and incorporate more whole foods. There are as many ideas about diet as there are people. I never realized how controversial food was until I became a dietitian and started talking to people about their dietary habits. But the most interesting thing was how my perception changed over the past several years. Obtaining a degree in nutrition did not automatically make me an expert in the field. It just meant that I had learned a little more than the average person about nutrition. Just as a doctor must “practice” medicine for awhile to gain experience, so a dietitian practices in order to learn more about nutrition and people. I continue to read books, articles and research on nutrition and diet. Keep in mind that the study of nutrition is fairly recent with the first vitamin being discovered just within the last 100 years. New nutrients are being discovered and named and many more have yet to be identified. As more research is conducted, I am sure recommendations will change as will our eating habits. What I have found though is that there are a few things we should all agree on when it comes to diet. And this is based on what people groups have been eating for thousands of years along with the resulting health and longevity found in their culture. We see that there is no one diet for all people and some groups thrive just as well on an animal-based diet as others do on a plant-based diet. Some cultures eat a high fat diet while others are low in fat and higher in carbohydrates. And honestly, diet alone does not determine your destiny. We have to remember lifestyle, non-dietary habits, genetics, environment and stress can all impact health. Let’s discuss some truths here, perhaps dispel some myths and let you decide what you want to eat.
- Our bodies require certain fuel (nutrients) in order to function properly. While our body can make some nutrients (from other nutrients) there are those that we cannot make and these are called essential nutrients. Observing how people (or mice) fared without certain nutrients led to the discovery of these essential nutrients and their corresponding deficiency. For example, a lack of vitamin C leads to scurvy and we cannot make vitamin C so it must come from our diet. Protein is necessary for maintenance and repair of tissues and serves as enzymes in many bodily functions to name just a few. Fat is primarily for energy storage, helps absorb fat-soluble vitamins, provides insulation and is necessary for brain development, controlling inflammation and blood clotting. Carbohydrates are our main energy source and are used to fuel our brains and muscles. Remove any of these essential nutrients and you can expect problems. So any healthy diet must include all essential nutrients.
- All macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrate) contain calories. Weight gain is caused by consuming more calories than is expended. Therefore, consuming too many calories from any food will lead to weight gain. While some foods may be easier to overeat, too much of any food still provides excess calories. Weight loss can only be achieved by reducing your calorie intake (or increasing your energy output) regardless of which diet you follow. So to avoid excess weight gain and the potential health consequences, watch your calories.
- Empty calories and manmade fats in excess have been shown to be detrimental. Empty calories from things like sugar has been known to be a problem for years. Too much sugar can deplete our body’s stores of nutrients without providing any nutritional value other than calories. If sugary foods and beverages are consumed in the place of healthier foods, then we can become nutrient deficient. And science has now shown that hydrogenated vegetable oils in the form of margarine and shortening are no better for us than butter or lard because of the trans fats generated. These can be just as bad if not worse than naturally occurring saturated fats.
So in summary, the diet you choose should include these 3 things. First, it should provide all of the necessary nutrients your body needs to function, which means including a variety of foods. Second, it should be calorie-controlled according to what your body needs based on your age, weight and activity level. And third, it should not include excess sugar or harmful fats. If you choose foods to include in your diet while keeping these 3 things in mind, you will be on the right track. Don’t be on a diet. Love your diet!