Eat, Move, Think
1 WHAT’S THE BEST DIET?
How about no diet at all? Research has shown that people aren’t able to sustain most diets over the long term. That’s especially true for the strict, single-nutrient-based diets that have become so popular in the last few decades, whether they’re based on low fat, low carb, or high protein intake. In fact, such plans open the door to possibly harmful unintended consequences.
How many people who were following the Atkins diet in the 1990s continue to do so today? What about those who, a few years back, opted to go gluten free for reasons besides celiac disease? Rather than demonizing or lauding any single food group, we’re much better off enjoying a wide variety of whole and minimally processed foods. But if you’re the type of person who absolutely needs a food plan to provide you with direction on making healthier food choices, I’d suggest using one of three protocols that are almost like antidiets: the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, or a melding of the two approaches that encourages eaters to employ something called a MIND score.
Most diets focus on pounds lost, rather than the development of healthy eating strategies. The dieter devotes all his or her energies to following the plan, and then one of two things happens: the dieter meets the goal, returns to previous eating patterns, and gains the weight back; or the dieter gives up, feels bad about him- or herself, and gains the weight back.
Like many people, I’ve grappled with the difficulty of weight loss. Until my twenties, I ate whatever I wanted. That’s when I graduated from the US Naval Academy and began working a desk job—and over the next decade I gained 25 pounds. The wake-up call came in my early thirties, when my primary care practitioner, Dr. Timothy Devlin, told me I needed to lose some weight. Too many soft drinks, it seemed, had caught up with me. It took me a good decade to drop the pounds required to get back to a healthy weight.
During that process, I learned that my “set point” never seemed to have increased past what it was in my early twenties. The set point is a concept used by professionals to describe the body’s natural size. It explains why long-term weight loss is so difficult. If you drop too much, going far under your set point, your body uses the tactics humans evolved over millions of years to ward off starvation: it holds on to energy at a greater rate, a process known as adaptive thermogenesis, and deploys hormones that ramp up your hunger and delay a feeling of satiety until you’ve gained it all back. Basically, your body refuses to let you starve.
Nature can be cruel.
Lots of scientific studies have shown that dieting doesn’t work as a weight loss strategy. In one of the most interesting ones, National Institutes of Health researchers followed up on fourteen men and women who had lost substantial amounts of weight on The Biggest Loser. At an average weight of 328 pounds, these people had been heavier than most at the program’s beginning. They’d been provided
with state-of-the-art interventions, fitness training, and weight loss techniques designed to maintain the weight loss over the long term. During the program, they’d lost an average of 129 pounds each, or 39 percent of their body weight. Six years later, the researchers found that on average they had gained back 70 percent of the weight they’d lost. More troublingly, that adaptive thermogenesis I mentioned earlier still affected the subjects, resulting in their burning 500 fewer calories per day compared to the average level for people of their weight and size. In other words, their bodies were still trying to gain back more weight.
By now we know the routine with diets. The media gloms onto a food craze, distils the message into a single phrase—gluten free, high fat, 30-day detox—and suddenly all our friends are asking the waiter to make all sorts of menu exceptions because of their latest dietary restrictions.
But many single-nutrient food fads fail to provide what they promise. Rather than promoting a healthy relationship with food in which you listen to your body, they encourage you to focus on some narrow category of food, which can lead to an inadequate mix of nutrients in your meals. Those who avoid carbohydrates, for example, leave themselves susceptible to deficiencies in fiber, folate, and thiamine.
So avoid fad diets and any single-nutrient approach. Which brings up a problem: How can you identify one? Most fad diets can be recognized by asking three questions:
DOES IT PROMISE EXTREME WEIGHT LOSS?
It doesn’t matter whether you encounter the approach on a YouTube channel, in a magazine article, or in a book: if it features promotional language that promises to “melt” fat or “shed” pounds, or if it
guarantees the loss of a certain amount of weight, whether that’s 10, 20, or 30 pounds or even more, do yourself a favor and pass on it. Any diet that promotes itself with the promise of a steep descent in the number that stares up at you from the scale is likely a fad diet. The goal of proper nutrition should be to use what you eat as a lever to promote health and wellness—not to ensure that you’ll look good in an outfit at a party.
DOES IT DEMONIZE AN ENTIRE SWATH OF THE GROCERY STORE?
The three macronutrients in a healthy, nutritious diet are fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. All meals should consist of a mix of all three nutrients. But that’s not always the case if you follow a fad diet. The ketogenic diet says you should consume lots of fat and few carbs. The Atkins diet emphasizes protein. Neither provides the balanced mix of nutrients your body needs. Rather than artificially elevating the levels of this or that macronutrient, concentrate on enjoying a balanced diet of whole foods.
DOES IT HAVE AN EXPIRY DATE?
The 30-Day Detox, the 15-Day Cleanse, the 7-Day Reset. Wait a second: Shouldn’t your approach to food be about eating well for life? Long-term good health and nutrition should be your focus. Paying attention to what you eat is a rational strategy for remaining healthy. We’re trying to keep ourselves healthy for the long haul. You can’t do that by crashing your weight down to an artificially low number for a short time and then going back to your old habits; there’s no finish line. Instead, focus on evolving behaviors that will
ensure that you make reasonable and rational food decisions for the remaining time that you’re on Earth. Rather than making radical changes to your diet that will last only a few weeks, concentrate on developing healthier food behaviors that you can continue for the rest of your life.
If you come across a nutrition fad that responds “yes” to any of the above questions, you’re probably better off avoiding it. Such restrictive approaches to eating can prevent you from developing the good habits that will keep you healthy for the rest of your life.
Many times a day, we make decisions to regulate what goes into our mouths and when. Those decisions impact our overall health, affecting our risk for developing everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and, of course, obesity.
We now know that fad diets aren’t helpful in reaching or maintaining our health goals. In general, the best diet involves eating wholesome and minimally processed foods, mostly plant based, in reasonable quantities. But what exactly does that entail?
Here are three different strategies for eating well. None encourages strict calorie counting. None relies on an organization that will profit from your adherence to the approach. No celebrity weight loss expert advocates these diets in a transparent ploy to get you to buy his or her book. Nor are they diets, per se. Rather, they’re dietary patterns—comprehensive approaches to eating well.
THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET
This is a simple approach lifted from the relationship with food employed by people in Italy, Greece, and surrounding countries. Those
who follow it consume lots of fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, olive oil, and whole grains. They also eat fish, enjoy red wine with dinner, and tend to dine with friends and family. The eating style does not feature many foods high in saturated fats—not much red meat or butter, for example. Nor is there a lot of salt or added sugar. Researchers have conducted hundreds of studies on the effects of the dietary pattern, and found that those who follow it tend to live longer, as well as experience lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and numerous other maladies.
THE DASH DIET
An acronym for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, the DASH diet arose from a study published in 1997 that showed you can reduce blood pressure by eating lots of fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, low-fat dairy products, and foods that contain such blood-pressure-lowering nutrients as magnesium, potassium, and calcium. The diet was also low in saturated fat and total fat. A later DASH study showed that blood pressure could be lowered further by consuming less sodium, refined grains, and sugars. Like the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet tends to feature higher amounts of whole grains and lower amounts of red and processed meat. Unlike the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet includes low-fat dairy products for calcium—two to three servings per day. It’s also more regimented, precisely delineating the number of servings of various food groups per week.
THE MIND DIET
Another acronym, for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, the MIND approach is newer, based on a pair
of studies published in 2015. It’s basically a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH approaches, featuring lots of plant-based foods and limited intake of saturated fats and animal proteins. Rather than a planned-out series of meal options, the MIND approach provides a score based on how often you eat brain-healthy or brain-harmful foods. The benefits according to the research are impressive; one study found that people ranging in age from 58 to 98 who followed the approach lowered their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease—and the more closely they followed the MIND diet, the more their risk fell.
Each of these dietary approaches has its strengths and weaknesses. Those wanting to slow down cognitive decline or lower their risk of Alzheimer’s disease may opt for the MIND diet; those concerned about high blood pressure may favor the DASH diet; while those who like olive oil may prefer the Mediterranean diet. Choose the one that works best for and appeals most to you—the more you like the food you’re eating, the more likely you’ll stick to whatever approach to eating you’re following. There’s a lot of information about all three available for free online, as well as numerous reference books and cookbooks available at your local bookstore. So read up and get ready to dig into a healthy, balanced diet.
À LA CARTE
Let’s take a look at a meal-by-meal approach for achieving a balanced diet.
For me, starting the day usually involves granola or cereal and berries for breakfast. If I’m working out in the morning, I may substitute some sort of a smoothie. Whether or not you work out, eat something within an hour of waking up. It doesn’t matter too much what it is, just so long as it contains approximately equal portions of protein, fiber, and fruits and vegetables. The protein promotes a feeling of fullness throughout the morning and is important for muscle and bone health, particularly among athletes. The fiber is found in foods such as oats and other whole grains. (There’s also fiber in fruit.) If I’m having a smoothie, I’ll throw in things such as ground flaxseed, hemp seed, or chia seed. Finally, I try to check off the “fruit and vegetable” box by eating some brightly colored berries, which have great antioxidant properties.
I like a handful of almonds and maybe a small bowl of yogurt and berries. Your midmorning snack shouldn’t be much—but it should be something, to keep up your energy level and maintain fullness through the morning.
The midday meal should occur less than five hours after breakfast. So if you ate your first meal at 7:30, lunch at noon or even 1 p.m. works well. Half of the meal should be fruit or vegetables—a portion size of
about two handfuls. A quarter of the meal, about a fist’s size, should be high-quality starchy foods, whether whole grains or a starchy vegetable, such as sweet potato or butternut squash. The final quarter should be some sort of high-protein food—meat, fish, beans, or lentils.
To keep up energy levels and ward off a midafternoon blood sugar crash, I’d encourage a snack that includes both protein and some sort of healthy carbohydrate for longer-lasting energy. Similar to the midmorning snack, that might be a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit, such as an apple. Or it could be plain yogurt and berries or a fruit smoothie made with unsweetened soy milk.
Dinner should be more than two hours and less than five hours from your midafternoon snack. So if your snack occurred at 4 p.m., a good time to eat dinner would be somewhere between 7 and 8 p.m. Just as with lunch, divide the plate into portions—half fruits and vegetables, a quarter whole grains or starch, and the final quarter a protein-rich food.
Cravings are natural. Oftentimes, they’re out of your control. You’ve done the day, the kids are in bed, it’s time for a little you time—and you indulge with some potato chips or a few drinks, or both. But the risk of overeating is greatest in the evening, when we’re tired and our stores of discipline are low. Try to follow a policy of dinner and done, making a satisfying evening meal the last thing you eat for the day.