Diet is a bit of a 4-letter word to me, not dissimilar to those other 4-letter words I try – largely in vain – to discourage my kids from using. While the objective definition of “diet” is far from offensive – “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats”, the word has become ubiquitous in popular culture for the wrong reasons. Fad diets seem to pop up at every turn (or social media scroll): the raw food diet, the blood type diet, Paleo, Atkins, Keto, South Beach, gluten-free, juice cleanse…the list goes on. I’m not wholly discounting any of these diets – all of them can, if done properly, result in weight loss or health improvements. The problem typically comes, however, when these fad diets prove to be unsustainable or – worse – eschewing vital vitamins and minerals in favor of extreme caloric restriction.
As a coach, I am asked fairly frequently which diet I follow. My answer? A diet of moderation with a lean toward the Mediterranean diet. Truthfully, if I were to recommend one specific diet to anyone, it would be the Mediterranean diet (which is, you guessed it, based on eating habits of the people of Greece, Italy, and other countries bordering the Mediterranean). Ranked the healthiest diet in the world for the 5th year in a row by US News and World Report, it is heavy on plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables, potatoes, whole-grains, nuts, beans, seeds, and extra virgin olive oil. And yes, there is some red wine in there, but in moderation. The Mediterranean diet also allows for more moderate amounts of lean poultry and fish, as well as dairy and eggs. I like this diet because many of the staple foods recommended are affordable and accessible. How often have you said to yourself, “I’m going to make only healthy meals this week from my flashy new cookbook!” only to find yourself stuck on the first recipe that calls for ingredients like goji berries, kohlrabi, kudzu, or spirulina?
Of course, the original adherents to the Mediterranean diet – those living in that part of the world – are typically also strong believers in some other healthy lifestyle habits, such as functional exercise, a better work/life balance, and ample time for extended family and friends – but a plant-based diet heavy on good fats is a solid foundation for nutritional success.
So what does this mean for the Five for Life? Long story short, there is no singular way to eat that will guarantee you health and longevity. Instead, I suggest the following basic principles to structure your daily diet, and fill in the gaps with smart moderation:
· Though I literally just mentioned moderation, it is a message that bears repeating. Deprivation does nobody any good. Unless there is a medical reason for you NOT to eat a certain food (allergy, for example), be mindful of what you eat but also enjoy your food. Most of us are lucky to have such an abundance of options readily available, and with so many stresses in our daily lives, bad news filling our social media feeds, etc., it’s important to find those small pleasures and take full advantage. So, if your primary dietary concern is to reduce your added sugar intake, you clearly shouldn’t have a bowl of ice cream every night. But it’s ok to reward yourself with a small brownie at the end of a long week – in making food a reward for “good behavior”, you are also multi-tasking!
· Plant-based or bust. Or, as your mother undoubtedly told you when you were a kid, “eat your vegetables!”. Honestly, even as a vegetarian, I sometimes struggle to get enough greens and other veggies in my diet. Spinach is…not exactly a dynamo on its own. And I love broccoli and Brussels sprouts, but they do take some preparation and can also cause bloating given their abundance of a complex sugar that is difficult to digest. But still, the fact remains that vegetables – and fruits – of all varieties are full of antioxidants and important nutrients, and low in calories. So aim for your plate at every single meal to be at least 50% fruits and vegetables.
· The “Bad Cop” – aka, carbs. Carbs are demonized in many diets, but the reality is that complex carbs are a critical component to a healthy, balanced nutritional plan. Sure, carbs from a muffin at breakfast, a white bread sub at lunch, and white rice at dinner aren’t doing you any favors, but you can get great carbs that will fill you up - and do things like lower your blood pressure and blood sugar – from easy, simple ingredients: lentils, black beans, brown rice, barley, potatoes, oatmeal, etc. All of these foods are readily available, extremely versatile, and – relatively – inexpensive. My final note on carbs – and I’m
only going to say this once – if you are not gluten intolerant or sensitive, there is NO reason to eat a gluten-free diet. Period.
· Meat. I’m hardly objective on this count, as, with the exception of a handful of years in my 20’s, I’ve been a vegetarian (occasional pescatarian purely for the brain health benefits of wild-caught salmon) since I saw City Slickers as a kid and couldn’t fathom anyone eating Billy Crystal’s calf Norman. But I still cook meat for my family, and I recognize that it can be an important part of a well-balanced diet, but as with everything else, simple is best. Think lean chicken, occasional fish, and very little red meat – if at all.
· Simple truly is best. Sure, the occasional big, elaborate meal with the entire family is great – a chance to either dust off those family cookbooks or try new recipes, and the importance of that opportunity to connect over a good meal should not be discounted – but if you set the bar too high for the complexity of your average daily meal prep, odds are that you’ll end up ordering in or going out far more often than you intend to. Your waistline, your arteries, and certainly not your wallet will benefit from this. Keep most meals and snacks simple. If you find you’re repeating a lot of the same recipes, so be it. As long as the overall nutritional profile is balanced and your family isn’t turning green at the gills at the sight of yet another bowl of soup, then keep on keeping on. As they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
· And my personal mantra: FLEXIBILITY. Leave room for life’s unexpected events, for that unavoidable late night at the office which leaves you with no energy to do anything other than order in a pizza, or for that last minute invite to a matinee movie with friends, where your kid hoovers up a large popcorn and a bag of skittles and calls it dinner. There will be other chances to eat healthy, so try not to stress about any best laid plans that don’t work out quite like you think they will.
These fundamental principles can be used to build a healthy, sustainable diet that still allows for small indulgences. More importantly, when taken in conjunction with the other principles of the Five for Life, you can build a broader healthy lifestyle that keeps you healthier and happier in all areas of daily living.
If you have questions – or need additional information about recipe suggestions, shopping lists, etc., you know where to find me!