For a super short, succinct answer to the question, “What should I eat?”, go here.
The answer to the question, “What is a healthy diet?” can be incredibly simple or incredibly complex. Here is the simplest answer I have ever come across:
“Eat real food, mostly plants, not too much…”
Pretty intuitive, yes? Sounds like something my grandmother might have said. Heck, maybe she did! We will come back to it very soon. Please, read on…
A much more complex answer involves going deeply into the nutrition research and attempting to parse out what does what. And you really need an education in specifically how to read those studies. Already having a background in science (Biology, pre-med degree) to get me started, I have probably spent hundreds of hours, maybe much more, doing just that, reading the research. What I discovered is that there is a lot of poorly done, poorly designed, and/or misinterpreted research out there. It is very difficult to reach solid conclusions unless you read and understand much more than most people are interested in or are willing to do. One small example is the low carb vs low fat debate. Most of the research on this calls 30% of calories low ie 30% total calories from fat is low fat, or 30% of calories from carbs is low carb. The people who advocate one or the other diet will tell you that closer to 10% is what is actually low and that at 30% you are not really even near the threshold of what will begin to show you benefit. The best solution with the research is to look at the big, long term demographic studies, like “The China Study“, by Dr. T. Colin Campbell.
I love the Michael Pollen quote (above) because it contains so much information in an easy to remember nugget. The general dietary principle is simple, but requires a definition of ” real food”:
There are two types of things that people routinely put in their mouths. One we can call “real food” and the other, “non-food.” So that you’ll better understand “real food” we need to clearly define “non-food.”
“Non-food” is everything you place in your mouth that has been packaged, processed, treated, frozen, extracted, concentrated, synthesized, or stabilized for long shelf life at your grocery store, in short, grossly modified from the way it appears in nature.
“Real food” is what you get out of the garden, or directly from the animals that have provided meat. It is fresh (or frozen, or gently dehydrated), untainted, and untreated. This includes what you grow yourself, buy at the farmers market or in the fresh produce section of the grocery store. Organic is best when you can get it and afford it. Ideally have only food without labels in your kitchen or foods that don’t come in a box, a package or a can. There are labeled foods that are ok, but you have to be very smart in reading the labels. That, reading labels, is probably a subject for a blog entry sometime.
The closer you can eat from the garden (or killed animal) the healthier. Similarly, the further away from the garden (or killed animal) you eat, the unhealthier — especially when your intake derives from substances from the non-food category.
The one exception to the “food” vs. “non-food” designation and restrictions on “non-foods” is the use of proper supplements. Some micronutrients are not abundant in a typical diet or are often poorly absorbed. Those are best supplemented. Vitamin B-12 is essential for vegans. Zinc is often low in vegans and vegetarians and they should supplement that as well. Research studies have shown that a majority of people seem to be deficient in vitamin D (more a hormone than a vitamin) and will benefit from supplementing it. A simple blood test will guide you toward healthy blood level vitamin D (between 35 and 55 ng/ml). A low to moderate dosage, broad spectrum, multivitamin is good insurance for all of these except you really should test for Vitamin D level and add more as necessary.
For those with current health issues, who need to lose weight, or are just trying to maximize their already good health, here are further guidelines:
No non-foods no exceptions.
No added oils, no added sweeteners, no added salt.
Read all labels to help avoid these things.
In addition to the above, no animal products i.e. meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy of all kinds.
Once body weight is normalized,
18 1/2 > BMI < 23
Waist/height ratio < 0.48
body fat for men
a little more leeway is allowed. Most healthy people can do fine with up to 10% of total calories coming from animal products (though milk products are strongly discouraged for a number of reasons, ask me if you are truly interested).
What you can enjoy in abundance is any and all vegetables, all fruits, all beans/legumes, all intact, whole grains, and a small amount of raw/unsalted seeds and nuts.
Here are some suggested books to get you hooked on the idea of how profoundly your diet will affect your health and ability to enjoy your life: