“Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” – Pablo Picasso
Learn the rules before you begin to deviate from them. A version of this quote was often heard throughout the graphic design community, the art community, and the print community when I began my previous career. My colleagues and I took it to heart. We recognized the wisdom in thoroughly understanding how and why things were done a certain way before we began to innovate. Without that understanding as a foundation, we simply could not know how to maximize the capacity of available equipment to deliver a superior product. When it comes to improving our health through diet, a solid foundation of knowledge is equally important for achieving optimal results.
This knowledge is also much more difficult to amass. Watch a few documentaries regarding diet, read a few NIH studies, or even watch TV news for a week and you’ll hear a plethora of conflicting information. So what rules should you pay attention to?
Begin with things you know or regularly experience. If you break out in a rash when you eat corn chips. Eliminate corn chips. Experiment with other corn products. If you have the same reaction, eliminate corn entirely. If you have intestinal spasms after drinking milk or eating cheese, eliminate milk and cheese. You can try A2 milk and yogurt to determine whether you can tolerate those. Eliminate any offender.
Expect this process to take time. You will need to avoid a food for at least a week before trying it again. If you are eliminating gluten, you will need to eliminate it for a year in order to allow your body to heal from all possible prior damage.
Sometimes an adverse response comes from a preservative or other food additive rather than the food itself. Keeping a journal will help you piece together meaningful results over time.
If you happen to discover that you are sensitive to fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols (FODMAPs), you will need to know more about foods containing these sugars. There are many resources for this information. I prefer the ease of using the downloadable PDF list comprised by ibsdiets.org.
No matter what list you choose, your individual experience may differ slightly. I can eat black beans in large amounts with no ill effects, but if I eat even a few black-eyed peas I am miserable.
Once you eliminate foods to which you are sensitive or allergic, you’ll be left with a pool of food in which to find those that provide a wide variety of nutrients and that you enjoy. Begin with learning about foods you like since you’re most likely to choose them on a regular basis.
You don’t necessarily need to research each and every specific food. If you make balance the overall goal, you can just familiarize yourself with categories. My grandmother used to insist that your plate have a variety of colors. Simply following that rule of thumb will result in a more balanced diet than many of us currently consume.
A healthy diet will contain a mix of protein (75 – 100 grams per day, 300 – 400 calories), carbohydrates (60 – 80 grams + per day, 240 – 320 calories minimum), fat (63 – 97 grams per day, 567 – 873 calories), vitamins, minerals and water. Water needs are affected by weight, age, temperature, electrolyte balance, intake of caffeine, intake of sugar, physical activity, the surrounding environment, health conditions, and pregnancy or breast-feeding.
Average adequate water intake per day for a woman living in a temperate climate is 9 cups. Average adequate intake per day for a man living in a temperate climate is 13 cups. Toddlers ages one to three need about 44 ounces or 1.52 ounces of water per pound of body weight. Boys and girls aged 4-8 years need 1.1 to 1.3 liters per day. Girls ages 9-13 years need 1.3 to 1.5 liters per day. Boys ages 9-13 years need 1.5 to 1.7 liters per day.
Common sources of protein are meat, poultry, eggs, fish, seafood, nuts, beans, milk, and some grains. Carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. Fat is found in meat, some fish and seafood, poultry, eggs, bacon, cheese, lard, shortening, nuts & nut butters, avocados, whole milk, butter, cod liver oil, coconut oil and vegetable oils. Fresh food as free from chemicals as possible is ideal. That’s really all the rules you need for a healthy diet.
The problem is that many of us get caught up in a calorie focussed regimen or a diet that favors protein over carbs, plants over meat, or seeks to eliminate fats without really knowing what our body needs and what will help it function best. In other words, we break the rules before we ever learn them.
When knowledge is lacking, we are more easily swayed by marketing. Some diet plans perpetuate misinformation that sounds good on the surface and other ideas seem to take on a life of their own. Here are a few misconceptions that have taken hold:
All plant-based food is healthy.
No, processed food that is “plant-based” is still processed food and therefore not as healthy as fresh food.
Food is healthier if it’s gluten-free.
No, gluten-free food can be extremely healthy as in the case of fresh spinach or extremely unhealthy as in the case of a bowl full of sugar. There is nothing inherently healthy about gluten-free food.
All carbohydrates should be severely limited.
No, vegetables are full of carbohydrates. Some diets eliminate carrots along with cupcakes. You may lose weight faster if you limit all carbs, but if you don’t understand the nutritional difference, you may opt for cupcakes by reasoning carbs are carbs (calories are calories) when you decide to choose carbs.
Whole milk should be avoided because of the saturated fat content.
Science says no. Studies show that consumption of high-fat dairy products is associated with a lower risk for obesity. There are no studies supporting the assumption that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease.
Bread is good for you because it has vitamins & minerals.
Well, there are better sources. The flour used in commercial breads is processed to the degree that it has virtually no nutrients, then specific nutrients are replaced to restore the nutrition that was lost. This is called enriching. It is not necessarily the most effective way to consume those nutrients.
Salads are always a low-calorie choice.
Not automatically. A salad can be low in calories or high in calories depending on the toppings, as well as type and amount of dressing used.
If you have specific health issues other than allergies or sensitivities that you’d like to address through diet, it’s best to begin with overall balance over a long enough period of time to let your body adjust before making changes. Then it’s good to be sure of your goals and approach. In other words, learn the rules for a plan that will help you meet those goals before you break any rules that may risk tipping the overall balance.
Not every metabolism is the same. Some people require more protein than others. Some people need more carbohydrates. Some people require a precise balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat at each meal to function at optimum level. It is okay to create an eating plan that allows for your individual lifestyle, needs, and taste preferences. Before you begin, it’s important to recognize that learning the rules before breaking them can help you reach your health goals more quickly.