Q: It seems like every week I hear about a new miracle diet. Which one is really the best?
-Rhonda W., Columbus, Ohio
This is one my favorite topics, and a question I grapple with every day in my office. To really determine the "best" diet, you have to consider your individual needs and goals. For people who are overweight, for instance, I generally recommend a low-carb or no-carb diet. But even that isn't always the best option. For someone with kidney disease, for example, a high-protein diet can be dangerous.
Don't Fall for Convenience
The common denominator of all "best" diets is a focus on whole foods, especially nutrient-dense vegetables. As one of my nutrition mentors liked to say, "Only eat food that would rot, but eat it before it does."
Much of the food (or as Michael Pollan, author of Food Rules and other books, would say, "food-like substances") found in the center aisles of conventional grocery stores has a scary-long shelf life. Food in a box is typically laden with toxic preservatives, and the inner lining of food cans generally contains BPA, a known endocrine disruptor.
When shopping for healthy options, it's important to remember that the more a food is marketed or advertised, the less wholesome it's likely to be. After all, you don't see a lot of television commercials for organic home sprouting kits, or corporate sponsorship of community gardens.
Don't fall for the lure of convenience. Taking care of yourself requires time and commitment, and it's the most important commitment you can make. I strongly recommend planning a week's worth of meals before you go shopping, and try to stick to the plan.
Go heavy on fresh produce, and make a yummy vegetable-based soup or stew and an interesting salad that will last for several servings. Center your evening meals around fresh-as-possible vegetables, and then add a little organic meat or fish. Or, if you prefer to avoid meat, pad your meals with plenty of protein-rich nuts, cheeses, eggs, or legumes.
How to Enjoy Meat
Humans are omnivores: Our digestive systems are designed to handle meat. This is where things can get tricky. Some people, especially those with type O blood, women who menstruate heavily, or athletes, feel much (much) better when they eat meat. However, there are way too many people on the planet for everyone to eat meat every day. We would wipe out our forests pasturing cows in 10 years if everyone aimed to get meat on every table, every night. It's therefore important not to lose sight of the planetary impact of our food choices.
A good compromise for meat eaters is to choose only organic or wild meat, fish, and poultry-if you have no idea where the slab of flesh came from, avoid it. And limit your intake to 2-5 servings per week.
Guide to Good Fats
Just as there are "good" proteins (organic, grass-fed) and "bad" proteins (corn-fed cows from factory farms), there are also "good" and "bad" fats. The good fats, which you should get regularly in your diet, are relatively unprocessed. Think olive oil, coconut oil, and organic butter. Avoid fats made in a lab such as margarine, usually crammed with hydrogen molecules so it won't go rancid. Hydrogenated fats assume an unnatural carbon-chain structure that renders the body's cell walls and tissues stiff and less resilient to stressors.
Polyunsaturated fish oils are readily absorbed in our small intestine and deliver healing nutrients, fuel, and building blocks for the nervous system. Saturated fats get tucked away in adipose tissue and the inner lining of arteries, and the only way to prevent atherosclerosis is to simultaneously eschew bad fats while feasting on plenty of nutrient-rich, naturally pigmented, vegetables. It's the pigments (chlorophyll, beta-carotene, lycopene, anthocyanins), fiber, and moisture content that make vegetables so awesome.
How to Deal with Carbs
Carbohydrates are the most difficult macronutrient for many of us to manage. Let's face it: We love carbs. Eating carbs gives us energy and pleasure. But we have to make smart choices.
"Good" carbs include whole grains (unbleached rice, barley, quinoa); organic root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, beets, rutabagas, turnips); oats (especially steel cut); and starchy legumes (black and kidney beans).
Heavily marketed white carbs that are mixed with sugar and packaged in boxes are designed to make you crave more. They're no good for your body, your mind, or your soul. They really do a number on your blood sugar, turning what should be a steady blood glucose level of 70-100 ng/mL into a wild roller-coaster ride. Do yourself and your family a huge favor and just swear off white sugar, white flour, and refined carbs. Within a few weeks, you'll notice that they taste hideously sweet and fake. And you'll also notice how much better you feel when you're not riding the blood sugar roller coaster.
Dr. Kane's Weight-Loss Advice
If you want to lose weight, you need to be in a state of ketosis while shedding pounds. This is when the body burns stored fat. KetoStix, which test your urine, are a great way to see how you're doing. If your morning urine turns the indicator strip a pink-burgundy color, you're tapping into your fat stores and heading in the right direction.
To reach and maintain a healthy weight, you ultimately need to figure out how many-and what kind of-carbs you can eat without packing back on the pounds. I never encourage patients to drink alcohol, but if you enjoy moderate social drinking and it doesn't put a barrel on your belly, alcohol may reasonably be your carb of choice. For those who aren't wheat intolerant, fresh, high-quality bread may fit the bill. No matter what you choose, the key is moderation and maintenance. If you find the scale creeping up again, cut it out.
Just remember: there is no such thing as an "essential carbohydrate," as opposed to "essential amino acids" (protein) and "essential fatty acids." We can live perfectly healthy lives without eating simple carbs (sugar, flours, alcohol). We cannot live without eating protein or fat (unless you have extra fat to burn, then it's fine to go on a ketogenic low- to no-fat diet until you reach a healthy weight).
Unless you're fabulously wealthy and can hire a full-time organic chef, you will need to put time into your food plan, every week. Just face that fact and schedule it like you schedule exercise, work, and fun-it will become part of your routine in no time.
Need help putting together healthy, veggie-rich meals that are easy-to-make and delicious? Try these great websites:
You will need to put time into your food plan, every week. Just face that fact and schedule it like you schedule exercise, work, and fun.
Emily A. Kane, ND, LAc, has a private naturopathic practice in Juneau, Alaska, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She is the author of two books on health, including Managing Menopause Naturally. Visit her online at dremilykane.com.