One of the things I find so frustrating about a lot of lifestyle and health influencers–and health culture in general–is the focus on extreme diets or non-science-backed cleanses.
Consider the Keto diet–a high fat, low carb diet plan that attempts to put the body into a fat-burning state. It’s everywhere. The ice cream section at your local grocery store probably has a subsection of Keto. There are hundreds of books explaining the diet and providing recipes. And if you google “I tried keto”, you’ll get seemingly endless results of people trying the diet and promoting their results. But it can actually be really unhealthy to the average person if done long term.
- Keto can lead to kidney stones. Eating too many animal products (often necessary for high fat/high protein/low carb) can produce acid and lead to increased calcium output, which increases kidney stone risk.
- It can be really difficult to get enough fiber, since fibrous foods often tend to be higher carb (think whole grains and fruits). Fiber is really important for proper bowel health, and not having enough of it can lead to blockages and other unpleasant problems.
- Keto may lead to decreased bone mineral density, which means weaker and more brittle bones.
- Animal products tend to be unhealthy in large quantities due to their high amount of saturated fat. Higher carb, vegetable-forward diets, rather than animal-focused ones, are much better for long term health.
Keto can be a good option for people with certain health conditions, but it’s not really that good of an option for the average person.
It’s easy to see all these flashy diets and think they’re the answer to all of your weight loss problems, but in many cases, they’re not. In some cases that’s because they’re genuinely unhealthy, but often, it’s because they’re unsustainable.
The best diet for you is one that you can stick with!
The problem with a lot of restrictive diets that are promoted today is that they’re nearly impossible to actually stick with if you’ve come from a totally different background.
If you’re a big animal product consumer and you suddenly decide that being vegan is the way to finally lose those extra pounds, if you cut out all the meat and dairy cold turkey, it’s not going to go well at all.
The human body does not do well with extreme and sudden change. You’d probably experience really unpleasant gut problems, have a serious difficulty finding enough recipes you like to suddenly replace all your old meals, and find yourself unsatisfied with the new tastes. After enough frustration, you’d just abandon ship.
That’s not healthy at all! It’s the same with extremely calorie restrictive diets. If your body needs 1800 Calories per day, but the internet tells you to go for only 1200 so that you can burn a bunch of fat, you’re going to be starving. You’ll be constantly hungry, feel weak and tired, and probably will cave and eat a snack, meaning the diet got you nowhere. Plus, you’re more likely to be stressed trying to meet your calorie goals.
If you’ve been frustrated by challenges like this, you’re not alone! I’ve experimented with calorie restriction and sudden diet changes, and it’s never worked out well. I was left with all of the problems I just described and felt miserable. But over time, and with a lot of experimentation, I have finally started to find a solution that works: balance.
There is no universal best diet. The best diet for you is whichever one that you can stick with–so long as it promotes some balance and stays away from extreme and unhealthy habits.
How does this balance look in your day to day life? No two individuals will have identical plans, but my diet strategy looks as follows.
I try to incorporate both healthy behaviors and less healthy behaviors, but weigh them in favor of the former. The occasional unhealthy activity helps me feel satisfied and fulfilled, without being so often as to negatively impact my health in any non-miniscule way.
On the healthy side of things, I try to use the following guidelines in my week:
- Cook my own food most of the time, so that I can control what’s going into it, rather than rely on guessing how healthy something is.
- When cooking, I try to make plant-forward meals and limit my consumption of animal products, except the occasional item low in saturated fat (such as turkey breast or low fat greek yogurt) or a small dash of cream in my coffee. I don’t commit to full on veganism or any other restrictive diet, but just try to make informed choices to ensure that I get enough vitamins and minerals, enough protein, and enough fiber, without consuming too many unhealthy fats.
- I try to minimize added sugar in both the food I prepare and the food I purchase. If I make banana chocolate chip muffins, for example, I’ll rely only on the sugar from the chocolate chips and bananas, and skip any additional sugar the recipe calls for. And if I get a sweetened drink from a shop, I’ll go for a less sugary option (such as 25% sugar at a bubble tea place).
- I try to buy in-season products from the local farmers’ market, which tend to be more nutritious than out-of-season supermarket items and also lower in dangerous pesticides.
However, I also allow some flexibility in my week and don’t only eat health foods 24/7. This has a few benefits for me:
- It helps me ensure I can fit in social activities where food is involved without being stressed about what I’m consuming.
- It reduces the overall amount of brainpower and emotional energy I spend on food because I get an opportunity to eat unrestricted and don’t need to feel bad about my choices.
- I get to enjoy a delicious treat every once in a while, which brings me joy!
A little more specifically, I try to allow the following:
- A dessert or fun sweetened drink a couple of times in a week (typically limit this to about two, but it can be flexible). I try to choose healthier options, like frozen yogurt over ice cream, but if I’m feeling like ice cream no one’s stopping me!
- I will go out to a restaurant 1-2 times per week, but typically just at dinner (this could be lunch, too, if you prefer that–I just like using dinner as a social time). When I’m there, I can get whatever I want! Sometimes I’ll eat a burger and fries, sometimes a healthier dish. It depends on how I’m feeling, but whatever I’m feeling is fair game.
- If I’m going on vacation for a few days, I drop any self-imposed restrictions on eating. One of the most amazing parts of travel for me is being able to taste new and delicious foods, and limiting myself to only plant-based foods means I miss out on a lot of options–plus it can be a lot more stressful trying to find really healthy restaurants, especially if traveling with friends and family who don’t share the same health focus in their dining. On vacation, I’ll still eat healthy sometimes, but I also allow myself to try whatever looks good.
- I don’t work off of a calorie restriction. Calorie counting is very popular in the weight loss community, but I’ve personally found it to be way too time consuming and also detrimental to my mental health by forcing me to spend all my free time thinking about food. Rather than restricting myself to a set amount of food per day, I work on eating primarily healthy and nutritious foods (which, it turns out, tend to be lower in calories) and stop when I start to feel full. If I eat a ton one day, that’s okay. Rather than stress about failing a daily goal, I can think about the fact that I enjoyed my food and maybe later in the week I’ll try to make healthier choices to balance that out.
Getting yourself to a healthy diet is not easy. A lot of the steps I’ve achieved by now are the result of years of hard work, and it took a lot of frustration and mistakes to get here. If you’re struggling, the most important thing is to not beat yourself up. Physical health is incredibly important, but so is your mental health. It’s not worth throwing one down the drain to get the other.
If you take one thing away from this article, have it be the following: don’t obsess over perfection in your diet. That’s a recipe for stress, depression, and poor results. If you want to be healthy, work on finding a diet you can stick with, one you enjoy, and one that prioritizes balance and flexibility. It will take a while to get there, but you can do it if you take it slow, plan carefully, and forgive yourself when you struggle.
You can do it!