On Nutrition

I recently surveyed some of my readers on what they would like me to write about in 2020, and one of the responses was, “If you could give everyone — no matter our body shape or current health — three pieces of nutrition advice, what would those things be and why?” Excellent question!

I could trot out the typical “Eat more vegetables, eat fewer highly processed foods, and get enough protein” response, but I won’t, even though those are solid nuggets of advice — and ones I’ve previously given. Instead, I’m offering some big-picture advice for the new year that I hope will help make you more confident eaters.

1. There’s more than one way to eat for health. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that there is only one “right” diet — especially if they use the language like “the secret they don’t want you to know.” First, if the “secret” advice was actually valuable, it wouldn’t be a secret. Second, nutrition research demonstrates that there are a number of nutritious ways to eat that can support good health and reduce risk of chronic disease. Third, look around you. If you discovered the eating habits of everyone around you who is currently healthy with low disease risk, I guarantee you would get a mix of answers. Some would eat vegan or vegetarian, while others would include meat in their meals. Some would eat low-fat, while others would eat low-carb. Some would say something like “I don’t know … everything in moderation?” And honestly, some healthy people don’t even have a “healthy” diet because, like it or not, they won the genetic lottery.

2. Food isn’t the monster under the bed. I have an entire article planned on food fears, but for now, suffice it to say that food has nourished and sustained you for your entire life thus far — it’s not out to kill you. There are no foods or food groups that will destroy health in the context of a balanced diet (anything could be harmful in severe excess, even water). Wheat, meat, eggs, dairy, nightshade vegetables, fruit, nonorganic produce — none of these are the dietary devils they are often made out to be. It should go without saying that if you have a food allergy or intolerance (hopefully diagnosed by a medical professional — please don’t self-diagnose), then you need to avoid that specific food.

3. If the way you eat makes you unhappy, it’s not the right way for you. Unhappiness cuts a few ways. For example, if following the “healthiest” diet in the world makes it impossible to socialize with friends over food because there’s nothing you “can eat,” and requires you to cook everything from scratch even though it stresses you out, then that’s not the right diet for you. Conversely, if the way you eat leaves you perpetually hungry, tired and cranky, or perhaps overfull, lethargic and uncomfortable, those are clues that something needs to change. Feeling like you would kill for a cracker or might fall into a food coma promotes neither health nor happiness.

A final bit of advice that relates to all of the above: Please stop looking for silver bullets. They don’t exist. Health is so multifaceted that it would be impossible for any one food, one supplement or one diet to have an impact that even resembles magical status. Small steps, taken consistently and turned into healthy habits, are what make a difference. Not dramatic, and certainly not sexy — but true. Happy New Year!