Skip the latest diet craze and learn strategies for creating your own ideal diet.
There's nothing like a little winter weather and a few holidays to let the pounds sneak on. When it's time to get back on the good-diet wagon, which wagon do you choose? There are so many. And there are ways of figuring out your own best diet.
You could be vegetarian, vegan, macrobiotic or fruitarian. You could try one of many low carb diets, including Atkins, zone, paleo, grain-free or ketogenic diets. You could temporarily adopt a therapeutic diet, like the GAPS (gut and psychology) diet, the SCD/FODMAPS diet for SIBO, or the HCG diet for weight loss.
You could cut out gluten or dairy in a serious way, or just casually. You could eat only raw or live foods, or you could adopt the blood type diet, or try something popular like South Beach Diet.
You could attempt to settle down your immune system using a Rotation diet, or you could adopt something more moderate but well researched, like the Mediterranean Diet, which is basically Ovo-Lacto-Pescatarian.
Which Diet Is Right For You?
You have probably already guessed that there is no right or wrong answer because the best diet is different for every single person. Variations in what we need depend on our heredity, activity levels and exposures.
Diet can treat or prevent disease, and is a factor in how long we live, for as we all know we are what we eat, so it's worth being intentional!
Diet science is a moving target. It took us decades to figure out that eating eggs and bacon doesn't raise cholesterol, but eating oatmeal really does lower it. Many things we think we know about food will be proven wrong.
For example, scientists studying alcoholism gave mice enough alcohol to pickle their livers, along with other foods to see what would happen. The mice that ate beef fat had less damage to their livers. That's right, beef fat saved their livers!
It's not exactly the food most of us think of for liver health. Still, people who drink booze know that a fatty breakfast is extra-delicious after a night of drinking. The point is that there's a lot we don't know.
One thing we do know is that people who eat a specific diet (any diet!) are healthier than those who don't. What this means is that each time you make a conscious choice to eat something, or to not eat something else, you are doing yourself a favor simply by being conscious.
If you are conscious of how your body responds to what you eat, you can refine your choices in the future. It's even possible that your body will teach you the right diet for you.
Developing your own best diet is a process, and here I offer a couple of strategies for figuring it out for yourself. One of the first things to sort out for yourself is your own LEVELS of food strictness. Another useful strategic tool is coming up with your own YES and NO lists of foods.
The 3 Dietary Strictness Levels.
Some people are strict all the time. They're the ones who don't go out to restaurants because they can't get anything they would like to eat. Other people are lax all the time which generally leads to a sickly appearance later in life, because they haven't figured out how to moderate their own intakes.
Generally the levels of diet are:
For any given day, week, or month, you can decide the Strict, Lax or somewhere in the middle way of eating. Most of us rebel if we are too strict with ourselves, which is why the maintenance level exists.
Perfection is never the goal, but you do need to assert some control because the foods that are attractive to us are not necessarily healthy.
1. The Strict Diet.
You eat a Strict Diet when you want to change your body. Americans most often are trying to shed a spare tire, and fit into clothes that got too tight. You might have to get strict to get your skin to clear up, or to treat a case of SIBO (small intestinal bowel overgrowth) or dysbiosis after taking antibiotics.
Some people get extremely strict with their diets when they get cancer, and others are strict because they want to live a long time, or optimize athletic performance.
Strict diets can have radical effects. People who eat all fresh raw vegetable foods can see their white or gray hair turn back to the color it was when they were younger. Recent studies have shown that fasting actually resets your cells to live longer, so simply not eating for a while could be the strictest.
If you really want to change your body and health, being strict with your diet is a very powerful tool. The Strict Diet is so potent that it's worth being very careful with, because you can hurt yourself. Some people should absolutely not fast. At the very least, if you're interested in this level of strictness, get the support and guidance of a physician who understands fasting.
2. The Maintenance Diet.
The Maintenance Diet is what you eat to keep feeling good when you already do. When you're young you might be able to maintain on Cheetos but later in life your Maintenance Diet will have to change into a more careful outlook regarding your food choices.
A good maintenance diet contains mostly things that are good for you, but also allows small amounts of things that you love that aren't allowed when you're being strict.
3. The Lax Diet.
The Lax Diet is the exception that makes the rule possible. Laxity is Thanksgiving dinner, when you go back for seconds and have pie for dessert too. It is nachos for dinner, 6 cases of beer on a Grand Canyon trip, or a whole pint of Ben and Jerry's in one sitting.
It's easy to know when you've been too lax. All you have to do is tune in to your body and it will tell you "BLAH, this sucks, I feel awful”.
You probably already have a good idea what your diet levels look like. This next strategy is a way of devising the specifics of your strictest diet for health recovery, and your most enjoyable maintenance diet.
4 Types Of Lists For Specific Foods.
These lists make it simple and adds a sense of clarity for what foods to eat at each level. Start out by creating your own Yes and No Lists. These are for you, nobody else. Put foods in the Maybe List when they don't clearly fit into the other two.
You may also end up with a Never List, but not everybody needs that one. I recommend that you grab that sheet of scrap paper now, make 3 columns and start brainstorming as you read.
1. The Yes List.
The Yes List includes everything that you are sure is good for you, and that you actually like. The Yes List should inspire you to say YES! Ideally the foods on this list will have high nutrient value, and not be empty calories. For me this list contains things like eggs, blueberries, apples, garlic, olive oil, avocados, spinach, broccoli, coconut, pecans, walnuts and fish.
The bigger your Yes List gets, the easier it is to lead a successful Strict Diet, because you have lots of great options that are actually good for you. Unprocessed whole foods that you like belong on this list. This lists serves as the basis for your shopping list and kitchen stores.
If you only keep yes list foods in the house, you will grab something healthy when you go to your kitchen hungry. The only sad thing about the Yes List is that sometimes something that you thought was good unveils its true, unhealthy reality.
Keep your mind open to new ideas. Learning makes improvement possible. If a food you thought was good for you comes into question, put it on the Maybe List and see how it goes.
2. The Maybe List.
The Maybe List is tricky. It has a mixture of foods in it, from tempting but bad for you, to yucky but good for you. I'm not wild about beets and kale, but I know they are good for me. I wish I liked them better. I keep these things on the maybe list to convince me to try them again, and again, until I find a recipe that makes them delicious enough to move to the Yes List.
The Maybe List also contains foods with mixes in value, like chocolate. Chocolate is full of great antioxidants, but it is also full of sugar. For me milk chocolate is a No List item because it is bad for me and it doesn't even taste that great.
Dark chocolate fills my world with joy, and of everything on my Maybe List it is the one that tries to get on the yes list. Many things are on the Maybe List because they're OK in small amounts but bad if you overdo it. Stuff like cheese and crackers, rice and pasta, aren't necessarily evil but are the first to get cut out when you are full on Yes foods.
Maintenance levels of Maybe foods are small portions, either because you're making yourself eat something you don't really like, or because it contains calories or ingredients which don't suit your goals.
3. The No List.
The No List is those foods that are bad for you. The engineering of many popular products have one goal in mind—irresistibility, and when we fill up on them real food doesn't taste good anymore. The ones that you crave are the most dangerous.
Fudge brownies come to mind. They fill the same flavor niche as dark chocolate, but they're jammed with sugar and empty calories. Potato chips are no list items for lots of people. You might sometimes have a little bit of No List food when you are being lax, but don't keep them in the house.
If you determine that you have a stash of a no food, get rid of it. The last thing you need is 24/7 temptations that will make you sick or fat. Research shows that the less we're tempted, the more self-control we have when we're tempted.
If you are going lead the lax way of life and have a No List food, at least keep the portion small. Use a tiny little fork and take miniature bites of a little slice, and it is just as amazing as cramming your face with a giant piece.
4. The Never List.
The Never List is a special category for foods that you know for sure make you sick. A person with celiac disease must not ever have wheat, rye or barley, so never means Never. This designation isn't as absolute for every food and every person.
You might put something on your never list because it makes you sick now, and try it again 10 years later only to find that you can tolerate it. Our bodies change over time.
As you learn more about food, you will learn more about yourself. Your levels and lists will evolve. It's not that hard to create a reasonable diet for yourself and stick to it.
Perhaps the hardest part is admitting that something is not good for us when we've been eating/drinking it a long time. Soda pop isn't good for anyone, whether diet or sugary, but it is addictive just like many junk foods. Breaking your addictions takes a real effort, and nobody can do it but you.
Reducing temptations by shopping strategically is a great first step. You only need the right diet for YOU and it doesn't need to reach the unrealistic perfection levels of anyone else.
This article was originally published at Fundamental Medicine's email newsletter. Reprinted with permission from the author.