If you follow nutrition news even a little bit, then you know that the latest and greatest information often seems to contradict previously indisputable facts. One day eggs are dangerous because of the naturally-occurring cholesterol in the yolk and the next they are a super food touted for protein quality. One week salt intake is considered the enemy of blood pressure and the next week studies are showing that low sodium levels can lead to a heart attack or stroke. How is it possible that science can give such disparate results?
The fact is, human nutrition is an incredibly complex science. We begin to realize just how complicated it is when we consider the following:
- Each food has multiple nutrients that interact with each other.
- Everyone’s body is different due to genetics and epigenetics (changes in the genome not caused by DNA).
- The environment is constantly changing, from both macro and micro perspectives.
- All of these factors have an impact on the others.
Many RDs and nutrition-minded healthcare professionals believe there is not one universally perfect diet for everyone. Instead, finding an individual’s optimal way of eating requires a personalized approach.
These 4 steps can help you identify your ideal diet:
1) Recognize that your physiology matters.
Consider this: in order for glucose (a simple carbohydrate) to be turned into energy once it enters a cell, it must go through an 18-step process. Each step requires an enzyme (a catalyst for a reaction in the body) and many require one or more vitamins and minerals to proceed.
So, what happens if you don’t absorb a certain vitamin well? Or what if your body doesn’t make as much of one of the enzymes as someone else’s body? And how complex does this become when we consider all of the nutrients and not just glucose?
Rather than being overwhelmed by the possibilities, you can start by paying attention to what happens in your body after eating. Over time, you will become aware of which foods make you feel good or bad, and then you can adjust your eating accordingly. If you are really curious, you can work with a doctor or dietitian (like me!) who specializes in functional medicine or functional medical nutrition therapy in order to pinpoint your nutrition-related physiology.
2) Learn to eat healthfully within your preferences.
As an RD, I am aware that avocados are a very healthy food with large amounts of monounsaturated (healthy!) fats, fiber, multiple vitamins, and other micronutrients that protect against disease and inflammation. That being said, I don’t like the taste of avocados (although I am trying to learn!). Despite being raised in Texas and trying them every once in a while for several years, I haven’t learned to like them.
The good news for me is there are other foods with these same nutrients that I can eat instead. The good news for all of us is there isn’t a single food that holds the monopoly on any one nutrient. By eating a variety of foods, we can get all the nutrients we need even when there are some foods we don’t like.
3) Pay attention to your environment.
The environment in which you live determines what your body is exposed to, what foods you have access to, and even how your body responds to those things as a result of epigenetics. For example, if you live above the 33rd parallel north or below the 33rd parallel south, the sun is too low during the winter months for your body to produce vitamin D, so it is recommended that you consume it in food or supplements.
Despite living in a wide range of habitats, people can thrive in almost any setting. The key is to identify the positives and negatives of your environment so you can make the best food choices possible.
4) Plan your meals and snacks in alignment with your way of life.
If you are a full-time student with two part-time jobs, you may not have time to cook three meals every day. Instead, you may look for fast and easy foods to keep you fueled. If you are a stay at home mom, you probably have a lot of kid friendly foods filling your refrigerator and pantry. If you are an executive who travels a lot, you might find yourself eating out or ordering in quite often.
With some careful planning, it is possible to eat in a way that promotes health regardless of your way of life. The important thing is to recognize the foods you can choose (and make) to fuel your busy day in a convenient and healthy way.
By paying attention to your body, preferences, environment, and lifestyle, you can develop a personalized way of eating that supports and encourages optimal health! After all, this is your life… you should make it personal!