In my work, there is often a lot of disagreement over what the “healthiest diet” is, or the “best way” to eat. Of course there a variety of answers to these questions, but there are clear sets of scientifically supported guidelines for diet and exercise. Yet, with so many people taking on the role of “nutrition expert,” the diet industry continues to grow each year and is a multi billion dollar (yes, billion) industry, promising quick fixes and “new diets.” Do you fall prey to eating poorly from April through December, and then fall into a fad diet trap in the new year?
In general, a healthy diet is without question:
- Balanced for carbohydrate, fat and protein
- Limited in saturated fat, but adequate in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat
- Low in sodium
- High in fiber — full of whole fruits and vegetables
- Low in sugar — but not sugar-free
- Providing adequate calories for maintenance of a healthy weight, which also includes getting enough — and most likely, more — daily physical activity
People are often motivated to “go on diets” not because of health; they just really want to look hot in their jeans (who doesn’t?). Weight control is important to health, however, so if getting into a pair of jeans is what motivates you, go for it.
On the other hand, weight control is an every day obligation that mostly involves managing habitual behaviors. If behavior change wasn’t so difficult, there would be no obesity epidemic. Eating habits are generally formed at a young age but can be fine-tuned as adults. While you may have little control over your God-given body shape, or the natural spare tire that forms in middle age, you do have control over how much weight you gain as you age, and how fit you are, and the types of foods and beverages you consume.
During the holiday season (and all year actually), I like to focus more on “healthy habits” as opposed to arguments over which “diet” or which food is best.
- Stick to a healthy breakfast routine — such as oatmeal with fruit, a slice of whole wheat toast with an egg, or whole grain cereal with low fat milk.
- Enjoy your favorite holiday treats, but eat a “taste” and small portions of them.
- Plan an hour a day of physical activity. Schedule it now.
- Take an extra walk whenever possible. Bring a flashlight and get everyone outside for a fun family walk around the block after dinner, even if it’s just a 15 minute one.
- Weigh yourself a couple of times a week to be sure your weight stays stable.
- Cook from scratch. Not only will it taste better, but it will be better for you.
- Find ways to add fruits and vegetables to your holiday celebrations. A simple fruit or raw veggie plate can help you and your guests get more fiber and healthy antioxidants into the diet, while also helping control portions on high calorie foods. Pack an apple for your next shopping trip.
- Throw in the towel after one bad day (or meal) of eating.
- Get down on yourself for a missed exercise session — just fit it in the next day or hour that you can.
- Skip meals or starve yourself before a party (or ever).
- Over-buy at the grocery store. Make a list, and stick to it. Resist the urge to “stock up” on packaged items such as crackers, holiday candies or cookies, or frozen snacks.
The truth about diet and nutrition is complicated. Please don’t preach about how the way you eat is best, especially if you’ve never taken a biochemistry course. High protein diets, such as the popular “paleo” lifestyle (eating meats, animal products, and vegetables, and shunning dairy, most fruit, and grains), may elicit weight loss initially, but for most people, aren’t sustainable. A balance of complex carbohydrates and dairy foods can have a healthy place in the diet.
If you host someone who has “gone paleo” this holiday season, try to be patient. Don’t try to convince them to eat otherwise (even though this is a scientifically unfounded diet that applauds copious amounts of bacon but keeps dairy, legumes, starchy vegetables, fruit juice, grains, and all sweets, on the “not allowed” list. There is good research, however, that saturated fat is linked to both heart disease and cancer, and more recent research is exploring its link to brain health). Let them do their thing as long as they don’t pronounce it as the only way to eat.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) published a position paper entitled Total Diet Approach to Healthy Eating at eatright.org, which was just updated in February. It states, “It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that the total diet or overall pattern of food eaten is the most important focus of healthy eating. All foods can fit within this pattern if consumed in moderation with appropriate portion size and combined with physical activity.”
That sums it up. Enjoy the season with good, wholesome food, moderate portions and plenty of exercise. Happy holidays.