It seems that there is almost always some new popular diet advice making its way through the media. Sometimes the adoration of these foods or diets last for years, and other times, their popularity begins to wane after only a few months. Some people find great success on these diets, but others do not seem to have the same experience. All of this creates confusion for the average person…and many healthcare professionals as well.
With so many studies on diet and lifestyle, you would think by now we should know of a universal diet that works for everyone. There are food patterns such as the Mediterranean diet with studies spanning decades that continually demonstrate a positive link to wellness, including reduced risk of obesity, increased lifespan, and reduced chronic illness, while food patterns like the Western diet or SAD (standard American diet) continually show the opposite: they contribute to the development of these diseases. Other food patterns, such as the low-carb diet, Paleo diet, vegan/vegetarian diets, and others also have studies demonstrating positive results.
But, is there really one way of eating that works for everyone? Where can we even begin to break down this massive topic about the best way of eating? Let’s take a closer look at some of the components and see what conclusions may be drawn.
Universal Diet vs. Personalized Nutrition
To begin with the debate over whether there is one perfect diet for everyone, we must begin by defining what I mean by universal diet and personalized diet, at least in terms of this blog article.
By universal diet, I am talking about the idea that there is one way that is best for everyone to eat. To put it simplistically, there are general standards or guidelines that everyone should follow for optimal health. For example, the idea that everyone should eat a vegetarian, vegan, Mediterranean, gluten-free, keto, or Paleo diet (depending on the person’s adherence to a particular diet dogma) would be considered supporting the idea of a universal diet. Strictly following the standard nutrition and diet plans set by the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services, WHO, or another government or organization could also fall under this category.
Personalized nutrition takes a different look at eating for weight loss and/or disease prevention or reversal. In this camp, there is no “best way of eating” for everyone. This concept incorporates the individualized nutrition needs of people based on epigenetics, genetics, family history, metabolic profile, current health, phytochemical profiling, health history, gut microbiome, exercise, work, lifestyle, and other factors that may impact your need for certain macro- and micronutrients (protein, fat, carbs, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals). This may also be known as precision nutrition. Although it may use some basic guidelines or diet patterns (including those listed above) as a foundation, food patterns are tailored to each individual and may incorporate preferences in addition to needs.
So, what is your preference between these two opposing views? Do you believe there is one universal eating pattern, so you try every diet until you find one that works? Or do you choose to individualize your eating pattern, ideally working with a health professional educated and trained in personalized nutrition?
Perhaps rather than continually debating the best way of eating for optimal nutrition, it is time to change the conversation and look at nourishment instead.
Nourishment or Nutrition: What’s the Difference?
What is nourishment, and how does it differ from nutrition or nutrients? Well, the definition from Oxford Dictionary states that nourishment is “the food or other substances necessary for growth, health, and good condition.” You may be thinking, well that doesn’t sound that different than nutrition or nutrients. However, there is a connotation to nourishment that incorporates much more than nutrition, nutrients, or food. For example, nourishment is often used figuratively to talk about feeding the mind or spirit, such as engaging in nourishing activities. Food can nourish you beyond your physical body as well.
How can we create diets that nourish? Looking to the source of food and the complexities that surround the decision as to what ends up on your plate is one way to start.
It is possible to create dietary guidelines that look beyond the nutrients and also consider complete nourishment. Brazil did that in 2014: in addition to advice on choosing foods and avoiding processed foods, concepts such as regular timing of eating, enjoying food, choosing a clean and quiet atmosphere, eating with company, and more were included. These guidelines also address sustainability and culture.
Looking at your reasons behind the logistics of food and eating may be another way to bring nourishment to your table. One way to do this is to try intuitive eating or mindful eating. These two labels are often used interchangeably for a similar concept.
With training in intuitive eating or mindful eating, you learn to get in touch with your body’s cues and signals regarding food, including your hunger and satiation signals. You also become aware of the reactions you may have to food, both positive and negative, to get a better understanding of what foods energize you and support your health, and which you should avoid or eat only occasionally.
Mindful eating also explores the motivations behind eating to help you begin to notice when you might eat for comfort, because you’re stressed, due to your emotions, out of boredom, or some other reason beyond that your body needs the food. It helps reduce the compliance to external triggers for food and instead act on the internal ones. Additionally, it reduces reward-driven eating patterns.
HOW You Eat… Not Just WHAT You Eat
Looking at the reasons why you eat and becoming in tune with your inner guide takes you another step toward nourishment. Mindful eating can help facilitate a more nourishing environment for consuming foods. In addition to meeting your own body’s needs, it also enhances the enjoyment of what you are eating, creating a more pleasurable experience not just with foods known to be tasty but also those with a reputation for being more bland. One study found that a brief mindfulness exercise before eating enhanced participants’ sensory appreciation of chocolate and raisins.
As mentioned, nourishment encompasses much more than just the nutrients your body needs to thrive; it also incorporates other factors that enhance your overall well-being. Therefore, how you eat plays as important—if not more important—role in your health than what you eat. This may include:
- Who you eat with
- Where you eat
- Speed at which you eat
- Feelings when you eat (gratitude, love, sadness, anger, stress, or happiness)
- The person who cooked your food
- Your sensual engagement with your meal
As you can see, there are many areas that can alter your whole experience of how you eat, and these can impact diet quality regardless of your intention to consume a healthy diet.
As Michael Pollan wrote in his In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, “We forget that, historically, people have eaten for a great many reasons other than biological necessity. Food is also about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world, and about expressing our identity. As long as humans have been taking meals together, eating has been as much about culture as it has been about biology.”
Consider the Mediterranean diet for a moment. Although it is packed full with colorful fruits and vegetables, which contribute to the many health factors found in studies, there are often a social components and other lifestyle factors that go along with the nutritious food. Perhaps this may enhance the healthy factors inherent in the food for even greater impact.
Conclusion: Is There a Best Way to Eat?
So, where are we left with the question, is there a best way to eat for everyone? There are many food patterns and diets that have scientific evidence to back up their efficacy for reversing and preventing chronic illnesses and extending longevity and quality of life. Recent studies also point to the benefits of personalized nutrition.
Nutrition is complex, people are complex, and studying nutrition is even more complicated. This makes it hard to have one central answer to what people should eat. Of course, there are a few standard concepts about which most people agree: avoid highly processed foods, consume lots of colorful vegetables and fruit, and focus on real food.
I do not adhere to any central dietary dogma and typically recommend individualized eating patterns, sometimes based on diet patterns or guidelines. You may disagree and think that there is a universal diet and are a proponent of a food pattern that worked for you, and that is okay.
There is no real conclusion to this topic; just the idea that maybe there is more to eating than focusing on the nutritional component of foods and dietary patterns. Sometimes, people can get tied up into finding the perfect diet, going from one to the next never finding a solution.
Continually trying new dietary patterns to find a solution to weight problems or diseases may even lead to disordered eating patterns or a negative relationship with food that takes the joy out of eating. Instead, food just becomes the enemy or something you have to do to have energy, rather than something delicious, colorful, and nourishing to your body and soul.
Perhaps you will find nourishment through changing your mindset and considering how—and why—you eat. This may open up possibilities to finding fulfillment and enjoyment with eating that you never knew existed. Eating is something that is necessary to life, but it does not have to be a chore, boring, or extremely restrictive to also be healthy.