Wednesday, 27 January 2016

The Diet for You

Maybe you made a New Year's resolution, and as part of that, you thought to go on a diet. Maybe you have a bit of flab around the midsection to move or barely any fat anywhere on your body - but no muscle, either. Perhaps your blood results came back with high cholesterol or pre-diabetes. Whatever the reason, you decided to go on a diet.

So you go online, to a magazine or a diet book and you are floored by the possibilities: high carb, low carb, high protein, low protein, lettuce only, anything as long as its cabbage soup, high fat, low fat, only green foods...what do you choose? How do you pick among such an enormous array of options? They all promise to give you whatever you want in life, from living to a hundred through to winning Olympic gold and cover-model looks. They all promise great results...but they are not compatible. There is no way to go high and low fat at the same time.

Most of these diets sort of work: if you only eat lettuce, you will lose weight. But you won't live to be a hundred (you'll probably die much sooner than that), you won't gain muscle (you'll lose it), it won't be easy to follow long term (try it for a week and report back, if you like), and so on. For all that, though, if your goal is very rapid weight loss and you have the capacity to eat only lettuce for the (necessarily short-term) time required, then maybe it is the right diet for you at this point.

There is no such thing as the "best diet." There is only the "best diet for your current goals and where you are at right now." This implies two crucial questions: (1) what are your goals? and (2) how do you relate to food?

Your Goals

It makes no sense to adopt a diet for weight loss if you want to gain weight. Similarly, it is unreasonable to expect good results from a diet aimed to lower blood pressure if your blood pressure is low. So the very first question to ask yourself before embarking on a dietary change is what it is you hope to achieve from it - and that will rule out the vast majority of diets which offer differing or even opposite goals. Do you want to lose, gain, or maintain weight? Do you have some kind of malady which you hope to address with the help of improved nutrition? Is there some fitness or performance objective that would guide your diet?

These are the sorts of questions that you need to ask yourself before you can decide on an appropriate diet. There is no use in simply deciding to eat "better", because the very word implies that you have some goal that the diet is better for. Your goals set up a framework within which you can start making value judgements about whether or not a food put in front of you is good or bad. Just as a clocks can be good for telling the time but are terrible for building a house out of, so too is a food good or bad depending on what you want it to do.

Your Relationship with Food

There is more to a diet than whether or not it works on someone generically in your state; will it work for you? There are two important elements to each person's relationship with food which need to be thought of when trying to make dietary changes: how a person relates to food physiologically and psychologically.

Your body may just react differently to one diet compared to another. As an example, for those of us who are lactose intolerant, it would be a pointless (and needlessly painful) experience to increase our high-lactose dairy consumption for our goal, completely independent of whether or not some identical person without the food intolerance would benefit from more dairy. You may have some other food allergy or intolerance. Yet there are finer details to your body's reaction to foods which are less obvious and perhaps even more important; factors such as your own gut microbiome, your sensitivity to (and secretion of) key hormones and even your genes can have crucial roles in how your body responds to food. Not to mention whether you are younger or older, fitter or fatter, male or female, what foods you grew up with and have eaten in the past...your uniqueness and individuality mean that even things that work for most people may not work for you - and the converse can be true! - things that do not work for most people do work for you. One thing you should always remember is that you are not a rat. So there's a good chance the highly developed field of what happens to rats - medicine's favourite test case for doing all sorts of things that would probably not pass an ethics committee for humans - does not apply to you. Keep that in mind next time you hear "science says that..."; science is probably not talking about humans anyway.

It is unlikely that all the myriad of relevant factors will ever be able to be accurately read off from some simple test, but there are ways to figure out what is more or less likely to work for you. You can get blood tests done to measure insulin sensitivity, which may give you some insight into how your body metabolises carbohydrates. The new field of nutrigenetics can give an idea of what your body was built for, so getting a gene test from companies like Nutrigenomix or DNAFit might help you - or it might not, I have never been tested myself so cannot comment. The idea at least is good.

Much more neglected but just as (if not more) important as your physiological relation with food is your psychological one. Even if your body would respond in the way you want it to with the new diet, can you keep to it? Some diets, even if reasonably healthy, seem impossible to some. Some diets seem objectionable on moral or religious grounds to some. Others may find that a particular dietary strategy does not fit in with their current lifestyle or schedule. For purely psychological reasons there may be differences in how frequently and how much a person wants to eat. These examples of psychological differences do not even begin to scratch the surface of possibilities when it comes to the plethora of ways that we relate to food; socially, culturally, as individuals, and so on.

I, for instance, have a minutely fine-tuned and considered diet when I have the liberty to pick and choose by myself, and work pretty well even when food supplies are not quite what I want - but I struggle to be healthy when eating with others. Others I know need to follow dietary plans which allow for less-than-ideal foods from a physiological perspective because, if they fall short in a rigid plan, they are inclined to engage in highly counter-productive behaviour like binge eating. Not everyone is inclined to the all-or-nothing mindset of binge eating, however, so should not be a consideration for everyone.

The Bottom Line

No diet is perfect as such. When making a dietary change, it is important to make a diet that fits your wants, your needs and your unique peculiarities. You should not feel forced into dietary choices because they worked for someone with different goals or because they worked for some statistical average; as an individual, if something is going to work it has to work for you.

The last caveat in closing is to note that, whatever your goal, chances are the reason you have not already achieved what you want is because it is difficult. For all the individual tailoring that must go into a diet for it to work, one thing that is close to guaranteed across the board is that finding and sticking what works for you is going to take effort. Perhaps the biggest reason unsustainable and impractical fad diets are popular is that they promise quick results for everyone in a short amount of time - and the biggest truism about a fad diet is that it fails. Find the diet for you. Stick to the diet for you until you reach your goal. Refine and repeat.

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