As a nutritionist, I’ve been exposed to (and tried) many, many, many different diet philosophies. Low fat, low carb, low FODMAP, low histamine, Paleo, ketogenic, elimination, detox, fasting - you name it, I’ve probably experimented with it. Through this process, I’ve honed in on what tends to work for myself and for my clients. And, let me tell you - there are as many diet plans as there are people out there.
Eating is one part physical and one part psychological. Our approach marries the science of functional medicine with the psychology of eating to address both of these components. We each come to the table with our own physiologic constitution (e.g. nutrient deficiencies, food sensitivities, food likes / dislikes) as well as our own psychological/emotional context (e.g. why we eat, how eating makes us feel).
Here is where we’ve landed with our food philosophy: Eat real food...that nourishes you...only when hungry...slowly and without distractions.
Let’s break that down.
Eat real food: Whenever possible, reach for food in the form that’s closest to how it’s found in nature.
...That nourishes you: It has been said that “one person’s pleasure is another person’s poison”. This is absolutely true in the world of nutrition, both in terms of food preferences and food sensitivities.
Some of my clients love chocolate, others don’t (I know, I can’t understand it either!). Some of my clients love kombucha, others won’t touch the stuff. We all have our own likes and dislikes when it comes to food. And we need to honor that. Eating foods that you don’t like day after day because it’s supposedly healthy is not nourishing. Eating foods that are indulgent day after day because you feel like it is not nourishing either. Neither approach works for very long. Nourishment is both physical and emotional. Eating food that nourishes you means eating food that satiates you, both physically and emotionally. Sometimes your body craves a big, green salad to sustain you through the day. Sometimes that ice cream sundae on the boardwalk with your family is just what your soul needs. Both desires are valid and you need to make room for both in your life.
I've used a lot of diagnostic testing when working with clients to dial in their nutrition. One of the tests that I've used most frequently is a food sensitivity panel. Many clients were shocked to see the results. “I’m sensitive to banana? I have a banana for breakfast everyday. Kale? I thought kale was supposed to be healthy.” At some level, foods can be classified as healthy (think vegetables) and unhealthy (think fast food). However, on another level, a food’s healthiness is dependent on your unique biochemical blueprint. You may be eating foods that are “healthy” according to popular diet wisdom, but they may be “unhealthy” for your body (e.g. based on your gut health, based on your family history, etc.). This is the real definition of personalized medicine.
...Only when hungry: We reach for food for many reasons, only one of which is physical hunger. Maybe we are bored or lonely or sad...or maybe we are celebrating or reminiscing or experimenting. When we eat for reasons other than physical hunger, we are feeding our soul, not our body. In moderation, this can be a natural and acceptable approach. However, when it is our default approach, it often leads to excess weight and further emotional distress.
Many of us have been taught to ignore or distrust our hunger cues. We have been taught to eat based on external cues rather than internal cues. It’s 9 am - time for breakfast. We pass a bakery shop - we must have that almond croissant in the window. We are served a huge plate of spaghetti - we finish the plate and are stuffed. We eat at certain times of the day. We eat when we see appetizing food. We eat what we’ve been served. That’s just what we do. But, these are all external cues and have nothing to do with our true hunger (the only real internal cue). Tuning into our hunger cues is fundamental to maintaining a healthy weight and relationship to food.
...Slowly and without distractions: As I’ve said before, eating is both a physical and emotional experience. On the physical side, if you eat too quickly, your body doesn’t have time to register the caloric content and nutritional status of the food. We know that it takes an average of 20 minutes for the body to recognize that it’s full. I rarely see anyone who takes 20 minutes to consume their meal (unless we’re out to eat). Most people eat as they run out of the house to work, in the car, at their desks, in between appointments or in front of the TV. Eating quickly is a recipe to overeat because your body just does not have time to process the information you are feeding it (literally!).
On the emotional side, if you rush through a meal or eat while distracted, you likely won’t feel satisfied. If you go to a sports game with friends but spend the entire time on the phone with work, are you likely to enjoy the experience? If you are hanging out with your children but you’re worried about all of the errands you have to run, are you likely to enjoy the experience? Likely not...and the same thing applies to food. We enjoy experiences in proportion to our level of presence. (The Art of Living has a great introductory course on this very topic if you want to learn more.) You cannot enjoy the body if you are not in the body; quiet down, tune in and get present.
In the world of consulting, we employed the 80 / 20 principle, which says that 80 percent of your outcomes come from 20 percent of your inputs. For our purposes, this just means that focusing on a few practices give you the biggest bang for your buck. Instead of trying to optimize 97 things in your search for the perfect diet, focus on these four. More than likely, you will get 80% of the way there.
No food philosophy is perfect. However, we find it helpful to put some guardrails around this conversation of how to approach eating (we will approach "what" to eat to optimally support fertility as well but this food philosophy still applies). Take what works for you and leave the rest.