Aside from focusing on eating real food, I always tell others that the most important factor in eating well is listening to your body. In today’s post I’m diving deep into the topic of what the the healthiest diet is, and what I personally eat.
Over the years I’ve been asked the question: “Meghan, what do you think about this diet or that diet?”
The world of nutrition is complex and differing opinions make for a whole lot of confusion. And if I’m being honest, I doubt there will ever be an absolute consensus on this topic. I do believe, though, that every professional out there sharing quality information is correct to some degree and while there’s a ton of conflicting information regarding what the healthiest diet is, there’s also a lot of harmonious information, too.
The topic of what the healthiest diet is or even pin-pointing any one particular diet and sharing my perspectives on it publicly is something I’ve intentionally chosen to avoid because I prefer not to go down the controversy rabbit hole. But I also think it’s important for me to share my thoughts on diets as a whole because, well, it’s part of what I do for a living as a holistic nutritionist! Analyze diets. Prioritize health. Stay up to date on the latest nutrition research. And while I’d be a fool to sit here and state that I have all the answers — which I do not — I do know that there are a few basic diet characteristics that most of us can generally agree on when it comes to optimal health.
Characteristics of a Healthy Diet
- High vegetable and fruit intake (plant diversity)
- Low sugar, flour, and refined carbohydrate intake
- Avoidance of highly processed foods that contain simulated flavours, colours, or trans fats
- Balanced intake of healthy fats (e.g. omega 3, 6 and 9)
- If animal products are consumed, grass-fed or pasture-raised is better than factory farmed
- Organic and free of pesticides, antibiotics, and added hormones
There is no doubt that a diet that consists primarily of whole vegetables, fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, mushrooms and other plant foods, is of utmost importance for human health. These foods contain specific compounds such as polyphenols and fibres that fuel our cells, prevent oxidative damage, and feed the immensely critical and intricate bacteria that reside in our colon (our gut microbiome), not to mention help to prevent cancers and other diseases.
Animal-based foods such as eggs, fish, meats, organ meats (e.g. liver), etc. also contain plenty of bioavailable nutrients like iron, zinc, amino acids, b12, and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s not to say that these nutrients cannot be found in the plant kingdom, because they can, but many animal-derived nutrients are much more readily available.
The consumption of animal products is probably the most controversial aspect of the human diet. There’s no shortage of fiery opinion on this matter and I’m well aware of that. Some camps are absolutely 100% against the consumption of any type of animal product whatsoever, whereas others welcome it abundantly.
Again, I’m not saying I have all the answers here, but one way to consider this is how closely related we are to primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas. Great apes eat mostly vegetarian — stems, bamboo shoots, leaves, fruits — but sometimes small mammals and insects. Our digestive systems are very similar, not to mention our DNA (a homology of more than 98% in chimpanzees!) But great apes aside, evolutionarily speaking, humans also thrive on eating primarily plant foods.
That being said, I don’t think there’s strong enough evidence to suggest that including a little bit of unprocessed meat in your diet, alongside a plethora of plant foods, is unhealthy or a cause for illness. The development of illness is generally not a simple, straightforward thing. Disease develops as a result of many factors: stress, exposure to toxins, genetics, damage to gut barrier and/or microbiome, poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle choices, to name a few. It’s complex stuff. But like anything, too much is not a good thing, and this goes for plant and animal foods alike. You could be a junk food meat-eater just as much as you could be a junk food vegan. Neither of which are good for you.
We can also consider what’s known as the Blue Zones — 5 places around the world where people consistently live over 100 years old — in which mostly plant foods and small amount of animal foods make up their diet. But these communities aren’t the stars of longevity because of diet alone, but because of several other factors. They move their bodies regularly (some walking 5 mountainous miles a day or more), they have purpose in life, they manage their stress, they don’t overeat, they belong to some kind of faith, they prioritize family, they have good friends, and some even drink alcohol moderately!
We humans love complicating things. I do it all the time! But when it comes to eating well, it really is simple: eat real, unprocessed food with a primary emphasis on plants (as a recap, this includes vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, mushrooms and other plant foods like legumes). Anything that strays from this basic concept, such as lots of highly processed animal, plant, or sugar-laden foods, diverts you away from a state of optimal health.
Bio-individuality is a term that was coined several years ago that means there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to diet. Everybody has individual nutritional requirements, microbiomes, health histories, metabolisms, and body compositions that influence dietary needs. Essentially, it’s the idea that the foods that make you feel good for your unique body may not be best for someone else.
If we want to add even more to the equation, we also all have different socioeconomic statuses, preferences, upbringings, and circumstances. All of this makes achieving “the perfect one-diet for every single person on the planet” next to impossible. It’s obvious that there are limitations to what humans can and cannot eat from a biological perspective, and that a standard diet intended for human anatomy and physiology exists to some degree, but differences will continue to exist between each of us because of that bio-individuality.
In any case, aside from focusing on eating real food, I always tell others that the most important factor in eating well is listening to your body. Having a good understanding of what foods make you feel great and which ones simply do not. This may be as simple as using a food journal to gain these insights or it may mean going a step further and working with a practitioner to help you uncover the root causes of your health concerns. Either which way, what matters most is that we aren’t prescribing ourselves to one single label that we have to live up to, but instead consuming foods that make us thrive (and help us achieve better health if needed).
While I don’t believe that there’s truly one specific diet to be followed — aside from the general guidelines of eating lots of fresh, whole, unadulterated foods as discussed earlier — I do believe that some specific diets can be followed under unique circumstances. There are many therapeutic diets that can be very beneficial for some:
- Elimination diets are useful when trying to uncover food sensitivities, allergies, or intolerances
- Gluten-free diets are necessary for those with Celiac Disease or a sensitivity
- The avoidance of certain foods is essential for those with severe allergies (e.g. peanuts)
- AIP (Autoimmune Paleo) can be useful for those with autoimmune conditions
- Low FODMAP diets can be very helpful temporarily for many IBS-sufferers (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)
Dietary modifications are necessary at certain times, and we all do it whether we realize it or not. If you have the flu, you bet you tend to eat differently. Likewise if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, if you’re an athlete, if you’re traveling, or if you’re on certain medications. But all in all, I think we can at least mostly conclude that eating real food and listening to your body both help to create your healthiest diet. If for you that means eating exclusively plant-based, then that’s great! If it means eating some animal protein, then that’s great too! Both ways of eating can be healthy.
The Diet I Follow
So, what diet do I follow? I focus on eating what makes me feel my best. As such, I do not follow any particular kind of label. But that’s not to say I never have!
I’ve been vegan, raw vegan, vegetarian, and strict paleo. I’ve also been on an AIP diet, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), and low FODMAP diet. This is because I’ve struggled with IBS after having gastroenteritis (you can read more about my C. diff story here) which warranted some of these dietary interventions. If you’re subscribed to my YouTube channel, you’d know that many of my recipe and food-related videos over the past couple of years have been largely paleo-focused.
But all labels aside, my diet consists of vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, nuts, seeds, eggs, fish, and other meats. I do not consume dairy and I’m predominantly gluten-free. Sometimes I’ll eat grains or legumes but I do not thrive on these kinds of foods as too much of them tend to cause a flare up for me (abdominal pain and bad acne breakouts).
Is this to say that I could never thrive on a 100% plant-based diet? Maybe, maybe not. Things change, circumstances change, and our bodies change all throughout life. I stick to what makes me feel my best, and yes, I also allow some wiggle room to enjoy myself! Because something that we easily forget about is the effect that stress has on our body and digestion, including the worrying-about-every-little-thing-I-eat kind of stress. It’s easy to slip into obsessive thinking over what we eat (myself included), and that isn’t healthy for us, either.
I would love to hear from you. What kind of “diet” do you follow? (And please, keep all comments respectful! 🙂