Unlike our great-grandmothers, we’re not typically surprised when we hear that a person is doing the “Insert-Title-Here” diet.
We instantly know that the individual will be bound by specific rules and restrictions. But it’s possible, given the fluid and changeable nature of the needs of our bodies, of our situations, our ages and stages, that slavishly adhering to a diet-with-a-name may have its pitfalls, and that letting go of the security of the ‘named' diet might be a better way to eat in the long-term.
Frequently, named diets become a trend. High-protein, low-protein, high-fat, low-fat - and so on. Beverly Hills, Pritikin, Atkins, and so many others. We hear about a new study, a book, some good results on the part of a high profile individual, and we all want to try it out.
Trends and whims aside, some diets are eaten because of innate ethical or religious beliefs, or specific medical conditions. These are highly-specific or limited diets like the Edenic, Halal, Kosher, Vegan, 100-Mile, Gluten-Free, Dialysis, DASH, or Specific Carbohydrate diets. Typically, people eating these types of diets are backed by a strong, supportive community (either social or medical), which knows how to handle the specific nutritional needs and potential pitfalls associated with a very limited diet. In these cases, the diet in itself is not the point - the world view, belief or medical condition is the reason for the diet.
There’s a sort of neatness to a very specific type of eating, and many people prefer this. If the diet has a name then we understand the rationale. We’re familiar with the ‘alloweds’ and the ‘not-alloweds’, and sometimes it’s a relief to let go and just follow the rules.
When it comes to speedy weight loss, we crave novelty.
The thought of losing the belly before the vacation is enticing. Most of us, at one time or another, have fallen for the promise of a rapid result. We’ve suffered and gagged our way through diets like Cabbage Soup, The Israeli Army Diet, The Cookie Diet, and the Master Cleanse; we’re sisters-in-arms, and we’ve got our war stories.
These kinds of diets are, for the most part, exceedingly short-term situations (usually less than a week) that don’t really have an impact on our health, simply because they’re not intended to be a lifestyle. They’re basically fasting, with a bow on the top. Any weight lost makes a speedy return. And nobody is surprised.
When it comes to long-term diets pursued for lifestyle and health rather than dramatic, ooh-la-la weight-loss (and I’m thinking of Oprah with her famous wagon full of fat right now), there are hundreds of quite specific ways to eat, which very clearly benefit and suit some individuals, but not others.
Named diets like the Alkaline, Blood Type, Raw, Paleo, Okinawa, Low-Carb-High-Fat, Vegan and many, many others are the subject of passionate debate, from full-blown support to the complete and contemptuous dismissal of any scientific or anecdotal evidence to support the claims of their benefits.
Like a stopped clock which is right twice a day, all of these eating styles are absolutely perfect for some, and the antithesis of perfect for others. For example, while many individuals live happily on a vegan or raw vegan diet, eating a completely plant-based diet doesn’t automatically result in weight loss and unlimited energy for everybody. Without careful attention, it’s possible to gain weight because of too many nuts and juices, or refined (but animal-free) junk foods. Some people don’t enjoy or thrive on the higher fat levels typical of very low-carb diets, while others enjoy the reduced appetite that results from this eating style.
There are universal guidelines found in almost all of the ‘named’ diets. Fresh green vegetables, hydration, sufficient protein to maintain muscle mass, and avoiding highly-processed foods are at the core of every health-promoting style of eating.
The problem with the Diet-with-a-Name is the psychological risk involved.
With the exception of diets practiced for ethical, religious or medical reasons, as soon as it has a name, the diet is associated with the concepts of being ‘on’ or ‘off’, of 'succeeding’ or ‘failing’. Many people have difficulty with deviating from a set plan, for whatever reason. They may believe that they are cheating at best, and failing at worst. This is risky territory for anyone who has ever found themselves experiencing feelings of perfectionism or failure, or of overreacting after being on a restrictive diet.
A named diet may not fulfill all of your nutritional needs, or it may provide an excess. Did the person who designed the diet take your unique and individual requirements into account? Depending on your situation, your needs will vary from day to day. What’s your level of activity, and stress? What season is it? Are you male, female, young, old, recovering from surgery, in love, menstruating, diabetic, running a marathon, pregnant, or in mourning? Do you have allergies or sensitivities? All of these variations (and a million more) dictate the cellular and chemical needs of the body, and therefore, what you need to eat, to not only survive, but thrive.
Instead of putting a name on the diet (and let’s remember that the original definition of the word ‘diet’ is ‘the food a person habitually eats’), let’s simply refer to it as “what’s best for me today”. Instead of looking for rules, let’s make food choices based on our needs at the time.
It may be that “what’s best for me today” mirrors a named diet, like Raw. And that’s just fine - because if you’re thriving and contented, then you’ve got it. Tomorrow, though, what’s best may be something different, something not on the Raw list. But if it’s meeting a need, depending on your situation, then it IS on the ‘What’s Best For Me Today” list.
When eating in this way, you’re neither ‘on’ nor ‘off’, and the pressure of perfectionism is greatly reduced. Nutritionally, you’re getting what you need, at the time that you need it. You’re no longer soldiering on while craving a nutritious food that would help to get you through your day.
If you have specific issues to address, take the time to consult with a nutritionist, an RD, or a health coach, who will take the time to get to know you, and guide you on your best choices.
Our great-grandmothers wouldn’t bat an eyelid if we told them we were eating “what’s best for me today”. Because of course, as styles of eating go, they invented it.
By Sandy Cowell, CNC
Sandy Cowell is a health coach and nutritionist. She is originally from New Zealand, and has been working in Palo Alto California for six years. She is the author of ‘The Forgiving Fork - The Kiwi Girls’ Guide to Eating Well and Feeling Fine’.