I recently submitted my ratings for the U.S. News & World Report Best Diets 2013. I am part of a panel that was asked to judge how well the diets worked for weight loss; whether they could reduce risks for cardiovascular disease and diabetes; whether they were safe and nutritionally adequate and easily adopted.
As panelists, we were asked to rate four diets: Engine 2, Traditional Asian, Flexitarian and the Anti-Inflammatory. What went into my thinking when I rated the diets?
While I looked at the safety profile of each, a key ingredient was ability to maintain the dietary pattern long term. Can these diets be integrated into one’s life? Do these diets need special, expensive, or hard- to- find ingredients or supplements? Is the diet limited to a few food groups (‘twigs and nuts’?) More importantly how are individuals motivated to stay on track?
Looking at the four diets, we seem to have a lopsided mix. The Engine 2 diet eliminates foods such as dairy, animal products including eggs and fish as well as processed foods. The Anti-Inflammatory diet limits animal protein, except for oily fish. The other diets don’t eliminate food groups, but emphasize a plant-based diet. The Traditional Asian diet allows daily intake of fish and more limited intake of poultry and meat. The Flexitarian diet allows meat, fish and poultry as an accompaniment to the vegetarian meal as opposed to serving as the focal point of the meal. In general, food restrictions make it more difficult for long term adherence. Limiting protein foods may have an adverse impact on functional status for the elderly. As for weight loss, certainly a plant-based diet is lower in calories and is effective for weight loss and reduction of risks for heart disease and diabetes; however, when thinking about diets as a long term lifestyle pattern, these restrictions limit enthusiasm because they may not be sustainable. These fine distinctions between diets affect the score. More importantly only one diet (Engine 2) mentioned a motivational component and I am not sure how motivation was maintained long-term among participants.
So where does that leave us—what is the ideal diet? For the survey, I ranked the Flexitarian and Traditional Asian diets higher than the other two. However, that does not necessarily mean that’s the best choice for you.
When I am asked: “What is the best diet?” I ask, “What is your day like? What do you eat; when do you eat? Whom do you eat with? How do you feel? Are you lethargic or energetic? Do you have enough energy to go through the day? How strong does your body feel? When are you at your best?”
Any change in behavior such as eating requires a major change in habits. Routines are difficult to break because the body is programmed to keep old habits. As such we don’t think about routine activities we do everyday such as combing our hair or finding our way home. Imagine combing your hair in an entirely new way—you would need to think about holding the comb differently and anticipating the next step. You would need to practice every day to get the new way perfect. And there is a certain time of day when you are at your best when you comb your hair! So timing is important. Eating or sleeping at different times from one day to the next, throws off the body’s clock. The same analogy holds with a new diet. You need a ROADMAP that can help you navigate the new way and anticipate problem periods so you can build new healthy habits that work well with your body clock. So here are my top tips for healthy eating:
- Sleep and eat at consistent times
- Eat most of your meals during the day when you are active
- Avoid eating close to bed-time; eat your last large meal preferably four hours before bed-time
- Reduce stress
- Find your inner motivation through friends, family, spirituality and professionals, if needed
- Find a tracking system to monitor your new lifestyle. I personally like The Super Tracker: www.choosemyplate.gov that was developed to complement the U.S. Dietary Guidelines 2010. But there are plenty of others. These tools are a great way to track your diet and physical activity
Best wishes for a new year of healthy habits!