At the end of every new year and the beginning of the next, we witness a flood of ads on television and the internet about the latest diet programs, weight loss pills and exercise equipment. It can be overwhelming and a bit intimidating to hear and see those ads everywhere you turn, especially if you are not looking to lose weight.
Nonetheless, these messages can have you thinking about your eating habits and your exercise routine. It can have you asking yourself if you’ve done enough to keep yourself healthy. You may become tempted to head toward the quickest “fix” to help you lose weight. Typically, such fad-type diets involve restriction and are so extreme that they are hard for many to maintain. These types of eating plans are not what you want to start if you strive to have long-term health results.
However, if you do want to change the way you eat, regardless of your short- or long-term health goals, you may wonder which diet is best for you. In this article, we’ll discuss what defines a healthy diet, which diets were determined to be best and worst this past year, and how you can decide which diet is best for you and your health goals.
A healthy diet is different for everyone. This is because we all have different health conditions, allergies, food intolerances, and nutrient needs based on size, activity level and metabolism. Therefore, whatever way of eating feels best for you and helps you stay your healthiest inside and out is a healthy diet for you.
However, regardless of your health status or nutritional needs, a balanced diet that will work for most people. The basics of such a balanced diet will be explained in more detail later.
Each year, U.S. News and World Report magazine comes out with its ranking for the best diets and explains what factors make each eating plan the best or worst. For 2022, the best eating plan, or diet, for the fifth year in a row, is the Mediterranean diet. This eating plan consists of plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and lean proteins. Basic tenets of the Mediterranean diet include:
In addition to such nutritional guidelines, the Mediterranean diet also stresses the importance of eating meals with loved ones and being physically active often.
Research shows that the Mediterranean diet provides various health benefits such as:
It is thought that such benefits are the result of the antioxidant polyphenols, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids and/or fiber in the Mediterranean diet.
Now, there were a few diets in the bottom of the rankings. However, the one that is most well-known for its trendiness in weight loss culture is the keto diet. The ketogenic diet rankings reveal that experts thought this eating plan was extreme, hard to follow and comply with, too strict with its carbohydrate limitations and not very heart healthy.
If you’re not familiar with the keto, or ketogenic diet, it’s basically an extremely low carbohydrate diet that involves eating a moderate amount of protein and a whole lot of fat. It stresses eating both healthy, unsaturated fats like avocado, fatty fish and nuts, for example, as well as saturated fats like whole milk dairy products and fatty meats. No fatty food is off limits. This eating routine also requires limiting intake of added sugars from processed foods like sugary drinks, candy and prepackaged foods.
The basic tenets of the ketogenic diet include:
The diet works by forcing the body to provide an alternate source of energy known as ketone bodies. These ketones replace glucose as a primary source of energy once you deprive the body of carbohydrates. This way of eating was originally designed for those with seizure disorder, of which the mechanism is not clear.
This diet may produce some weight loss, but there are various potential adverse effects noted by researchers including:
Short-term symptoms, also known as the keto flu which lasts a few weeks, include:
Long-term adverse effects include:
When deciding which eating plan is going to work best for your specific health goals, you should consider the following factors:
Your medical history will be a vital key in figuring out what eating plan works best for you. If you have diabetes, for example, you should reduce the amount of sugar you eat daily and you should distribute your intake of carbohydrates throughout the day. And if you have high blood pressure or heart disease, you will want to limit your intake of sodium. This means low-salt foods, more whole versus prepackaged foods and less added salt, for example.
If you’re not sure what dietary changes your current health status requires, it can help to visit a registered dietitian who specializes in treating those with similar health issues.
Another crucial piece in figuring out what eating plan is best for you is whether or not you have any food allergies or intolerances. For example, if you are allergic to nuts and dairy, then planning your protein sources will be more challenging. Therefore, you will want to make sure you consume adequate protein from meats, fish, and seafood or plant-based proteins like beans, legumes or soy proteins like tofu.
On the other hand, if you cannot tolerate cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli, then you will want to avoid eating programs that focus on leafy greens as their primary source of fiber. Foods that are “healthy” for one person, may not be a healthy choice for someone else. We are all different and our bodies all have slightly diverse needs and tolerances.
Along with making sure you choose an eating plan your body can tolerate physically, it’s vital you choose an eating plan that contains foods you like to eat. You should never start an eating plan that gives you no choice but to eat a specific set of foods with no flexibility. In addition to this, you should never force yourself to eat foods you don’t like because someone told you that they are good for you. This way of eating is not healthy for your overall well-being since food is meant to be enjoyed.
You can still eat healthy and eat foods you enjoy. This may take a visit with a registered dietitian to help you do, but it is possible. If you enjoy eating foods that are healthy for you, then you will be more likely to stick with this type of eating plan for the longer term. And if you are able to eat healthy for the longer term, your body will reap more health benefits.
The next thing to consider when you decide which eating plan to follow is your long-term health goals. If you want to have healthier digestion, then focus on fiber-rich and antioxidant-rich foods. Depending on the digestive symptoms or previous digestive issues you may have, you may also want to reduce fatty foods and/or certain fruits and vegetables that cause digestive discomfort.
Or, if you want to reduce your risk of heart disease, then limit sodium and saturated fats in your diet. If however, you want to train for a running race, then make sure you follow an eating plan that provides plenty of healthy carbohydrate intake each day.
Your nutrient needs will differ depending on what health goals you want to achieve.
If you don’t have any specific health goals you want to achieve, then a balanced diet may help you simply feel better. The basics of a balanced eating plan include:
But there are exceptions to these basic rules since some people with fat malabsorption issues such as those with post gallbladder removal, liver issues or inflammatory bowel diseases cannot eat a lot of fat. Furthermore, those with heart disease may have to limit fat and sodium intake, and those with kidney disease may have to limit sodium, high potassium foods like dairy products and high phosphorus foods like whole grain products.
When you are ready to start looking for an eating plan to try, it’s vital to look out for any red flags that may show a certain eating plan is a fad diet. A fad diet, in simple terms, is one that is trendy because of its claims, but is not necessarily healthy. Red flags of a fad diet include:
A healthy eating plan will have plenty of support by health experts, will include all major nutrients and will not claim to cure any disease, since no food plan alone has that power.
The best way to start changing the way you eat is one step at a time. Instead of starting to change your eating by cutting out certain foods, start out by adding certain nutrients. For example, start by adding one cup of vegetables to your eating routine each day, or have fruit as a snack instead of from the vending machine. By adding one new healthy eating habit each week, over time, you will transform your eating into a balanced diet that is easy for you to stick to.
And eating healthy doesn’t mean cutting out your favorite foods. The best eating plan is one that you can stick with for the long term. Therefore, enjoy a dessert for special occasions and avoid cutting any foods out of your possibilities unless you are allergic or intolerant to them or unless your health status requires cutting out certain foods.
If you don’t know where to start, visit your health care provider and insurance company for resources. If covered by your insurance, set up a visit with a registered dietitian to help you decide which eating plan works best for you. And if needed, they can help you customize a way of eating that will fit all your needs and will be easy for you to follow for the long run.
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