We all know the person who knows a person who is 92, lives on sausages and bread, eats no vegetables, drinks whisky and smokes 20 cigarettes a day. You may well be that person. So with individual experiences like this, and with so many mixed messages from the media, it’s easy to see how people can become confused about what to eat. This information is likely to differ too from that promoted in the Ministry of Health’s recommended dietary guidelines. And if this “one size fits all” approach doesn’t suit everyone, what is the point of having guidelines in the first place?
How much can we rely on personal anecdote, media messages or the public health approach to provide information that is relevant to what is healthy for you?
Great questions. Really difficult to answer.
It’s my opinion that the government has a duty of care to provide food and nutrition guidance for the population based on best available evidence. Whether or not the dietary guidelines provide this is a more in-depth discussion so let’s just park that for another time.
And though I don’t agree with all the dietary guidelines, I think if they were followed by most people most of the time, then we wouldn’t be facing increased rates of diabetes, dental health issues, allergies, metabolic syndrome and neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Oh, and obesity.
However, with too much focus on the latter, we forget that the health implications of what we eat are so much more than an “ideal body size”. Honing in on maintaining a healthy body weight can give the impression that as long as you are thin, then it doesn’t matter what you eat. That is just absolutely not the case. At all. But I digress.
The problem is that these guidelines are extremely difficult to follow in the disease-promoting environment where we live. Cheap, accessible, nutrient-devoid food is on every street corner — especially in the lower sociodemographic parts of our society. I don’t think the answer is to get rid of the main players who are in the business of selling food, not health. Instead there needs to be an intervention at a higher level using strategies that work to help reduce the impact of these foods.
Right now, advertisements of these foods aren’t well regulated. The geographic location of fast food outlets and dairies isn’t regulated (often very close to schools). Additional taxes on foods we know are junk food aren’t in place. Regulation is a dirty word to some, but likely, given time, it would make a difference to the population’s health outcomes.
But all of that said, it doesn’t tell you if following the recommendations would be the healthiest approach for you. Despite what the dietary guidelines tell us, what your paleo, vegan or “moderation365” rules deem, or what your friends tell you, the food that keeps YOU healthy can’t be determined by any “one size fits all” approach. And some of the very smart people I follow in nutrition have proposed a different way to think about a “healthy diet” that isn’t based on what we see on a plate.
We can’t determine what is a “balanced meal” or “balanced diet” for anyone from this information. It can only be determined by how the food that is on the plate (regardless of what it is) affects the individual.
So if there were any “dietary rules” to follow, these four key things would be them, and they would apply to everyone:
- You want to consume enough dietary carbohydrate that allows you to be able to regulate your blood sugar levels effectively.
- You want to consume enough protein so you're able to preserve your muscle mass.
- You want to consume enough fat for satiety.
- You want to base the above dietary principles on a foundation of non-starchy vegetables of all colours that supply you with plenty of fibre and micronutrients to support the physiological processes that keep you healthy for the long term.
And that will differ from person to person, and even be different for an individual day-to-day based on other lifestyle factors that affect blood sugar control and muscle mass preservation (these factors might include a stressful job situation, or an illness or infection). Some practical tips for figuring out if your diet is a balanced one? Well you can certainly test blood glucose monitoring around meals, body composition or strength tests through a qualified personal trainer.
However, your diet is not balanced if you
- are struggling with energy levels
- need to eat every two hours or you'll be "hangry"
- are unable to concentrate at work
- are forgetful with people's names or dates of events that you used to have no trouble remembering
- are always hungry
- fall asleep after lunch
- have an accumulation of body fat around the middle
- are "good" all day but no amount of food at night can make you feel satisfied.
Even tracking your baseline nutrient intake using a smart phone app such as Easy Diet Diary or My Fitness Pal is a good first step to seeing where you are at now. Then getting the help of a professional to dial in where the problems might lie — and how to tweak to find your perfect diet.
Kind of simple, huh? You can see, then, shifting our thinking about a “healthy diet” from a “what’s on the plate” point of view to a “what’s going on inside” point of view is a relatively digestible approach and the best way to nail your balanced diet. It is probably something we can all agree on.
Through her subscription service of meal plans andnutritional support, nutritionist Mikki Williden helpspeople manage their diets in an interesting way, at alow cost. Find out more at mikkiwilliden.com.