“With the ‘wellness world’ forever growing, the pursuit of the ‘healthiest’, perfect diet is at an all-time high. Yet along the way, it seems that just about every food group has been vilified, eating styles criticized and weird concoctions seen as the ‘holy grail’. The nutrition world has become a minefield.” So says Rebecca Jennings, nutritional therapist at the Priory Group’s Arthur House, a newly-opened residential eating disorder service in Wimbledon.
Here, Rebecca explains why – especially on social media – we need to stop tossing around words and phrases that make no nutritional sense, and talk sensibly, and logically, about food.
She says: “We need to eat to survive and yes, while it is great to be mindful of how we nourish ourselves, we also need to have a good relationship with food. Being healthy encompasses so many different things – including our physical and mental state – so how we feel, talk and think about food is important.”
So here’s the bad advice about the perfect diet you should forget
1. Snacking is bad for you
The idea that we have no ‘willpower’ to last between meals is crazy. But so is the idea that we’re unhealthy if we do snack.
We all have different metabolisms, and we all have different lifestyles. Generally, if our bodies are sending us a signal of hunger between meals, it’s because we’re hungry. If we don’t honour our hunger when it’s present, it will come back later on with a bigger vendetta – for example, not snacking at work because it’s ‘unhealthy’ might mean eating twice the normal portion at dinner because you’re over-hungry.
I think we need to reframe how we think about snacking. Rather than picking small high-calorie foods to snack on, use it as an opportunity to include a couple of food groups you might not have had much of throughout the day. So try to marry up 2-3 macronutrients; for example – a yogurt pot and an apple, or a couple of oatcakes with some peanut butter. Not that there’s any harm in grabbing some biscuits occasionally either.
Importantly, for some people, snacking is the only way to achieve their required calorie intake, and maintain their blood sugar levels, as naturally, our bodies are only able to do this for 3 to 4 hours.”
2. Carbohydrates are ‘good’ or ‘bad’
The concept of calling foods ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is incredibly dated. It also sets us up to feel guilty or shameful around food when we’ve eaten something that we’ve labelled ‘bad’. It can create a desire to over-consume those foods.
Yes, there are some carbohydrates that offer a greater nutritional profile than others, but they all have a place in the perfect diet. The ones that are more nutrient dense and are high in fibre (so keep us feeling satisfied for longer) are carbohydrates such as whole grain rice, pasta, potatoes and wholemeal bread.
Food and eating are all about context, and there’s no way you can compare a packet of crisps to a serving of rice. The type of carbohydrate that is suitable will also depend on what it’s being accompanied by. For example, you might choose brown rice in a stir fry to offer a nutty taste, whereas when making a curry you might choose white rice to complement the coconut sweetness.
3. Veganism is the healthiest diet to follow
There is often an association made between veganism and health, however, like all popular diet trends, it doesn’t guarantee the perfect diet is high in nutrient-dense foods or that it is the best way to eat.
Every vegan diet will require supplementation, as there are some nutrients that an individual will be unable to achieve through a vegan diet alone. These are nutrients such as iodine, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Omega 3 and calcium. A vegan diet will also have to be incredibly well planned, as nutrients are harder to obtain through plant-based sources alone and a vegan diet will require lots of thought around cooking methods and matching certain foods together.
Naturally, when following a vegan diet, meals are centered on vegetables, beans and pulses, whole grains and nuts. These are incredibly nutritious foods, tending to be higher in fibre which keeps the body feeling fuller for longer. However, a vegan diet can also still include biscuits, vegan ice cream, vegan cake and crisps. None of this is inherently bad in moderation, but it can be easy for the majority of a vegan diet to be made up of less nutritious food (just as it is on a non-vegan diet).
Some individuals might also not be suited to a vegan diet, for example, pregnant women or people struggling with eating disorders.
4. Avoid fats
We don’t need to ‘avoid’ any food in our diet. This is because nothing is ‘bad’ enough for us that we need to cut it out completely. Avoidance of any type of food we like can lead to a heightened desire for it. So, it’s never a good idea to set hard and fast rules around avoiding foods.
Without incorporating fats into our diet, we might miss out on some essential nutrients. The body cannot make essential fatty acids and therefore we need a supply from our diet.
We have three main fats that we obtain through our diet: saturated, unsaturated and trans fats. With trans fats, we understand that they can have a negative effect on our health. So, ideally, we want the main source of our dietary fat coming from unsaturated fat. These are typically foods such as oily fish, avocado, nuts and seeds.
Fat not only has benefits to the body including protecting our internal organs, helping our brain function, contributing towards the structure of our blood vessels and cells, as well as contributing towards the structure of hormones – it also contributes greatly to the taste of a meal. It’s sometimes easy to forget what we eat for pleasure.
5. Eat gluten-free
Gluten is a type of protein found in foods that contain wheat, barley, rye, and triticale. These are whole grains, which are absolutely part of a healthy, perfect diet. Regardless of this, diets that eliminate gluten are widely promoted and continue to gain interest.
Avoiding gluten is highly beneficial for people with celiac disease, wheat allergies or those who become unwell from consuming gluten. But companies jumping on the ‘gluten-free’ hype are forgetting that for the 98% of those who don’t have gluten issues, whole grains are incredibly health-promoting. Whole-grain foods have been found to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, bowel cancer, and diabetes. They’ve also been found to provide a good source of fiber for friendly gut bacteria.
So, there is no need to avoid gluten. In fact, eliminating gluten carries risks as it means missing important nutrients and the benefits of heart-healthy whole grains.
6. Don’t eat after 7 pm
The idea that eating after 7 pm is “bad for your health” has been a popular misconception in our society. There have been many arguments suggesting that a whole host of health consequences can occur from this late-night munching. These include diabetes, increased cholesterol levels, an increased risk of heart disease and an increase in weight.
But is this proven?
A lot of these studies don’t have reliable data to suggest that there is an optimum time of day to consume our food. Our bodies are not aware of the difference between 7 pm and 1 minute past 7 pm.
There is research in favor of limiting food intake in the evening. However, it appears to be supported by fluctuations in glucose tolerance, gastric emptying, energy expenditure and the thermic response to meals being lower in the evening. They also suggest that meal satiety is higher in the morning than in the evening. Therefore when we consume the food in the evening, we’re less satisfied with it so our calorie consumption becomes higher.
However, we all have very different daily routines. For some, eating in the evening is the only meal of the day. It’s also the one time when they can sit down, enjoy the company of family or friends and have an adequate amount of nutrition. It’s better to eat in accordance with our own hunger and fullness rather than being dictated to by the clock.
7. Eat more superfoods
The term superfood can be appealing to someone looking to improve their perfect diet. It’s as if they are foods with some form of superpower that can help us to instantly solve our health problems.
The term was created for foods that provide a high level of desirable nutrients. As well as those foods that offer several health benefits beyond its nutritional value. For example, avocados are sometimes labeled a superfood. This is because of their high nutrient profile of folic acid, omega 3, magnesium, and fiber.
However, are superfoods just regular foods with a good PR team? No dietitian or registered nutritionist would use the term. This is because it gives the idea that there is a hierarchical structure when it comes to food. Rather, all foods can be super, depending on the individual and their health needs.
The superfood world has exploded into a huge market and some of the products are now extremely expensive, with people stocking up on various powders to try to obtain a healthier, perfect diet. However, there isn’t enough evidence to support this term ‘superfood’ in regards to health benefits. IS your diet varied in terms of color and substance and are you able to absorb food? If so, there’s no real need to add any superfoods to your perfect diet. But if you love the taste of some of these weird and whacky superfood powders (and can afford them), there’s also no harm including them in your diet.