The perfect diet: does it really exist?

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Wouldn’t it be great if you could find your perfect balanced diet and live with it for the rest of your life? One which makes you feel fit, well-nourished and content and which doesn’t have an end to it? Not just some kind of here-today, gone-tomorrow challenge, but one which is an intrinsic and lasting part of your life? I firmly believe such a diet exists. So how can it be that so many of us are unaware of this? Is it one step too far? And more importantly, how can we bring about a change in this?

It’s often caused by a lack of knowledge and an overabundance of conflicting - primarily commercially sourced - information. There’s a real sense that you can no longer see the wood for the trees. In our formative years, we learn next to nothing about which foods are good for us. When we finally develop an interest in the topic, the first place we turn to for answers is the internet. Sadly, the internet offers no quick and easy solutions; on the contrary, it only provides contradictions. Another big drawback is our constant exposure to temptation, which throws up obstacles in our quest to make right choices. The supermarket shelves are full of attractively packaged products, which in turn contain additives that only encourage us to eat even more. Last but not least, it is our emotions which determine for a large part the choices we make. After all, when you’re feeling low it’s not always easy to look after yourself properly, never mind make healthy choices. But it’s not just negative emotions that can result in this kind of behaviour. Positive emotions can also cause us to make unhealthier choices, for example, we tend to celebrate the high points in our lives in an unhealthy way.

In fact, when I talk professionally to clients about nutrition, there are so many factors that determine how we eat. Here are just a few of the frequent comments I hear when they attend their first appointment:

- ‘So, I suppose I’ll have to stop drinking coffee now.’

- ‘I’ve already started eating fewer carbohydrates, that’s a good sign isn’t it?’

- ‘I need to eat meat every day, otherwise my meals are incomplete.’

- ‘I hate my looks, so eating helps me forget.’

- ‘What foods contain the most protein?’

- ‘I’m prepared to change my diet now and again, but I still want to enjoy life’

- ‘Can you help me detox for a month, I need to kick-start my life again?’

- ‘When I’ve been out for a meal the night before, the next day I drink only juice, but then I tend to find myself binge eating afterwards. How come?’

These comments are proof of how big the challenge is. We like to think in terms of quick fixes, even if these, in the main, are extreme. These temporary solutions, we believe, should bring about permanent change. Sadly however, 9 times out 10 there’s a rude awakening in store for us. As soon as the realities of life kick in again, we find nothing has changed, it was all just a passing phase.

It’s for that reason I like to take real life - with all its highs and lows and its thrills and spills - as the starting point. My job is to help clients identify these and then look at what their options are. One by one, we look at the practical changes that may lead to a better lifestyle.

In doing so, there are a number of key headlines (in random sequence) which form the basis to this:

1. Choose balanced meals containing unprocessed products

Choosing products which have no list of ingredients is a good start! If you do opt for a processed product, makes sure it’s one where the constituent ingredients are natural ones.

2. Eat to feed your body

When I was following my Nutrition & Dietetics studies, we were taught it was sensible to eat before you start to get hungry. This helped prevent binge eating, we were told, and these moments amounted to around 6 to 7 times a day. I later discovered it was much more sensible to eat when you start to feel the first hunger pangs and so properly experience this sensation. We often eat when we think we are hungry, but in reality it’s because our internal body clocks have taught us to do so. Can you really imagine prehistoric man clamouring for a snack at 3 in the afternoon? Of course, we no longer live in the prehistoric age, but the point is that our systems are fundamentally still the same.

Tip* Try to avoid eating between 8 o’clock in the evening and 11 o’clock in the morning. Drink only water, tea or black coffee. At other times of the day, eat meals as you would otherwise normally do. You’ll soon see how easily you can ‘train’ yourself to do this. This ‘fasting’ has different beneficial side-effects, such as more stable blood-sugar levels and, as a result, better healthier energy levels throughout the day.

3. Vary your diet

One of my golden tips is to vary your diet. This way you not only take on board a much wider range of vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants, but you also avoid eating too much of one thing which might (unintentionally) upset you. Try to pick out products which you might otherwise ignore at the market or in the supermarket and choose something colourful!

4. Drink enough

Our bodies are made up of more than 50% water and, more often than not, we forget to drink enough. Liquid is hugely important for discharging toxins, regulating our temperatures and absorbing nutrients properly. Would you like to look after yourself better, but don’t know where to begin? Well, why not start drinking more (water)?

Have you ever wondered how much fluid you need to take on board every day? Why not use the formula of 0.03 x your body mass? For example, if you weigh 75 kg, you need around 2.25 litres of liquid per day.

5. Ensure a balanced diet

What I mean here is a healthy apportionment of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Unwittingly, it’s easy to lapse into an unhealthy mix of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Each category has a specific purpose and so should be eaten in balanced proportions as part of your daily diet:

- Carbohydrates are the fuel that powers the engine! Moreover, they provide important B-vitamins and iron. The fibres not only fill you up nicely, they keep your bowels in tip-top shape too. Have you ever had that feeling you can’t concentrate properly? If so you might not be getting enough carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, for example, vegetables, fruit, oats, pumpkin, (sweet) potatoes, rice, buckwheat and bread, are an important source of energy for the brain.

- Proteins are broken down by the body into amino acids which have a number of key bodily functions. Not only do they supply energy, they also ensure maintenance, growth and repair, hormonal equilibrium, moisture balance, a properly functioning immune system, and lots more. If you keep to a vegetarian diet you should be aware that vegetable proteins don’t always contain the full spectrum of amino acids. For that reason it’s recommended to combine various sources of vegetable protein and, if necessary, to augment this with a vegetable protein supplement.

Sources include pulses, quinoa, tofu, tempeh, rice, chia seeds, hemp seed, potatoes and nuts. You can top this up if you need with a vegetable protein supplement. Meat, fish, eggs and dairy products are all excellent sources of protein but put a greater strain on the environment and negatively impact animal welfare.

- Fats contain the key fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E which you can only obtain from a high-fat diet. You should opt for unsaturated fats, which are good for the cardiovascular system and hormone management. They are also anti-inflammatory and are good for healthy brain activity. It should be self-evident that it’s not a good idea to cut back on your fats because of all the important functions they have. Sadly, too many people still think a low-fat diet is the best way to lose weight, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth.

Sources include avocado, olive oil, nuts, algae oil, hemp seed, chia seed, linseed and fatty fish. Vegetable sources are more sustainable and often much purer than animal sources.

There are a number of apps (e.g. MyFitnessPal) which provide information on the share of carbohydrates, proteins and fats in your diet over the course of a day. If you try this out for a few days, you’ll learn to find the right balance and where to focus your efforts.

6. Keep to the 80-20 rule

Extremes offer a poor basis for a sustainable diet whereby you feel fit, well-nourished and happy. A useful yardstick is to keep to your plan for 80% of the time and set aside the remaining 20% for one-off treats and enjoying other specific foods. For some this may mean an evening at the pub, others a nice meal out or a piece of chocolate. By sticking to a healthy basis, there’s little need to worry, as long as you keep to your normal healthy diet for the rest of the time.

7. More vegetables, less meat

As far as I’m concerned, a largely vegetarian diet is the best way forward. It not only boosts your health, but helps towards the welfare of animals too and - not unimportantly - means that future generations can enjoy a healthy planet too. One other positive side-effect of keeping to a vegetarian diet is that you are also improving your awareness of what you actually eat. It will lead to more creative cooking and a greater variety of vegetables being eaten than with a non-vegetarian diet.

* Note: it’s important to focus on your balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats and the values of certain vitamins such as B12.

8. Exercise

Try a light work-out every day for 30 minutes and a more strenuous one of 30 to 45 minutes 2 or 3 times a week. This will not only improve your physical well-being, but your mental state as well. Experience shows that exercise has a positive impact on your self-esteem and gives you an incentive to look after yourself. 9 out of 10 people have a greater motivation to eat healthily when they exercise on a regular basis.

9. Get your facts right!

Last but not least, get your facts right! More often than not, a diet is based on an idea or an assumption. If you ask me, ‘I think you should stop eating gluten’, is not a plausible starting point. If you want to keep to a healthy and sustainable diet, you should know what suits your body best. For this reason I base my nutritional advice almost exclusively on blood tests. Blood tests show what foodstuffs my clients best respond to and they tell me what they should avoid, because it otherwise affects their system adversely. A blood test is a one-off investment which can reap many rewards. The results provide you with a certain commitment, meaning you can adapt to what suits you. An additional advantage is that you’ll no longer be eating anything that affects your system negatively, meaning that you’ll soon start feeling fitter. Some time ago a model was booked in to one of my appointments. She needed to look good for her work, so invested a lot of time and energy in doing this. Despite believing she led a fit and healthy lifestyle, in recent weeks she had been feeling bloated. Her waistline was becoming a problem, both literally and figuratively. We decided to carry out blood tests to find out whether there were certain foodstuffs that might cause this. 10 days later the results came through showing that she was extremely sensitive to hen’s eggs, which she had taken to eating every day precisely for the extra protein. We subsequently changed her eating habits so that in no time whatsoever her symptoms went away.

I hear you saying ... just a few aspects? In fact, it’s become more than a few, I must admit. The good news is you don’t have to try everything out all at once. Start off by doing things gradually and seek out professional advice if need be. It is my firm belief if you pay close attention to the points I’ve raised above, whilst taking into account personal preferences, lifestyle and emotions, you really can go a long way.

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As long as Stefanie can remember, she has been interested in health. As an orthomolecular nutrition coach, she guides clients on a daily basis in optimizing their health. The themes Stefanie writes about are hands-on nutritional strategies that help you with a healthy and vital lifestyle.

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