What Is The Healthy Diet Spectrum, And Why Isn’t There One Diet That Is Best For Everyone?

Healthy Eating Tip: Health is in the big picture, not the details!

Part 4: What is the healthy diet spectrum, and why isn’t there one diet that is best for everyone?

This healthy eating tip is a 5-part series entitled “health is in the big picture, not the details!” This is part four. In part one, we discussed the importance of knowing yourself through self-empowerment, self-efficacy, self-awareness, and self-determination so that you can accurately gauge both your willingness to change and the ability to follow through in order to create a lifestyle modification plan that is both realistic and effective. In parts two and three, we discussed the environmental and physiological challenges we face when we try to change the way that we live in pursuit of greater health. If you are stepping in for the first time, please go back to read parts one, two, and three, as well as the introduction to get yourself up to speed. Even if you follow along every week, a refresher is not a bad idea. There is an educational component to lifestyle modification, and we’ll be talking more about that next week when we discuss being action-oriented. Regularly refreshing yourself is part of that educational component. Start now!

Armed with some knowledge about yourself, your willingness to change, and your ability to follow through, it is time to select a diet. Selecting a healthy diet to use is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. What is right for you will undoubtedly change depending on what you are going through at different points of time in your life. For this reason, I do not refer to one diet that is the “best healthy diet.” Rather, I talk about a spectrum of healthy diets that may be right for different people, given their willingness to change, their ability to follow through and present life circumstances.

We live in a bullet point society. We have taken multi-tasking to a new level in 2020, so we tend to approach any new task in a “just the facts ma’am” fashion. I remember Cliffs Notes when I was in college the first time in 1979. Cliffs Notes break down long and complicated books like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, James Joyce’s Ulysses, or Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov into short booklets with everything you need to know to pass a test. The Cliffs Notes booklet for The Brothers K is 96 pages long. I remember thinking before a test, “isn’t there something that can break this down further for me?” In 1991 the first For Dummies book took it to the next level by presenting MS-DOS in a way we could all understand. Now the For Dummies and Complete Idiot’s Guide brands offer thousands of titles covering everything from plumbing to building a rocket. Now in 2020, we all have the internet machine. The first search results for anything that can be complied and broken down into steps are always called something like “the ten things you need to know about…” I freely admit that I did that internet search when I started to learn about lifestyle modification and I wasted a lot of time with diet concepts that could have prevented me from regaining my health. The fact is that there is simply not a “regain your health in 6 easy steps” web page for you to refer to. Well that’s not true, those websites exist, but they are not based on solid research and they are not specifically designed for you. They don’t know you and what you are willing and able to change in your life! You need your own plan!

I found wisdom in both Bruce Lee and Sun Tzu. I used the concept of knowing myself and the challenge I was facing and used that information to look at all of the diet options out there and created something specifically designed for my level of willingness and ability to change at that particular point in my life. That is what you need to do!

“Absorb what is useful,
discard what is useless,
and add what is specifically your own”
― Bruce Lee

“know the enemy and know yourself”
― Sun Tzu

In the previous healthy eating tip series entitled Weight-Loss Plateau, I discuss the differentiation between dieting and lifestyle modification. A diet is a short-term project to lose an amount of weight for a particular goal, like fitting into a dress or suit for a wedding. It’s a temporary change in the way that you eat that may not even involve other aspects of your life. Changing the way that you live is something called “lifestyle modification.” Lifestyle modification is a life-long process of changing the way that you live in pursuit of greater health. Weight loss is just one beneficial side effect of lifestyle modification. Comprehensive lifestyle modification will reduce cholesterol and triglycerides, eliminate hypertension, stabilize blood sugar, reduce the chance of cancer, improve your day to day functioning in every aspect, and increase longevity. Dieting weight loss is almost always temporary, but if your lifestyle modification plan is comprehensive, realistic and actionable, you can maintain all of the beneficial side effects for an entire lifetime, and that is the goal!

ANY discussion about the “best” diet has to start here. If you are facing a health crisis, maybe your doctor has told you several times that you need to lose weight and now your doctor is talking about high blood pressure or uncontrolled blood sugar or elevated cholesterol or all of them, then you need to stop looking for a diet and start thinking about lifestyle modification. Remember that you need to own your health. Your health is not your doctor’s responsibility; it is yours!

Creating a lifestyle modification plan that is comprehensive, realistic and actionable is something you have to commit to. Each aspect of your lifestyle modification is essential and needs to be well thought out. Your lifestyle modification plan needs to be comprehensive. Consider all aspects of your life, including how you feel, think, and act over a day, week, month, and year. Your lifestyle modification plan needs to be realistic. Your commitment to lifestyle modification is steadfast and unchanging, but your plan is dynamic and has to be based on your willingness and ability to change, given what is going on in your life at a particular moment in time. Your lifestyle modification plan needs to be actionable. What you feel and think is critically important, but what you do is where the results are!

If you are willing to change what you eat to lose weight, drop blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar, congratulations! Let’s get going!

The first question to ask yourself is, how much am I willing to change? Are you willing to eat reduced-fat and low-calorie ranch dressing, or are you willing to eliminate ranch and use salsa or something else as a salad dressing? Will you eat reduced-fat baked potato chips, or are you willing to eliminate calorically dense, nutritionally deficient snacks? Are you willing to try non-meat breakfast sausage, or are you ready and willing to eliminate high-fat breakfast meats? The answers to these questions will enable you to choose an appropriate spot on the healthy diet spectrum to start. The objective is to select a starting point that will allow you to be successful and move on from there. If you have a significant commitment to lifestyle modification, the place on the healthy eating spectrum you choose to start will not be the place where you are next year. Your commitment to lifestyle modification is steadfast and unchanging, but your plan is dynamic and has to be based on your willingness and ability to change, given what is going on in your life at a particular moment in time.

The second question to ask yourself is, do you have the ability to make the desired level of change. The most effective diets demand that you cook for yourself. That implies that you have space, tools, and skills to produce your healthy meals or that you are willing to invest the time and energy to learn the skills needs to produce your healthy meals. But one’s ability to change isn’t solely based on cooking skills. Time is a significant factor. If you are experiencing an especially busy time in your life, you may not have the time to indulge in the most effective diet. A moderate diet might be a more appropriate place for you to start. On the other hand, if you are highly motivated and ready for a serious challenge, you will not want to miss the opportunity to start an aggressive lifestyle modification plan. Nobody else can make this decision for you. You have to own it!

Several diets can be effective based on your level of commitment and what you are trying to achieve. Even well-known weight loss programs like Weight Watchers, now called WW, are now using different levels of programs based on a member’s individual goals and commitment level. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to lifestyle modification. Some diets are very easy to follow and can yield good results over time, but will not show results immediately. Other diets are difficult to follow but show significant results quickly. I like to think of all the healthy diet choices as a “spectrum” of diets with a diet called the DASH diet (dietary approaches to stop hypertension) on the moderate or conservative side of the spectrum and the plant-based whole foods diet on the more result-oriented side of the diet spectrum.

By far, the diet shown in many well-done studies published in peer-reviewed journals to be most effective in reducing weight, cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure is the plant-based, whole foods diet. It also helps stabilize blood sugar significantly. But if you think that is something you can’t do at the present time, start with a more moderate diet and gradually move in the direction of the plant-based whole foods diet. The closer you get to the plant-based, whole foods diet, the more results you will see!

For further reading I suggest the book “Undo It” by Dean and Anne Ornish.

The DASH diet is the most conservative diet that has been shown in well-done studies published in peer-reviewed journals to be at least moderately effective lowering blood pressure, but as a side effect, DASH dieters also lose small amounts of weight and lower cholesterol and blood sugar a little. The DASH diet is a great place to start if you have assessed your willingness to change as moderate or low. You are going to have to educate yourself just a little and follow some numbers. For a 2,100 calorie diet the DASH diet wants you to eat no more than 63 grams of fat, no more than 14 grams of saturated fat, no more than 150 mg of cholesterol, no more than 1,500-2,300 mg of sodium and get at least 30 grams of fiber per day. The further you can reduce fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, the more weight you will lose, and the greater health benefits you will realize, so slide down the spectrum when your willingness level changes.

Besides making sure that you take all medications prescribed by your doctor, using a well-studied diet like the DASH diet can help you fight many lifestyle-related Illnesses. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), a division of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that; “The DASH diet has been well-studied in many clinical trials and in most of them has been associated with lowering of blood pressure. Further, there is evidence to show that the DASH diet also lowers the risk of adverse cardiac events, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.”

You can read more about the DASH diet here.

Here are the references for today’s Healthy Eating Tip:

Challa HJ, Ameer MA, Uppaluri KR. DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). National Library of Medicine (NLM). National Institutes of Health (NIH). Books.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482514/(Accessed 7/24/2020).

Appel LJ, Moore TJ, Obarzanek E, et al. A clinical trial of the effects of dietary patterns on blood pressure. DASH Collaborative Research Group. New England Journal of Medicine 1997;336:1117-1124.

Campbell TC. A plant-based diet and animal protein: questioning dietary fat and considering animal protein as the main cause of heart disease. Journal of Geriatric Cardiology. 2017 May;14(5):331-7.

Esselstyn CB. Resolving the Coronary Artery Disease Epidemic Through Plant-Based Nutrition. Preventive Cardiology 2001;4: 171-177

Campbell TC, Parpia B, Chen J. Diet, lifestyle, and the etiology of coronary artery disease: the Cornell China Study. American Journal of Cardiology. 1998;82(10B):18T–21T.

Ornish D, Scherwitz LW, Billings JH, et al. Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease. Journal of the American Medical Association. 1998;280:2001–2007.

Ornish, Dean, and Anne Ornish. Undo It!: How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases. Ballantine Books, 2019.