What should you eat? Your body will tell you

There is a lot of “scientific proof” about why each popular diet is the right approach (note I use the term diet in the traditional meaning, as in ‘our approach to food’). Or at least so the authors and supporters of the nutrition approaches will tell you. Those with a better understanding of the scientific process will tell you that these are actually just theories, although the theories are often supported by studies pointing to problems or benefits of some foods in some situations. This is valuable information worth reviewing; but it is far from proof that any one diet is superior for everyone.

Let’s face it, the field of nutrition has become more religion than science, with each sect being led by some assortment of post-hole diggers. Which PhD is right and which ones are wrong? What if none of them are right? In other words, what if there’s no such thing as THE ONE TRUE DIET? (please read with a deep and ominous voice).

The notion of modern nutrition being like religion became particularly evident to me when I watched a video presentation about Paleo by Harvard PhD Chemist Mathieu Lalonde.

While I thought his actual presentation was excellent and informative, there was one seemingly unimportant comment he made that really stuck with me: he referred to the Paleo Movement. A movement by definition, negates science. The goal of a movement is to further the ideals of the movement. The goal of science is to further truth. A movement is not compatible with science, because it will negate truths that don’t support it’s ideals. It is a shame that there are so many nutritional movements. It is so limiting to society’s knowledge potential.

So how do you know which “scientifically proven” diet or nutrition approach is right for you? Should you follow the Paleo movement? Or the Intermittent Fasters? Vegans? Atkins? The Zone? South Beach? Weight Watchers? Jenny Craig? Ornish? Metabolic typing? Eating for your blood type? Hormone diet? Raw food? Precision Nutrition? Mediterranean diet?

Maybe part of the reason scientists and doctors can’t agree is because there is insufficient evidence to support the universal application of any diet because people are just too different.

Heresy!

So what am I suggesting instead of joining a movement? Listen to your body! If you give it a chance, you’ll be amazed at what you learn about what you should eat. When I suggest this to people, their first reaction is often “Awesome. My body is telling me to eat potato chips. Woohoo!” No, that’s not your body talking; that’s your brain. When it comes to food desires, your brain is a dopamine junkie and should not be trusted. Foods containing at least two of salty, fatty and sweet cause the dopamine pathways in the brain to fire up, yielding cravings (have a look at The End of Overeating for a fascinating read about cravings).

Your body’s nutrition voice is best heard after you eat. It speaks in symptoms. Do you often feel bloated after you eat? Are you puffy? Do you regularly have intestinal distress? Stuffed up? These are not normal, healthy responses to eating. These are your body’s words telling you that you’re feeding it something wrong.

Now that you’re reading this, give some thought to how your body responds during the hour or two after you eat. How do you feel? If you are eating the right food for you, you should feel energized after eating. If you don’t there’s probably something you’re eating that you shouldn’t be. For many people, wheat can cause this, as can dairy.

I had a client tell me this week that after a particularly high fat meal the night before, she woke up feeling great and her stomach was flatter than it had been in a long time. She didn’t eat any starchy carbs that meal. That’s a pretty strong voice! She listened, and now she’s going to try avoiding grains for a couple of weeks to see how she feels. If she feels great, then she’ll hopefully make some long term dietary changes. If she gets the cravings now and then, then I suggested that she allow herself an occasional meal with grains, but to make sure she does so in the meal right after her workout, as that is when the body is best able to deal with carbs (John Berardi has a great two part article about The Science of Nutrient Timing).

I have another client who tried cutting out grains and the puffiness around her eyes went away. Another family member gets a cough after eating bread. Hmmm.

Now I’m definitely not saying that everyone should avoid grains. There are great health benefits of grains, and they are a fantastic energy source for some. But for others, they wreak havoc. Personally I tried removing grains for a 3 week period and the entire time I felt tired and mentally foggy. This was in stark contrast to how I normally feel. And so I brought grains back into my diet and I am back to feeling great. Your body knows what you need.

How do you know if you should try to change your diet to see if you are doing something wrong? I have four questions that I believe will tell you if you should make a change. If you can honestly answer Yes to each of these four questions, then what you’re doing now is working:

  1. Do you have a lot of energy?
  2. Are you in good health most of the time (you rarely get sick)?
  3. Are you happy with your performance (in life, family, work, and/or sport)?
  4. Are you happy with your weight?

If one or more of these is a No, then something is probably off, and some investigating is worthwhile. It may be that there are some obvious problems that are limiting you, for instance:

  1. Do you eat enough vegetables (despite what the US Government says, pizza and french fries do not count as vegetables)?
  2. Do you get enough protein?
  3. Do you get enough fat? (This is where I have a bone to pick with Weight Watchers. Fat is not the enemy! Healthy fats are your friend when it comes to living healthy and losing weight.)
  4. Do you feel uncomfortably full after meals?
  5. Do you eat out more than two meals per week? (You may think that you are making healthy choices, but odds are, even the healthy options are packed with hidden calories in grossly oversized quantities)
  6. Do you eat dessert every day?

If you practice any of the Big Six habits above, then you are actively sabotaging your chances at feeling great, being energetic, performing well, and getting (or keeping) the body you want. And that is okay. It’s your life and your decision. But understand that it is a choice you are actively making with every meal.

Now if you don’t practice any of the Big Six above, and still lack energy, feel poorly, or are having trouble losing the weight you’re hoping to lose, then there may be something more going on. At that point, I suggest people start taking out foods to see how they feel. Wheat is probably the most likely candidate, so start there. Go without for 2 weeks and see how you feel (check out this great article in the Wall Street Journal about gluten). If there’s no significant difference, then it’s probably not wheat. Start keeping a diary for a couple of weeks and write down what you eat and then how you felt after. Hopefully you’ll find some links. You may also

Consider seeing a trusted nutritionist or naturopath to help you with this process. I don’t mean to imply that I have all the answers when it comes to having energy and health: far from it! But I do know that food is literally the body’s fuel; and when you use the wrong fuel, the body does not run properly. If your body does not run properly, it’s very possible that adjusting the fuel can make a tremendous positive impact on help it run smoothly. Give your body the chance to run smoothly.

Recommended resources
The End of Overeating, by David Kessler
The Science of Nutrient Timing, by John Berardi
New Guide to Who Really Shouldn’t Eat Gluten, Melinda Beck

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc, CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada.

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