What is the Best Diet for Maintaining a Healthy Weight and Promoting Optimum Health?

December 10, 2015 // Kate Welch


What is the Best Diet for Maintaining a Healthy Weight and Promoting Optimum Health?

As I wrote in the last post, the New Year is fast approaching, and with it brings many peoples’ resolve to lose weight and/or eat healthier.

There is no one “best diet” I can recommend to everyone that will lead to perfect weight and perfect health every time. Each person needs to tailor their diet to their individual preferences, finances, cultural background, level of activity, and potential food allergies. I cannot proclaim “low carb” as the magic answer. Nor can I proclaim “low fat”, “high carb”, “all meat”, “vegan”, “raw food”, “fruit only” or “vegetarian” as “the answer”.

The truth is that no one diet is appropriate for everyone, no matter what anyone says. However there is lots of compelling scientific evidence that some foods are healthier than others, and that adding in more of those healthier foods (while taking out most of the unhealthier ones) will promote healthy weight and reduce the incidence of disease.

What follows is my distillation of the science into some general concepts that all of us should consider when deciding which foods to eat for ideal body weight and good health.

1) Most of your food should come from plants.

How much is “most”? At least 80 percent. “But wait!” you say, that’s practically a VEGAN diet! How do you expect me to live without butter/beef/bacon/cheese/omlettes?”

The answer is: I don’t! Go ahead and have the occasional butter/beef, etc. But we’re talking about optimum health here, and the bulk of the scientific literature really does suggest that a majority plant-based diet is the diet that is associated with the least incidences of chronic disease.

These studies are discussed at length in the book The China Study by Cornell researcher and nutrition biochemist T. Colin Campbell (find the paperback at your local bookstore or library, or watch videos describing the research here).

There are critics of the China Study (here is a good one) so, again, please don’t draw conclusions here that a vegan diet is the best diet and everyone should follow it. It is not necessarily the best diet for everyone. There are certainly overweight, unhealthy vegans. Eating too much of ANY food, lack of exercise, smoking, and drinking more than one alcoholic drink per day have all been implicated in increased risk for disease.

But the preponderance of the evidence still suggests that good health requires several daily servings of nutrient-dense, fiber-rich foods, and the most nutrient-dense, fiber-rich foods on the planet are fresh, whole leafy greens, purple, orange, and/or red fruits and vegetables, whole grains (or, for the gluten-intolerant, pseudo-grains like quinoa, amaranth, or buckwheat), and nuts (also mushrooms-which are not plants—but are also nutrient dense, so they should be included as well). These should comprise MOST of what you eat.

A recent book, The Blue Zones: What the Longest Living People Eat confirms this. Author Dan Buettner travelled the world to communities whose residents typically live to 100 or longer. Although the diets varied by culture and location, they ALL: 1) were comprised mostly of a rich variety of whole plants, grains, legumes; and 2) ingested meat, fish, cheese, and dairy in small amounts, sporadically.

Again, what is “most”? Well, if your current diet is only 30 percent plant-based, raising it to 51 percent plant-based will mean that most of your diet is plant-based. Fifty-one percent is better than 30 percent, and will yield better health outcomes than 30 percent. But, in general, the more you can replace animal protein and fats (which provide the macronutrients protein and fat but zero fiber and fewer vitamins than plants) with plants, the better.

2) If you eat meat, fish, eggs, and/or dairy with every meal daily, you are probably eating too much protein.

“What? Too MUCH protein, you say? But protein is the building block of muscle! How can I be eating too much protein?”

It’s true. The Recommended Daily Allowance for protein is 10-12% of your daily calories. The average American consumes twice that amount!

There really CAN be too much of a good thing. Protein is essential for health, but most of us consume way more than we need, especially in the form of animal protein.

Most of us were taught as children that animal proteins are superior to plant proteins, because they contain the exact same spectrum of amino acids as we do. It is true! Animal protein is indeed more “efficient” than plant protein.

But animal protein is a double-edged sword. Because it is so efficient and because we eat so much of it, it is a fast promoter of growth. And sometimes fast growth is very bad, especially with regard to obesity and cancer! There are studies that show animal protein ingestion in excess of 10% promotes tumor growth.

Don’t be scared…I am not trying to suggest that animal products are uniformly bad and cancer-causing and should be banned. That’s going too far! But there is solid evidence that implicates excessive, continuous animal protein ingestion with growth and promotion of disease, and most of us are eating too much of it. If you are eating lots of animal protein, even lean protein, you are eating lots of fat and cholesterol, too, which makes it harder to lose weight and prevent disease.

What about the paleo diet movement and our ancestors? Surely they consisted mostly on meat, since we see all those little cave drawings of hunting?

Well, the truth is, we can only speculate what the diet of our remote ancestors was. Surely they hunted, but a successful hunt would not have been an everyday occurrence, much less the three-times-a-day occurrence that most of America is used to now.

Better yet, consider the diets of our closest living relatives, with whom we share 99 percent of our DNA: the primates. They all follow a vegan diet (except for insect consumption).

Meat, fish, dairy, and eggs are quite satiating, however, so if you enjoy eating these products you should continue to do so. But for weight loss and disease prevention, consider halving your portions and/or replacing these products with vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes for one or two meals.

3) Low-carb IS good, if by low-carb, you mean cutting out sugar, corn syrup, white flour, white pasta, white rice.

The Paleo diet and Atkins diet are popular because they are low-carbohydrate. The thinking is that Americans gain weight on a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets, which were popular in the ‘80s as a response to increasing rates of heart disease.

Well, the key here is not simply to lower carbs. Americans got fat in the ‘80s not because they were eating high complex carbohydrate diets, they were eating too many simple carbohydrates.

What is the difference? Most simply, complex carbohydrates are minimally processed, and they look like plants. Whole fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains. Simple carbohydrates are derived from plants, but they do not look like them: sugar, corn syrup, white rice, white bread, white pasta, potato chips, corn chips. These have all been stripped of their nutrients and fiber. They are rapidly digested and give us rapid energy, but they are also rapidly turned into fat by the body, especially if we are sedentary.

So, go ahead and eat low-carb, as long as by “low-carb” you mean that you are cutting out most packaged, prepared, and processed white foods. Just switch to their complex-carb alternatives: whole wheat or sprouted grain bread, whole grain or soybean pasta, brown or wild rice, and stevia, a plant-based and zero calorie sweetener.

As a friend pointed out: Lucky Charms Cereal is a plant-based product with lots of vitamins and minerals, but you won’t be healthy if you eat it. It may come from plants, but it is not real food!

4) Add one fermented food to your plate daily

Speaking of our remote ancestors: they didn’t have refrigerators. At some point, they figured out that fermentation could be employed to preserve some foods. Fermentation depends on bacteria, most of which are friendly bacteria that we need to set up shop in our intestines to promote optimal health.

So, consider adding some kim chi, sauerkraut, kombucha drink, or yogurt to your diet daily (watch out for the high sugar content of most flavored yogurts! It’s better to get the plain kind, and mix in your own fresh fruit or nuts).

And yes, beer and wine are fermented…but the alcohol kills all the good bacteria, so they don’t count :)

5) Replace fruit juice drinks with water and tea, and eat a whole piece of fruit instead

Yes, juice comes from fruit, and fruit is good for us, it’s full of vitamins. But most juices are, in reality, mostly a giant dose of sugar. Sure, you can lose a lot of weight on a juice fast, but it is not a great way to eat for the rest of your life.

Whole fruits provide fiber, which slows the sugar rush that the juice gives you, which promotes insulin resistance and weigh gain. So try cutting your current juice intake in half with water, and replace with a serving of whole fruit instead.

6) Beware of diets that promote extremes and oversimplifications

In my previous post, I quoted Hippocrates: “Let food be your medicine.” This time I am quoting the food writer Michael Pollan: “Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The most successful diet is the one that you will actually follow, so adapt the principles I’ve outlined above to meet your needs. Do you refuse to eat vegetables unless there is a big pat of melted butter on them? Then by all means, add butter to your spinach, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts, if that means you are going to go from zero servings of veggies per day to three. Can’t live without bread? Switch to a high-fiber, sprouted wheat version.

Try eating baked yam slices instead of French fries or potato chips. Try some hummus with baby carrots rather than with tortilla chips.

Eating should be enjoyable, and it should feel good. Of course we will all eat sugary, fatty treats from time to time, but these should be a weekly or monthly occurrence, not a daily one. And don’t forget to exercise! Walking is some of the best exercise out there.

The best diet uses these principles to build a foundation around healthy food. I promise that whatever methods you employ, you will soon feel better, and your body will begin to crave healthy, fresh, real food.