A colleague of mine once observed that efficiency is reduced when there are “too many chiefs and not enough Indians”. That remark correlates with my current view of the health industry; it’s a mess. Thanks to extremely transparent access in all media, everyone is a health expert. Personal trainers, doctors, chiropractors, physical therapists, nurses, and dietitians all offer professional services that occasionally step into the realm of the one another. When the education, experience, and application are relevant there is nothing wrong with this coverage. A problem arises when an expert decides to branch into a new area without the proper education or ability. This is one of the most direct causes of contradicting recommendations, which creates a medium for overwhelming confusion and misinformation.
Compile all the opinions of actual health professionals, with the now rampant stream of conscious the general population provides and you have a disaster. Every weight loss and success story now has a blog and a social media following based on the accepted premise that because a person accomplishes a personal goal they are an expert source. The ramifications of everything mentioned can be observed in the polarity of perception regarding a “Healthy” diet in the United States. If you read my last blog you know I use that word with hesitation, and with a personally clarified meaning. From low-carb to low fat, with gluten-free, anti-dairy, paleo, liquid diets, and flexible dieting (among others) adding to the spectrum, it is quite clear we can’t seem to agree on what is best for health.
Part of the problem is that many diets are intended for certain groups or people with specific fitness and wellness goals. The other fault is we live in a media driven society, which as a whole does very little to accurately communicate actual clinical evidence. Most of the diets listed above have research to back their use in certain populations and instances. More often than not, this research is not generalizable to the entire population. Said another way, it won’t benefit everyone. Unless you have a complete understanding of the human body and intricacies that lie within diet, it is difficult to recognize this.
As a health professional, how do I help the masses understand that one study doesn’t mean recommendations should change? How can I communicate that no diet fad has application to all people? Here is my attempt:
For the general population, a healthy diet is not a result of eliminating a single ingredient from food. It is not a result of eliminating entire nutrient categories (low-fat, low-carb). It is definitely not a result of eliminating entire food groups. None of these commonly chosen paths are the definition of health, nor do they translate into a guaranteed long-term benefit. Your diet should be something you invest in for the long haul. The long-term investment comes from a diet that has what I call the lifestyle triad: balance, moderation and variety.
I would argue balance is the single most fundamental ideal in the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle. In many ways, the decision to seek balance is what drives the implementation of moderation and variety. Realize that too much or too little of anything usually has consequences. Too many calories, too much fat, carbohydrate or protein, to few vegetables, water balance, fiber intake, micronutrient intake; virtually everything about our diet has a spectrum with the correct amount sitting somewhere in the middle. How do we ensure this balance? Through moderation and variety of course! Eating excessive amounts of anything will have consequences (some more severe than others). Eating too much of the same thing leaves your body feeling deprived and starved of many nutrients. A diet that looks at true portions, rotates different foods, and acknowledges the various motivations to eat, is a diet that demonstrates long-term application and satisfaction.
Aside from dietary intake, the lifestyle triad has application in almost everything. When we speak of longevity, or maximized quantity AND quality of life, we see that it generally comes from investing in the pursuit of balance, moderation and variety. For example, just as too many calories can lead to health complications, so can too much cardiovascular exercise. Yes you read that correctly. There is emerging evidence that too much running often shortens lifespan, just like too much sedentary behavior does (it’s a bell curve). Even exercise requires the lifestyle triad. Extreme athletes are just that, extreme. While we often look at professional athletes as the image of health, that may be quite skewed dependant on your definition of health. While there is no doubt they are specimens of physical conditioning, they often struggle with the longest endurance event: longevity. If you take the concepts of balance, moderation and variety, and begin to implement them into your daily activities, you will find they have application to everything you do.
Since I began practicing the lifestyle triad, those close to me have observed an increase in self-confidence, improved ability to manage stress, a surge of optimism, an increase in vegetable intake, alteration of exercise habits, improved ability to enjoy food socially, and a generalized happiness that is consistent in my career and social life. All I can say is it is worth a try!
Strive for balance,
Andrew Wade, RDN, LDN