Rebecca Stiles RD
Why "What should I eat?" Isn't The Most Important Question
What you eat is one of the most important factors in overall health. There is just no avoiding this fact. The food you put in your body becomes YOU.
You are the product of what you put on your plate and what you don’t, and over the course of your life, the effects accumulate to create a picture of health, or in many cases, a long decline into chronic disease.
Of course, many other factors contribute to this picture, including sleep, movement, stress, relationships, and genetics, to name just a few. A life of health and vitality stems from habits and choices that honor your needs in every area of well-being.
But of all these areas, food and nutrition seem to generate a confusing amount of debate and disagreement.
Most people can agree that we need to get enough sleep, we need to move and exercise, and we could all use better ways to manage stress. And the variety of ways to achieve these goals is mostly viewed as a buffet of acceptable options you can mix and match to suit your personal taste and needs.
However, nutrition receives different treatment. Within the world of eating and dieting, we separate into competing camps devoted to our preferred eating style and highlighting only the nutrition research that proves we have got it right.
Individuals on these different diets have, for the most part, experienced improved health from changing the foods they eat to align with a specific diet prescription. And this is great! Our world is suffering under the weight of…..well, our weight, and any steps that help people shed pounds and feel better are cause for celebration.
I truly don’t care what label you put on the way you eat if it enhances your life and health. And here we come to the heart of what it means to eat a healthy diet.
Is the way you eat enhancing your life and improving your health? And what does that even mean?
Over my years of working in the nutrition space, I’ve explored and toyed with many different eating styles and talked with countless people about the way they eat. I’ve read the research, earned the degrees, and invested thousands of hours in continuing education to better understand nutrition science. However, the more I learn, the more humbling I find the question, “What should we eat?”
The standard American diet (which is SAD, indeed) arises from an eating culture that makes a healthy diet as difficult as possible. And I think this may be why people are prone to fall into rigid diet camps. It’s much simpler to ascribe to a strict food philosophy that clearly defines which foods are good and which are bad. In the battle to overcome our SAD food culture, most people just want to be told what to eat.
But eating well encompasses much more than just the specific foods you choose. It’s a product of your lifestyle, financial situation, food access, family culture, friendships, relationships, mental health, and time capacity. A cookie-cutter diet disregards the reality of all the influences that have shaped your food choices over your lifetime and will continue to affect you in the future.
Eating well often requires fundamental changes in your food environment, which doesn’t just affect the food you put in your mouth. It also impacts your closest relationships, your food budget, how you allot your time, your level of stress, and so much more.
A myopic view of healthy eating as just a matter of choosing the “right” foods is doomed to fail. Research has shown this time and again. (1) Most people who go on a diet see benefits for the first six months. But, a year later, those benefits have mostly disappeared. And all too often, people gain back more weight than they started with.
You eat what you eat for a reason, and those habits and forces deserve at least as much consideration as the question of what to eat.
The likelihood that you will eat a restrictive diet long-term is low. While it may be beneficial in the short term for some people, the real goal is to develop a way of eating that is sustainable for years to come.
The answer to “What should I eat?” is better summed up like this: to eat the healthiest way you CAN and WILL within the guidelines of what we know about healthy eating.
Most of what nutrition science tells us about healthy eating can be summarized in Michael Pollen’s simple rules: “Eat (real) food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In the 15 years since Pollen condensed decades of nutrition research into this simple guidance, it remains remarkably true, no small feat in a world constantly contradicting itself.
A big part of why I think Pollen’s philosophy is so useful is because it guides without prescription. These guidelines ask you to change how you eat, but those exact changes are up to you. The answer to “What should I eat” should certainly fit within the realm of solid nutrition science; however, just as critically, it has to fit in your actual life.
Can and will you never eat another cookie?
Can and will you never eat a burger?
Can and will you be able to access the food a certain type of diet requires?
Can and will you give up fruit?
Can and will you never eat another packaged food?
Can and will you eat a salad every day?
Your answer to these and other questions is up to you. I certainly can’t tell you what is reasonable and possible in the context of your unique life situation, health needs, and value system. And your answers will likely change over time. Healthy food habits that once seemed unlikely may gradually feel easier. Things that fit in your life at one time may suddenly stop working. I could tell you what to eat today, and in a few months, my advice may no longer be relevant.
Coming up on two decades in the nutrition field, I’m less and less interested in telling people exactly what to eat. But, I am always interested in helping people discover what they can and will eat to bring their diet closer to one we know promotes health. This process is much more interesting and, in the end, more valuable.
Despite all the misinformation out there, there are a few things we know your diet should do for you regardless of your personal preferences and needs.
A healthy diet should:
Provide adequate nutrients for optimal body function
Help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight
Promote biomarkers within a healthy range (blood pressure, LDL, etc.)
To these, I would add:
Make you feel good!
Promote more years of healthy life
Be sustainable for the planet and the people who depend on it
Be pleasurable, enjoyed in community, and free from guilt or shame
While we can dig into nutrition science to look at the fine details of how to balance all these factors, in the end, we each have to reconcile the question of “What should I eat?” with the question, “What can and will I eat?”.
Where the answers to these questions intersect is the nutrition sweet spot.