What is the healthiest diet? There are hundreds of dietary models or ways of eating; vegan, vegetarian, paleo, low carbohydrate, ketogenic, 80:20, zone diet, 5:2, gluten-free, intermittent-fasting, dairy-free, and that’s just to name a few, The list goes on and on!
Some diets have been scientifically researched and have been shown to be effective in supporting health in some way. For example, the diet described as the ‘Mediterranean diet’ is based primarily around vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, fish, olive oil and some poultry. It has been the subject of numerous studies and demonstrated to particularly support cardiovascular health.
The Paleo diet is based on eating meat, fish and eggs, alongside vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats. It does exclude some foods, such as grains, legumes, and dairy. It works on the belief that this is how our ancestors ate and supports our genetic makeup. It is recognised that as humans we adapt to changes in the food supply, such as the introduction of dairy farming and agriculture but that adaptation is slow. In other words, our ability to physiologically change does not keep up with the pace of change in our environment and food supply. The Paleo diet has been shown to be beneficial to health, particularly for those with auto-immune concerns.
Low carbohydrate diets are popular and the term ‘low carbohydrate’ means different things to different people. A ketogenic diet is a very low carbohydrate diet, restricting carbohydrate to less than 50 g and often less than 30g a day. Ketogenic diets have been shown to aid in weight loss and improvement in metabolic measurements such as blood glucose, visceral fat and inflammatory markers.
So what is the healthiest diet?
When any of these diets and many others that have been scientifically studied are followed, embracing their principles, they all have one thing in common. They are based on real food and eliminate ultra-processed foods. They are nutrient-dense and reduce the intake of unhealthy oils and simple sugars.
What I mean by real food, is food as provided to us by nature. Food, in its unprocessed form. Of course, as soon as we take any food and chop or cook it we are effectively processing it. However, the level of ‘processing’ is minimal compared to ultra-processed foods that are heavily refined, stripping them of nutrients and adding non-nutrients such as sugars, preservatives, and artificial flavourings and colours.
I think it’s fair to say that any diet can be healthy or unhealthy. For example, a vegetarian or vegan diet based on processed foods will impact health completely differently from one based on a variety of whole real foods.
The healthiest diet for you is the one that is right for you. We are all unique and should not compare ourselves to others. We have different genetics, live in different environments, have different metabolic needs and overall health status.
Just because your neighbour cannot tolerate a certain food doesn’t mean you cannot. The needs of someone with a physical job will be different to someone who works at an office desk. If you have a health area that you need to support you may need to include a higher density of particular nutrients and certain foods or even exclude some foods.
In addition to the actual food, there are other considerations when selecting the healthiest diet for you. A ‘diet’ should not be something that is short term to achieve a goal. It needs to be sustainable and adaptable. This is where so many people struggle with maintaining weight loss. Their way of eating to lose weight is simply not sustainable.
A diet will not be sustainable if it leaves you hungry, you don’t actually enjoy the food or it is over-restrictive. We all need to be adaptable. If a certain food is offered at your friend’s dinner party that is not part of your normal staple diet, it shouldn’t mean you can’t or won’t enjoy it. The stress associated with the belief that you can’t eat the food is probably more detrimental to your health than actually eating it! Of course, if the food causes you actual physical health problems that is different; you wouldn’t knowingly eat food that will detrimentally impact your health.
In an ideal world, we would all make everything from scratch using real food ingredients. However, that is not always practical in our busy modern-day lifestyles and the stress of trying to make everything could be detrimental to our health. Make smart choices when buying any pre-prepared food by looking for those with minimal ingredients without added sugars, colourings and flavourings and a list of ingredients that you can’t pronounce!
I like to think of the word ‘diet’ as referring to a way of eating that is sustainable, enjoyable and practical.
So coming back to what is the healthiest diet? It is one personalised to you. One based on a wide variety of real food, sustainable in the long term, enjoyable, practical and above all meets your nutritional needs based on your genetics, environment, personal preferences and health status.