As we approach the end of another year, and the focus invariably shifts to fresh starts for 2015 it is once again time to come face to face with the evil twins of diet and exercise. Americans tend to be reductionist in their approach to these topics, and the popular media is chock full of the “diet of the day”. As you consider the New Year and fresh starts, I want to challenge you to not look for the best or most effective diet, but rather make a true effort to break away from the reductionist approach and change your focus to a more holistic approach.
When you really break down the information and the research that exists, the fact of the matter is that just about any diet will work to help you lose weight and as a result of that weight loss actually be healthier. Yes, as a general rule if you are overweight or obese you will be healthier after losing weight no matter how you do it. In addition, the latest general recommendations from the “experts” are just that: use any diet approach that works for you and lose some/all of the excess weight you are carrying and you will decrease your risk of most chronic disease. Here is the catch though…you need to also consider what you will do after you lose the weight. Returning to your previous lifestyle is simply a modern version of Einstein’s definition of insanity (doing the same thing and expecting different results). Therefore the second and most important part of the recommendation is that whatever “diet” you choose must be one that you can realistically maintain for the rest of your life. If you really can’t sustain the “diet” you have slated to be your 2015 fresh start for the long term, then should you really even start? My educated but by no means expert opinion is that you should not, as you simply set yourself up for more of the same….
Ok, so if the diet of the month isn’t the answer, then what is? The honest answer to that question is that we still don’t know for certain, but we do have some pretty good ideas where to start. You start by copying some of the basics from populations around the world that seem to have the formula for success. These areas are named “Blue Zones”. In 2004, Dan Buettner teamed up with National Geographic and the world’s best longevity researchers to identify pockets around the world where people lived measurably better. In these Blue Zones they found that people reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the United States. In addition, these individuals remain active and have good quality of life, usually right up until they die. This is in stark contrast to most of our western civilization were our health and vitality diminish rapidly in later years leading to the boom in assisted living and nursing homes.
When you look at these Blue Zones you find several things in common. With regard to diet the tenets are pretty simple. First and foremost is a plant based diet. The actual foods consumed vary considerably from one Blue Zone to another, but all have a very high consumption of plant foods and limit or avoid animal foods. Perhaps equally important is the fact that they eat little to no processed food. Most food is prepared fresh, and meals are prepared daily. Families still eat together and there is a strong family/social aspect to the meals.
The real question is simply how do we translate this into actionable advice and easy to implement changes? Before I answer the question, each person needs to consider a few things. First, about 40-50 years ago as women started to enter the workforce food companies started a campaign to convince them that cooking was a chore and difficult to do. It was not something they should have to do, and so they should trust the food companies to do the cooking for them…enter the box and frozen meal era. It is concerning to me that many of the individuals I work with consider cooking something to avoid at all costs, yet it is arguably the most important decision you make every day (topic for another post). Second and equally important are the demands on each person’s time. Between work, church, children, and various other factors everyone is over-extended and short on time. This is perhaps the key factor. To really begin to make a transition to a healthier lifestyle you need to take a hard look at your time commitments and start to allow more time to improve your health.
When you can allow yourself the time to start working on your health, then you can begin to make small changes to improve your health. Start simply with cooking one more meal a week than you do currently. Include the family if you have one, especially if you have children. Choose a recipe that includes several brightly colored vegetables. Perhaps even choose a vegetarian dish, or at the very least make meat the side dish rather than the main dish. If you want to include a dessert make it from fruit instead of flour and sugar. Please be sure to make this a family event if possible…this is as important as the food itself. One of the most important aspects of eating/meals in the Blue Zones is they are socials events and not just about scarfing down food to get to the next event on your schedule.
Gradually increasing the number of meals you make from fresh food and decreasing your reliance on packaged/processed/restaurant food is really the secret to health and vitality and the best way to prevent chronic disease. Choose a recipe from your favorite cookbook, magazine or website and strive to make half or more of the meal vegetables. My favorite approach is to make one dish meals like a stir fry, a frittata, or crock pot meals. Alternately you can just add more vegetable sides to a more conventional meal…either way the goal is 50% or more of the meal is vegetables. If you want some added inspiration to help you start this journey, I highly recommend Fed Up, Forks Over Knives, or Food Matters. All of these are now available to stream or rent as a DVD and Forks over Knives has a website with recipes and other support to help you start your journey. There isn’t an easy or quick fix for our health problems. The solution is coming to terms with the fact that it takes time and effort to be healthy, and the sooner your start the sooner you will begin to reap the rewards. Nothing in life that is rewarding and worthwhile is easy…the work and effort we put forth to accomplish something is what makes it so rewarding. Get started today!
Here are some links if you want more information:
Patrick Wortman MS, RD LDN, NSCA-certified personal trainer
Patrick works at the Center for Integrative Medicine - visit their site at www.cim.md