Which diet is right for me?
Five steps to cut through the nutrition “noise” and develop your own personalized diet for wellness
Whole30. Keto. Vegan. Raw. Paleo. Gundry. Weight Watchers. Carb cycling. The list goes on. We are all bombarded daily with seemingly contradictory new diet research and trends that promise to be the final cure for all that ails us. It’s no wonder people seeking to improve their health often get overwhelmed by all the information - and misinformation - out there. Once people find out I’m a nutritionist, often their very first question is: so what am I actually supposed to be eating?
The truth is, there are kernels of wisdom and research behind just about every fad diet out there, and if you’ve been living on the Standard American Diet (SAD), you will see some degree of positive change in the short term from adhering to just about anything else. When we shop around for diets like we shop around for consumer products, trying to find the one, perfect choice, we’re setting ourselves up for unnecessary angst and stress before even starting whatever protocol we land on. So, take a big deep breath, and let go of the idea of finding a one-stop diet solution that is absolutely perfect for you on the first try.
Remember, we humans have been successfully feeding ourselves and thriving for eons without the “help” of food marketers and diet book publishers (and without the epidemic levels of chronic disease we face today). Once you’ve grasped the basic foundations of nutrition and learned to tap into your own body’s intelligence of what it wants and doesn’t, you’ll be well equipped to start making informed decisions for yourself, without having to panic-Google your food choices for validation and getting sucked back into the “are-egg-yolks-good-for-me-this-year-or-not” news cycle.
Now where do we begin? Lest I give the impression that I am an equal-opportunity advocate of any and all diet efforts (which could not be further from the truth), there are some unchanging biochemical rules in the human body that everyone will benefit from sticking to as a baseline.
Step 1: Learn about Paleo and/or Whole30, see which one you’re more excited about, and get started.
After years of “trying on” and learning about many of them, the diet blueprint that I believe best honors these unchanging biochemical laws of human nutrition - and thus the starting point I always recommend for my clients - is very close to Paleo and/or Whole30. (These two diets are similar enough that I will refer to them interchangeably as “Paleo”).
Why recommend these? They are fairly common and well-known protocols, which makes shopping, eating out, and explaining your choices to others a little less cumbersome. Neither of them require complicated mental math and constant measuring or counting, which is not realistic to sustain over the course of your lifetime. Unlike veganism, raw food diets, and others, Paleo provides a broad spectrum of nutrients in bioavailable form, so you can stay on it for life without depleting key nutrient stores. Emphasizing quality, whole, unprocessed proteins, fats, and complex carbs, while eliminating the most common irritants of grains, dairy, sugar, and processed foods (and I would add pesticides, caffeine, and alcohol), will get most people 90% of where they want to go. We’re addressing the easy, obvious, low-hanging fruit at this stage.
Step 2: After at least 2 weeks on your Paleo/Whole30 plan, start noticing what still isn’t working for you.
Re-adjusting your eating habits away from the SAD model - and towards a more Paleo model - alone may bring you enough relief and healing that you settle in and decide to simply stick with that moving forward. If you have no other pre-existing health concerns at play, that may well be enough. Often, though, it needs a little customization and fine tuning. To borrow a phrase from the inimitable Chris Kresser, approaches like Whole30 and Paleo are simply a “template.” Truly dialing in your diet for optimal health is an absolutely individual process.
Every one of you has your own unique needs, preferences, sensitivities, and goals that need to be identified and worked into your personal food plan. Particularly if you are someone who is seeking dietary solutions for more complicated and advanced symptoms, you will likely benefit from additional customizations that address your particular situation (and yes, that does mean more food limitations). Keep a journal of what you’re eating alongside your energy, mood, and physical/digestive reactions, noticing where trends emerge around any lingering negative symptoms.
Step 3: Based on your remaining concerns and symptoms, while maintaining your Paleo baseline, try out some more advanced eliminations and reintroductions.
For example, for clients with autoimmune or pre-autoimmune symptoms - like celiac, rheumatoid arthritis, eczema, chronic pain and fatigue, hypothyroid concerns, leaky gut, etc - the Autoimmune Paleo protocol (AIP) starts from a basic Paleo approach but then cuts out many of the inflammatory veggies and spices that would otherwise be allowed in the Paleo paradigm.
Another one that works wonders is the low FODMAP diet for IBS sufferers. Starting with a Paleo diet and then additionally cutting out foods high in these rapidly fermentable sugars often brings quick relief.
Even approaches like AIP and low FODMAP are themselves simply templates (albeit more specialized), and advocate individual food reintroduction tests to figure out your own specific triggers.
Step 4: Reach out for support.
The phase of trial and error with reintroductions is where even the most savvy and determined people can begin to get discouraged and truly overwhelmed in trying to heal on their own - I know I did! Especially for those suffering from chronic and widespread “mystery” ailments, it’s easy to get sucked into a cycle of hopelessness if some of your symptoms persist in spite of your Herculean efforts and discipline.
Often taking a time out to compassionately appreciate how far you’ve already come is the most healing gift you can give yourself in those moments. This is also a great time (if not sooner) to seek out an expert who can support you and guide the way. Whether you choose a naturopath, functional medicine practitioner, or nutritional therapist, simply having somebody knowledgeable in your corner can make all the difference.
Step 5: Be nice to yourself. Seriously.
Regardless of how complex or simple your nutrition needs may turn out to be, I want to re-frame how we think about diets. Our culture so commonly associates diets with deprivation, shaming and punishing and “fixing” ourselves to be better and more desirable.
What if, instead, we approached our bodies from a place of genuine appreciation and love? My daily challenge to myself, and to you, is to make choices about food (and relationships, beliefs, habits) that reflect sincere gratitude for the wondrous strength and complexity and capability we all possess - and a loving desire to fuel that vitality in the best way we know how.