I had gotten tired of all of it, so several years ago, I began researching diet and nutrition for myself. What I found may surprise and shock some of you, to others, it may help explain why you are/aren't overweight despite following or not following the nutrition guidlines from the US gov't.
The first thing to know about the gov't guidelines is that they're created by the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), an agency created to help farmers grow crops, and raise livestock. Just think about that for a minute. While "food safety" is one of the tasks assigned to the USDA, nutrition and public health are not part of it's charter. There is an obvious conflict of interest in supporting the food producers and promoting healthy (not over-weight or obese) food consumers.
I'm not claiming any kind of conspiracy here, much of the information about what constitutes a healthy diet has been revised in the last 30 years, so guidelines created in the '50s-'70s won't be the best. The current USDA "My Plate" guidelines are definitely better than their earlier guidelines, so they have been improving. However, research on nutrition for how to raise livestock for food (i.e. reach maturity and size as quickly as practical) does not directly apply to keeping humans healthy for 70-100 years. And because consumers eating less food isn't in the charter of the USDA or the best interests of food producers, you should always be a bit skeptical about nutrition and eating guidelines from the USDA.
What about diets?
There are thousands of "diet" plans marketed: rapid weight loss diets, crash diets, low-carb, ultra low-carb, fat-free, low-fat, high-fat, high-protein, low-calorie, low-glycemic index, vegetarian, vegan, fasting, "cleanses", "detox" plans, organic foods, raw foods, whole foods, etc, and dozens or hundreds of each of those. Which one is right? At some level, all of them work for some people, so you could say they're all "right". Few if any of them work for everyone, so you could say they're almost all "wrong". Some of them are also very hard to follow, some don't provide enough of certain nutrients, and some can even be dangerous. I'm not going to tell you which diet to choose, or to choose a diet at all.
All I will offer about specific diets is that moderate carbohydrate, moderate protein, moderate fat diets with plenty of vegetables are what I've found work most effectively for the majority of people. You will see that type of diet easily fits into these guidelines. It's also an easy diet to follow as there are no foods that are prohibited, just some that you have to limit the quantity.
Diets can work to lose weight or address a specific issue, but diets as such don't keep you healthy. Only changing your eating habits can do that. This is not a diet.
For those who are curious, my personal diet is basically from "Eat Right 4 Your Type" by Dr Peter D'Adamo. I was initially very skeptical about the idea that blood type and diet were related, but after reading the theory and science behind it, I thought it sounded plausible. Then, I looked at the specific recommendations for my blood type, I found that it matched very closely to what I had already discovered worked well for keeping me healthy (even though it conflicts with most advice about diet and nutrition). I'm still a uncertain about the connection, but my weight and blood tests show me to be very healthy, so I still say it's plausible. I don't receive anything for promoting that diet/book, it's just what I found works well for me. Using that info, and my recommendations below, I lost about 22lbs (10kg) from the weight I was in the photo on this blog, and I've kept that weight off for years. Your results may differ.
What about organic foods, whole foods, and raw foods?
Remember, I said I wasn't going to get into the specifics of diets. The same applies to these movements. Perhaps I'll address them in another discussion. But for now, I'll just say that these guidelines work whether you're buying these types of foods or not. Buy what you're comfortable eating.
Healthy eating habits:
I'm here to talk about healthy eating habits, guidelines for eating that work with your body. Some, maybe all, of what I present here is information you've heard before. However, very few people have stressed just how important these things are. Let me be clear, these habits are every bit as important as what, and how much, you eat.
These guidelines are designed to speed up your metabolism, minimize the impact on blood sugar, work with your body's daily rythms, and keep your body from initiating "starvation reactions" that cause it to store fat. The "most important" guidelines are listed first, but that doesn't mean the later ones don't matter, they're just more flexible.
You can apply these to almost any diet or no diet at all. These guidelines work with unrestricted diets, calorie restricted diets, carbohydrate restricted diets, diabetic diets, high protein diets, vegetarian or vegan diets, etc. There are few specific foods recommended or restricted, and no food is prohibited, it's about timing, moderation, and balance. These guidelines will tend to naturally limit your caloric intake, although some people may need to impose limits on their calorie consumption, at least when first adopting these habits.
Yes, I realize that these guidelines may disagree with many of the things you've been taught about a "balanced diet". Consider how well that diet has worked for you. For the US overall, it hasn't worked out well. Many people have followed these guidelines and found them to be very effective.
I am not a nutritionist or health professional. If you have any concerns about the safety or appropriateness of these guidelines for yourself, discuss them with your own nutritionist or health professional. If you choose to start a diet, restrict calories, adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet, etc, consult a nutritionist and/or health professional first. This is particularly true of vegetarian, vegan, or any diet that severely limits carbs, protein, meat, or fats, or severely limits calories. On those types of diets, it's more challenging to ensure you're getting enough of the essential nutrients, and a professional can help make sure you do.
- Eat at least 3 times per day: 4-6 times is better. Use small servings. Never skip breakfast, if you're not hungry, eat a snack or small meal anyway (unless you still feel full from the previous meal/snack). If you regularly feel full from the previous meal/snack, you're probably eating too large a meal.
Do not skip meals, eat a light snack at meal time if you're not hungry. Do not eat until you feel full, eat less than you think you want, then wait 5-10 minutes before deciding if you need more. Better to stop early, and eat an extra meal/snack later if necessary. If you feel full at any point, stop eating. Never "stuff yourself". Once you've been following these habits for a while, skipping an occasional meal (1-3 meals a week on different days) shouldn't cause a problem, but don't make a habit of eating fewer than 3 meals spread throughout the day. Remember, small meals/snacks 3-6 times every day.
Update: The latest research suggests that eating more frequently makes no difference. Statistically, that's probably correct overall. However, for a large number of people, it does appear to make a difference. It's worth trying if you're having trouble with maintaining or losing weight.
- Eat your carbohydrates early: Eat 40%-50% of your daily carbohydrates before lunch (or your mid-day meal), and no more than 25% of them within 4 hours of bedtime. Have more protein and fats at meals later in the day as these are digested and absorbed more slowly and have less impact on blood sugar. Reducing carbs in the evening also seems to help reduce "acid reflux".
- Drink plenty of filtered water daily: For adults, at least 50oz (1.5L) daily, target 67oz (2L) to 100oz(3L), and up to 135oz (4L), in addition to other beverages you may drink. Do NOT drink all the water at one time, spread it out over the day. If you live or work outdoors, in a hot environment, in a dry climate, or perform strenuous labor or exercise, you may need more water and/or fluids that keep you hydrated and keep your electrolyte levels at a safe level. Note that it is possible to drink too much water and deplete your system of critical water soluble nutrients such as sodium and potassium, this can be life threatening. Consult a health professional to determine an appropriate amount before consuming more than 4L of water in a day.
See the updates below for some potential risks of drinking too much fluid.
- Limit sugars: Avoid high-fructose corn sweetener (HFCS), corn syrup, "invert sugar", agave nectar, honey, concentrated grape juice, concentrated apple juice. Fructose and fructose/glucose blends are processed by the body differently than is sucrose ("regular" or "real sugar"). Also avoid all artificial sweeteners. Grape juice high in fructose, apple juice is somewhat better, but still higher than desired.
Why limit agave nectar and honey, aren't they supposed to be healthier? Chemically, their sugar content is similar to that of HFCS, primarily separated fructose and glucose. Agave nectar is nearly as artificial as HFCS. While they may be slightly better than HFCS, they're not healthy sweeteners. See HFCS significantly worse than sucrose study or summary article. And another source.
For sweeteners, stick with real sugar (sucrose, raw sugar, turbinado, evaporated cane juice, white sugar, brown sugar), stevia, or limited amounts of honey.
Watch out for "low fat" foods unless they're "natually low in fat". Most "low fat" foods substitute sugars and starches for the fats in order to make them taste better while being able to claim "low fat". Sugars and starches have a greater impact on blood sugar than fats so that substition may be worse for your body.
- Limit consumption of sweet fruits and fruit juices: They can be significant sources of sugars. Apple, pear, mango, and papaya are "sweet" fruits that either don't have much sugars, or have a reasonable ratio of fructose to sucrose, so they're good options for sweet fruits. Grapes, oranges, bananas and most other sweet fruits should be limited.
- Limit potatoes and other starchy vegetables. Eat all the non-starchy or low-starch vegetables you want.
- Get sufficient protein: Eat seeds, nuts, fish, and/or meats sufficient to get your protein. Most beans and soy products are also good protein sources, however, they may also be a source of starches. Soy can act as an "estrogen mimic", so you should limit soy products.
Get sufficient omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Several types of fish and "fish oil" are good sources, as are chicken (fats), chia seeds and certain other seeds and vegetables, but most fruits, nuts, and vegetables are not good sources of these essential brain nutrients. This is of particular concern with vegetarian and vegan diets.
- Eat grains in moderation: These tend to be high in starches. Whole grains are generally a better choice, having more fiber and nutrients, however, some whole grains are higher in oxalic acid, so some whole grains may be inappropriate for people who have had calcium-oxalate kidney stones. Rice, oats, and barley are generally preferrable to wheat and corn. Yes, I realize the wheat and corn are the two major grain crops in the US, and that it's almost "heresy" to suggest limiting them, not to mention they're so prevalent that they're nearly impossible to avoid completely. They're also two foods to which many people have an allergy or intolerance.
- Limit eggs and dairy products: You don't need any of these, it's possible to get all the calcium and other nutrients you need from non-dairy foods. You can eat these foods in limited quantities. Cheese is a good source of calcium, and most cheeses (except soft cheeses such as cottage cheese, cream cheese, "farmer's cheese", etc.) are relatively low in lactose because the enzymes that make the cheese consume most of the lactose. Many people who are moderately lactose intolerant can tolerate 1-2 oz of cheese daily.
- Listen to your body: When you have a "craving", it's usualy a sign that your body needs a particular nutrient. If you eat something with that nutrient, it will satifsy the craving, usually quickly. When you have a craving, first stop and think about various foods noting which ones "sound" best, then try a small amount of one of those foods. If it contains the nutrient(s) your body seeks, it will likely taste "better than it normally does" and will be very satisfying. If that's not it, you should know in the first couple bites. Stop, and repeat the process until you find the food that satisfies. Over time, you'll find that certain cravings recur, and you'll be able to identify them more quickly and go straight for the foods (or vitamin/mineral supplements) that will satisfy them.
- Don't go to bed full: Don't drink much in the couple hours before bed, that includes water. Too much liquid in your stomach can trigger or aggravate acid reflux. Never go to bed on a full stomach. Wait a couple hours after eating, and at least until that full feeling is gone before going to bed. While this is particularly important for those who have had issues with acid reflux or GERD, it's good advice for everyone. It may also affect blood glucose levels, so it may be particularly useful for diabetics or those who are significantly overweight.
Study links HFCS to autism. Of greatest interest are HFCS effects on the absorption of key minerals, and the metabolic effects that may have.
Updates: 2012-01-24 @ 5pm MST - Seems there are other risks to drinking too much water.
2012-01-29 @ 1:15am MST - added links to HFCS vs sucrose study.
2012-04-04 @ 9:50am MDT - added link to another article on the effects of HFCS. 2012-04-10 @ 11:55pm EDT - added "Don't go to bed full" item.