When it comes to nutrition, moderation simply isn't sexy. What grabs our attention and our clicks are headlines like "The poison lurking in your kitchen," as if we're one bite away from death, and "Why you must eat this exotic superfood," as if we're one bite away from a miracle.
Unfortunately, these alluring-but-false promises distract us from a more moderate, and ultimately more successful, path to better health. A balanced eating plan that offers both nutrition and pleasure can help you be your best while actually allowing you to enjoy your food — no extremism required. What's sexier — or saner — than that?
It was interesting to see the reaction to the September publication of two research papers that reinforced the wisdom of moderation. The PURE (Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology) study looked at the habits and health of 135,000 people in 18 countries on five continents. Researchers found that the healthiest individuals ate diets rich in fruits, vegetables and beans, while being low in refined carbohydrates and sugar. Other than the somewhat surprising finding that the health benefits of vegetables topped out at three to four servings per day, all of this is in line with a moderate diet as defined by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
Headlines about the research painted a different picture, stating that the study "casts doubt" on the conventional wisdom about fats, carbs, fruits and vegetables and that it was "shaking up" the field of nutrition. Even the accompanying commentary that ran in the Lancet, the journal that published the findings, said "PURE study challenges the definition of a healthy diet."
Trouble is, when you look at the current definition of a healthy diet, it pretty much matches the PURE findings. The researchers did find that high-carbohydrate diets were associated with a 28 percent higher risk of dying during the study. But we're talking 77 percent carbs, which has never been part of the definition of a healthy diet, in part because it leaves little room for adequate protein and healthy fats. Speaking of fat, the PURE results suggest that total fat intake of about 35 percent of calories isn't associated with risk of heart attack or death due to cardiovascular disease, but expert consensus for many years has been that low-fat diets aren't the way to go.
Looking at the PURE data, it appears that a diet of about 45 percent carbohydrates, 35 percent total fat and 20 percent protein is associated with the lowest risk of dying prematurely. Sounds pretty moderate to me. The study's principal investigator, Salim Yusif, even said that "moderation in most aspects of diet is to be preferred, as opposed to very low or very high intakes of most nutrients." So, other than the lure of new and shiny promises, what keeps us from the path of moderation? These are some common obstacles:
Having no idea what you're really eating: Unless you are mindful and aware of what and how much you are eating — and many people aren't — it's easy to think you're eating moderately when you're not. For example, you may say, "I have dessert only a few nights a week," but forget that you grab a cookie, cupcake or doughnut every time someone brings a box into work. Keeping a food journal for a few weeks to gain an objective look at your eating patterns can be illuminating.
Not planning for the long journey: Cultivating healthy lifestyle habits like good nutrition and regular physical activity takes consistent effort, especially if you have some deeply entrenched less-than-healthy habits. It's frustrating when you feel like you are putting in the effort but not seeing immediate payoff. Start thinking of nutrition and health as a lifelong journey — with occasional detours and temporary roadblocks — rather than a race to the finish line.
All-or-nothing thinking: Feeling that anything short of perfection represents failure and isn't worth doing can also block all progress while you drive yourself nuts in the pursuit of the perfect diet. Perfection is the enemy of progress. Start small, start today and keep moving forward. You can't go wrong with consistently eating more vegetables and less sugar and reducing distractions while you eat.
Being swayed by diet trends: Moderate eaters eat in a way that suits their lifestyle and supports health, and don't feel the need to jump on each dietary bandwagon that passes by. They pay attention to nutrition news but are fairly immune to sensational claims. They know that no particular way of eating is right for all people all the time. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing you've always done and expecting different results. If you have a long history of adopting — then ditching — the latest diet fad without seeing any lasting improvements to health or well-being, why would you try it again?
Having an unhealthy relationship with food: Eating healthfully is about more than the food you put on your fork. How you think and feel about your eating habits can be as important as the food itself. When food or the act of eating goes hand in hand with stress or guilt or fear, it's not good for your body or your mind. It's one of the factors that drives people to extremes — either restriction or excess, but often both — with their eating.
Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of Nutrition by Carrie.