do we really need to “avoid” certain foods?

Breaking News: Fruit is not the enemy!

As a physician, I see a large number of people with medical conditions strongly correlated with nutrition and lifestyle choices. From diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, obesity, etc, etc….the list goes on and on. And while some of these people are searching for that magic pill that solves all of their problems, a larger proportion are truly motivated to make changes in their diet to help them improve their health. I will often have people tell me “I’ve been following [insert diet here] and I still can’t lose weight!” The “diets” that I seem to be hearing more and more of thanks to social media are paleo, keto, vegan/vegetarian, anything low carb, and of course good ole intermittent fasting. Now I know there are people that live by these regimens and will claim that these diets work wonderfully and will defend them to the grave. That’s fine. I am not denying that these eating habits work for some and they are disciplined enough to never fall off their “diet” train. But for the majority of people this isn’t the case, and the biggest problem I see is people trying to follow strictly prescribed diets which ultimately means restricting foods and creating a list of “good” and “bad” foods. This creates an unhealthy relationship with food that leads to guilt when one slips up and eats something that isn’t on their “list.” I do think there are good aspects in a lot of these diets that can be combined to form a lifestyle change;  a way of utilizing food to fuel the body for one’s specific goals. The only way to reach true health is to adapt a lifestyle that incorporates nutrition, physical activity, stress management, adequate sleep, and emotional and mental well being. If you are following a diet that leaves you stressed out, emotionally labile, and sleep deprived, are you really doing your body any favors because the scale moved down two or three pounds?

 

I have experienced this personally. During residency, I thought I would try the keto diet, basically an extremely low carb diet that would purportedly turn my body into a fat burning machine. Sure, I was still training for marathons and triathlons, but I had found articles that this could actually help me! It would allow my body to burn fat better for these long endurance races when my body would become reliant on fat for fuel. In my head I knew this was ridiculous. I knew that carbohydrates were the preferred fuel for athletic performance. Yet I experimented with it anyway. I had a list of “foods to avoid.” Those awful carbs that would turn me into an unhealthy blob. You know, like fruits and whole grains. I mean, eat all the butter and bacon you want, but just say no to bananas. Sounds ridiculous right? Sure, I actually did lose a few pounds. This was likely all water weight since each gram of carbohydrates holds about an additional four grams of water. But another thing happened as well. My workouts suffered incredibly. I would try to run at a pace that was previously easy for me and found myself winded from the beginning. I lifted lighter at the gym because I had no energy. I struggled through HIIT workouts. Oh…and I was irritated all the time, a combination of poor sleep and low blood sugar on a consistent basis. After three months I gave it up and went back to eating a more balanced diet. Within a week I noticed the difference. I could run and bike again, I could make it through high intensity work outs, and I had energy that motivated me to push myself at the gym. I actually felt healthy again. Yeah I gained a few pounds,  but this again was likely water weight and possibly some lean muscle mass as I was able to have stronger work out sessions. And I felt great. Being healthy is not about a number on a scale, its about finding a lifestyle that combines nutrition and fitness to achieve one’s goals. It’s not about having a list of foods to avoid and foods to eat. There are no “good” and “bad” foods, just different ways to utilize foods as fuel and adapt a way of healthy living.  So next time you see an article with the title “13 Foods to Avoid to Lose Weight and Feel Great”, please don’t click on that link. Trust me, your answer to healthy living isn’t about avoiding a banana for breakfast in lieu of butter coffee.

 

Check out my breakdown of some of the more popular diets that are being touted today in my post  “Atkins, Keto, Paleo, Vegan: Breaking Down the Newest Fad Diets.”

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