Our food supply and eating behaviors have changed dramatically in recent decades. Nutrient-dense and nutrient-poor foods are abundant and the ways we consume them are more diverse than ever. Add in the flood of information about the food we eat, as well as the numerous crowds of people telling us when/what/how/why to eat it, and it's easy to see why so many of us are left scratching our heads.
Some governments have recognized the confusion and tried to help out:
Belgium's food guide advises us to make foods derived from plants the foundation of every meal.
The Swedish National Food Agency has highlighted plant-foods and healthy oils as a significant weapon in the fight against cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and certain types of cancer.
In 2017, the Canadian government released a draft of their new food guide and has placed an emphasis on plant-based foods and downplayed the stature previously given to meat and dairy products. The final guide is expected to be released in 2019.
Notice something? In each of these cases, and in other regional, national and international initiatives, the emphasis is on a "plant-based diet". This phrase means different things to different people. To one individual, a "plant-based diet" means that 100% of food intake comes from plants. To another, it means the elimination of animal flesh from a diet while preserving consumption of dairy and eggs. To yet another, it means eating animal-derived products in small amounts. And to someone else, a "plant-based diet" is equivalent to a diet devoid of highly processed foods.
Whatever it means to different people, the effect is the same: people are transitioning to plant-based diets. Why? Partly because a plant-based diet doesn't have any tribal affiliations. A plant-based diet isn't an all-out war against sugar, against carbohydrates, against fats, against non-organic produce, against dairy, against meat, or against any other thing that is blamed for the ill health of modern society.
Another reason for the transition is that people are seeing first-hand, and learning from trusted sources, that a plant-based diet has a positive impact on the health of individuals and of the global ecosystem we depend on. For example:
Many vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are nutrient-dense.
Fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds are all rich in fiber. Fiber plays a critical role in feeding our gut bacteria, improving digestion, stabilizing blood sugar levels and improving the removal of waste substances from the body.
Many plants have a high content of antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds found in certain foods that appear to fight against the cell-damaging effects of molecules called free-radicals. Antioxidants can safely interact with free radicals and stabilize or neutralize them, preventing damage to cells and organs.
Plants have been found to offer surprising amounts of protein, thus negating the need for other foods like meat or dairy.
Globally, a more plant-heavy diet could alleviate concerns about animal welfare in the production of meat and dairy. Fewer people consuming these products means less intensive farming and an uptick in the animal's quality of life.
Environmentally, non-plant foodstuffs require more energy in production and more energy in transit. Plant-based diets, especially those focused on locally sourced produce, mitigate the environmental cost of food production and shipping.
Of course, it's easy to know this. It's harder to do something about it. Because it's not just an energy-balance equation we are after. Nobody wants to worry about how many calories they should eat each day, or how many hours they need to spend preparing food each week, or how many minutes they need to exercise. But we all want to benefit from being more active. We all want to be able to properly fuel our daily routines. And we all want to feel the physical and mental vitality that comes from a better lifestyle.
I've experienced this myself. Once I started running and training for my first marathon I realized the importance of good fuel for my workouts. In the beginning, I focused more on the quantity of food and the timing of its consumption. But at some point I realized that the quality of my diet was also having a great impact on my training and performance. So I started taking some time to plan and prepare my meals.
Consistency was a challenge. I have a busy life, a busy schedule, people (and a dog) to take care of, and a job. I realized that if I didn't take the time to create and follow a simple system that incorporates these new actions as a part of my life, not an optional add-on, then I can only stick to them for a short period of time before I go back to my old ways. Because of this realization I've spent the past few years reading books, searching through studies and blogs, listening to podcasts and digesting audio books. I've completed several courses and, finally, I've decided to develop my own program.
It took a while but I learned that when it comes to nutrition and food, it does not need to be perfect. Small steps and little actions can have a great impact on our well-being. First, you have to focus on the changes you want to make and ignore some of the most common misconceptions about what you should and must do. For example:
There is no "best diet". And if there is, it probably doesn't have a slick name that boosts the brand and wealth of its creator.
It takes time to adjust to nutritional changes. Weeks and months, maybe even years. Not days. Small and gradual change isn't sexy, but it's the only sustainable way to make changes.
"Superfoods" aren't super in isolation. One superfood cannot offset an otherwise poor diet. Your diet as a whole matters more than its individual components.
Labels like "whole grain", "organic", "natural" and "real" are marketing tools. They tell you more about the audience the food product is aimed at than the food itself. Look past them. Organic-all-natural chocolate ice cream made with real chocolate is still ice cream. And like everything in life, you will have to moderate your indulgence.
There are many more. Enough for multiple books. But once you start to recognize them and give up on the dream of the perfect lifestyle and the perfect body, another question comes to mind: How I can make this work for me? How can I easily implement the changes I choose to make?
Again, the answers are many. But they are all built atop a simple foundation: a system that assesses where you are, where you want to be, and the tools, processes and tasks available to help you bridge the gap. Calendars, schedules, goal setting techniques, evaluation of the allocation of resources, quantification of food and eating habits, improvement of your eating environment, explorations of the impact of food preparation and consumption on the local and global environment. All of these things, and more, could be what you need.
This is a lot to think about. I know that. So I've made it my goal to share information, resources and tools that will help you move from reading and researching to doing and feeling. I've made it my goal to help you build a system that keeps you accountable, enables you to stay committed and helps you to make change. A system that closes the gap between "know" and "do".
In the process, I'll steer clear of words like "perfect", "pure" and "clean". I'll assist your efforts to become the best you can be. I'll help you acknowledge the inevitable mistakes, instead of fearing them before they come and denying them when they arrive. These moments, which are often perceived as failures, lead to self-blame and doubt. And when we feel those things it is easy to revert to old, comfortable behaviors. But we can make friends of these "failures" and use them to our advantage, welcoming them as an integral part of the process.
In future posts I'll talk about creating such a system and dealing with the inevitable roadblocks that rise up when someone tries to change their life for the better.