DEFINING A HEALTHY DIET: PART 6 - DIETARY HEALTH MYTHS; BUSTED.
This article forms part 6 of a health and wellness series on diet.
Part 1 discusses dietary guidelines and components.
Part 2-5 reviews 24 popular diet plans across 7 major dietary categories.
6 Dietary Health Myths; Busted.
Diet is not all it’s cracked up to be!
Several health campaigns of the last few decades have turned out to be myths, as highlighted by the pointers below:
1. A Healthy Diet Equates a Healthy Body
A healthy diet does not necessarily mean that one is healthy. There are many cases where unhealthy foods are allowed to be consumed while on a diet plan; however these foods do nothing to improve overall health and may even detract from it. This is particularly true when adopting an extreme point of view, such as basing one’s diet solely off of lowering calories.
Getting results from a healthy diet plan is more than just towing the dietary guidelines. It requires making an effort to embody the health principles behind the diet.
Furthermore, a person’s diet may be an important part of enhancing their health and well-being, but it isn’t likely to be the only one. Psychosocial input, physical activity, sunlight exposure, circadian rhythm, sleep quality, and hygiene are some other epigenetic factors that are known to influence cellular metabolism and the state of our genes, to name only a few.
In other words, following a healthy diet plan will do little for health if not accompanied by a healthy lifestyle.
2. The “Best Diet” for Everyone
A scientific report also highlights how the healthiest diet plans tend to have major overlap in what is expected. Varied diets low in processed foods and higher in plant-based foods are all associated with similar health promotion benefits.
Having too much of any one single component of the diet due to its health-promoting effects is an exaggeration on the benefits of those nutrients. This is a common mistake that those attempting health diets make and it stands in the way of implementing the diet successfully.
Essential nutrients are required all together, as that is how they work in the body. One cannot single them out for a specific health benefit, when it is usually the case that they require other essential nutrients in order to perform the function. This is another reason why a varied, yet highly nutritious diet is very important to ensure optimal health and well-being.
3. Cholesterol is Not the Villain
Cholesterol was made out to be the enemy of health for many years, receiving one of the worst reputations with regard to cardiovascular disease. Contrary to this long-held opinion, cholesterol is a vital substrate that our body makes on mass. It is a basic building block for many important compounds such as neurotransmitters and hormones that ensure essential functions are carried out at the cellular level. In this way, cholesterol can detract or enhance health by being foundational to cellular growth, repair, communication and turnover.
There are different types of cholesterols in the body, classified by their density and function. Over the last couple of decades, it was seen that only some types of cholesterol are bad for our health, while others are good. The Western diet promoted a cholesterol profile indicative of high LDL and low HDL, which gave rise to health trends advocating the lowering of LDL and boosting HDL cholesterol. This understanding is also misleading. It is now acknowledged that all types of cholesterol form part of a spectrum and that we require healthy levels of each type. Too much or not enough makes one prone to health problems, particularly in the cardiovascular system.
Low LDL cholesterol is an issue that appears to have arisen from these cholesterol-cutting trends, which has resulted in the resurgence of consuming healthy saturated fats. Contrary to popular belief, having LDL cholesterol on the higher end of healthy ranges is conducive to improved health in senescence.
Current evidence reveals that having very low cholesterol levels may be associated with worse outcomes than having very high levels.
Another myth pertaining to cholesterol is that dietary cholesterol affects the cholesterol levels within the body. Many studies prove that consuming a diet high in cholesterol does not increase cholesterol levels unless there is already a pre-existing metabolic imbalance or a cholesterol deficiency.
4. Counting Calories is Not Foolproof
The concept of calories as a way of assessing dietary energy is becoming obsolete. Due to the way in which energy and cellular metabolism depend largely upon dietary nutrient intake, it is misleading to think in terms of calories.
Many foods high in calories detract from the body’s ability to produce energy and other compounds at the cellular level.
Likewise, high calorie foods that are healthy for our cells also do not necessarily mean that one will put on weight by consuming them. The ketogenic diet (a high fat, high calorie diet) highlights this as it tends to promote weight loss when followed in a healthy manner.
5. Macro Does Not Trump Micro
Many people want to know if they should focus on carbohydrates, fats or proteins, increasing or decreasing their intake of these major nutrient groups. The problem with this line of thinking is that macro nutrient ratios are far too generalized and do little to sum up what makes a diet healthy.
In fact, macro nutrients can be seen as major categories that house many foods that each possesses a wealth of micronutrients. It is these micronutrients that constitute our nutritional status. Thinking in terms of macro nutrients does not help to promote dietary variety and is a common pitfall when approaching one’s diet. One needs to consume a variety of foods in order to meet nutritional requirements, including that of the essential micronutrients we need.
When looking at the micronutrients in foods, the macro nutrient ratios begin to make more sense. Many people would benefit from changing around the ratios of macro nutrients in favor of bumping up specific micronutrients to meet their metabolic needs.
6. Excessive Weight is Not the Person’s Inability to Control Their Impulses
There are many models of obesity that accompany theories behind the weight loss results seen with fad weight loss diets. One of them is fueled by a line of research that shows the hormonal and neurological changes seen in those with obesity are linked with reduced impulse control and increased release of the hunger hormone, ghrelin, resulting in a higher consumption of unhealthy fattening foods and a resistance towards physical activity. This line of thinking is a partially exaggerated view that undermines an overweight individual’s will and ability to lose weight. It is also not the only hypothesis for obesity.
Many obese individuals have tried restricting what they eat as well as increasing their physical activity levels; and are still unable to get results. This is because the nature of the condition is metabolic,  which produces chemical changes in cells that affect the way fat, and often glucose, are metabolized. Multiple factors are able to contribute towards forming this metabolic imbalance and most of them are synonymous with an unhealthy Western lifestyle.
Readily available processed foods tend to promote deficits in energy metabolism. These foods are affordable, easily satiating, very high in calories, low in nutrients and tend to have artificial additives that directly promote weight gain. The Western lifestyle encourages consuming this type of food, emphasizing maximum productivity with minimal time for focusing on one’s health and well-being.
Studies have revealed that satiety is linked with the nutrient density of foods. This highlights how foods low in nutrients and high in calories are not filling and promote the energy imbalance seen in obesity and other metabolic syndromes. All these factors and more have led to much frustration amongst obese individuals that try their best to lose weight.
When to consult a professional about your diet
Not everyone needs to consult a nutritionist or dietician in order to improve their diets. Many people see better results by merely including a wider variety of healthy foods in their eating patterns. However, if one is still struggling in spite of following a diet perceived as healthy, then it is recommended to get professional advice.
Furthermore, once the metabolism becomes unbalanced, it may not be as simple as making healthier lifestyle choices in order to bring it back into balance. An unbalanced metabolism is indicative of disease and certainly increases the risk of acquiring disease substantially. A deeper understanding of the unique condition of the individual is often required to know what precise dietary and lifestyle interventions may improve metabolism and other health parameters. This is where seeking the help of an experienced professional is highly advisable.
Dietary Review Takeaways
Based off the findings of this review, a healthy diet can be defined as:
- Consisting of a wide variety of wholefoods that ensures a balanced intake of all essential nutrients as well as enough fiber to sustain optimal digestive function.
- An environmental factor that has a lasting positive impact on health and well-being through epigenetic interactions.
Physical activity can optimize the benefits of consuming a healthy diet.
Quality over Quantity
- Quality of foods consumed affects their nutrient density, with organic and wild wholefoods containing more nutrients than processed varieties
- The nutritional profile of a food is more important to assess than the calories present in the food.
- Processed foods tend to be low in nutrients and may contain harmful additives.
- Cutting out refined foods is beneficial for health.
- A predominantly plant-based wholefood diet with a limited animal product intake is associated with better health outcomes.
- Increasing consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables improves nutritional status and is associated with reducing disease risk as well as longevity.
Anti-Nutrients May Detract
- Leafy green vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, legumes, grains, nightshades, and tannin-rich tea are all relatively high in anti-nutrients (goitrogens, oxalates, phytates, and lectins) that may detract from nutrient absorption.
- Cooking these foods for 10 mins or longer may decrease the anti-nutrient content.
- A diet that balances consumption of raw food and cooked food is better for well-being than a completely raw or cooked food diet.
- Certain gut microbes reduce anti-nutrient content and increase nutrient levels.
Fats Are Healthy
- Diets higher in omega-3 than omega-6 fats are associated with much better health outcomes.
- A higher level of unsaturated fat ought to be consumed than saturated fat.
- Moderate consumption of healthy saturated fats is needed in the diet to keep cholesterol levels in balance.
- Nutritionally balanced, high fat diets consisting of healthy fats are not associated with weight gain or cardiovascular disease.
- Very high protein diets are dangerous and lead to the worst health outcomes.
- Protein requirements are relative to the level of physical activity of a person, with athletes generally needing a larger intake than average.
Diet is certainly a powerful tool that can be used to influence well-being for better or for worse.
Genetics are the main determinant of whether a diet is suited to the individual or not. Due to the complex nature of dietary interactions with genetics, it is currently impossible to delineate what diet is best for every person on the planet. As our understanding of epigenetics and development of medical technology improves, perfect personalized nutrition will become less complicated and more automated.
Nevertheless, current available evidence reveals that there are over-arching dietary trends associated with reduced disease risk and better overall outcomes. As highlighted throughout this review, incorporating these principles into one’s diet serves to improve upon one’s health and well-being.
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