20 November 2015

Why a balanced diet is wrong

“Everything in moderation” is a term that gets thrown around too frequently. It’s not exactly bad advice. The idea that you shouldn’t gorge on any one particular food, nor will a teaspoon of any other food bring about instant death. That being said, it does create an over simplified idea of how to handle nutrition and, worse than that, often comes built with the many erroneous byproducts of the conventional wisdom that has created the obesity, diabetes, cancer, dementia and Alzheimer's epidemics currently under way. Below are a couple of infographics that I’ve come across lately, promoting false information. I thought it may be interesting to pretend I’m a teacher and make the necessary corrections and provide some feedback.

Here is a very traditional diagram of a “balanced diet” that has been floating throughout the internet lately, and have seen many times over the years - I’ve taken the liberty of adding feedback I feel is important - correcting the errors of conventional wisdom and the decades old and flat-out wrong USDA food pyramid.

The reality is that some foods are healthy, some are not and the rest are somewhere in between these two. Further, the sources, production methods and even combinations of foods matter as well. Sugars in local fruits aren’t the same sugars in baked goods. Nutrients in spinach that is eaten as part of a salad don’t equal the same ingredients blended as a drink. You get the idea. Health, especially in regards to nutrition is a complex quantum of factors that react differently in different situations for different people.

Next we have a much more engaging diagram, not only guiding viewers through a balanced diet but also providing insights on somewhat well-known nutrition trending diets such as gluten-free, juicing, and paleo. The delivery is excellent and, as it’s pointed out there are several strong points of truth - but again there’s an overall theme of “everything in moderation” as if the tried and true “eat plenty of complex carbohydrates and cut out as much fat as possible” is throughout the graphic.

The confusion comes in prioritizing healthy food. What does a healthy meal look like? What should there be most of? How often of each type of food should there be? These are the simplest questions to answer and unfortunately, involve the most confusion amongst people. Here is the fairly loose set of proportions we try to live by in our house. I say “loose” in that it’s very much flexible.

The largest portion - vegetables (note: held separate from fruits) - is a large part of every actual meal. In other words, whenever a dish is involved and eating is the main action being taken, there are plenty of colourful vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, asparagus, capsicum, lettuce, spinach, etc. Visually, there are more of these than anything else for every sit down meal.


Second place - good fats and oils, and meat, fish, fowl and eggs - occupies most real meals as well. We cook with ghee, butter or coconut oil as close to 100% of the time as we can and whenever sauce or dressing is concerned, olive, almond, or macadamia oil are used. As far as animal flesh goes, local, grass-fed and organic takes priority and processed, frozen and imported meats are avoided whenever possible. It’s also important to note that unlike vegetables, meats aren’t always there. Every so often, perhaps once or twice a week, we prepare a meal that is entirely vegetarian. Again it’s not a rule as much as it is something we like to do and want to get better at from a “how good in the kitchen we are” standpoint. We’ve grown to appreciate the skill in preparing delicious animal-free meals and a certain distaste for the the cultural view that “it’s not a meal if there’s no meat” many people have. The important point is just that meat, in any form while incredibly important for a nutritious lifestyle, must take a backseat to vegetables both in health, and psychological perception.

Nuts and seeds, next on the list of the priorities, obviously aren’t major portions of any particular meal. Perhaps this is a good time to point out that the above pie-chart, even though is in the shape of a plate, does not represent one visually. It is not a matter of 15% of your plate should be almonds, but rather, that nuts and seeds, in various forms and portions should be a regular part of your diet. For us, these comes through handfuls in zip lock bags and small containers for snacks while watching TV or on the desk at work - instead of muffins, cookies, cereals, chocolate and other typical sugary or highly processed high carb high sugar snackfoods. We also find opportunities to mix them in as many meals as we can. Chia seeds, pine nuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts and Brazil nuts add a nice crunch to salads and stir-fries we’ve come to love.

The last two - dairy and fruits - are treated more as indulgences and personal needs rather than health staples. I enjoy a black coffee from time to time, but full cream frothy milk in my morning and afternoon coffee is probably one of my favourite things in the world. Milk also makes eggs better, and cheese makes everything better. While we have dairy frequently, it's in small amounts such as these rather than built into the majority of what we eat.

Fruit is handled the same way. We love local, fresh and seasonal fruit whether it’s blueberries, bananas or apples. The key is to be mindful of how high in sugar fruit can be. Of course they come with plenty of nutritional value, but the high level of carbs can throw off energy levels and create a dependency on sugar which gets in the way of the body’s best and most preferred source for energy - fat. Unlike vegetables, fruit is a treat - something to enjoy when the season is right and when something sweet is desired.

Healthy food priorities. The pie chart above is more used as a visual aid rather than based on any measurements. Truth be told, it’s not even clear what these portions are based on. They’re not based on calories or even volume. It's mostly a holistic approach to importance and frequency. How often we incorporate each food into our daily and weekly eating.

At the end of the day this doesn’t at all mean that there are no rules worth pursuing and paths worth taking. “Everything in moderation” is a superficial way of saying that you can eat whatever you want and as long as you don’t go overboard with any of it you’ll be fine. Of course this isn’t wholly true. There are some things you should eat more of, and some things you shouldn’t. This is similar to other common phrases that point out that “you gotta die sometime”. As profound as a thought this may be, this also doesn’t mean that because we’re all mortal, and that navigating through all the noise in pursuit of a healthy lifestyle is a complicated mix of misinformation, conflicting research, corporate interests and subjective opinion, that there’s no point in trying to seek out modifications to one’s lifestyle for the goal of a healthier, longer more comfortable, and less painful life.