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What It Really Means to Have a Diverse Diet

A recent report highlights the need to take conventional nutrition wisdom with a grain of salt. Here's how to be sure your daily diet provides the nutrients you need and the pleasure you crave.

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Naturopathic Medical Advisor
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You’ve been told for years to “eat everything in moderation,” but that advice should not be taken to mean literally everything, as the authors of a recent American Heart Association (AHA) science advisory state.

In the August issue of the journal Circulation, researchers reviewed 17 years of human observational and intervention nutrition studies. They found that more diverse diets were associated with higher intakes of less-healthy foods, such as refined grains, sugar-sweetened beverages, and processed foods. These diets were also associated with lower intakes of healthy foods, such as vegetables and fruit. Beyond what people were eating, more diverse diets were linked to weight gain and obesity in adults.

They conclude that, rather than focusing on diversity, it’s better to focus on consuming a diet that’s founded on plant foods, protein, low-fat dairy, vegetable oils, and nuts, plus low in sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, and red meats.

This isn’t the first time experts have questioned the “everything in moderation” notion. A study published in PLOS One in October 2015 came to similar conclusions. When scientists assessed the diets of more than 5,000 adults of various ethnicities, they found that diversity in food consumption was associated with increased waist circumferences.

Overall, I agree with the new AHA statement. It seems that the more diverse your diet is, the more you eat of both healthy and less healthy foods. If you are eating plenty of plant-based foods as well as high amounts of refined carbs, trans fats, sodium, and processed red meat, the benefits of the healthy foods cannot undo the negative impact of the unhealthy foods. Plus, greater variety of foods is often associated with unhealthy snacking and can cause you to consume more calories, which can obviously lead to weight gain.

Beyond health, trying to include too many foods in your diet can feel overwhelming. Many of us have been in the situation where we’ve been inspired to go on a fresh produce buying spree, only to bring home our bounty and not know what to do with it all. Inevitably, some (or perhaps most) of it ends up going bad before we can use it. Wasting time, money and food can, ultimately, discourage you from cooking at home.


Related: 4 Healthy Foods with Surprisingly Wasteful Side Effects


So rather than thinking about eating everything in moderation, I recommend focusing on consuming a nutritious diverse diet. That is likely what the authors behind this original recommendation had in mind, however, in today’s world of processed and fast foods, there is more of “everything” at our fingertips, leading to the modern, less-healthy interpretation.

A nutritious diverse diet provides a mix of macronutrients and micronutrients to help you feel your best. It also gives you enough variety so that you’re not eating the same thing every single meal, but enough restriction so you’re not overwhelmed with options. After all, a diet of only spinach and chicken breasts gets super boring pretty quickly, and can make you tempted to head to the drive-thru or turn to Seamless.

Less nutritious options are not completely off limits. Attempting to entirely deprive yourself of foods that you enjoy often backfires. Also, I believe a healthy life is an enjoyable life. If, overall, the vast majority of your diet is unprocessed and whole plant foods, then you can have the occasional cheeseburger or small dessert when you want it. Plus, since many times these foods are eaten during social gatherings, you get the added benefit of spending time with others.

So what is a nutritious diverse diet? It’s one rich in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes and may include lean animal proteins such as poultry, fish, and small amounts of grass-fed meat. The choice of adding dairy is very personal and also based on your genetics. If you can digest it and wish to include it, the most healthful dairy is grass-fed and organic.

Aim to include a rainbow of colorful vegetables and fruits at each meal, as each color indicates a different phytonutrient. This is a good practice to help ensure that you are getting a variety of vitamins and minerals to support your health. Along with the produce, have a mix of healthy protein, fat, and carbs, which will also support your health and help you stay fuller longer. Some example meals include broiled salmon with mint chimichurri, mung bean noodle salad with seared tofu and mushrooms, and cucumber tomato salad with crispy chickpeas and feta.

When you eat this way and also with the seasons, diversity will naturally happen. Pick the ripest vegetables and fruit (adding frozen organic vegetables in the winter, when it can be harder to find a range of fresh produce) and mix up your proteins and carbs. If you prefer to cook a different dish for every meal each day, go for it, but you don’t need to. It’s OK to take a salad to the office for lunch most days, just try to mix up the proteins and fats. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with properly saving leftovers from dinner and having them another night later in the week.

This can make cooking easier since you don’t need an entire farmer’s market of produce, plus you can stick to some staple recipes for most meals and mix in new recipes when you have the time to experiment. You’ll also likely save more money since you’re only buying what you need. And, according to the AHA statement, a high-quality diet like this is associated with lower risk of chronic diseases. So rather than eating literally anything and everything, stick to a variety of healthy foods.

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