As a writer/editor working for a major fitness company, it used to drive me nuts every time a new trainer would come along and I’d have to help him or her design a diet to go along with his or her program. Inevitably, their way of eating would be completely different from any other trainer’s philosophy, not to mention my own. I’d do my best not to argue the finer points of fats, carbs, and protein because, well, it’s their face on the program. Furthermore, most of the trainers I work with are ridiculously healthy. Who am I to say their vegan or paleo or low-carb method is for the birds?
Then, one day, I discovered a man named Roger Williams. In addition to discovering and naming pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), Dr. Roger wrote a book called Biochemical Individuality. It’s a dense read, but well worth the investment. His basic theory is as follows: “All geneticists are agreed that what is inherited by all organisms from their forebears is a range of capacities to respond to a range of environments. The characteristics that an organism possess are fundamentally the outcome of the interaction of heredity and environment.”
In other words, because of our DNA and the way it interacts with our environment, we’re all going to respond to different stimuli in different ways. In other other words, our guts are as different as our personalities, so each of us must find a unique path that works for us – and that includes diet.
Of course, there are some constants. We all need the various micro and macronutrients to prosper. However, the amounts of those can very wildly depending on the individual.
There are several obvious examples where external and internal factors can wed to influence nutritional needs. Endurance athletes generally need more carbs to fuel their activities. Little kids need more fats for brain development. But it can go beyond activities or stages of life. Take sodium. Yes, it’s important to maintain a balance of sodium and potassium in a diet for everyone, but contrary to popular perception, only a small percentage of the population is “salt sensitive,” meaning sodium can actually influence their blood pressure.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine in you’re one of these unlucky folks, so most diets tend to play it safe and make sweeping generalizations about the role of salt in a diet. And then there are the nutrition rebels who throw their salt sensitive readers out with the marketing bathwater and tell everyone that unlimited salt is fine. Neither view is 100% correct. (Although I’d lean towards the former, if I had to choose.)
For the record, while it may be medically challenging to determine what your relationship with salt is, a little common sense can go a long way. I have a friend whose family tends to live well into their nineties on a diet of enchiladas and beef jerky, so she doesn’t worry too much about salt. I, on the other hand, come from a family chock-full o’ hypertension sufferers, so I avoid added salt.
But back to my original point. We’re all different, so when someone tells you that their diet is perfect. They’re right. It’s perfect for them. Whether or not it’s perfect for you is another question.
So what’s an eater to do? My advice is to try all nutrition theories, or at least a lot of them.
- First, narrow down the ones that might not work with your values or lifestyle. For example, the only meat I eat is fish, so it’s unlikely I’ll be primal eating in the near future. (Apologies to all you cavemen out there.)
- Next, take a look at your past. Was there a time in your life when you were feeling great and achieving a lot? Any diets you’ve tried already? Maybe there was someone you dated who ate a particular way and, now that you think about it, you felt pretty good when you ate their food.
- Also, start a food log immediately. In fact, make it a life log. Not just what you ate, but how you felt, how your workouts went, how you slept, your mood. Look for trends. Days you were tired. Days you thrived.
- Once you’ve narrowed the field a little, jump right in, become a human Guinea pig. If a diet sounds interesting, give it six to eight weeks. (And remember that life log!)
You’re not just looking for an overall result; you’re looking for ways to modify this particular diet, should you decide to stick with it. For example, I went grain-free recently. It was great, but I found myself returning to the fridge all morning following my bowl of goat yogurt, fruit, and walnuts. It was a mighty serving, but it just didn’t satisfy me. One morning, I ran out of fruit and, in a 6am haze, tucked into my daughter’s Cheerios. I felt completely content until lunch. It was at that point I realized I didn’t need to go grain-free, I just needed to cut back drastically. Now I have 2-3 servings a day and it works perfectly. It might not for you, but for me? Perfect.
As you explore, make sure not to buy into dogma. If it’s not working, try something else. Just as there’s the perfect physical activity for you, there’s also the perfect way to eat. It just takes a little time, patience, experimentation, and a life log. Did I already mention that life log?