Food is a powerful force in every culture. Food defines aspects of who — and what — the human race is capable of, how it interacts, and how it communicates. In its most basic form, food is a celebration of achievement in growing, raising, or gathering items from nature, from the backyard, or from the beings raised nearby that provide.
Diet — in its most basic form — is simply “what goes in”. Diet is the food and ingredients that make up the meals and snacks consumed each day. So, at this level, diet is simply the food constructed to be consumed in one way or another.
But DIET means something entirely different. DIET is the practice — and in some cases the nearly religious commitment — of restriction. In a Chicago Tribune article from June 27th, Registered Dietitian Eve Pearson of Nutriworks put DIET into the most succinct of terms: “[P]eople try to cut something out. They look for the word ‘free.’ They look for something to be sugar-free or soy-free or dairy-free or gluten-free. That means a lot to people these days, and it makes me want to pull my hair out.”
DIET is different from necessity; there are some cases in which restriction is necessary for survival. For the 1 in 133 people with Celiac disease, avoiding gluten (the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye) is required to avoid severe digestive issues in the immediate sense, and the risk of chronic disease such as intestinal or pancreatic cancers in the long-term sense. For the 8% of the population with severe food allergies (severe meaning consumption of the food allergen will lead to respiratory distress, systemic shock, and possible death), avoiding that particular allergen is the key to survival.
So, where does DIET come in? DIET can be many things, including: a method of control for an individual over his or her life; a subtle symptom of disordered eating; a need to prove one’s worth by eliminating a certain food, foods, or food groups; a reaction to pseudo-science, non peer-reviewed research, or worse: outright lies perpetuated by heavy social media coverage; or simply the need to do “something” to improve one’s health. When an individual on a DIET states unequivocally “now I have so much energy!”, “now I sleep so much better!”, “now I feel amazing!”, or “when I eat [the offensive food of the week], I feel horrible!”, he or she is likely reacting to an overall change in diet quality. Cutting out gluten or dairy or soy isn’t what solved the problem. Instead, eliminating or cutting back on the processed food items that used to make up the diet as a whole is what has improved this individual’s sense of well being. By going back to the concept of diet as ingredients, this individual will begin to feel better.
But now, this individual is on a DIET. A DIET can have serious implications for future overall health. High quality, peer-reviewed scientific research has shown again and again that “consuming a balanced variety of nutrient-rich foods and beverages in moderation” is the key to healthy eating (this is from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics at http://www.eatright.org). Balance is the key word here; balance means that an individual eats a variety of foods from all food groups to make up a nourishing, healthful diet. All of the food groups play an important role in this goal; macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial compounds) are distributed throughout the food groups. Only by eating a sampling of foods from all of the food groups can an individual truly achieve a healthful balanced diet. As great as a DIET might make an individual feel in the short-term, severe restriction will eventually lead to imbalances in the nutritional make-up of the body.
So now to the diet. A healthy, balanced diet is the key to overall well-being. What makes up this diet? Real food. Food is what is grown, raised, gathered, or obtained from beings. Food isn’t torn down and then built back up with a variety of chemicals to make up its matrix. Food is back to the basics: fruits, vegetables, whole grains (such as 100% whole wheat, oats, quinoa, and millet to name a few), low-fat or fat-free dairy (or its vegan equivalents), and lean protein sources (including lean meats, eggs, or soy- or grain- based vegan equivalents). With the nutrient profile a diet of variety can provide, an individual will find benefits equal to — and exceeding — what any DIET could ever offer.
A balanced diet allows for anyone — even those with Celiac disease or severe allergies — to partake, because nature provides. If an individual with Celiac cannot eat wheat, that’s not a problem; there are so many gluten-free whole grain options from which to choose. If an individual has a severe reaction to the proteins in milk or eggs, it’s easy to obtain the same vital nutrients from other sources, such as soy, nuts, or other lean proteins. If an individual chooses to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet because of ethical reasons, he or she is fortunate that there are so many other foods in nature that can provide the necessary protein, iron, calcium, and B6 necessary for health.
It’s time to celebrate food again; we are lucky to live in a time and a place that provides abundant choices. Enjoy whole grains and the vitamins and minerals they provide. If you choose to eat animal products, enjoy their full nutrition by consuming — for example — the ENTIRE egg, and not just the white! Savor the options; eat real, whole food from every food group. Understand that food as it is today has come a long way down an evolutionary and biological path to provide nearly perfect nutrition. It does not need tampering, and you certainly don’t need to “go ____-free” to enjoy the benefits of a well-balanced diet.
Megan Thomas is a Registered Dietitian, Nutritionist with a Master’s degree in human nutrition.