For all its gains identifying foods that avert disease, stabilise mood, boost longevity, make the body run smoothly and keep weight in the black, science can’t yet account for personal nuance. The best you can do is take a template approximating perfection and tweak to find your personal groove.
The perfect diet doesn’t exist. That is, there is not one diet that is going to be the perfect option for all people. One woman’s Paleo is another’s nightmare. 5:2 might be the answer for some, but in the real world 7:0 is always going to be more workable.
“We mentally categorise someone as a ‘fussy’ eater, or a ‘calorieobsessed’ eater or an ‘I can give him anything and he’ll eat it’ kind of eater,” says Karen Knowler, author of Eat Right for your Personality Type. “But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that you, just like everyone else, have an eating ‘personality’ comprised of one or more eater types, and this personality dictates everything that you think, feel and do around food.
“There is no ‘ideal type’ for you to be – no right or wrong,” Perfection, then, is difficult, to say the least, but still definitely worth striving for. Get close to perfection and you’ll be getting close to getting the best out of your body and mind and maximising your almost-full potential. Most diets will tell you that close enough isn’t good enough, but in reality this is the ultimate.
Paul Jaminet, with wife Shou-Ching, both from Harvard, spent five years researching the best diets, and after much borrowing, tweaking and eating, published their findings in Perfect Health Diet.
“Most people’s diets are deficient in some nutrients, provide an excess of others, and are rich in toxins,” says Jaminet. “These dietary errors cause ill health.
“Most of the chronic and degenerative diseases that afflict modern society cannot be cured until the diet is fixed.
Much of what people consider ‘ageing’ is, in fact, infectious disease aggravatedby a bad diet.”
To attempt perfection you need to keep it simple, which, in an age of abundance, isn’t as simple as it sounds.
Michael Pollan comes close with his famous line from In Defence of Food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
“That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy,” he says.
“Eating a little meat isn’t going to kill you, though it might be better approached as a side dish rather than as a main. And you’re better off eating whole fresh foods rather than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to ‘eat food’, which is not quite as simple as it sounds. For a while it used to be that food was all you could eat, today there are thousands of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages elaborately festooned with health claims.”
But a food claim on a food product, says Pollan, “is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.”
The quest for a simple answer to the perfect diet is complicated by an overcomplicated food kingdom, the myriad of interactions it has with our body, changes in our activity levels and other things you can’t control, such as hormone shifts, glucose demands during specific tasks as well as your fickle emotional state.
Despite all this, we think we may have found the perfect diet.
The big three
Nothing has caused so much debate and controversy (and sold more books) as the big three macronutrients – protein, carbs and fats; or more specifically, how much of each we should be getting in our ‘perfect diet’. Despite all the fear-mongering, the three get along well, interact happily on a daily basis, and don’t celebrate the others’ failings.
Both carbs and fats have been undeservingly derided for decades, but under closer inspection aren’t nearly as evil as they first appear.
The real culprits – for each – are almost certainly refined carbs/sugars and trans fats. Getting the three macros in the best ratios has also been a matter of hot debate.
“The perfect health diet is, by calories, a low-to-moderate carbohydrate (20 to 35 per cent), high-fat (50 to 65 per cent), moderateprotein (15 per cent) diet,” says Jaminet. “However, by weight, the diet is about 65 per cent plant foods, 35 per cent meats and oils.
“Eat about 450 grams per day – roughly, four fist-sized servings – of ‘safe starches’: rice, potatoes, taro, winter squashes, and a few others. Add up to another 450 grams of sugary plants, fruits, berries, beets, carrots and such, and as many low-calorie vegetables as you like.
“Eat at least 225 grams of fatty meats, seafood and eggs. Once a week, eat salmon or other coldwater fish for omega-3 fatty acids.”
And don’t forget the fats. Jaminet recommends six to 12 teaspoons of healthy cooking oils and fats per day – enough to make your food delicious but not oily. “Butter, sour cream, beef tallow, duck fat, coconut oil, olive oil, and tree nut butters are the best fats.”
“Aim for quality rather than quantity. Spend more on quality produce and you’re also more likely to eat less.”
Smaller portions aren’t always better. When it comes to nutrientdense foods, many of us don’t eat enough. It is possible to get all the vitamins and minerals you need with diet alone. Unfortunately many of us don’t. Often those on a poor diet think they get enough nutrients and have no need of supplements (they do), whereas those on a balanced healthy diet, because they’re more health conscious, are more likely to invest in an assortment of nutritional supplements that they don’t need. Go figure.
“Eat a rainbow a day,” recommends Dr Cris Beer, a medical practitioner and author of Healthy Habits. “Simply eating the same piece of fruit each day and just lettuce on our sandwich does not cut it. Ideally we need to aim to eat a rainbow a day of coloured fruits and vegetables. That is, we need to consume all seven colours of the fruit and vegetable every day to receive the protection we need from chronic diseases.
“This is because fruits and vegetables are coloured differently due to the presence of different phytonutrients, which are powerful antioxidants.”
Orange fruits and vegies contain carotenoids (which are in turn onverted to vitamin A), red foods contain lycopene, yellow foods and citrus contain vitamin C and bioflavonoids, purple and blue foods contain anthocyanins, green foods contain chlorophyll and indoles, and white fruits and vegies contain allicin and/or potassium. Get them all every day and you’re well on the way to a perfect diet.
You can have the healthiest diet in the world but it’s highly unlikely you’re going to stick with it if it’s not satisfying. That’s where going low GI comes in. Carbs judged to have a low glycaemic index release sugars slowly,
keeping you fuller for longer and keeping those nasty sugar spikes in check.
But aren’t starchy foods fattening? “Wrong – starchy foods are often bulky and nutritious,” says Jennie Brand-Miller, professor of nutrition at the University of Sydney (where she is often referred to as GI Jennie) and co-author of The Low GI Handbook. “They fill you up and stave off hunger pangs – which means they can actually help with, rather than hinder, weight loss. The key, as with all foods, is to be choosy about the kinds of starchy foods you’re eating.”
A low-GI diet contains wholegrain bread, oats, barley, couscous, cracked wheat, legumes, such as kidney beans and lentils, and all types of fruits and vegetables. High-GI foods to be avoided – unless you’re working out intensively – include white bread, white rice, potatoes and virtually every packaged snack food you can imagine.
Stick with a low-GI diet and you can consume a higher ratio of carbs to protein and fat. Contrary to Jaminet’s recipe for a perfect diet, Brand-Miller recommends a carb intake of 45 to 65 per cent of energy, fat 25 to 35 per cent and protein 15 to 35 per cent, in line with the US National Institutes of Health guidelines.
“If your preference is for more protein or more fat and fewer carbs, then go ahead – just be choosy about the quality,” she says.
Get smart and eat breakfast. Studies have found that both children and adults who eat breakfast perform better ognitively than those who don’t have breakfast at all. It has also been found that when children who didn’t eat breakfast at all started eating breakfast, their marks went up dramatically.
Best of all is a breakfast that consists of carbohydrates, fibre and protein, such as beans or cheese on toast. Yeast spreads, such as Vegemite or Promite, loaded with B vitamins, also offer brainboosting benefits.
A healthy brain has high levels of omega-3 fatty acid, in particular DHA, which makes up around 50 per cent of brain tissue. DHA is essential for healthy brain development and for relaying signals between brain cells.
Fish – especially oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, trout and sardines – is loaded with omega-3s and is the best brain food you can include in your diet.
A low dietary intake of omega-3 fats have been linked to learning difficulties, behavioural problems and even mental illness.
You’d think that the perfect diet would be all about packing in as much nutrients as possible without all the filler.
Stock up on a pantry full of super-supplements and you’ve got all bases covered. But for some reason it doesn’t work this way.
“Nutrients are no substitute for food – edible plants and animals,” says Jaminet. “Plenty of evidence supports this position. For example, laboratory mice and rats are fed either ‘chow’, which consists of seeds, grains, beans, and alfalfa – foods similar to what rodents eat in the wild – or a ‘purified-nutrient diet’. Purified-nutrient diets are protein, starch and sugar, fibre, fat, vitamins and minerals. Nothing more. They are missing a host of biological compounds found in plants and animals.”
“Rodents that eat purified-nutrient diets are usually in worse health than rodents that eat chow. Often, purified-nutrient diets make rodents fat. But what does all this rodent talk have to do with us? Plenty, as it turns out.
“When humans want to lose weight, they often start eating meal replacement bars and weight-loss shakes composed of purified nutrients – the very kind of diet that makes rodents fat.” The secret to weight management: get back to basics and prepare the food yourself, from scratch.
“It may be no coincidence that the obesity epidemic began around 1970, the time when packaged foods became a large part of our diet.”
The French eat constantly, with far greater regularity than Australians or Americans. Yet they don’t pack it on like we do. It’s not genetics, it’s portion sizes. While Australians might scoff down a big bowl of pasta in 10 minutes flat, the French will stretch out mealtime, often with several courses and a couple of glasses of wine. But the portion sizes will be small, with the emphasis on quality rather than on how much they can fit on the plate.
“’Eat less’ is the most unwelcome advice of all, but in fact the scientific case for eating a lot less than we presently do is compelling, whether or not you are overweight,” says Pollan. “Calorie restriction
has repeatedly been shown to slow ageing and prolong lifespan in animals, and some researchers believe it is the single strongest link between a change in the diet and the prevention of cancer.
“Put simply: Overeating promotes cell division, and promotes it most dramatically in cancer cells; cutting back on calories slows cell division. It also stifles the production of free radicals, curbs inflammation, and reduces the risk of most of the Western diseases.”
So aim for quality rather than quantity. Spend more on quality produce and you’re also more likely to eat less. And savour the experience by eating mindfully. Like the French.
“Remaining in the present allows you to relax, mentally and physically, and stop the reactive cycle that leads to overeating (or choosing high-sugar or high-fat foods),” says Ruth Wolever, clinical health psychologist and co-author of The Mindful Diet.
“Being present also keeps you in touch with what’s happening in your body – notably, signals of hunger and fullness that are very easy to ignore when your mind is going a mile a minute.”
Rules of Eating
from Michael Pollan, author of In Defence of Food
Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.
Don’t get your food from the same place your car does.
Avoid food products that make health claims
Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
Pay more. Eat less.
Regard non-traditional foods with scepticism