If you knew exactly what makes a basic ideal diet—and my intention is that you will in about five minutes' time—you would have great power to take control of your own health.
Most people don't know, unfortunately, because what makes an ideal diet isn't common knowledge. Nutrition isn't taught in schools, and only a small percentage of us train as nutritional therapists.
The millions of articles and resources available to us in print and online help, but they don't provide a sense of the overall picture, and in many cases they just cause confusion. They also tend not to be inclusive, so people don't know what to leave out and what to keep in.
Raw one week, Paleo the next, fasting after that ... which is the right one?
I think this matters because it's just a basic scientific fact that our bodies need certain nutrients in the long term in order to function optimally. Without them, ill health is likely, sooner or later. And without having some sort of overall picture of what those nutrients are, we aren't going to know how to get them.
The reason I know what makes an ideal diet is because I'm a trained nutritionist and I've studied some of the healthiest, longest-living populations on the planet, whose diets marry nicely with what nutrition science has found.
Although we are all slightly different according to our genes, our environment, and how our genes and environments interact, there is a basic formula everyone could be taught.
Within that formula, there's room for tweaking and finessing according to individual needs and preferences, but the basic formula provides an essential framework for that.
So, without further ado, here is my basic, inclusive formula for what makes an ideal diet:
1. Eat breakfast, including good proteins and fats.
If you want to have good health and avoid accelerated aging, you need to keep your blood sugar levels even. This is key, because if you can balance your blood sugar, many other aspects of health including hormone function and immunity will start to fall into place, and vice versa.
You want your blood sugar levels to rise and fall gently during the day, like the hills in a Welsh valley; you don't want Himalayan-style towering peaks, as those inevitably must be followed by plummeting troughs.
Including good proteins and fats with breakfast is essential, since this helps to slow the release of glucose; eating a sugary cereal is as bad as having no breakfast, since both ultimately lead to a deep blood sugar ravine, causing cravings and an ongoing need to "catch up" throughout the day.
Eggs, nuts, seeds, and avocado are all useful breakfast-friendly sources of protein and fat.
2. Eat fruit.
People have become scared of fruit recently, which goes back to the confusion caused by fad diets and articles in the press and online that take nutrition truths out of context.
Unless you have fructose intolerance, which may be a sign of another underlying issue such as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which can be addressed, fruit is good for you.
Fruit contains antioxidants, plant chemicals, and great-quality fiber. We've been eating it for millions of years. Why the sudden phobia?
The "bad guy" is fruit juice, which contains concentrated fructose and is linked to diabetes and heart disease. Fruit smoothies and dried fruit should be limited for the same reason.
If you crave sweet fruit, this may be masking a sugar craving, so go for less-sweet fruits such as berries and apples, and don't overdo it—aim for between one and three pieces daily.
3. Heap on the veg.
When it comes to nutrients in foods, vegetables are where it's at. All those nutrition scientists feverishly studying the thousands of beneficial compounds in vegetables certainly have busy jobs for life. Among the long-lived populations I've studied, vegetables are the star feature of their diets.
Vegetables are full of plant chemicals and antioxidants. When we eat them, they protect us from the ravages of light, oxygen, and time as well as helping defend us from age-accelerators such as vodka and cheeseburgers.
In short, they slow the aging process and can dramatically reduce our risk of chronic disease. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that vegetables could save millions of lives, if only we let them.
4. Get your "Goldilocks" level of proteins.
When it comes to protein, you want not too little, not too much, but just enough—and you want the right kinds.
Protein-rich foods include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, beans and pulses, nuts and seeds, and pseudo-grains such as quinoa and buckwheat.
Each of these has their pros and cons—red meat is linked to illness such as colon cancer, dairy products are linked to allergies and intolerances, and beans and pulses can irritate the gut.
My overall advice is not to overdo eating any of them, get the best quality products you can, mix and match, and soak your beans and pulses to reduce levels of anti-nutrients such as lectins, which may cause gut issues.
5. Marginalize starchy carbs.
Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, cake is NOT a food group, and neither is wheat. For around 2 million years we didn't eat grains such as wheat or flour products in the form of pastry, biscuits, and cake.
Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a refined carb as much as the next person, and I can take a pastry down in seconds. I think that it's fine to enjoy a carb moment from time to time, if your system can take it.
But refined starchy carbs and even whole grains were not in the diet we evolved with; they're part of a more recent diet in mankind's history, and highly processed carbs such as white sugar and white flour have been here for just a nanosecond of our relative time. Our bodies don't know what to do with them, and so they cause disease.
When I work with clients, I get them to fill half their plate with vegetables and around a quarter of their plate with proteins at their midday and evening meal. This means that people get off the blood sugar roller coaster, as empty starchy carbs are replaced with more nutrient-rich foods that don't cause blood sugar swings.
I recommend root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, parsnips, and celeriac first, then potatoes with the skin on (organic is best), then pseudo-grains such as quinoa.
I would restrict or even avoid gluten-free grains such as rice (whether white or brown), then the gluten grains rye and wheat. Wheat contains a harsher form of gluten than rye, and the wheat used to make pasta is the most problematic.
Remember that vegetables contain high-quality carbohydrates and fiber, and if you heap them onto your plate as per No. 3 on this list, you won't be carbohydrate deprived.
6. Get good fats daily.
This factor may have come down at No. 6 on the list, but that makes it no less important. We need good fats—the beneficial ones, mainly the monounsaturated kind from foods such as olive oil, avocados, and nuts; and unspoiled polyunsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 fats.
The latter, the omega-3s and -6s, we need on a daily basis for cell membrane structure, hormone function, immunity, gut health, brain health, and much, much more.
Omega-3 fats come from oily fish, grass-fed animal products, and from certain seeds such as flaxseeds and chia seeds. Omega-6 fats come from plant foods and from nuts and seeds.
7. Chew your food.
All those wonderful nutrients will give you only limited benefits if you can't actually digest, absorb, and assimilate them, so they can wind their way through your blood vessel system and into your cells.
It's amazing how many people, including me, don't have the time (meaning the patience), to chew their food really well.
Chewing turns your food into a pulp so that digestive enzymes aren't confronted with gigantic boulders of carrot or steak or whatever is turning up at their work desk. We can't get things like zinc and other essential nutrients out of our food if it comes out the other end intact.
Relaxing over food also helps with digestion. Eating and stress are not compatible bedfellows since the body doesn't like that particular form of multitasking.
8. Nurture your natural bacteria.
Each of us isn't really just "me"—it's far more accurate to say "me and my microbes." We have more organisms living in and on us than body cells, and we also have our own unique populations of microbes, called our microbiomes, which play a leading role in determining our health.
The bacteria in our digestive tracts are particularly important, since without them, we can't have healthy guts, and without healthy guts we simply cannot have good health.
Hippocrates said "all disease begins in the gut" and it's a shame that, even though he said it 2,000 years ago, modern medical practice hasn't yet caught up with the concept.
In the modern environment, most of us tend to lack good bacteria, and many have dysbiosis—too many harmful microbes and too few "friendly" ones. It's a good idea to regularly add beneficial bacteria to your system in the form of probiotics and fermented foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut.
You can also make your gut an attractive environment for friendly bacteria to hang out in by providing them with the food they like—mainly fibers from plant foods. If you're concerned about your microbiome and wish for more information about supplements, please consult a well-qualified professional.
9. Think about what you drink.
We all know that sugary drinks are bad. The good drinks are water, herb tea, green tea, and possibly small amounts of organic red wine (although this may do some people more harm than good, and others more good than harm).
Black tea has benefits as it is relaxing, but don't overdo it as it contains caffeine, which is a stimulant and also inhibits the absorption of minerals, such as iron, from food.
This is even more the case with coffee, despite its purported health benefits. Most of my clients find that once they get proper energizing nutrients in, coffee loses its appeal quite drastically.
10. Eat less junk.
I don't believe in cutting out treats—also known as "junk"—entirely. Banning ourselves from having certain things often makes us want them more.
Rather, I would say treat them with a healthy disrespect. Try to get it so that you can take them or leave them and would usually rather leave them.
My clients tend to find that once they are busy eating plenty of good and healthful foods, they lose interest in harmful foods anyway. They also start to really notice how rough they feel after having them.
The main culprits to sideline and treat with the disdain they deserve are sugar, refined flour, deep-fried foods, processed foods, foods with a lot of chemicals and "E" numbers, strong alcoholic drinks, tobacco, and drugs.