Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How Diversified Is Your Diet?

I love this word: diversity. Every time I hear "diversity", I think about newness, variety, no boredom, blah, blah, blah. It's a good word! So, speaking of diversity…not just what you eat, but why you would want diversity in your diet (or rather, why wouldn't you want it)…just how diversified do you think your diet is? And why would this be important?

First, let's define diversity. Diversity is defined as:

  1. the state of being diverse
  2. variety, multiformity
  3. the point of difference
  4. differing from one another; unlike
  5. composed of distinct or unlike elements or qualities

    I prefer definition numbers 2 and 5 as it relates to our diets. "Variety, multiformity" and "Composed of distinct or unlike elements or qualities".

    As usual, let me digress, but at least with a related point. Monthly, weekly, daily, my husband labors over ensuring our financial portfolio is well "diversified". He keeps me in the loop, which I appreciate, but he manages this process for our family. One day we were discussing it, and I commented on how the need for diversity is pertinent not just in our financial lives, but also our social lives, our diet, our intellectual well-being, and so on. For instance, as it relates to our social lives, I would hope we all surround ourselves with friends of diverse backgrounds, likes and interests, intellectual and emotional levels, and socioeconomic levels. Exposure to all of this makes each of us more whole...more "worldly" and aware...and less isolated. Or, from an exercise and physical activity standpoint, diversity keeps our minds engaged in the activity so that we don't get bored with the "same ol'", as well as keeps our bodies "shocked" by not settling into one mode of exercise. We benefit and progress from a variety of exercise styles, resistance levels and intensities as opposed to one sole mode, load and intensity (and of course, I whole-heartily subscribe to the Crossfit "mode" for exercise - more on that later in "How Diversified is Your Exercise Routine?).

    Back to food - the same concepts about diversity hold true with our diets. Variety is key in both combating boredom and in ensuring we are our healthiest. I think many people don't see variety as a health factor, but rather an option, a trivial choice or even a luxury. Simply put, however, you cannot eat the exact same food every single day and be as healthy as someone who consumes the same macronutrient profile (% protein, % carbs, % fat) and total calories, but with a variety of food types. And this is key in making healthy choices, influencing our family's choices, maintaining and interest in the wonders of whole foods and their value, and also in weight management.

    You know, I'm sure, that other countries...healthier countries... don't see food the way we do. The Chinese surround mealtimes with ancient rituals that envelope their social and spiritual beliefs. Many European countries still eat from the land and embrace the old style of family and "block" lunches and dinners - and yes, they often take time away from work to actually sit down and eat lunch- they're not known for eating at their desks over a computer. Now, I know America is different. Heavens, are we different! Everything is faster, more stressful, more metropolitan/urban, less rural...and also, let's face it: less healthy! I bring up these ways of eating to lead us into a thought process with respect to diversity in our diets. Perhaps by acknowledging that other countries do things a bit differently in this area, and are healthier, we could humble ourselves into discovering and embracing new ways of approaching our diet, meals and planning so as to improve the quality of both our overall nutrition, as well as also our family life and social lives.

    The scientific rationale for having diversity in your diet is, frankly, the easy part. In a nutshell, our bodies need a variety of nutrients in order to perform and function at optimum levels and to produce "robust health". Different vegetables and fruits provide different micronutrient (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants) profiles. By getting a variety of fruits and vegetables in our diets, we fulfill a fuller spectrum of these micronutrients. Whole grains, nuts and seeds provide a myriad of natural nutrients, including B Vitamins, fiber, iron, magnesium and healthy fats. Seafood, poultry, lean beef and pork, eggs and dairy also provide valuable complete sources of protein, healthy and essential fats, as well as other vital nutrients. It would be too lengthy to do this for a whole day’s worth of meals, but let's imagine a diet that day after day our breakfast consisted solely of one type of cereal, a splash of milk, an apple and a bit of yogurt. And I mean day after day...the exact same thing. Not only do we become apathetic about breakfast, but it becomes routine, robotic and there is no appreciation for the fact that what you're ingesting is not only keeping you alive, but supporting your ability to do all of the things you want to do that day. Imagine if it's a day you have a stressful meeting or a really fun activity planned - going into that event knowing that your body is optimally fueled should provide an added level of confidence (like high octane gas in your car versus regular unleaded). Unfortunately, McDonald's or Chik-fil-a drive through takes less mental energy, and here we sit. Bummer!

    I recently attended a continuing education seminar where a boring, nutrient deficient diet was described as a "beige diet". Great analogy! Here, the presenter used the color of the foods we consume, versus the my focus on a limited variety or the same foods, to paint a picture of a nutrient deficient diet. Think about it:

    • bread/bun (beige)
    • french fries (beige)
    • mac and cheese (beige-ish if it comes from one of those boxes)
    • chicken nuggets (beige)
    • pizza (beige-ish)

    Not only am I yawning, but gross! I'm sorry, but you can call me a bit of an elitist with food, the fact remains I couldn't gag down a chicken nugget or a fast food carton of french fries if I tried!

    Now, let me paint a different picture - a healthier picture:

    • strawberries (R)
    • oranges (O)
    • bananas (Y)
    • asparagus/green peppers (G)
    • blueberries (B)
    • grapes/beets (I, V)

    I'm trying to "paint the rainbow" (ROY G BIV) of colors we can find in our food, and to quickly help you recall what we all heard from Saturday morning cartoon commercial: eat a rainbow of flavors...oh no, that from Skittles, isn't it? Well, let’s adopt it and forget about the Skittles! But let's don't stop with the rainbow. There are so many other non-colorful foods that are just as nutritious: ...shrimp, corn, , milk, eggs...get the picture?

    Another experience I had related to variety or diversity happened a few months ago. I was coming home from the market with my “shopping cart” of groceries (I live in a high-rise condo, and toting multiple bags typically requires a cart), and I end up on the elevator with an acquaintance from one of my local gyms. She’s an incredibly fit older woman, who I’d had enough conversations with to know she struggled with her weight, as had I, and that her diet is where she’d struggled in the past. She was a fan of health food store fads: “cilantro speeds your metabolism”, or “juicing is the way to go” – oye! In fact, this is a woman who stated emphatically

    “If there was a pill I could take to provide me with enough nutrients, I’d take it. I hate food and hate having to think about it.”

    Once again..Bummer! I really felt sorry for her. I felt sorry that I see her slave away at the gym – over an hour a day walking (nope, not even jogging) on the t-mill, over an hour a day lifting weights - slowly – same routine – light weights – moderate reps. I know this blog is about nutrition, but come on…you’re not going to achieve your ideal physique or robust health with that exercise routine. My point is (though again loosely sewn to this story), I almost believe, and I have no data to back this up which is why I say “almost”, that the enjoyment of knowing what we’re nourishing our bodies with has some positive psychological, and therefore physiological, effect on our health. A great example is that strawberries are currently in season here in Florida. When I see those incredible, succulent red berries with their little “Plant City” stickers, my mouth not only waters, but I can almost feel my body craving the vitamin A, C, B6 and potassium. Or when my husband and I go out for a nice dinner, I invariably order a Kobe or Wagyu beef carpaccio or tartare, and once again, I can almost feel my body sucking up the protein, iron and B vitamins. My muscles scream “Holy Cannoli! Now THIS is nourishment!” Can’t you just envision them? Little plump hamstrings and lats singing: “box jumps and burpees and pull ups – oh my!” – bring it on! Maybe that’s just me, or maybe I have found and felt the physical and psychological connection between a high quality, diversified diet and robust health. Think about it…

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