The world of nutrition can be confusing. So many different diets claim to hold the keys to weight loss, increased energy, longevity, and other health benefits. Perhaps you’ve tried some of them, only to be frustrated by strict dietary guidelines and disappointed with the results.
When it comes to finding the right diet for you, it’s important to take your unique needs into consideration. March is National Nutrition Month, an annual campaign with the goal of empowering people to make informed food choices and adopt healthy eating habits. This year's theme is Personalize Your Plate—an important reminder that we are not all the same, and what works for someone else may not work for you.
Every Body Is Different
The truth is, health and nutrition do not have a one-size-fits-all approach. We are all unique, with different bodies that respond to food and exercise in different ways.
If you find it difficult to lose weight, tend to regain weight after you’ve lost it, or otherwise struggle to stick to healthy eating habits, there may be a scientific explanation. Many factors are involved in maintaining a healthy weight and improving our overall health. Our stress levels, hormones, sleeping habits, and even our DNA all play a role in our individual health and nutritional needs.
In fact, researchers have identified hundreds of different genetic variants that influence how our bodies process the food we eat, use the energy from that food, and store extra energy—often in the form of fat. These genetic variants help explain why your coworker thrives on a vegan diet, but you feel sluggish and shaky if you don’t eat meat. Or why a friend can eat whatever she wants without gaining a pound, but you seem to gain weight no matter what.
- As much as 26 percent of the population has a variant of the ADIPOQ gene that results in lower levels of a hormone known as adiponectin. This important hormone helps regulate several processes related to how the body synthesizes glucose and responds to insulin. Lower adiponectin levels can lead to a higher risk of insulin resistance, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes.
- Other genetic variants influence the brain’s reward system, making some people more susceptible to emotional eating. People with a DRD2 variant are more likely to put forth greater effort to obtain their favorite foods and eat more of them.
What Does This Mean for You?
The idea that genetic variants can influence your health and weight may feel frustrating at first. How are you to know which of your behaviors or biomarkers are the result of information coded into your DNA?
While some companies offer at-home DNA tests that can provide you with personalized dietary recommendations, these tests aren’t required to find a diet that works well for you. You can benefit from many of the same insights by observing your own eating habits and how you respond to different foods. Try these tips for creating a diet that is specific to you and helps you meet your personal health goals.
1. Follow Some Basic Healthy Eating Guidelines
Regardless of your genetic makeup, everyone can benefit by following some basic guidelines for healthy eating. As much as possible, stick to whole foods—those as close to their natural state as possible. Try to include a clean protein, a healthy fat, and at least one plant food—not including starches, such as corn and potatoes—in every meal.
When you do buy packaged foods, develop the habit of reading ingredients. Try to stick to foods with as few ingredients as possible. If a food contains a long list of ingredients that you can’t pronounce, leave it on the shelf.
Also, try cutting back on sugar. Not only is too much sugar associated with weight gain, but it can also lead to premature aging, a weakened immune system, insulin resistance, and other health issues. If you eat a lot of sugar, it may be difficult at first to cut back, but you’ll find that your food preferences will gradually evolve as you change your diet.
2. Determine Your “Why”
What is behind your desire to eat a healthier diet? Do you want to lose weight? Reduce your dependence on medications? Have more energy to play with your kids or grandkids? Keep these goals at the forefront of your mind, and ask yourself if your food choices help you reach them. Focusing on your reasons for building healthy habits will help keep you on track.
3. Keep a List of Your Personal Triggers
Pay attention to how you feel after eating certain foods. If a high-carb meal like pasta leaves you feeling heavy and sluggish, it may be worth trying a low-carb diet. Some people are genetically predisposed to feel better on a diet low in carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates such as bread and pasta. Focus instead on complex carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, spinach, and other leafy greens.
4. Find Other Ways to Reward Yourself
Notice if you are using food to reward yourself or to unwind after a stressful day. If you tend to fall victim to emotional eating, become aware of your patterns and develop other ways to respond to stress. Instead of seeking out your favorite high-calorie foods, lace up your shoes and take a walk around the block, or do something creative.
While it may take a little trial and error to determine what works best for you, it’s well worth the effort. No one else has your ability or motivation to create healthy habits that will help you meet your goals. Armed with your own personal insights, you’ll be able to avoid the hype around the latest fad diets and build habits that provide truly lasting results.
Karen Eisenbraun is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant. She holds an English degree from Knox College and has written extensively about topics related to holistic health, clinical nutrition, and weight management.