The Importance of Diversity in Our Diets

Breaking the monotony of our eating habits to find balance

By: rē•spin
The Importance of Diversity in Our Diets

As humans, we tend to form habits and find ourselves in the same cycles in many areas of our lives, including food fixations. We’ve been conditioned to crave sameness, having the same salad or smoothie every day in the name of health. But to find balance, we need to have variety, not monotony. Like the age-old cliché, we can have too much of a good thing.

When we are looking to adjust what we’re consuming for our well-being, we often come across repetitive foods and dietary trends that center heavily on specific ingredients. However, whether this is celery juice or dark leafy greens for every lunch, registered dietician  Lindsay Pleskot emphasizes that there can be physical, mental, and emotional consequences to being restrictive or following a rule-based diet. She explains, “Consuming only certain foods or a certain repertoire of meals can lead to a list of consequences including malnourishment, disordered eating, fluctuating muscle mass, weight cycling, anxiety, and depression.”

What are cyclical eating habits? 

Nutrient deficiency is one of the most significant consequences of following dietary practices that exclude specific food groups or emphasize certain items. Pleskot gives the example of elective carb-free or reduced-carb diets–which excludes foods like whole grains, starchy vegetables, beans, and legumes–that decrease our fiber intake. Not introducing these foods into our diets can affect our gut health, leading to constipation, diarrhea, bloating, and digestive issues. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, while not eating enough of a particular food can cause problems, so can too much of a specific food. Produce like kale is incredibly nutrient-dense and contains magnesium, potassium, vitamin K, and niacin. In moderation, all of these minerals and vitamins are beneficial. But when over-consumed, an excess of something like kale can cause an uncomfortable reaction called niacin flush.

There aren’t just physical reactions when we don’t allow for diversity in our diets, either. By restricting or focusing on specific foods, we can suffer from food obsession which can be mentally exhausting. We may even experience cravings as a physiological response. Our bodies produce the hormone ghrelin to increase our appetite, release the neurotransmitter Neuropeptide Y to increase our desire to eat carbohydrates, and decrease leptin which causes us to feel less satiated. We may also experience feelings of shame or even begin to binge eat.

Food undoubtedly plays a role in our emotions, too. Most of our serotonin is created in our gut, meaning that a diet that doesn’t include a wide array of foods can lower our serotonin levels and affect our mood.

What is a diverse diet?

Rather than restricting or removing foods from our dietary practices that aren’t linked to a health condition, consider a diverse diet instead. Pleskot defines a diverse diet as one that “not only includes foods from all food groups but also doesn’t place restrictions on any specific foods – even those that may be deemed as ‘unhealthy.’” 

A diverse diet doesn’t just include a variety of foods, either. Pleskot emphasizes balanced meals and snacks in between so we can maintain an optimal blood sugar level and manage our mood and satiety. She adds, “When we allow ourselves a balance of what tastes good, feels good, and is satisfying, we are following the recipe for a healthy relationship with food and practicing how to intuitively listen to our body.” 

When embracing dietary habits centered around diversity, this all-inclusive eating style can help ensure that we receive the nutrients we need to sustain ourselves. Pleskot recommends having all three macronutrients in your meals so you can not only feel full after eating but also have the energy you need to go about your day-to-day:

  • Carbs: These are a primary source of energy for our body, brain, as well as our muscles. Carbs like legumes, vegetables, and whole grains provide fiber and B vitamins.
  • Proteins: These are a chain of amino acids in our body and play a role in many chemical reactions within our body. You can receive protein from plant and animal products, including tofu, tempeh, fish, and poultry.
  • Fats: These help protects our organs and plays a role in ensuring that we are satiated. Fats can be found in avocado, olive oil, nuts, and seeds, and some vitamins, including A, D, E, and K, can only be absorbed when we have fats in our bodies. 

“But the benefits go beyond nutrition,” Pleskot adds. “Opening your plate to all foods helps you enjoy a healthy relationship with food. We no longer obsess over food rules and can truly be present at mealtime and listen to our body’s needs. With this approach, I’ve seen clients go from being all consumed by food, thinking about it for hours every day and missing out on important life events, to finding food freedom and only thinking about it when they’re preparing meals or sitting down to enjoy it.”

Introducing new foods

Changing our dietary habits or introducing foods we don’t have much experience consuming can be intimidating. Pleskot acknowledges the fear of the loss of control but notes that when we trust our body around food, our body will let us know intuitively what it needs from us. When it comes to introducing these new foods, Pleskot suggests: 

  1. Starting a food journal to note what we eat, but also how we consume it and our thought about it
  2. Bring one new item into your diet at a time and write down how you feel about it. She explains, “The more you’re able to do this, the less these foods hold a place on a pedestal and no longer feel like an obsession. They can become just food, and ones that you can eat when it feels right for you.”
  3. Try a new ingredient, but make it similar to the food you already enjoy. As an example, Pleskot says if you love tacos but don’t eat fish, fish tacos can be a great way to introduce fish into your diet.
  4. Use recipes as a guide, not a rule book. Pleskot acknowledges that we all have food preferences, and recipes do not need to be followed to a T. If you don’t like a specific herb or spice or if there’s something that you truly don’t enjoy, don’t force yourself to eat it — instead, swap in something else similar. 

Finding balance in diversity 

Balance is key when embracing diversity in our diets. While the mental reminder to have carbs, protein, and fats in each meal is helpful, Pleskot suggests following the Plate Method. This acts as a visual guide that doesn’t include specific portions but ensures that your plate has enough balance between meeting your nutritional needs. It’s a method that has you choose a variety of macronutrients, including half a plate of non-starchy vegetables, a quarter plate of carbs, a quarter plate of protein, and the addition of fats.

“This allows us to create a plate that will optimally balance blood sugars, give us a proportionate balance of macronutrients and micronutrients, and will keep us satiated for longer periods of time,” she says. “Any meal can be a plate method meal – you just may need to re-proportion it! You want pizza? Top with arugula, serve with a side salad or blend a ton of veggies into the sauce. Making tacos? Include a cabbage slaw or pickled veggies. Thinking about pasta? Add veggies into the sauce or serve with a kale caesar salad.”

Image Credit: Dominika Brundny

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