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Diversity, Get In My Belly!

Diversity is good! That’s common sense, right? Human physical and cultural diversity is good for developing kids' social skills and self-esteem, good for the workplace, and important in media representation. Diversification is desirable in financial investment portfolios and income streams. Diverse perspectives are good for education, arts, and entertainment. Diverse experiences in life are cool. Expanding the diversity of one's own life skills is useful. Natural diversity of flora and fauna is good for healthy ecosystems. 

Inside the human body, diversity is good for the microbiome of our guts. 

Diversity! 

It's great in the world, in the wild, and inside of our own minds and bodies.

So why do so many people think that exclusionary food diets are beneficial?

And who am I to judge them? Hello, I'm a lifelong slim person who has never had a chronic condition related to body weight or an eating disorder. I don't think that there is anything magical or genetically freakish about this, though I know that it is rare and privileged to be an American who wasn't raised to eat terribly. I've been lucky that I've never had to dig myself out from under the long-term effects of bad eating habits. The closest I came was after college, when my husband and I were temporarily poor and lived in a food desert. My health deteriorated rapidly and so seriously that I had trouble staying employed. Fortunately, I was able to save money and my health at the same time by making healthy cooking a top priority by any means necessary.

My husband is different. He was a fat kid raised in a 100% very-big-people family. His father was a nearly-starved-to-death Holocaust survivor who believed, for understandable reasons, that fatter is better, and equated his own expanding girth with survival. My husband's mother is from an Italian-American family, the mangia-mangia types, who equate fattening foods with love. My husband reached his highest weight in his early 20s and found himself on a fast track to chronic illness. He wanted a different fate for himself, and he managed to lose 100 pounds by riding his bike a lot and eating less. He gained some of that back, but by his 30s he settled on a steady, sustainable weight that is a little higher than medically advised but quite a bit less than average for an American man of his height and age. I call that a success story, and anyway, I like his low-key dad bod.

Our 10-year-old daughter has always had a healthy weight and has never suffered a health problem caused by her diet. The way we feed our daughter is the way we parent in general: with chill. Our philosophy about parenting and eating is the same, that you don't have to be perfect or put any extreme effort or expense into it. All you have to do is not fudge it up too badly. The big picture matters a lot more than the details. I try to make one healthy meal or recipe a day, and the rest of our meals are leftovers and snacks (cereal, sandwiches, fresh fruit, trail mix, applesauce, crackers, etc.) and we fill the gaps with convenience foods, like frozen potstickers and noodles, and the occasional takeout. We eat variations on beans and rice pretty often, which is cheap and easy and fairly healthy too. There is usually some kind of treat in the house, like home-baked cookies or a box of ice cream. We each try not to have more than one dessert a day unless it's a holiday or a birthday party.

In other words, we aren't "health nuts" and we don't have obsessive nutrition and fitness regimes because we don't need them. We simply add different in-season produce and grains to each grocery shop, try to eat some of it every day, and avoid binging on junk. That's it.

This is my lived experience, and it's backed up by plenty of science, linked below.

This is why I never want to hear about your self-deprivation ever again! I truly believe that most of the time, restrictive diets are self-harm and self-punishment and self-sabotage. No matter what shape your body has or what health issues your diet has caused, body issues are not moral issues. You do not deserve to hurt yourself, and you CAN help yourself by eating a greater variety of nutritious foods.

A caveat: There are serious medical reasons for certain people to follow certain restricted diets under certain circumstances, under medical supervision. That's not what I'm writing about here.

And let's not get confused about what "dietary variety" means--it's not variety in jelly bean flavors or snack cake shapes. Highly processed junk foods aren't needed at all by anyone, though forbidding them entirely usually backfires. Junk foods are, however, made with macro-nutrients (carbs, proteins, fats) that, in themselves, are all necessary, in healthy forms and amounts, in a human diet. It's okay to exclude specific processed junk foods for a period of time, to break a bad habit and give yourself a chance to reset your body's tastes and appetites, but it is sketchy nonsense to cut out essential human food categories that you can't live without long-term, unless it's part of a professionally guided medical diagnosis or treatment plan addressing a medical issue such as a suspected food allergy. 

After such a process has been completed, a permanent lifestyle shift is always necessary to maintain restored health that had been sabotaged by a dietary problem, obviously. Reverting to bad habits means reverting to bad outcomes. Also, sticking with a restrictive diet for too long will create new problems. For example, after an acute gastrointestinal episode, it is often advisable to take it easy for a day or two with fasting or ingesting small quantities of bland foods. However, as we all know, you can't go on living like that forever, or you'll become malnourished. There are short-term fixes to temporary health problems, and there are long-term strategies to maintain good health.

An ultra-restrictive diet is never, ever a long-term healthy diet. At best, it is a survival necessity for people with serious and rare conditions who cannot eat normally. If you think you're one of those people, get thee to a real doctor. If not, get on top of expanding your culinary repertoire. No excuses.

Diversity isn't just good for everything except nutrition. Variety is the spice of life, and it's also literally the spice of... food, which obviously fuels life. 

When it comes to nutrition--and even weight loss--don't be fooled by the aesthetics of minimalism. More dietary variety is more health. Most Americans eat too much of their few favorite foods, but they don't eat a wide enough variety of foods, especially plant-based foods. Dietary variety heals and prevents chronic disease and obesity by supporting gut health. It makes you more physically attractive. It gives athletes a competitive edge. It reduces depression and anxiety. And the need for human dietary diversity intersects with needs for farming and crop sustainability. Diversity is good for all life on Earth, from the global to the intestinal. Happily, it also makes eating more enjoyable in the long term, once a person gets used to a more adventurous, exciting, nourishing, and body-loving "new normal."

So why do incredibly stupid, harmful, dangerous, empirically terrible fad exclusion diets like keto and paleo persist?

Answer: Predatory marketing.

Another answer: Some people don't like cooking or can't fit it into their busy life, forcing those not wealthy enough for personal chefs to choose between takeout and other convenience foods that are packed with salt/fat/sugar/harmful chemicals and lacking in fiber and nutritional value. May I suggest a cooking co-op / dinner share with other friends in the same boat? This situation sucks, but unless you are very wealthy, there is no way to live well without lovingly home-cooked meals.

Why do fad diets seem to work at first, as reported by your friends?

Answer: The fad diets probably resulted in your friends eating less junk food all of a sudden, as all restrictive diets do. That doesn't mean they'll continue to work or that they won't damage your friends' health in the long term. How many times have these "successful" friends cycled on and off the dreary diet wagon?

So back to the goodness of diversity and individual human health! Here is a guide, developed especially with Type 2 diabetics in mind, on "How to Diversify Your Diet." It's not easy or intuitive to start eating in a normal way if you have established lifelong disordered eating habits, but it is, in fact, the only possible way to have a chance at living a healthy life. Addictions to salt, fat, and sugar cause changes in the brain that can make junk foods seem necessary and healthy foods seem unappealing. Also, a lifetime of yo-yo dieting can make people feel despair that they can ever change their eating habits and health permanently.

I've heard many colleagues and friends struggling with diets who fixate on little things they've tried that didn't work perfectly or immediately--say, introducing a new food that they didn't like or that didn't agree with them--and using that experience as proof that they should stop trying. This is a sign of disordered cognition.

But these brain changes can be reversed over time, allowing for a finer enjoyment of a greater variety of flavors and textures--in addition to a completely transformed quality of life and an extended lifespan. It is difficult, though possible, to leave disordered eating in the past for good. Salt/fat/sugar addicts may not be able to overcome cravings or to learn how to enjoy healthy foods without professional help from a therapist, nutritionist, or doctor, so seek help if you need to--individualized help from a trustworthy expert who knows you and your personal issues, not from an app or a website or a "system" that doesn't take your individual circumstances and needs into account.

Outside of allergies and sensitivities, everyone should aim to eat the biggest variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats that they can access and learn to enjoy. There are so many foods out there that we don't need to choke down anything we hate (again, unless a little bit of this is part of a disordered eating treatment plan), and we'll never learn to love everything. And, that's normal. It's no excuse to stop expanding our palates and trying new recipes. At the end of the day, doesn't that sound way more fun and interesting and pleasurable than restrictively "dieting" all the time? 

Changing your whole lifestyle is hard, obviously. But as they say, "You can't outrun a poor diet." And as Nat of Nat's What I Reckon (who literally saved his own life by giving up on extreme fad diets such as keto and learning how to feed himself properly) puts it, "It's not something people want to hear because it's boring-AF, but it's the fucking truth and it's worked a bloody treat." (Anyway, yammering about your keto diet is also boring-AF, so moving on!)

Let's leave all self-punishing fad diets in the flaming dumpster of 2020 and use the rest of our time in quarantine to learn as many new recipes and taste as many types of in-season produce as we can, shall we? No more waiting for dramatic and dangerous before-and-after-selfie weight losses to start enjoying our lives and our kitchens. No more punishing ourselves or believing in corporate magic pills one more time or putting off the hard work of loving ourselves and feeding our microbiomes a glorious rainbow of nutrients so they can do their jobs and free us to do more interesting things and enjoy ourselves and enjoy other people and talk about non-diet topics over shared meals--because soon enough, we'll be able to host dinner parties and cook for our friends again, and won't we want to be able to share menus and conversation topics beyond keto or paleo or whatever-the-crapo once we can all emerge from hibernation? Variety is the spice of life, no matter how literally or metaphorically you want to take that idiom.

Say it with me, the diet mantra to end all diet mantras: "Diversity, get in my belly!" Bon appetit.

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