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Lessons in listening: The diet for life

Just recently, I traveled to Napa for a culinary medicine conference. Culinary medicine is a relatively new field that integrates scientific principles related to nutrition, behavior and medicine. In the clinical realm, this is the practice of supporting patients to use nutrition and cooking habits to restore and maintain health. Healthcare providers, researchers, and chefs shared their knowledge and passion surrounding health and food in an inspiring week. It was also a delicious week, as we cooked together and noshed on culinary delights morning, noon and night.
The timing of this educational experience feels apropos, as recently my clients have had many questions about “diets.” Which diet is the best? Should they consume meat? Do they really have to eat breakfast, even if they are not hungry? Is intermittent fasting really the answer? Is their gut flora doomed? Should we all just order up a fecal transplant?
The questions I hear are often marked by exhaustion and exasperation. My clients want answers, the real answers, as they are inundated by the newest trends and quick fix solutions. On the surface, these diets usually promise fast weight loss, but the unspoken promise and draw is of ultimate happiness and belonging.
I am always cautious with my responses to these questions, as my role as a health coach is not to educate, but to illicit the self-knowledge from within my clients. They create what is on their plate of life, and I provide the sprinkle of course salt to enhance their chosen flavors. In the spirit of sharing and enhancing, here are a few of my favorite sprinkles to add to your plate.
The best diet is the sustainable diet. I use the word “diet” here to refer to the kind of food that a person habitually eats, not a prescribed and restrictive course of eating. Your diet is your general pattern of eating, not what you consumed during a one-month challenge. The best way to know your pattern of eating is by tracking it for a short period. You don’t need to get fancy with calories and micronutrients —just get a notebook and write down what you eat. That can be your starting point, as we cannot make adjustments if we don’t know, or honestly allow ourselves to know, what we eat.
The best diet is the whole foods diet. Food is our body’s fuel. When my daughter was little I would talk to her about healthy choices and I referred to this fuel as “grow food.” She was a child with an insatiable sweet tooth and a grandmother whose primary goal was to indulge that desire. There has be room in our lives for small sweet pleasures, but our bodies need specific nutrients to grow and build strength and immunity. As adults we aren’t growing vertically anymore, but our bodies still need food that supports our optimal health. Whole foods rarely come in packages and have long shelf lives. So stick to the perimeter of the grocery stores and farmer’s markets.
The best diet is the delicious diet.If our food is not delicious, we are likely going to choose something else. Food can absolutely be both healthy and tasty. I recently worked with a client who primarily ate processed food and was accustomed to artificial flavors. She wanted to lose weight and knew that she needed to make healthier foods more enjoyable to her palate. She started by picking one vegetable a week that she was not in the habit of eating or cooking and she would prepare it three different ways. She roasted, she steamed, she pickled, she spiced. She added citrus as well as nature’s bacon, onion. She stayed curious —exploring the various textures, flavors and enhancements. The elusive eggplant and the recondite rutabaga have now entered her culinary repertoire and have a legitimate place at her table.
The best diet is the colorful diet. Red peppers, orange sweet potatoes, yellow mangos, green avocados, blueberries and purple beets. Not only is your plate visually stunning, your body is nourished with the nutrients it needs for best health. A plant-forward style of cooking and eating emphasizes and celebrates, but is not limited to, plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. The Harvard Healthy Eating Plate reflects this shift toward plant-based eating with ½ of our plate being fruits and vegetables at each meal. This shift not only supports our internal system, it supports environmental sustainability as well.
The best diet is the flexible diet. Once again, the focus is on your general pattern of eating, not the special occasion. I work with one client who has made major changes in his diet. He previously drank 6-8 sodas each day and had a large Subway sandwich and chips multiple times per week. Gradually he has shifted his pattern to only drinking water and not going to Subway. He loves calzones, though, and chooses not to give them up. Once a week he has the calzone, but he only eats ½ for one meal and saves the other ½ for lunch the following day. His general pattern of eating includes whole foods, specifically fruits and vegetables and he is flexible in his approach, choosing to include small delights sparingly.
The best diet is created in your kitchen. The research shows that people who cook their own food are hands down healthier. When you prepare and cook your own food, you know all the ingredients and you have the choice to substitute for healthier alternatives. In addition, you have the opportunity to cook in larger quantity and create “plan-over” meals. Your roasted cauliflower and chicken from Sunday night becomes part of your lunch salad on Monday and your quesadilla on Tuesday. Add some lime juice and spices and it becomes a completely new dish. Lastly, cooking at home is more economical.
The best diet is supported by sleep and movement. We optimize the fuel we give our bodies when we practice whole person self-care. Eight to nine hours of sleep/night and regular movement are not luxuries — that are honestly a necessity. Our sleep and movement affects our immune system, appetite, stress hormones, blood pressure and cardiovascular health. It also affects our psychological health, giving us the clarity and resilience to engage fully in our complex lives.
So, with that I am off to pack for an upcoming adventure. This year I treated my daughter and myself to an extra special birthday present. We are traveling to London and Paris. As you are reading this, we will likely be sitting at a café, engaging our flexible mindset and thoroughly enjoying a croissant. Au revoir!
Laura Wilkinson is a Nurse Practitioner and Integrative Health Coach at Middlebury College. Learn more about her and her coaching at middlebury.edu/middleburyintegratedhealthcoach.

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