We ask questions about our food every day. Is this Paleo? Did cavemen have ___________? How many carbs are in sweet potatoes compared to white potatoes? Do cooked vegetables still have any Vitamin C? Does microwaving food destroy the nutrients?
But all these questions are really just proxies. Why do you care how many carbs are in a sweet potato compared to a white potato? It’s not because you really have a deep interest in the molecular composition of tubers; it’s because you think the carb count is somehow relevant to your health goals.
And that’s the question you really ought to ask (and the question that most people don’t): does this fit my goals?
The best diet for you depends on your goals: there is no one diet that’s perfect for everyone. What works for someone else might not work for you. Proxy questions about carbs and nutrients are helpful if and only if they help you decide how a food stacks up relative to your personal goals. They're only useful if they somehow apply to your life. But all too often, we ask the proxy question, and then don't go on to ask "does this fit my goals?" Instead, we apply health information to our life by asking...
- What's "normal" or "average"? We rely on some general guideline (e.g. 2,000 calories a day, 4% of calories from Omega-6 fats, 150 grams of carbohydrates…) that may or may not apply to us.
- What's "Paleo?" “Paleo” encompasses a whole variety of different variations, one of which might suit your needs better than the others. A food can be "Paleo" without being an optimal choice for you specifically.
- Does this seem like “too much”? Many people worry about getting "too much" of something, but without a clear idea of exactly how much really is too much or how we even know. For example, many people are downright terrified of white potatoes because they have “too many” carbs – but they never seem to specify how many carbs are even in a potato, much less how many are “too many” and why.
- What worked in the past/what have I always done? This is not always a good guide to the future. For example, after you’ve lost all the weight you wanted to lose, weight-loss guidelines will no longer be your path to optimal health, even though in the past they were right for you.
- What does my friend/coach/favorite blogger do? Just because you like someone as a person, doesn't mean their diet is right for your body.
- What do sick people need? Advice for sick people does not necessarily hold true for healthy people. For example, take an autoimmune protocol: autoimmune diets can be great for people with autoimmune diseases, but they’re not necessary for anyone else.
Does anything on this list sound familiar?
The list could go on and on, but the point is pretty clear: too many of us do not really make health decisions based on our own personal goals. In fact, many of us don’t even have clearly articulated goals. We just have very general, fuzzy ideas about wanting to be “healthier,” and so we make decisions based on gut feelings, vague memories, or guidelines that just aren’t right for us.
Why Does This Matter?
For one thing, if you really do have a specific goal, making food choices based on a different goal is not going to get you there. If you’re aiming for fat loss, eating for muscle gain just will not get you the results you want.
But this is actually not common. Most people with specific goals are focused enough to seek out advice specifically tailored to those goals. What’s more common is people who either don’t have any specific goals or haven’t really thought about what those goals are. They’re just absorbing ideas of what and how much they ought to eat from anything they happen to read, without considering whether that advice really applies to their situation and goals.
This is twice as bad. If you have a clear goal, and your current diet isn’t getting you there, it’s easy to stop, re-evaluate, and change something. But if you don’t know what you want, how can you ever possibly hope to get it?
You might be pointlessly putting yourself through an extreme degree of restriction, even though it’s not necessary at all because you don’t have the problem that diet was designed to solve.
You might be compromising your energy, fertility, or general mood by taking advice aimed at sedentary weight-loss patients (restrict carbohydrates, eat small portions) when you’re actually very active.
On the other hand, you might be stalling your weight loss by taking advice aimed at athletes (drink protein shakes after workouts; refuel every 30 minutes with simple carbs) when you’re not.
This is a very easy problem to solve – if you’re willing to put in a few minutes of concentration for the sake of a long-term benefit.
Step 1: Set a Goal
You can’t eat for a goal if you don’t have one. What do you want from Paleo? Is it weight loss? Disease healing? Something else? The more specific your goal, the more likely you are to reach it.
Step 2: Figure out how you’ll get there.
What kind of dietary advice is best suited for your specific situation – not people in general, not some other population, but you?
This will depend on factors like your age, sex, and activity level, and also on how important this goal is relative to your other goals. There is no one “right” answer; you’ll have to work it out for yourself. Evaluate diet information with this in mind: if you’re a 5’2” woman with 50 pounds to lose, a 6’4” male athlete sharing his food log might not be the best model to follow! You might consider…
- How much to eat
- What proportions of protein, fat, and carbohydrates to eat
- What supplements, if any, to take
- What food groups, if any, to restrict
Step 3: Eat!
Now you have a goal and a plan: you can make smart decisions based on your goal to decide whether a specific food is right for you to eat. All you have to do is ask the question: does this fit my goals?
Asking about specific nutrients is helpful if (and only if!) it helps you answer that question. Advice to eat this or that is useful only if it’s relevant to you and your specific situation.
This is a lot harder than just going with the flow or eating what everyone else eats. It takes effort – effort that people aren’t willing to in. That’s probably why so many people don’t set goals or think about how to reach them; it’s easier in the short run to stumble along making careless snap judgments.
But if you’re willing to put in 10 minutes of serious focus to figure out your goals, the benefit is huge. Instead of making decisions based on what works for the general population, you can decide based on what will help you specifically. The question of “should I eat this” suddenly becomes simple and clear. No more agonizing over whether something technically is or is not “Paleo:” will it help you reach your goals, check yes or no. And then eat it (or don’t), put it out of your mind, and move on.