One of the most difficult parts of creating a healthy nutrition plan is determining which dieting approach to take. The vast array of dieting options can make choosing one a nerve-racking and complex experience. For most busy people, designing and managing a healthy diet plan is a tedious and complicated process.
The Complexity of Diet and Nutrition
Unfortunately, nutrition and complexity tend to go hand in hand. In fact, a 2012 study showed that 50 percent of Americans say that figuring out their income taxes is less complex than creating a healthy meal plan.
One reason people opt for less healthy meal options is simplicity: you eat what you feel like when you’re hungry, which requires little effort. Habitually eating healthy foods is more difficult than eating whatever you want because selecting healthy options requires more time and energy. People see selecting and sticking to a healthy diet as too time-consuming and mentally taxing to fit into their busy lives, so they often choose easier—but less healthy—meals.
What Most Diets Have in Common
Selecting a healthy nutrition plan doesn't have to be as difficult as most people think. Though there seems to be an endless number of dieting theories and approaches available (many of which seem contradictory), you can eliminate much of the complexity of eating right by learning some very basic nutritional principles.
Understanding the terms diet and nutrition is helpful because, though they are often used synonymously, they refer to different things. Diet refers to the specific foods that one eats regularly. Nutrition refers to the nutrients (chemical compounds) that the body must ingest and metabolize to sustain itself. Diet and nutrition intersect because nutritional needs are met through diet (i.e., foods).
On a nutritional level, most of the popular dieting approaches are more similar than they are different. Consider the following list of popular diet plans:
- All-meat diets (e.g., carnivore)
- Plant-based diets (e.g., vegan)
- Whole-food diets
- Gluten-free diets
- Grain-free diets (e.g., Paleo)
- Dairy-free diets
- High-protein diets (e.g., Atkins)
- Low-carb diets (e.g., keto)
- High-carb diets (e.g., Mediterranean diet)
- Low-fat diets
Despite the differences between these approaches, they have one essential element in common: macronutrients (e.g., protein, carbohydrates, and fat), the basic building blocks of human nutrition. While experts disagree about which foods are the best sources of macronutrients and what combination of macronutrients is optimal, they agree that the human body needs some amount of these compounds. In fact, there is broad and well-established scientific consensus on what the essential daily intake ranges of protein, carbohydrates, and fat are for general health.
Macronutrient Intake Ranges
Most of today’s popular dieting approaches recommend macronutrient intakes that fall within the ranges recommended by major institutions such as the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture. When it comes to selecting a dieting approach, you can cut through a lot of the confusion and unnecessary nuance by starting from the most fundamental principle: for basic health, keep your daily calorie intake of protein, carbohydrates, and fat in the recommended ranges:
- Protein—10 to 35 percent of total calorie intake
- Carbohydrates—45 to 65 percent of total calorie intake
- Fat—20 to 35 percent of total calorie intake
People trying to maintain or increase muscle mass (which, hopefully, you are) should aim for a protein intake at the higher end of the recommended range. For most people, this will be somewhere between 20 and 35 percent of daily calorie intake.
Regarding carbohydrates, prioritizing starches (e.g., corn, rice, and oats) and dietary fiber (e.g., whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and beans) over refined carbohydrates (e.g., sodas, candies, sugary cereals, and pastries) is important. Taking this approach can help control blood sugar, lower cholesterol, and improve bowel health.
Concerning fat intake, you should prioritize foods containing unsaturated fats (e.g., plant-based oils, nuts, seeds, and fish), minimize saturated fat intake (e.g., red meat, poultry, and full-fat dairy), and completely avoid trans fats (e.g., fried foods, margarine, and shortening). Taking this approach can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase HDL (good) cholesterol.
Additional Nutritional Considerations
Other factors (such as sodium, saturated fat, cholesterol, food quality, and vitamin and mineral content) can be important, but in most cases, the most impactful nutritional decision you can make is eating an appropriate number of calories with macronutrient content in the recommended ranges. With this approach, most diets can be effective, leaving you with plenty of options.
The average person trying to establish healthier eating habits shouldn’t get too caught up in selecting the “perfect” diet. The novelty behind most dieting trends is usually a minor nuance that will be inconsequential compared to consistently eating a well-balanced diet with the appropriate macronutrient content.
If you concern yourself with anything more complex than macronutrients and calories, start with the advice of your doctor (or a registered dietitian). A great time to address the need for dietary modifications is at your annual physical.
You can review your blood work with your doctor and ask if any nutritional changes are recommended, such as vitamin supplementation or reduction of cholesterol or sodium intake. This approach to diet modification is advisable because it relies on individualized evidence (your blood work) to determine when a change may be beneficial.
Options over Complexity
The best step you can take to eliminate the complexity of choosing a diet plan is understanding that the goal of a diet is to get nutrition from your food—and the most essential components of nutrition are macronutrients. Healthy intake ranges have been defined for each macronutrient type, so any diet that keeps you in these ranges will probably be effective. From this perspective, you can view the massive array of dieting approaches as a source of variety and choice rather than as a source of complexity and confusion.