Niha Zubair, Arivale Clinical Research Scientist, PhD
It seems like almost every week there’s a new best-selling book offering to solve your diet woes and get you to lose weight, fight diabetes, improve brain function, or what have you. Whether it’s a new version of low carb, intermittent fasting, Whole 30, or the ketogenic diet, one can’t help but wonder, “Could this be the answer for me?”
Fortunately, there are three very simple criteria that can be used to personally evaluate a diet:
- How do I feel when I am on this diet?
- What do my blood and genetics reveal about my health?
- Can I do this forever?
How do I feel when on this diet?
A healthy diet promotes sustained energy without “crashes,” mental clarity, and the ability to be physically active in a way that’s meaningful to you.
For example, it’s common for people who follow low-carb diets to experience diminished mental clarity and focus or to feel more lethargic because the brain prefers to use glucose from carbohydrates for its functions. Conversely, some people may feel quite well and alert on a low-carbohydrate diet and are able to exercise without any negative impacts on their athletic performance.
The reason for that difference leads us to the second question.
What do my blood and genetics reveal about my health?
Everyone’s body is different, and those bodies can respond differently to the same diet. For example, a diet that causes one person’s cholesterol and blood sugar to improve can have the opposite effect for someone else.
The reason some people may be predisposed to do better on certain diets than others is due to the principle of biochemical individuality. This refers to the combination of differing genetic predispositions, environmental factors, and individual life circumstances that vary from person to person.
In acknowledgment of biochemical individuality, Arivale examines a variety of genes to determine how any one individual may respond to various levels of dietary fat and carbohydrates. Individuals with a certain variant in the PPARG gene may be more predisposed to developing diabetes when they eat a diet high in fat, while for others there may be no such effect1. In other cases, some individuals may have a decreased predisposition for weight gain when they include more carbohydrates2-4; others may not be able to expect the same degree of increased benefit.
The fact that every body responds differently means that, even if you feel good on a diet, it may still be having an adverse effect on your health risk markers. One of my Arivale members really liked the idea of a ketogenic diet and felt good on it. But after several months, her LDL-cholesterol and LDL particle numbers skyrocketed and she concluded this probably wasn’t the best diet for her long-term. So, monitoring blood markers routinely to be sure they’re moving in the direction you want is important, particularly for more extreme diets.
Can I do this forever?
When evaluating a diet, ask yourself, “Does this truly seem like something that I can do forever?”
To maintain weight loss, for example, you must keep doing what enabled you to lose the weight in the first place. Frequently, individuals will revert to their “normal” diet after achieving their weight-loss goal and regain the weight that they lost. This is typically because their habitual diet includes more calories than they were eating during the weight-loss diet, which was simply not sustainable for the long haul.
It’s obvious that for most people the cabbage soup diet will not be a sustainable approach for the rest of their life, but what about an alternative way of eating that both allows you to achieve your health goals and enjoy life?
One of my Arivale members enjoyed intermittent fasting, felt good while doing so, and experienced significant weight loss. Laboratory markers related to her blood sugar, inflammation, and cholesterol improved. This member was able to integrate intermittent fasting into her daily life and successfully navigate the usual dietary landmines: office functions, family events, Christmas parties, etc. For her, this diet was truly sustainable. (“For her” is the key phrase there. Intermittent or alternate-day fasting isn’t feasible in the long-term for everyone, whether because they frequently travel or entertain business clients – or simply because they feel too hungry and uncomfortable while fasting.)
As you ponder what way of eating will work best for you, consider how it will fit in to the circumstances mentioned above, as well as any unique events in your personal life.
Now, put it all together.
If you answered the three questions posed by the sections above with a resounding “yes,” then it’s highly likely you’ve discovered a healthy, sustainable diet and you can proceed with confidence.
- Lamri A, et al. (2012). “Dietary fat intake and polymorphisms at the PPARG locus modulate BMI and type 2 diabetes risk in the D.E.S.I.R. prospective study.” Int J Obes (Lond). 2012 Feb;36(2):218-24. Epub 2011 May 3. PMID: 21540831
- Sonestedt, E., Roos, C., Gullberg, B., Ericson, U., Wirfält, E., & Orho-Melander, M. (2009). “Fat and carbohydrate intake modify the association between genetic variation in the FTO genotype and obesity.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 90(5), 1418-1425.
- Grau, K., Cauchi, S., Holst, C., Astrup, A., Martinez, J. A., Saris, W. H., … & Macdonald, I. A. (2010). “TCF7L2 rs7903146-macronutrient interaction in obese individuals’ responses to a 10-wk randomized hypoenergetic diet.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91(2), 472-479.
- Smith, C. E., Tucker, K. L., Yiannakouris, N., Garcia-Bailo, B., Mattei, J., Lai, C. Q., … & Ordovás, J. M. (2008). “Perilipin polymorphism interacts with dietary carbohydrates to modulate anthropometric traits in hispanics of Caribbeanorigin.” The Journal of Nutrition, 138(10), 1852-1858.