In a nutritional world heavily defined by individualization, there is no strikingly specific, one size fits all, best diet.
Instead, there are specific criteria that define the best diet ever.
These criteria are undebatable.
It doesn't involve following keto, vegan, paleo, or merely something you can stick to.
The best diet to ever grace our existence as humans is the one that makes you thrive physically AND mentally.
By taking something you can stick to up a couple of notches, you can focus on what allows you to reap the best possible results physically and mentally.
Of course, if a specific diet (such as keto, vegan, paleo, etc.) does achieve this standard for you (or at least you think it does), then that’s great. However, I would still urge you to keep reading as you may discover some insights that will help you thrive at a higher level.
Anyway, let’s dive deeper into the reasons why this definition of the best diet ever is universally applicable, and undebatable.
Reason #1 The Gut and the Brain
Our gut is like our second brain. It is home to the enteric nervous system, which operates completely independently from the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord). However, it still communicates with our actual brain.
This is extremely powerful because...
1) if your gut health isn’t optimized, the capacity to thrive mentally is hindered (it’s hard to think clearly and effectively when having digestion issues) and
2) if you aren’t in a healthy place mentally, then several possible gastrointestinal symptoms could arise (digestion issues may result from constant stress and anxiety)
There’s a connection here between the gut and the brain, referred to by many as the gut-brain connection.
To improve the consequences that come from this connection and truly feel your best, dietary components should address both the physiological and mental aspects of our health, which leads me to this...
Reason #2 The Functions of Food
As something we encounter anywhere from 2 to 10 times per day, food plays a gigantic role in our lives.
Because of this, it’s also an area that many people struggle with.
One extremely common reason is the inability to employ both functions of food: nourishment and satisfaction.
Food function #1 – Nourishment
Food is fuel. We need it to survive. But, unless you’re on a deserted island without much to work with, food doesn’t just keep us from not dying. It enables us to prevent disease and optimize health with regards to all physiological systems.
Food function #2 – Satisfaction (Enjoyment)
Food is fun. It is a vital component of various aspects of our lives. From social events to holidays to office parties, good tasting food is an absolute staple (exception: fasting during Ramadan). No one likes eating bland or weird tasting food.
Where people go wrong is when they assume one function of food must be completely sacrificed for the other. When, in reality, that is far from the truth.
Here are some possible scenarios...
Person 1 is extremely restrictive in her food choices – we’ll call her Stacy Strict.
Stacy is trying to drop body fat. She tends to associate fat loss with only eating specific types of foods (instead of appropriate caloric and macronutrient intakes). And while most of her choices may be nourishing to the body and for the gut itself (based on vitamin/mineral, fiber, probiotic content, etc.), her mental satisfaction consistently takes a hit. Over time, she develops a poor relationship with food as well as increased stress and anxiety related to her diet. Eventually, her constant, yet completely unnecessary mindset to restrict many foods and associate them with automatic fat gain, actually leads to other health issues including indigestion.
Person 2 has a rather mellow approach to his food intake and choices – we’ll call him Larry Loose.
To put it blatantly, Larry gives zero f's about how he nourishes his body. If it doesn’t satisfy his seemingly spoiled tastebuds, then he will not partake in consumption. For obvious reasons, Mr. Loose, or as his friends call him, Mr. Booze, isn’t exactly doing his health any favors. Although he’s exercising his right to enjoy his food, his diet is lacking the components that provide nourishment (vitamin/minerals, fiber, probiotic content, etc.) which will (directly) affect his gut health and thus, likely his mental or brain health (indirectly).
(A quick side note: imagine Stacey and Larry as a couple. Picturing the two of them eating at a restaurant together or ten times worse, preparing dinner together, sounds like a literal recipe for disaster; just another example of how food can impact a vast number of life arenas).
To harness the best possible consequences from the gut-brain connection (e.g. complete mental clarity and focus without unwanted gastrointestinal symptoms), food must provide nourishment and satisfaction.
(Of course, many other life stressors such as lack of sleep or a hectic schedule can play a role in this connection. For the sake of this article, we’re focusing solely on diet’s prominent role).
Reason #3 Promoting the Best Possible Relationship with Food
As mentioned, simply focusing on what you can stick to is not the ideal goal with a diet. It’s the bare minimum.
While sustainability is crucial, fostering a great relationship with food itself, I’d argue, is crucial-er.
I say this because your relationship is what will create sustainability. And then some.
It’s one thing to be comfortable with everything you eat (like Larry Loose), but when you truly understand the rationale behind certain food choices (unlike Stacy Strict), that’s where the magic happens.
This allows you to optimize your gut-brain connection, and eat for nourishment and satisfaction, all while sticking to your diet… with little to no effort.
Just as understanding is a key component for all relationships that flourish, having a good relationship with food comes from having a good understanding of food.
Knowing the why behind your food choices, essentially.
So now that you know the reasons behind the criteria for the best diet ever, let’s discuss ways for you to create this for yourself.
How To Construct Your Best Diet Ever
Before I get into some specific action steps, remember:
There is no specific best diet.
What might make me feel like I’m on top of the world, allowing me to reach my goals and enjoy doing so, could make you feel like dog crap while pushing you away from your goals.
Now, onto the action steps.
Action Step #1 Create a Balance.
Let’s consider a specific body composition goal.
When trying to lose fat, you might opt to only eat “clean” foods (anytime I say clean foods in an actual conversation, air quotes have become habitual) – i.e. foods that are typically more nutritious while also lower in Calories.
This is unnecessary. You can give yourself some leeway with your food choices. By practicing moderation, you can permit yourself to eat that brownie or cupcake or bag of hot Cheetos every so often.
After all, the driving force of fat loss is not consuming specific foods. It’s being in a caloric deficit. So determining what an appropriate caloric intake looks like for you to achieve fat loss would be most significant (whenever you have a body composition goal, caloric intake is important to consider).
To simplify this, incorporate the 80/20 rule.
Even if you don’t have a specific body composition goal (i.e. you’re content with your current physique), this method can and should be used (to avoid unwanted weight gain or loss, you should still have a rough idea of your daily caloric intake).
Here’s how it works: aim for no less than 80% of your caloric intake to come in the form of nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods. The other 20% or so... that’s for you to decide.
For the 80%, you’ll want to focus on foods that…
Have no ingredient labels or an ingredients list that is very straightforward
Typically don’t have excessive packaging
Typically go bad quickly (exceptions include frozen forms of food as well as nuts, seeds, healthy oils, etc.)
Some fantastic options include high-quality protein sources such as grass-fed chicken or beef, wild-caught fish, pasteurized eggs and egg whites; complex carbs like rice, quinoa, oats, etc; fruits and veggies; and healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, and avocado.
One approach you can take when implementing the 80/20 rule is to have your “less optimal" meals or snacks planned out ahead of time.
(Notice how I don't say "bad" foods as this would point to an approach in which certain foods are indeed off limits. In reality, there are no inherently "bad" foods; just bad portion sizes.)
This way, if you know your daily 20% is going to be a small bowl of ice cream before bed, then you'll know to avoid consuming that donut for breakfast.
This helps automate the process because you’ll think to yourself… outside of that one meal or snack, I need to fuel my body as well as I possibly can.
The beauty of this rule?
Because portions of "less optimal" foods are controlled, you obtain freedom to eat foods you love every day, guilt-free, without hindering your overall health and/or body composition goals.
An absolute win-win.
Action Step #2 Create Variety
Unless you’re eating an extremely diverse range of nutrient-dense foods daily, not eating the same foods every single day is another key component to implement.
While doing so may benefit your ability to keep calories in check, it’s not an appropriate long-term play.
Let me explain.
By mimicking the same diet, day after day, despite the quality of the foods, you’re:
1) missing out on a boatload of benefits from foods you’re not eating and
2) although less likely, you could be putting yourself at risk for possible nutritional deficiencies (your supplement routine would influence such risk as well, of course).
So, yes, you want to not eat the same damn thing every day.
I'm not saying every single meal must differ from the day before – that’s just unnecessary and quite unrealistic (we all have our go-to meals or snacks that we religiously consume).
More so than anything, you want to focus on eating a variety of nutrient-dense foods that provide a vast range of benefits, allowing you to perform, function, and feel your best.
Fruits and veggies fall right on top of this list.
In addition to aiming for no less than 1-2 servings of fruits and 3-4 servings of veggies daily, try not to always get those servings from the same fruits and veggies, every single day.
For myself, I’m a big-time broccoli guy. And because I typically find myself gravitating towards cooking those miniature little trees come dinner time, I aim to get in multiple different sources of veggies throughout the day.
Making a big fat smoothie each day can help with this a lot. You can add different frozen fruits as well as veggies like kale or spinach. If you’re feeling extra diverse, you can even throw in more nutrient-dense foods like hemp or chia seeds, nut butters, or even a small amount of olive oil (no you won’t taste it).
Switching up your proteins can be beneficial too. Grass-fed beef will provide numerous different benefits and nutrients compared to chicken or salmon or eggs. And vice versa.
When it comes to seafood specifically, aiming to eat cold-water fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, or sardines) at least 1-2 times weekly is ideal to take in enough Omega-3 fatty acids (you could also buy a fish oil supplement, or consume walnuts or hemp seeds for Omega-3 fatty acids, however, these sources aren’t as naturally beneficial as fatty fish).
To promote a healthy gut microbiome, regularly consume source(s) of probiotics (the good bacteria in our gut). Eat fermented foods such as cultured yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, or miso (you can also consider supplementing with probiotics). To couple this, consume an adequate amount of fiber, ideally, 10-14 grams per 1000 Calories consumed. Amongst the benefits of fiber include providing prebiotics (found in certain soluble fiber sources), which feed the probiotics in the gut, and thus, significantly affect the gut microbiome as well.
Action Step #3 Create Awareness
Being aware of not only your nutritional goals but also with how your body responds to your diet over time is critical.
As mentioned, with any sort of body composition goal, your caloric intake is significant. If the goal is to drop body fat sustainably and efficiently, eating at a small deficit (eating less than you’re burning daily) of roughly 500 Calories daily is a smart route to take.
If the goal is to add muscle to your frame, a small surplus (eating more than you’re burning daily) of 200-300 Calories daily is ideal (exceptions may include overweight or detrained individuals; in these cases, eating at maintenance or in a caloric deficit may be appropriate).
Now, to take this a step further, it’s also imperative that you, at least to a degree, consider where these calories come from in terms of macronutrient distribution.
A couple of reasons for this:
1) Protein is pretty damn important.
In addition to keeping you full and satiated, an adequate protein intake is vital for muscle maintenance or growth. Aiming for no less than .7 grams per lb of body weight is ideal for most individuals.
2) Manipulation of carbohydrate and fat intakes, based on biofeedback and personal preference, can be a game-changer.
This is why some people thrive on keto while others can’t go hours (let alone their lives) without consuming an adequate amount of carbohydrates.
Unlike carbohydrates, fats are essential for our survival (not to mention, some of the healthiest foods we can eat for our bodies are high in fat). Therefore, you don’t ever want to severely restrict your fat intake – consuming 20% of your Calories from fat should be a bare minimum.
Keeping that in mind, you can experiment with your fat and carbohydrate intakes (while maintaining the aforementioned goal intake for protein). You might find that you thrive on a moderate-fat, moderate-carb diet and prefer to maintain that structure. Or, as a result of improved satiety, digestion, and energy levels, you thrive on a relatively higher fat intake coupled with a relatively lower carb intake. Because these two macronutrients affect the body so differently, manipulating your consumption of each can make an incredible difference.
Lastly, while creating awareness with your Calorie and macronutrient intakes, take note of specific foods that might just not sit well with you (even if you don’t have a food allergy, you could become sensitive or develop a food intolerance over time).
Be aware of patterns of issues with fatigue and/or digestion. By doing so, you can eliminate all foods you deem as suspicious. Then, every couple of weeks, you can slowly introduce a food or type of food (e.g. dairy, gluten-containing, etc.) back into your diet to single out the sources that truly irritate you.
There are so many different diets and trends out there. Most of which simplify what you can and can't eat, relying on pure restriction as the main determinant of success. Therefore, universally speaking, not one of them stands out as the best. Focusing instead on what makes YOU thrive physically and mentally is a much wiser tactic. This way you can embrace moderation, properly nourish your body, and adjust your intake according to your physique goals and biofeedback... all in a manner that you can stick to.