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The Shared Ingredient Of All Popular Diets

Written by: Stephanie C. Hodges, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Stephanie C. Hodges

Ever felt confused by the overwhelming avalanche of diet advice? If you walk into any bookstore or browse the virtual Amazon bookshelf, you'll find countless books proposing different (sometimes even opposite) advice.

 Healthy young woman eating a fresh salad for lunch

It's no wonder readers often end up feeling more frustrated than enlightened! But hang in there, as we're about to uncover a shared foundation of all dieting advice.


Common diet advice about what to eat

Should you follow a vegan plan or try the carnivore diet option? Are you supposed to count calories or calculate macronutrients like carbohydrates, fat, and protein?


When I became a personal trainer in 2004, it was all about counting calories and eating six small meals a day, evenly spaced out. But the Atkins diet was also popular at that time. I've also seen the popularity waves of Zone, Weight Watchers, paleo, keto, and more.


As a Health and Wellness Coach, I'm fascinated by the various types of diets and the logic behind them. I'm always up for reading a diet book, whether I agree with the takeaways or not!


And what I've found over the years is that most diet books follow this format:

  • The introduction spells out the common problems of overweight and obesity, which affect 70% of the US population. The World Health Organization reports that obesity has tripled worldwide since 1975.

  • An explanation of the woes of the standard Western diet and resulting chronic health issues.

  • The next couple of chapters outline the author's view of the underlying cause and subsequent solution. (With selected scientific principles and research studies to support their point.)

  • Usually, you'll find a few middle chapters about supporting habits like sleep, stress, relief, supplements, and exercise.

  • Finally, you get to the end section, which outlines the food lists, meal plans, and some recipes.


Let's focus on this last point for now...what happens if you pull all the books off the shelf and open them to the diet and meal plan section in the back?


Despite their seemingly conflicting opinions, what you end up eating in the meal plan is surprisingly quite similar: Most diets recommend eating whole foods and eliminating processed ones.

What are processed foods?


Processed foods are any food products that have been altered from their natural state. This means they've gone through some type of processing in order to make them more convenient for consumption or extend their shelf life.


Some processing is necessary so we can have an adequate food supply. Processing can include:

  • Cooking

  • Canning

  • Freezing

  • Pasteurization

  • Dehydration

  • Fermentation


However, many of the foods we consume today are highly processed. This means they've undergone manipulations, which might include adding ingredients such as preservatives, artificial flavors, colors, dyes, sodium, unhealthy fats, and added sugars.


These processed foods can fall into the categories of:

  • Fast food meals

  • Packaged snacks (e.g., chips, cookies, crackers)

  • Canned soups and vegetables

  • Frozen meals and dinners

  • Processed meats (e.g. deli meats, bacon, sausage)


Why are processed foods bad for you?


The extensive processing of foods often causes them to lose important nutrients and fiber found naturally in whole foods.


Processed foods, while convenient, come with major long-term drawbacks.


They are calorie-rich and nutrient-poor, offering more calories but fewer essential nutrients compared to whole foods. Additionally, additives in processed foods can accumulate over time, contributing to health issues such as insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.


Good nutrition is absolutely vital, and fueling your body in healthy ways will help you be more mindful and attentive at work, at home, and everywhere you go.


What are whole foods?

Whole foods, on the other hand, are unprocessed or minimally processed foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. These include:

  • Fruits and vegetables

  • Whole grains (quinoa, brown rice)

  • Legumes (beans, lentils)

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Lean proteins (chicken, fish, tofu)

  • Healthy fats (avocado, olive oil)


Why are whole foods good for you?


Whole foods are packed with essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that our bodies need to function properly and maintain good health. They also tend to be lower in unhealthy substances like sugars and fats.


Plus, whole foods are packed with protein and fiber, which makes them more satiating and can help regulate appetite, making it easier to maintain a healthy weight.


Starting with the right diet mindset


Now, as we talk about the difference between whole foods and processed foods, I don't want you to suffer from thinking:

  1. You have to label foods as "good" and "bad" and feel guilty about eating the "bad" items.

  2. You can never have the tasty foods you enjoy because they're processed.


Neither of these points is true!


I believe that understanding the nutritional content of what you eat and observing how it makes you feel will motivate you in a positive way to desire those foods that will skyrocket your energy, improve your health, and help you feel better inside and out—both now and in the future.


While processed foods provide a temporary fix, they make you feel worse in the long run.


Also, the more you focus on and fill up with whole foods first, making them the priority in your diet, the less room and desire you’ll have for the junk food. And trust me, you'll have more energy and that makes it well worth it—no more afternoon slump!


Can I ever eat my favorite processed foods?


You can eat almost anything if you do so in moderation and incorporate it into your overall diet in a proper proportion.


But here's the problem: eating processed foods in moderation can be challenging.

They're specifically engineered to be sweet, salty, crunchy, and delicious, leaving your body craving more salt and sugar.


If you can eat a few chips and put the bag back in the pantry, that's great. Continue forward with moderation.


However, if certain foods seem to control you—or leave you out of control—then you need to build in portion control "guard rails." Two ways to do this are buying single servings of the foods or only eating that food when you go out, not keeping them in the house.


Experimenting with your ideal diet

Eating whole foods is a great baseline and starting point for cleaning up your diet for optimal health. Just remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to diet.


Every individual's body and metabolism are unique, so what works for one person may not work for another. We have unique genetics, environments, personalities, and preferences.


Also, what worked well for you in one decade or phase of life may not work so great later in life. This is where experimenting like a scientist becomes important.

You can use the principle of eating whole foods as a foundation and then test different types of whole foods to see how your body responds.


Notice if you feel more energized or less bloated after eating certain foods. Although you may not have an official food allergy, your body might be sensitive to those items. Or maybe they just don't agree with your system.


You can also try eliminating processed foods from your diet for a period of time to see how it improves digestion and lowers inflammation.


Examples of foods that often cause allergic reactions or inflammation and digestive issues include:

  • Wheat and gluten

  • Dairy

  • Soy

  • Nuts

  • Eggs

  • Shellfish

  • Nightshade vegetables (such as tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes and bell peppers)

Again, we are all unique, don’t fall into the trap of a “one-size-fits-all” dieting mentality. The key is to listen to your body's signals and adjust accordingly. Again, like a scientist, be intentional in isolating variables (i.e., foods), experimenting, observing, analyzing, and adjusting.


What about macros in your diet advice?


Some of the most popular all-time diets, such as Atkins, Keto, Mediterranean, and Zone vary in their recommended macronutrient ratios. And these are different from standard health recommendations that typically recommend that a majority of your diet comes from carbohydrates.


For example, the Atkins diet is high in protein and low in carbs, while keto emphasizes high fat, moderate protein, and low carb.


Sometimes, people find these diets too challenging to adhere to long-term. Although they initially lose weight by restricting certain foods, these limitations might be unsustainable. That puts you in the unfortunate yo-yo dieting cycle of losing and regaining weight.


Still, the common denominator among all these popular diets is that they recommend whole, unprocessed foods as the foundation of a healthy diet, even if they only recommend certain food groups or items.


Easy diet advice to apply: Whole foods for snacks


So, where do you begin with this diet advice? If you're looking to transform a standard Western diet, which is high in processed foods, fried foods, sugars, and refined carbs, start by eating whole foods for all your snacks.


At snack time, we're most tempted to grab chips, candy, or a sugary latte to satisfy our munchies and counteract our energy crash.


But whole, nutritious foods will give you better-sustained energy.


Make it a challenge this week to swap out packaged or processed snacks for whole food options.


  • Trail mix

  • Nuts

  • Hard-boiled eggs

  • Edamame

  • Fresh fruit

  • Veggies and hummus

  • Energy balls or protein bites made with nuts, dates, and other whole ingredients.

When you do this challenge, pay attention to how these snacks make you feel. Once you've made it a habit to snack healthy, try incorporating more whole foods into breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Take it one meal at a time!


Transforming diet advice: Focus on whole foods


Making whole foods the cornerstone of your diet is the first step in transforming your eating habits. While occasional indulgence in processed foods is acceptable, moderation is key. You must find a diet that will work for you long-term, and adapt to your lifestyle.


If you're interested in getting back on track with your health goals and habits, check out the 5-Day Wellness Kickstart for a free 5-day email series and workbook to help you re-start your holistic health journey.

Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, TikTok and visit my website for more info!

Stephanie C. Hodges Brainz Magazine

Stephanie C. Hodges, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Stephanie Hodges is an experienced Health and Wellness coach with 20-plus years in the fitness and wellness industry. She has a Master’s in Nutrition and Exercise Science and is certified by Duke Health & Well-being as a coach. When she’s not coaching her diverse clientele (or writing about wellness, lifestyle, and digital marketing) Stephanie can be found reading, exercising, and spending quality time with her husband and three kids outside of Austin, Texas. Stephanie is passionate about holistic health and effectively implementing healthy eating, wellness habits, and mindfulness practices as integral pieces of the well-being puzzle.



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