Definition of a Healthy Diet – part 1

Proper, healthy diet, is one of the most talked about things nowadays. Not a day goes by that we don’t read or hear about it on TV, radio or in magazines. However, judging by the content, most authors wouldn’t know its definition. The few that would don’t give a good enough one.

I think it’s time I provide my two cents. Even though I’m known for my regular writing (sarcasm), this time I had a very good reason for a break. I enrolled in a PhD programme and moved to Spain, so I needed a day or two to get it together. Or a month. Or six. Now that’s settled, we can go back to writing. I hope that the PhD will motivate me to hit the keyboard more often. Or at least stating it publicly like this.

The PhD is a part of Nutrigenomics and Personalized Nutrition program. One would expect that my following article would be on this subject. But it won’t. Some time ago, I started writing about the definition of proper diet through the article called Healthy or Proper Diet. Trying to avoid Zeigarnik effect, which seems to affect me a lot, I’ll try to finish the series before starting a new one.

I’ve been writing for the past 3-4 years, less often than more, about interesting and not so interesting, wide and specific subjects, but I have a feeling I haven’t replied to basic dietary philosophic questions such as „What is proper diet“, „What does nutritionist do and why you need one“, „Are all nutritionists scammers“ etc. Luckily, it’s never too late to understand that your house lacks foundation. Hm.

What is a healthy diet?

Optimal, ideal, perfect, healthy, whatever. I choose the last term („healthy“, not „whatever“) because of the fact that others imply the existence of a singular best type of diet. (I wrote more about this in my last article.) This isn’t the case, because you can achieve a healthy diet in more ways than one. And of course, healthy diet isn’t the same for everyone and in all circumstances. However, there are rules. Before I get to them, I’d like to talk about the existing definitions and their flaws, and the consequences of the lack of quality definition.

I believe that the lack of quality or any definition is the most important cause of fiery dietary discussions we witness on a daily basis.

Existing definitions

Going through literature in Croatian and English I didn’t find an appropriate definition. Definitions of Croatian Ministry of Health [i], US Department of Agriculture (Dietary Guidelines for Americans) [ii], American Medical Institute (Dietary Reference Intakes) [iii] and World Health Organization [iv] mostly describe the contents of a healthy diet, not its definition, focusing on certain dietary habits and/or leaving out one of below mentioned points. I think they’re missing the point and skipping the foundations, even though it might be more useful in practice (if the definition was correct/complete, and it’s not).

An interesting attempt at a definition was provided by my Serbian colleague, author of the „Vitki gurman“ (Slim gourmand) blog. She divided the diet into two main factors: diversity and level of processing. Even though I think this is an interesting definition, I don’t agree with it, because, like many others, it describes the content and does not actually define proper diet. Even the content part is too imprecise. A positive thing about the article is the way it describes the comfort zone, which allows for certain aberrations from a “perfect” diet, not making the diet itself less healthy. In any case, it is an original view, and I mention it because it’s one of the very few in our area.

Consequences of a lack of definition

Everyone knows everything about a healthy proper diet and everyone feels qualified to spread the dietary wisdom. This wisdom is often filled with aggression, exclusiveness, and insulting others that hold different dietary approaches. The reason for this attitude, other than the obvious lack of knowledge, lies in the non-existence of a good enough definition of a healthy diet. This results in numerous „ideal“ ways of eating – along with horrible forum and FB comments. The explanation as to why this precise way of eating is the best is based on myths: „That’s the way our ancestors ate, so it must be good“, which stems all the way back to the myth of the noble savage, and „You are what you eat“ fallacy, based on intuitive psychology (consuming more fats leads to more fat tissue) etc.

This wisdom comes mostly from having read three articles online and having watched two YouTube videos with suspicious speakers, and a few coffee talks during working hours. There’s no quality foundation, in this case knowledge of chemistry, biology, biochemistry, physics, physiology… and critical thinking. One cannot judge the quality of these sources and they can easily mislead their reader. Being in possession of an information, even though it is a precondition, is not the same as having knowledge.

Definitions of a healthy diet

Definition of a healthy diet depends on the way you look at things. This is why I’ll give a few: effective, focused on describing the effects of a proper diet on your health, qualitative, describing its components, and practical, telling us what to focus on in your dietary behaviors.

The following definitions, along with everything else I say or write, is open for critique, discussion, and upgrade. I’m not asking nor expecting from anyone to take it for granted, but to critically evaluate it, publically through FB comments or privately through email or FB inbox.

In my next article I’ll get right to it, but I must warn those who expect numbers – even though I like them, I don’t consider them necessary here.