Spoiler alert – this article is not going to tell you what the optimum diet is. That’s different for each individual and their particular circumstances. What I am going to explore however, is a strategy that I used for creating a simple framework for my diet.
When I think about areas of my life that really benefit from a strategic approach, diet is probably right up there. You have an almost infinite choice of resources, you have to make multiple small daily decisions which are impacted by external factors, and these decisions add up to longer term outcomes in complex ways that are not well understood. If I was dealing with this kind of issue for work, I would be doing some serious modelling and monitoring to get the outcomes that I wanted, yet our diet is most often dealt with on a completely ad-hoc basis.
Diet is not a sprint for weight loss, it’s about the long term ‘normal’. This means that you can deviate with treats and weeks where things go completely out of the window, but these times become the exceptions and the rule is that you are eating healthily and intentionally. It also needs to be sustainable for your lifestyle, and be flexible enough to accommodate eating out and the time you have available to cook and prepare meals.
Do your research – The most important part of setting up an intentional diet is to research what your health outcomes are, and how you might achieve them. There is lots of information available on diet, so make sure that you are reading from reputable sources written by people who are actually qualified to do so. Diet is a long term concept so avoid anything that promises quick results or seems too extreme.
Consider whether or not a check-in with your GP would be helpful as part of your research – things like a blood test or cholesterol check might be able to give you a better picture of what your body is lacking. This is a really good idea if you are considering supplements, as many contain levels that would be almost impossible to ingest through food alone. Don’t forget – just because something is natural occurring or derived from a natural source doesn’t mean it can’t have a harmful effect.
When I started planning what my diet should look like, I had a blood test that revealed I was low in thyroid hormone and associated with that, low in iodine. This was really useful and meant that I didn’t waste time trying to change my diet to deal with my lethargy, which was actually being caused by hypothyroidism and needed to be properly medicated.
Create a simple, basic framework – My basic diet framework uses guidance from the WHO and the NHS and uses elements from the CSIRO’s Total Wellbeing Diet (the link is to the recipe book – you don’t need to subscribe to the plan). Don’t specify what foods you will eat, and don’t create a meal plan. Just list things in terms of types of food. I also don’t list treats and ‘sometimes’ foods – these will get eaten without being planned for!
My basic diet framework looks something like this:
- Light breakfast with no dairy (to avoid interference with medication)
- A low carb lunch (bean/lentil/chickpea based)
- 5 portions of fruit and veg per day (aiming for more veg than fruit)
- 2 portions of fish per week (ideally at least 1 oily)
- No processed carbs (like pasta and bread) and limited other carbs
- No processed meats (ham, bacon, salami etc.)
- Limited sugar
Build your framework into your weekly schedule – Now that you have the building blocks of what you want your diet to look like, put them into your weekly schedule. This should account for any other regular activities that might mean you need quick, easy meals for those evenings, time for meal prepping, and meals out.
This focuses on what I can have rather than what I can’t have. Psychologically, I find it much easier to think about diet as things you need to eat rather than things to exclude. It’s surprising how important it is to consider every single meal when you have daily ‘rules’ such as 5 portions of fruit and veg per day. If I skip breakfast and then have a sandwich for lunch for example, that means that I have to fit 5 portions into one meal!
This basic framework means that there is no need to meal plan, you can just use the formula to create meals to your preference and cooking style. For example, on Mondays I know I need a quick dinner to make after going to the gym so this is usually fish baked in the oven and two types of steamed veg (surprisingly filling if there is enough veg!). Tuesdays I have a bit more time, so dinner might be a beef stir fry or something a bit more elaborate. I can also adjust to what is seasonally available, what is cheap and what I’ve got growing in my garden.
The sizes of each component are guided by the number of portion. I don’t bother weighing anything out once I know what a ‘portion’ looks like.
Create a base shopping list – I only go shopping once a week and schedule time into my weekly routine to go and buy items. I make a regular, weekly shopping list that fits my diet framework and keep printouts ready to take. My list doesn’t specify the types of vegetables or fruits that I will buy, just the number of portions I will need. I’m also careful not to over-buy, usually four different veggies are enough for the week and I will mix and match them for different meals. I pre-plan what my lunch for the week will be, chosen from a list of favourites and also have a couple of healthy, long-life ’emergency’ meals in the pantry.
Review regularly – As with most of my lists, reviewing regularly is the way that you will eventually land on your ‘perfect’ diet. It will take a lot of iterations to work out the least resistive way of achieving your outcomes. This will also change if your health outcomes change, or if your circumstances and other parts of your schedule change.
Compare your meal plan with your weekly schedule and make some adjustments where needed. You will probably need to go back and forth between this stage and the meal planning stage a couple of times before you land on a structure that fits with what you want to achieve with your diet, but is also achievable given your other goals and commitments. If you find that you can never stick to one particular day or meal, don’t torture yourself. Reassess and think about how you can be more flexible. don’t plan for ‘cheat days’ or ‘cheat meals’ though – I find enough ad-hoc opportunities come up for these to happen without planning for them.
Have you found success with any diet plans?
Disclaimer: I am not a health professional. This blog anecdotes my personal story and should not be interpreted as advice.