If you’ve been reading The Lyons’ Share for a while, you know that my nutrition philosophy is all about balance and moderation – although I know that some more restrictive diets work for some people, I believe that, in general, most people are healthiest and happiest when they don’t restrict any macronutrients (the low-fat and super-low-carb approaches are generally not your best bets), and when they eat everything in moderation. This includes lots of fruit and vegetables, a good dose of healthy fats, some form of lean protein (either meat or vegetarian options), and, for those with high metabolisms, those who are super active, or those with certain health goals, some whole grains or other sources of complex carbohydrates. This also includes dessert (usually healthier desserts, but sometimes splurges), some alcohol, and of course, plenty exercise – everything in moderation. (picture source)
I pride myself in helping my Health Coaching clients find the balance of nutrition that makes them their healthiest and happiest, and that balance is different for every person. That’s what makes it fun!
When we find the balance of nutrition that works for us, we often end up choosing the same foods over and over again. I know tons of self-proclaimed healthy eaters (myself included!) who find meals that they love to eat and make them feel great, and they end up eating those same meals day in and day out for a long period of time. I was that way with my favorite breakfast, until I gave up dairy, almonds, and blueberries due to my food intolerances and had to find other options (2 weeks left!).
Despite the fact that your favorite meals might be “well-balanced” at first glance, I still believe it’s important to include variety in our diets. This doesn’t mean that I think you should never repeat a meal twice, or that you need to drive yourself crazy thinking about the appropriate variety, but it just means that it’s helpful to stretch yourself every once in a while and ensure that you’re mixing up your routine just a bit. See? Everything in moderation – even variety. (picture source)
By the way, the idea for this post came yesterday afternoon, when Michael sent over an article by Matt Fitzgerald, who gives reasons why dietary variety is overrated. I love Matt Fitzgerald, and think he’s an amazing source of information both in this post and in general, but my opinion is a bit more in favor of variety than his. Still, it’s a great read, an interesting perspective, and I agree with a few of his points.
7 Thoughts About Including Variety In Your Diet
- Variety improves nutrient adequacy: You are more likely to get the wide spectrum of nutrients that your body needs if you are including variety in your diet. Sure, you may think “I get my Vitamin C from oranges, my Vitamin K from kale, etc…”, but it’s much more complicated than that. Nutrients in whole foods work in complex ways (which is why nutrients from whole foods are often more useful than those from supplements), and we need the variety to keep us healthy. A 1998 study by the University of Oslo is one of the best in showing that dietary diversity is directly correlated with nutrient adequacy.
- Variety can improve general health: Fitzgerald mentions a study that tested women eating the same number of servings of fruits and vegetables, but a different variety of fruits and vegetables. The women eating a greater variety had improved free radical damage control, which can be an indicator of overall health. (Incidentally, Fitzgerald cites the study as “University of Colorado,” but you know me … I always do my research! … and it’s actually a Colorado State University study). He also mentions another study showing a 30% decreased risk of death for those whose diets included variety! It seems to me like this is somewhat due to just a healthier diet overall, and not solely due to variety, but I’m sure the variety was very helpful.
- Variety helps avoid “ruts”: When you’re eating the same thing day in and day out, it can be easy to get into a “rut” where you love one food … and then all of a sudden, you can’t stand it. Of course, I don’t want you to hate healthy foods, but ruts also make things much more difficult when you’re in unfamiliar situations. It can feel “impossible” to be healthy when you can’t have your go-to meal and close you off to alternate possibilities.
- Variety can be enjoyable: Most of us really enjoy food, and it can be fun to try new things! Sure, sometimes you won’t like what you try, but experimenting and taste testing can bring a lot of pleasure to your diet!
- Variety may deter some food intolerances: Fitzgerald mentions that there’s no research indicating that eating the same foods causes allergies … this is true (as far as I know). However, there is some emerging research showing that those prone to food intolerances can increase the likelihood of developing intolerances if they consume a food repetitively (and I believe this is what happened to me, especially in the case of spinach, almonds, dairy, oranges, and potentially more).
- Variety can be less convenient. As Fitzgerald points out, it can be easier to buy and prepare the same things over and over again. I get it – routine is nice, and if you know exactly what you need each time you go to the grocery store, it’s incredibly easy.
- Variety may contribute to obesity. I think this is one of those cases where we don’t have the full story just based on lab studies. However, there is reason to believe that eating a wider variety of foods is correlated with higher rates of obesity, as is shown in this meta-analysis.
As a bottom line, I agree with Fitzgerald in saying that “a repetitive diet of healthy foods is better than a highly varied diet containing many unhealthy foods.” You have to find what works for you. But if you tend to get in regular food ruts, why not try something new this week?
**Side note: Happy Birthday to my amazing sister, Lindsey, by far the most selfless and genuine person I know!! Sorry for the sweaty picture, sis … that’s what hours of post wedding dancing will do to us 🙂 Can’t wait to see you next weekend!**
So tell me in the comments … Do you tend to eat the same things over and over again? What do you think is important when considering the amount of variety in your diet?
Variety is so important, and I am guilty of falling into food ruts or ‘recipe’ ruts- making so much of something and having to consume it all before it goes bad- I hate wasting food. I guess when it comes to meat or vegetables, I tend to change it up regularly depending on what’s on special.
I know from experience, I went overboard on oatmeal ages ago (ate it as my carb source pretty much- sometimes even 3 times a day!) and developed an intolerance so had to cut it out for a fair while- even too much of a good thing can be bad!
Oh, Arman, I am so with you on hating to waste food!! It’s terrible, and I’ll gladly eat the same thing over and over just so I don’t waste food. Interesting – you are the 2nd person that commented on this post who developed an oat intolerance!
I agree with your points, and I definitely think there are benefits to having variety in your diet. I usually fall into habits of eating the same things over and over. I try to switch things up every few months, but week to week its easier to know exactly how to make things, ingredients I’ll need, etc. but I do try to vary things throughout the day. (Like I try to include different fruits and veggies for each meal/snack and eat different forms of protein throughout the day). I want to learn to eat a wider variety of foods but it is a work in progress!
Happy birthday to your sister!
Lisa, I really like your approach of having chunks of time with limited variety. I think that’s perfect!
I’m guilty of having the same meals over and over. While I’m working on identifying my food intolerances and healing my gut I find myself sticking to foods that I know are “safe.” I LOVE these foods though that I don’t want to/am scared to branch out. It’s a learning processes and thankfully I’m working with a wonderful RD to help get me through.
I know it’s really tough to do when you’re learning what is and isn’t “OK” for your body, Kerry! Glad you have some support!
Really interesting post! I definitely think my diet could use some more variety but I feel okay about it in that I aim to get an adequate amount of nutrients from what I eat. Still always an area to improve.
Yes – I definitely think that the amount of macronutrients we get can stay (relatively) constant over time, it’s just varying up the actual foods to make sure we’re covering a broad spectrum. I think you’re doing great!
I think variety is key! It naturally happens for me since I tend to eat different foods during the summer/fall/winter/spring. All the research on food sensitivities is still relatively new, so I totally agree that eating the same food everyday can lead to problems, especially if your gut health/health is compromised to begin with. I ate oatmeal everyday for like 2 years and cannot tolerate it at all anymore (even gluten-free oats).
That’s so interesting about your intolerance to oatmeal, Lauren! I wonder if the intolerance will disappear over time? Thanks for sharing!
I think that Mike is dead on with the idea of “structured variety.” I look at my diet in a manner similar to my training–I have a foundational “diet” of running that I structure my plan around, but cross training is so important..And you can even overtrain your diet to the point of momentary sensitivity.
Uh oh … that is TWICE this morning we’ve agreed … THAT can’t be good! haha
Completely agree with you (and Michael), Susie. Overtraining is a pain to deal with – physically and nutritionally – so anything we can do to avoid it is great!
OK, first off HAPPY BIRTHDAY to your sister and LOVE the picture! 🙂
Also thanks for the shout-out … I like when I find something that triggers me to write about it, and also when I find something that says to me ‘this person will love to read this’.
I love the article by Matt, not necessarily because I agree, but because he always makes me think about food … which is a good thing. Everyone should read Diet Cults.
My personal diet practice is ‘structured variety’ … sort of like my running. When I run I have a number of ‘break points’ that can easily take me from 4 – 10+ miles. Similarly I have about a dozen ‘structural elements’ in my breakfast and lunch. There is always fruit ,and always nuts/pistachios for afternoon snack, always coffee and water, and always protein sources. How it all gets laid out … that varies. Dinners are all over the place … somewhere between Vegan and Paleo on any given night with the occasional ‘junk food extravaganza’ (which is actually much healthier than the ‘standard American diet, sadly enough).
Great post, loads of cool thoughts that complement the original article.
Thank YOU for sending the article! You were right that I loved it! I actually haven’t read Diet Cults yet … on my list! I think the ‘structured variety’ approach you mention is a really great balance … mixing up the actual foods that comprise each day, while still sticking to the general patterns that are working for you!