Unlike what various media forms may like to portray, there is no such thing as the single, “perfect diet”, to achieve optimal health and performance for the entire population. The best diet is a balanced and sustainable approach to nutrition that is tailored to the context of the individual. This could be vastly different from individual to individual, but just as nutritious for each.
While certain dietary frameworks (e.g. vegan, gluten-free, paleo) can definitely be nutritious if executed well, they are not essential for optimal health or performance (unless there is a medical indication e.g. gluten-free diet to treat coeliac disease). Some diets can involve significant restriction from certain foods, which can consequently increase risk of an unhealthy relationship with food and/or your body. This can become an unnecessary stressor.
As opposed to searching for the best diet, you can improve your health and performance by starting with the following key principles:
Eat regular meals.
Whether that is 3 larger meals or 5-6 smaller meals each day – do whatever works for you. Generally speaking, active individuals and athletes will need to eat more often (i.e. include snacks) to provide adequate fuel top-ups and optimal recovery.
Ensure your diet is balanced in macronutrients.
This includes nutritious carbohydrates, lean proteins and healthy fats. Carbohydrates are our main fuel source, proteins are vital for muscle repair and recovery and are also the main component of meals that aids satiety, and healthy fats have a number of functions including nutrient absorption (vitamin A, D, E & K).
Ensure you consume adequate micronutrients (e.g. iron, calcium, vitamin C).
It is all too common for people to focus all of their attention on macronutrient intake that they forget about the numerous essential micronutrients required for the body to function at it’s prime.
For example, iron plays a key role in oxygen transport around the body. If you are low in iron, this can lead to unexplained fatigue and reduced performance across many areas of life. This is especially relevant for athletes.
Another example relates to calcium. Calcium is crucial for building and maintaining strong bones. Inadequate intake of calcium can result in weak bones, which can increase risk of fractures and ultimately lead to osteoporosis.
Drink plenty of fluid to avoid dehydration.
Every individual has different fluid requirements but as a general rule, you should be aiming to consume at least 2-3L of water each day. Variables including heat and exercise further increase fluid needs, so as we lead into the summer months, a strong hydration approach becomes even more important, especially for athletes. Dehydration of just 2% can significantly impact mental and physical performance.
A simple and practical method of measuring your own hydration status on a regular basis is by looking at your urine colour – the clearer your urine, the more hydrated you are.
An alternative method is to weigh yourself before and after physical activity – whatever weight you have lost during activity, you must replace by 125-150% to adequately rehydrate. For example, if you lose 1kg in a training session, you will need to drink 1.25-1.5L of fluid in the following 3-6 hours.
Avoid excessive intake of processed foods that are nutrient-poor and energy-dense.
You do not need to avoid all of these foods all of the time if you enjoy them. Balance is crucial and reducing food rules and restrictions can enhance enjoyment of food and the whole eating process. However, the key message is to ensure that vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats and water make up the majority of the food and drink in your diet, with the less nutritious options featuring only every now and then i.e. “sometimes foods”.
For more help with your health and performance, please book in with one of our Accredited Practising Dietitians/Accredited Sports Dietitians for a full nutrition assessment and intervention to suit your individual goals and needs.