The journey to find the best healthy eating plan for you can be exactly that—a journey. I’m not talking about diets that truly are more hype than health, like the cabbage soup diet of yore. Or any sort of “cleanse.” I’m talking about ones people in the wellness world truly swear by long-term, like Paleo, intermittent fasting, and even the ketogenic diet.
Finding a healthy eating plan that you actually like be a giant sigh of relief. Finally, a way to eat well that’s energizing and doesn’t mess with my digestive system…and I enjoy it! But according to healthy eating experts, what’s working for you now may not always be the best option for you in the future. People and eating plans aren’t penguins; they don’t mate for life.
Here, two registered dietitians explain when it’s helpful to follow a specific eating plan and how to know when it’s time to switch things up.
When committing to a healthy eating plan can be helpful
Registered dietitian Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, says clients often come to her asking for help choosing an eating plan. While most people are familiar with broad healthy eating rules, like the importance of eating vegetables and minimizing sugar, she says there are times when having a specific eating plan with set guidelines can be helpful.
First, she emphasizes that there isn’t one perfect way of eating that’s right for everyone, since health conditions, goals, and the microbiome (which affects how people respond to food) vary from person-to-person. Thus, how you eat shouldn’t be shaped by what works for one Instagram influencer, but rather informed by your unique health needs, values, culture, and taste preferences. “With clients, we’ll talk about long-term goals and short-term goals,” she says. One person, for example, may have a short-term goal of weight management while someone else’s short-term goal may be fueling their marathon training. These short-term goals may fit into an overarching ethos, such as eating for longevity, managing diabetes, or eating plant-based.
“It’s also important to consider someone’s age and activity level,” adds registered dietitian Colette Heimowitz, RD, who works regularly with Atkins. To her point, the nutrient needs of a 21 year old are different than someone going through menopause, and different still to someone who is pregnant. Similarly, a person who does strenuous exercise training needs to make sure they consume enough food (particularly enough protein) to replenish their bodies.
While all of these factors are important to consider, both dietitians say there are still nutrients everyone needs, such as fiber, iron, vitamin C, and B vitamins. “This is why I tend to recommend some version of the Mediterranean diet,” Largeman-Roth says. “It provides enough variety and is truly one someone can stay on for a long time.”
But if another eating plan helps someone reach their short-term goals in a way they love and don’t loathe, Largeman-Roth sees the benefit in that, too. In a culture that’s made eating fast and processed foods the cheapest, most convenient options, eating healthy isn’t always easy. Both RDs say there’s more than one way to meet your nutrient needs, which is why there’s room for various diet types to co-exist. “For people who have been eating a lot of processed foods or haven’t been meal planning but now wants to do a complete overhaul, something that has a bit more of a ‘diet’ structure, like a Paleo or keto, can be helpful. As long as someone keeps in mind that it’s not something to follow forever,” Largeman-Roth says.
How to know it’s time to switch up the way you eat
As stated, there are lots of variables that affect a person’s food needs. As you can imagine, those are often subject to change. A marathon runner might want to eat a different way when they’re not training; a pregnant woman suddenly has lots of foods she needs to avoid (sorry, sushi lovers) and more nutrients like folate that she needs to double-down on. Or maybe you have to have a surgery and thus should press pause until you’ve recovered.
Largeman-Roth says she’ll often hear from clients about how their eating habits need shifting as they get older. “Clients have often said to me that they’ve been able to eat whatever they want in their 20s, but once they get past 35 or 40 find that they’re starting gaining weight even though their habits haven’t changed,” she says. Once again, entering a different life-stage may affect what makes you feel your best. “Activity levels can often change in different periods in a person’s life, and that in turn will affect their nutrition goals,” she adds.
While there’s no set amount of time for how often you should reevaluate how you eat, anytime your lifestyle or life-stage changes, it’s a good idea to to give it some thought. Your body often offers up clues that it’s time for a change, too. “If your energy isn’t steady…or if you’re hungry and miserable, those are all signs that what you’re doing isn’t working,” Heimowitz says.
“You can still stay with a specific diet and just modify it to fit your new needs too,” Heimowitz says, adding that if the eating plan you follow is flexible, like the Mediterranean diet or plant-based, you can just tweak it to get more of the nutrients you need instead of doing a whole overhaul. Since she primarily works with clients who are into the Atkins diet (which is a low-carb, high-fat diet with three to four different phases), often she’ll make changes that still fit the Atkins plan but are tweaked to target whatever the new need is, such as getting a bit more carbs or eating more immune-boosting foods.
There is one caveat to switching up your eating plan and that’s if it’s one you commit to for moral reasons, like vegan or vegetarianism. While both dietitians say there still needs to be more scientific research about the long-term health effects of living a completely vegan or vegetarian diet long-term, they say it can be done healthfully—with extra careful attention to making sure all your nutrient bases are covered.
Even though the wide range of diets out there can make healthy eating confusing, being able to experiment and find what works for you can actually be freeing. And so is the fact that you can always change your mind. Breaking a few “rules” may lead you to something that you like even better.