THE BLOG

Your Diet: Should You Add or Subtract?

04/03/2015 04:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

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There is no debate you can improve your health by improving your diet. You may think cutting out unhealthy foods is the main way to do so. Certainly, this is an important step, but can it go too far? Besides thinking about foods to avoid, should we also think about foods to add?

I think about dietary change in big categories: addition and subtraction. As an adolescent, I was socially withdrawn because of my obesity. I was able to lose weight and improve my health by subtracting sugar and bread from my diet. Things went reasonably well, until we lost our family home to a fire when I was in high school. Because we did not have insurance or the means to restart easily, it was a pretty big trauma, which led me to regain a bunch of weight and pick up bad habits.

After about a year, I started actively exercising again and re-subtracted sugar and bread from my diet. Even though my health started to improve, I confused frustrations with my weight with my frustrations about life, in general. I became convinced I needed to cut out more and more foods in order to feel better again.

It always seemed to work at first. With a new diet, there was always an initial feeling of ease and well-being. In the moment, I interpreted feeling better as the result of being more restrictive. Now, I see that I felt better because each new diet gave me a distraction from my feelings. As soon as a diet quit working, I would move onto the next one, usually more extreme than the last.

Over the course of several years, I subtracted meat, oils, fish, poultry, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy foods, eggs, garlic, onions, cooked food, fruit, nightshade vegetables, acidic foods and cruciferous vegetables. I tried every diet I could, including vegan, Atkins, vegetarian, macrobiotics, Ayurvedic, natural hygiene, Pritikin, food combining, yogic, frequent meals, one meal daily and fasting.

Despite ironclad discipline, my health kept declining. My low point came while walking home from class one day. I was completing pre-medical studies in college and lived without a car. My walk home was a little over two miles. This particular day was a bitterly cold, extremely windy, Minnesota-winter day at 20 degrees below zero. I remember struggling through a deep snow drift with the weight of my books on my back when it struck me: I was weak and miserable. In that moment, it became obvious that all the food subtracting I'd done had wrecked my health. I knew I needed to start adding foods back into my diet. It took days to mentally work myself up, but I finally mustered up the courage to break a ton of my rules and eat a turkey sandwich at a deli. I regained my health. This time, through the power of addition.

When should you subtract?

If your diet is based on processed, synthetic, chemically-laden non-foods, feel free to drop them. I think the same can be said for processed sugar and artificial sweeteners. When it comes to simple, whole foods, I suggest not subtracting too casually.

Here is a pitfall with subtracting: The fewer foods you eat, the fewer foods you can digest. Humans are omnivores, and our intestinal tracts have the ability to digest a wide range of foods. Our digestive system can adjust enzymes it makes, how much acid it produces and even our bowel flora, all based upon which foods we eat. However, none of this happens quickly. If you cut entire food groups out of your diet for a period of time, then suddenly add them back in, you will not digest them well at first. Sadly, many can end up on dangerously restrictive diets based upon short-term responses to certain foods.

When should you add?

Every time you go shopping! Seriously, each time you get groceries, make it a game to find either a food you have never eaten or one you have not eaten in the last year. Even regular supermarkets have so much more variety than you may realize. In the last few months, have you had:

  • forbidden rice
  • broccoli sprouts
  • ostrich meat
  • quail eggs
  • adzuki beans
  • rhubarb stalks
  • macadamia nuts
  • watercress
  • rutabaga
  • red quinoa
  • sardines
  • fresh turmeric

How is your relationship with food? Are there obvious things to subtract? What foods can you add? I encourage you to consider these questions, then follow through with your answers. The results could be life-changing for you, just as they were for me.

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If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.