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Marcelle Pick, OB-GYN N.P. Headshot

Vegan, Macrobiotic, Paleolithic: Is It Time to Let Go of the Label?

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I think we can all agree that for some people, eating in America has become a way to define yourself. Some chose their label for political or social reasons, and others are doing it for their health. We have vegetarians and vegans, people who follow raw food diets, macrobiotic diets, Paleolithic diets, the list goes on and on. My son has recently subscribed to a raw food diet, where he eats fruit, nuts, raw vegetables and some cooked quinoa. As he whips his smoothies up in the blender and prepares his meals, it all looks delicious and healthy, but I have to admit, I'm not sure how sustainable this diet will be for him.

It got me thinking, are these labels for how we eat serving us?

I've seen many women in my clinic who are vegetarians, for example, who come to me for help with weight, hormonal balance, or other issues after following a vegetarian diet for years. In many cases, the root of their health concerns is that they aren't getting enough quality protein. This is not to say that it isn't healthy to be a vegetarian. It just might not be healthy for everyone.

Though the news and medical literature bombard us with advice on the best way to eat, the truth remains the same. The best way to eat for you depends on YOU.

How do you determine whether your current diet is best for you?

It's easy to get attached to popular health movements and diet fads. For example, I was a full supporter of the low-fat movement until I realized how important quality fats and proteins were for maintaining healthy weight, hormonal balance, and overall wellness. Something we all think is healthy at one point in time may change. And the reality is it's how you feel that matters most.

I was recently on a short vacation at the lake with a friend of mine who likes to eat very rich foods with elaborate sauces and cheese toppings. I experimented with this style of eating, but unfortunately, I just don't feel well when I eat this way. It makes me feel bloated and heavy. For me, simple is always better -- salads with oil and lemon, grilled or baked fish or organic meat, and steamed or sautéed vegetables.

Take a minute to think about how you feel by answering these questions:
  • Do you wake up in the morning with energy?
  • Do you have enough energy to accomplish your daily tasks?
  • How is your memory and thinking?
  • Do you have digestive issues like heartburn, bloating, loose stools, or constipation?
Then, assess your body with the following questions:
  • Is your skin relatively smooth and healthy?
  • Is your hair healthy?
  • Are your nails strong?
  • Are your muscles lean?

And finally, assess how satisfied you feel after eating a meal. Do you feel pleasantly calm and satisfied or deprived, edgy and anxious?

Spending some time with these questions will provide a lot of insight into how your current diet is serving your body. If you don't feel enough energy to get through your daily tasks, you might consider adding more protein and eating less carbohydrates (especially those that contain gluten). If you're not feeling satisfied after a meal, consider adding more fat or lean protein. There are many ways to experiment if you start to pay attention to what feels good.

If you're committed to finding your best eating style, you can keep a food journal and write down what you eat and how you feel for a week or two. There is also genetic testing you can have done to help you determine the best eating and exercise style for your genes.

Less About Labels, More About You

I have a friend who's been vegan for nearly 10 years and has experienced wonderful health benefits from it. She's lost weight, for one, and learned much more about cooking and nutrition. But in the past few years she's been getting sick a lot. She also fractured a bone and has intense cravings for cheese. She told me she thought she was "addicted" to cheese and that she can't even be around it or she'll eat all the cheese in sight. I reassured her that she was probably not "addicted to cheese" and that her cravings were likely stemming from either a food sensitivity or something her body needed that was missing in her diet.

We talked about how being vegan was great for her to get over a lot of hurdles, but now it might be time to get more protein in her diet. She's trying things in small steps, but letting go of the vegan label is going to be difficult for her, especially because she's connected with a whole vegan community around it.

We get attached to these labels, but sometimes forget to check in with how we actually feel once we've made a political or health decision around food. I hope that we can listen to the wisdom of our bodies and not feel so locked into these diets that we can't change if we don't feel well.

For more by Marcelle Pick, click here.

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