What to eat depends on individual

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Nutrition is uniquely positioned for potential confusion, said Chris Gardner, PhD, during the virtual 2020 Institute for Functional Medicine Annual International Conference.

There are dozens of dietary patterns that affect health outcomes in different ways, Gardner said, including mortality risk, physiology and metabolism, and risk factors for disease. Nutrition studies are not often end-point studies and highlight one aspect of physiology or metabolism and one molecule or food item. On top of that, there are different doses, sources, and durations, as well as population, including age, gender, race, ethnicity, and health and disease status, that can all impact the results or reactions to different nutrients, molecules, and food groups. In short, nutrition is uniquely complex, he said, and practitioners must embrace that.

Certain nutrients and foods can improve or hinder health depending on the context, said Gardner, specifically when applied to various food patterns and unique individuals. This can be illustrated by the hundreds of contradictory nutrition studies on the same or similar nutrients, foods, and food patterns that draw different conclusions depending on the different subjects or different study designs. “It doesn’t have to be yes or no,” said Gardner. “It can be yes and no, depending on the context.”

However, there is a foundational diet most practitioners agree on: eat more vegetables and whole foods and less added sugars, refined grains, and processed foods. More specifically, a healthful diet generally includes vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, eggs, and fish. Beyond this foundation, a dietary pattern may include pasture-raised and organic poultry and whole, intact grains. There is considerable agreement about the core nutritional principles.

While most people agree on this foundational diet, there is a huge room for improvement, Gardner said. While the core principles provide context, there is room for personalization, and there is no “one diet” for everyone.

Gardner stressed the importance of avoiding demonizing certain foods or adopting strict rules. He prefers a whole-food, plant-based approach, which leaves room for eggs, fish, and some meat, or can be completely vegan depending on a person’s preferences. He also encourages people to eat a variety of foods, and allow for the occasional treat, as long as the base is whole, unprocessed foods.

This so-called aspirational diet incorporates the foundations of health and nutrition with deliciousness, environmental sustainability, and social justice, said Gardner. The bottom line, he said, is that what to eat depends on the context.

“At the end of the day, we need to boil this down to simple messages for our patients,” said Gardner. “While I argue for this foundational diet, even when everybody does the best, there are important differences for individuals, and people need to adopt what works for them.”

Editor’s note: Click here to explore our 2020 Institute for Functional Medicine Annual International Conference live coverage.