hands holding carrots

One of the most common questions I get as a registered dietitian is: “Is {insert diet type here} right for me?” With so many different opinions on how to eat out there, it can feel confusing…but it doesn’t have to be. Read on for some sane advice on how to become a more intuitive eater and learn which type of diet is best for your unique needs.

There are very few relationships in your life as intimate – or as complicated – as the one you have with food. The food you eat will literally become your body, for better or for worse. As a dietitian, I strongly believe that an evidence-based approach is critical to choosing a diet for yourself. However, there is also a point where evidence-based guidelines – which by definition aim to serve as many people as possible – leave off and your wisdom as an individual has to take over.  

It’s important to say this up front: there are almost 8 billion people on the planet. To think that just one or two styles of eating will serve us all completely ignores the fact that we have unique genetics, microbiomes, cultures, food preferences and medical conditions that will determine what we need (and want!) to eat to feel our best. Of course, if you spend a hot minute on the internet, there is no shortage of opinions on how some foods or food groups are ‘toxic’ or all the reasons why diet x is the best diet (usually predicated on avoiding said ‘toxic’ foods).  

Take a deep breath and repeat after me: it’s.  just. food. 

I get it. We live in a totally confusing time when it comes to food and nutrition. There is an intense amount of information online – and lots of it is bunk. We are also inundated with food marketing and media while being super stressed, pressed for time, money and often dealing with some sort of health condition (or three!)

So if you feel like you don’t know what to eat, you’re not alone. Which is why I want this post to walk you through a whole bunch of things to think about before stepping down one dietary path or another. And of course, you don’t have to go it alone – if you’re feeling ready, you can sign up for a one-on-one session with one of our dietitians.

How do I know which diet is right for me?

It is worth noting that many people think of the word ‘diet’ as a weight loss thing…but in fact, the true definition of ‘diet’ is simply the pattern of food that we eat. For that reason, we also tend to think of diets in terms of rules or structures – such as paleo, keto or vegan diets – but in reality, it’s far more nuanced than that. When I say diet, I am referring to that second idea of overall dietary pattern. And there are a lot of things you need to consider when deciding which dietary approach might work for you.

  • Do you like to cook? How much time do you have to prep? Going raw food vegan won’t work if you need to get dinner together in fifteen minutes. Eating low FODMAP is pretty tough if you have to eat out in restaurants often. On the other hand, if you’re really into food, ditching food groups is probably going to cut into your enjoyment of eating.
  • What is your food budget, and access to healthy foods? Any diet that requires or encourages specialized products like almond meal or MCT oil will take its toll on your budget and might not be available to you. Dairy and meat can be pricey if you need to eat a lot of it. It might also be impossible to avoid hyper-processed foods if you don’t have the privilege of choosing your groceries.
  • What types of foods do you like, dislike, want to eat more/less of? If life without bread doesn’t feel worth living, paleo or keto will suck the joy out of eating. If you’re concerned about animal welfare, paleo is going to be a stretch. If you dislike kale, being forced to suck down huge amounts of it for some cleanse is the opposite of fun. 
  • Do you have a health condition that could be better supported by nutrition? In my opinion, there are very few health conditions that aren’t helped by changing up your diet. Food is powerful medicine.
  • Which foods make you feel really good in your body? Which foods cause reactions in the body? This last question is a biggie because many of us are really disconnected from our bodies. What’s more, our body’s reactions to food are often drowned out by our psychological or emotional reactions to food. Our mindsets about good/bad/toxic foods may create food fear and psychosomatic reactions that we misread as being physical reactions. Or, we may ignore the physical reactions from a food because that food is important to us. Dismantling the effects of Diet Culture – and Diet Culture disguised as Wellness – is something that most of us as eaters have to tackle on the path to becoming truly healthy eaters.

Keeping a two week food and symptom/wellbeing journal can be an interesting tool to help make the connection between food and how you feel as long as it doesn’t create more anxiety for you. Don’t count calories or measure food portions and don’t use an app that encourages those habits – just keep it in your notes app. 

  • Simply write down what you eat, when you eat, mark down stress level and hunger level out of ten. 
  • Then note any positive or negative responses (feel super energized after your green smoothie? feel hungry and cranky after that dinner salad? Feel bloated after a deli sandwich?). 
  • You may need support from a dietitian to help you create those connections, and understand that food reactions might not be coming from the food itself but your stress level or something going on in your body.

How to eat more intuitively

Going through this kind of exercise is an excellent start in determining how you want to eat. It’s about taking what science knows and filtering through the lens of your own experience. 

It takes patience and compassion to make these decisions –  to allow yourself to truly enjoy what you eat while taking care of your body. Each day is different, and your body is always changing…so your approach to food will naturally change over time. 

What is Intuitive Eating?

One tool for determining what diet is best for you is intuitive eating. Created by two registered dietitians, Intuitive Eating is guided by a set of ten principals that create a positive environment for restoring your relationship with food and your overall health. It’s about giving yourself permission to experience the pleasure of eating – and restoring that natural intuition about how your body feels and what it needs in the moment.

Intuitive eating is just one more idea that guides how I eat and how I guide others to eat. And that’s an important distinction: I feel that dietitians are guides but ultimately, it is your role to decide what is right for you.

What is the best diet?

I make no secret that I think we should all move towards a more whole food plant-based diet. But there is a lot of wiggle room in that statement. Looking at the popular dietary patterns is just a start. To truly create your best way of eating, you have to customize your chosen diet to meet your current needs. 

I know that there are a lot of popular diets out there so I wanted to close this post with a look at five of the biggest so you can see the factors I consider as a dietitian in helping others customized a dietary approach that is right for them. 

Is the Vegan Diet right for me?

A vegan diet is one that eschews all animal products, often including honey. It may or may not be healthy, based on whether you eat whole plant foods or hyper-processed vegan items like cookies and faux meats most often.

This might be right for you if:

  • You wish to opt out of modern animal agricultural systems
  • You have an ethical motivation to avoid animal products
  • You want to create a more sustainable food system
  • You are interested in the health benefits of a more whole food, plant-based diet
  • You have financial and geographical access to healthy plant-based foods such as legumes, meat and dairy alternatives, nuts and seeds
  • Allergies won’t get in the way of meeting your mineral and protein needs 

Is the Keto Diet right for me?

A true keto diet is one where the carbohydrates are low enough that the body transitions to a ketogenic metabolism. This is where your metabolism burns stored body fat for energy and creates ketone bodies to fuel the brain. This is one dietary approach where you have to be all in, as it takes the body time to adapt to this metabolic state and it can be dangerous to eat a high fat, low carb diet and not be in true ketogenic metabolism. 

This might be right for you if:

  • You require medical weight loss to improve a serious health condition 
  • You have type two diabetes and your carbohydrate tolerance is quite low, making it difficult to maintain blood sugars in the healthy range
  • Other, less restrictive ways of eating such as a well-formulated whole foods, plant-based diet has not been effective 
  • You don’t mind following very defined ways of eating – in fact, it feels like it takes the pressure off of eating
  • Typical weight loss-focused diets have left you feeling hungry or preoccupied with food
  • You are not at risk for this type of defined diet to bring up disordered eating behaviours

Is the Mediterranean Diet right for me?

The Mediterranean Diet is one of the best researched dietary patterns out there; it is the foundation of anti-inflammatory nutrition. This is a diet that favours whole plant foods, with moderate amounts of fats and minimal animal products. Although traditionally, it’s not a vegetarian or vegan way of eating you could absolutely enjoy a vegetarian or vegan version of Mediterranean living.

This might be right for you if:

  • You prefer less defined ways of eating that focus on eating whole plant foods without making any foods off limits 
  • You want an evidence-based dietary pattern that is widely accepted as effective at preventing chronic disease such as heart disease
  • You are interested in anti-inflammatory nutrition and can tolerate healthy whole food carbohydrates

Is the Paleo Diet right for me?

A paleo diet is one that avoids sugar, dairy, grains, seed oils and legumes and most hyper-processed foodstuffs in favour of meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. It’s based on some pretty erroneous assumptions about what our ancestors actually ate – and the misperception of dangers of whole plant foods. While it is quite trendy and can be misused (and it’s benefits overstated!), it is also a fairly reasonable way to eat long term with a few alterations.

This might be right for you if:

  • You want to eat a more whole foods diet and reduce your reliance on packaged foods
  • If grains or dairy have been identified as causing allergies, gut or inflammatory issues 
  • If you want to eat meat and seafood daily
  • You have adequate budget for animal proteins, dairy alternatives and vegetables and can avoid fast foods

Is Intermittent Fasting right for me?

Intermittent Fasting is different from the rest on this list as it isn’t so much about what you eat as when. For example, you might eat all of your meals between the hours of 9AM and 6PM, leaving a 15 hour ‘fast’ window without food each day. There is a way to do intermittent fasting healthfully – but it can also cause some issues if care is not taken.

This might be right for you if:

  • You have trouble maintaining healthy blood sugar levels
  • You feel that constant munching is contributing to weight gain, or making weight loss difficult
  • You have gut issues such as bloating and constipation that might be supported by giving the gut some rest each day
  • You are not at risk for restricted eating windows to bring up disordered eating behaviours

Whew! Still with me? I hope that this post creates a bit of awareness in how such a seemingly simple question – which is the best diet for me – is actually incredibly complex when you take a holistic approach to eating well. Sure, people are always going to have your opinions…but when it comes to how you choose to eat, it is your opinion that matters most.

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash