What is a well formulated diet?

If you’ve read my blog or ever talked to me in person, you may have heard me say I can be supportive of a variety of diets, but they must be well formulated. I also say to eat a nutrient dense, varied diet. What is a well formulated diet and is it nutrient dense?
The way I see it, a well formulated diet is one that provides a variety of foods to meet nutrient needs while still allowing an individual to meet his or her goals. I didn’t come up with the phrase myself, but I have borrowed it from a book I read, “The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance,” by Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney. If this title sounds familiar to you, that’s because I referenced it in my last blog about low carb diets.
When I was a graduate student, I always subscribed to not only the “calories in versus calories out” lifestyle to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, but also to the recommendations we are taught in our nutrition courses. Briefly, these include consuming approximately 50% of calories from carbohydrates, about 20-30% from fat, and the rest from protein. More specifically, protein needs can be calculated at .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which would amount to 50 grams of protein for somebody who weighs 140 pounds. As time has gone on however, my outlook and experience regarding these guidelines have changed. That’s not to say they are wrong or we cannot be healthy if we follow them, but people have specific goals and in order to meet them, these recommendations may not always yield the desired results. And by people, I’m including myself. Having been a figure competitor with a couple years of my life dedicated to body building, you see how the human body can change and transform based on diet, exercise, and good ole hard work!
I no longer follow a “diet.” I eat to meet my goals when that’s a focus in my life (right now, travel is my focus so I’m on a “whatever diet” for the time being). When eating to meet my goals, which is usually body fat loss, I eat within my calorie needs and alter my macronutrient intake from the above mentioned recommendations to maximize muscle maintenance and growth and to promote fat loss. In this way, I kind of do follow the “if it fits your macros” lifestyle, but to an extent because as an RD, I make, and want others to make healthy choices. If you look at any IIFYM hashtags on Instagram, you will see people don’t often eat the most healthy or nutrient dense meals. ?
Anyway, enough about me! What are some common diets we know about? Low carb, high fat like an Atkins style diet, paleo, gluten free, the list goes on, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s just look at components of a healthy diet. If you incorporate a variety of foods from these lists over the course of the week, you will be consuming a nutrient dense diet. If your intake is limited based on the specific diet you follow, like a low carb diet, because this is so common, then choose the most healthy options within your guidelines. For example, when choosing what fats to include, choose an avocado or chopped almonds instead of foods that are full of saturated fats like palm and coconut oils. Or if you follow a vegetarian diet, incorporate healthy sources of proteins such as beans and lentils.

These lists are not all inclusive. If there are other healthy options out there, by all means, include those foods, this is just to serve as a rough guideline. I’m not going into detail about what foods we need and why, but suffice it to say it’s important to follow these simple guidelines. Most people don’t want to get into the specifics anyway, but if you do have a question, let me know.

Let’s look at macronutrients first, they make up the meals on our plates.
Carbohydrates
Whole grains: brown rice, oatmeal, barley, quinoa, corn tortillas, whole grain bread, plain popcorn
Legumes, beans and lentils (also provide protein), are a nutrient dense, fiber filled food
Starchy vegetables: sweet potatoes, corn, peas, pumpkin
Fruit: fresh fruit and naturally dried fruit (not dried with sugar), fruit cups in natural juices
Protein
Chicken breast, turkey cutlets, lean ground chicken and turkey, lean beef, pork tenderloin, white fish, salmon, shellfish, eggs, tofu, tempeh (and beans and legumes as mentioned above)
Fats
Avocado, nuts and nut butters, olives, olive and canola oil, flax seeds

Choose the healthier fat when possible.

It may seem some foods are missing. Where are the vegetables, you ask? Non-starchy vegetables should be a component of a well-formulated diet. They are low in calories and carbohydrates, are vitamin and mineral dense, and fiber full. I often give them a section of their own. As you travel the globe, you can see the list of vegetables is seemingly endless, but those with bright green, red, orange, and other vivid colors are the most nutritious. They should be incorporated at every mealtime and can double as a snack as well. Spinach, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, eggplant, carrots, cauliflower… You get the picture! Eat them. Another food group that gets it’s own special list is dairy. It has a spot on the government’s “My Plate” in the form of a cup of milk, but of course diary includes a variety of products, not just milk. Yogurt, cheese, cream, even ice cream count. I know not everybody likes diary, some are lactose intolerant, but I love it and want people to know it can play a role in a healthy diet. It is a good source of calcium and can add flavor to a variety of different dishes. Yogurt can satisfy a sweet tooth and a casein protein shake before bed time can spare muscle loss during our nighttime fast.

In proper portions, dairy can play a role in a healthful diet.

These are the components that make up a healthy plate, lead to a well formulated diet, and an overall healthy lifestyle, especially when paired with physical activity or regularly scheduled exercise! “Diet,” exercise, and good ole hard work does a body good. You may ask why there isn’t any bacon, butter, or cheesy broccoli soup on my list. Those foods fit into a low carb diet. Yes, you are right, but as a dietitian, I want you to choose the most healthy foods a majority of the time, regardless of the diet you follow. Bacon is ok, sometimes. If you are an athlete that follows a high carbohydrate diet, we (RDs) would rather you choose Greek yogurt with fruit and granola to refuel post exercise as opposed to the pop tarts and Oreos the IIFYM followers so proudly promote.

What “diet” or healthy lifestyle habits do you follow? What yields the best results in your book? If you need help creating a well formulated diet, let me know!