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The Myth of Variety and a Balanced Diet

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been eating the same meals over and over. Initially, this experiment started out of practical considerations. I was traveling and didn’t have time to prepare foods, and couldn’t rely on restaurants. When I got back home, I had a limited variety of foods left in my fridge and cupboards, so I decided to finish them first. I didn’t get tired of eating the same foods over and over, so I decided to keep this up.

I also wanted to go for a while without any overt fats (no avocado, nuts, seeds, etc.) to see if I noticed any changes from an ultra-low-fat approach.

The only meals I was eating during my “experiment” were:

1) Salad
2) Juicy fruits (oranges, mangoes, pineapple, melon, etc.)
3) Potatoes and cooked vegetables, as well as steamed greens, in a recipe so delicious that I never get tired of eating it. 

So I am essentially living on a potato, vegetable and fruit diet.

What I’ve noticed with this experience of limited food choices is that I actually enjoy it. Instead of having to worry about what I’m going to eat next, I always eat the same things.

I also noticed that I was satisfied with three meals a day and no snacks, whereas before I was eating every three hours.

My desire for variety and “excitement” around food has actually decreased and I had no cravings whatsoever for anything else.

My food budget went down dramatically.

I even noticed that I was losing some body fat.

What the Research Says

Study after study showed that monotony in meals leads to “appetite suppression.” Some people call it the “school cafeteria syndrome,” but I believe there is more to it.

In one study, volunteers ate the same mac and cheese dish every day for five days. By the fifth day, they were consuming 20% fewer calories than on day one.

The idea is that the more times we’re presented with a stimulus, the weaker our reaction to it becomes. This process is called “habituation.” It applies not only to food, but to all sorts of things, from loud noises to mating partners (there are some interesting studies about that last one!).

Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to say that meal monotony leads to “appetite suppression.” I think it’s more the opposite. Meal variety leads to overeating. Meal monotony needs to a normal appetite that’s actually in tune with your body’s needs.

Why We Seek Variety

It seems that everyone these days is a “foodie,” seeking endless excitement in exotic ingredients and complicated food preparations. Why do we seek so much variety, when throughout most of human history, we lived on rather Spartan diet?

Maybe it’s a moot point. We seek variety because variety is available. The human brain is wired to seek novelty, because more sources of calories meant a higher chance of survival for our ancestors.

Our ancestors who were curious enough to try out new foods that they rarely came across, such as honey, whale blubber and whatnot, got extra calories in their diets. Extra calories meant survival, and therefore the “curious” gene got passed along.

Seeking food variety works really well when your main concern is not getting enough food or not enough nutrients. But, in our modern society when the main problem is getting too much, variety can become a pleasure trap. The more exciting and different our meals become, the more we seek even more excitement and variety in food, and suddenly food becomes a central focal point of our lives. And more often than not, “variety” just means more rich and calorie-dense foods that lead to health problems.

Some Myths Busted

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not necessary to eat a huge variety of foods to get all the nutrients your body needs. Hundreds of cultures around the world have done just fine on a very basic menu.

Plant foods are very rich in nutrients. As long as you include foods from different categories of foods, it doesn’t matter so much which food you choose in each category. Here are some examples of categories:

– Fruit
– Green vegetables
– Grains or starches
– Beans
– Whole plant fats: nuts, seeds, etc.

Is it even necessary to eat foods from all those categories? I’ve known thousands of people who have lived exclusively on fruits and vegetables, with the addition of some nuts and seeds. Likewise, you could very well live on just a few sources of starch, along with green vegetables and no fruit. In all cases, as long as you get enough calories and eat green vegetables every day, you could design plant-based diets in almost any combination and still meet all of the body’s needs.

I’ve spent hours and hours on nutrition databases, trying out different combinations of simple ingredients, and always finding out that plant foods ARE complete when menus are designed in this fashion. Only vitamin B12 is missing, but this is another topic (yes, you should take a supplement). Vitamin D can be a problem, but only because of our modern living conditions.

Perhaps some plant fats are need for long-term health, due to their omega-3 content. However, remember that green vegetables do contain a small percentage of omega-3s. Even so, it makes sense to include a source of omega-3 in your diet, such as ground flax seeds.

One diet that I designed contained only brown rice, black beans and spinach.

When 2000 calories of this very basic diet are consumed, you get a whopping:

78 grams of protein (13% of total calories)
11 grams of fat (that’s without adding any overt fats, and is surely loaded with omega-3s)
65 grams of fiber (that’s more than 4 times what the average American eats!)
986 mg of Calcium (99% the inflated RDA!)
1246.2 mg of magnesium (297% the RDA)
17.6 mg of manganese (a ridiculous 766% of the RDA)
15.7 mg of zinc (143% of the RDA)

In fact, almost every nutrient is off the charts except for vitamins C and E, which are a little below recommendations. I don’t even think that’s a problem because you are getting some on this diet. A person could easily add a lousy orange per day to fill the gaps.

I don’t even think that the RDAs (Recommended Daily Allowances) hold that much value. It’s never been proven that people eating below the RDAs in many nutrient categories actually develop deficiencies.

A different diet that I designed contained only sweet potatoes, broccoli and bananas.

 

This diet again surprised me. It contained:

– 24 grams of fat (10% of calories, with no added fats)
– 45 grams of protein (6% of calories. This is actually still adequate.)
– 13,662 mcg of vitamin A (1518% of RDA – try to beat that!)
– 759 mg of calcium, surprisingly
– 724 mg of vitamin C (805% of RDA)

Pretty much every nutrient is off the charts or adequate. Selenium is a little low (36% of daily value), but it is in most diets. I wouldn’t personally worry about it for even one second. It’s rather shocking actually that it doesn’t take that many foods to create a “complete diet.” So, why do we maintain the myth of the balanced diet?

The Human Being is Wired to Worry About Deficiencies

A few months ago, I attended a marketing event where many book authors in the alternative health movement shared ideas. I was invited by a third party to go to that event, but was not familiar with this group. It was an “invitation-only” event. If I told you who were in attendance, you would be surprised. Let’s just say that many of the big names in the natural health field were there.

One speaker mentioned that the human being is wired to worry about deficiencies, so if you want your audience to nod their head in agreement, you should frame everything in terms of “what could be lacking in your diet” rather than the other way around.

It’s true. The authors who are the most successful in this field, like Andrew Weil, always talk about nutrients that could be lacking in people’s diet. And people nod in agreement.

Yet, the biggest diet-related killers are not caused by deficiencies, but by excess.

When was the last time a friend of yours had scurvy?

Or beri-beri? (vitamin B1 deficiency)

Or kwashiorkor, which is the scientific name for protein deficiency (which can result in severe edema, and an enlarged liver)?

You don’t know anybody with those diseases because everyone you know is suffering from diseases of excess: heart disease, cancer, obesity, etc.

Yes, it’s true that some raw foodists take things to an extreme and may be lacking in some nutrients. But the only major problems that I’ve seen, resulting in death, were when calories were restricted. Even those who get 100% of their calories from raw fruits and vegetables are doing fine, as long as they consume enough calories.

Vitamin B12 can be a problem, but that’s more because of our overly sanitized society. So, between dipping carrots in a bit of rabbit dung and a supplement, most people choose the latter!

Vitamin D also tends to be low in modern people, but I think fears of deficiencies are a bit overblown there. Taking a supplement is advisable to people living in Northern latitudes.

Practical Applications

I’m not saying that you should forgo variety and eat simple, bland meals over and over again. My point is that there are some benefits to a certain meal monotony, and that as long as you get enough calories from whole plant foods with some green vegetables, you likely will get all of the nutrients that you need.

The principle of meal repetition can be used to:

– Shed extra body flab
– Simplify your life: fewer dishes and less thinking about food
– Reduce overall food expenses and waste
– Overcome overeating and food addiction

A Few Tips

To try this approach, start with a meal or two. If you’re not already eating the same thing every day for breakfast — start. A simple breakfast is the foundation of a healthy diet. Green smoothie, fruit or oatmeal are all excellent choices.

You could simplify your lunch as well and eat the same thing every day for a week, and see how you like it.

My main recommendation is to find a few meals that you actually like, that you can repeat often. This will greatly simplify your food prep and help answer the question “What’s for dinner” without anxiety.

For example, I don’t think I could ever get tired of the same green smoothie recipe that I make over and over again (consisting of water or store-bought almond milk, bananas, lettuce or spinach, and a handful of frozen berries). Because I like it so much, I don’t feel the need to vary it often.

I also never get tired of rice and black beans, along with steamed greens, lots of diced tomatoes (canned or fresh), and sprinkled with seasoning.

Or sweet potato with squeezed lemon.

Conclusion

We’ve been fed the idea that nutrition is complicated and that in order to make our diet complete, we need all sorts of supplements, endless variety, and complicated combinations. We’ve also been told that a vegetarian diet requires “a lot of planning” to get all the essential nutrients. All of these statements are false. Nutrition is simple, as long as you understand the concept of eating whole foods. Get enough calories from whole plant foods, and make sure to include plenty of green vegetables, and there’s almost no way you can go wrong. For safety, however, make sure to include a B12 supplement in your diet plan.

Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.


Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.