One thing you don’t hear enough about in the natural healthcare world is the importance of variation. “You have to be alkaline!” “You have to be a runner!” “You have to be a vegetarian!” “You have to eat meat!” “You have to take Vitamin D!” All of these could be true for different people!
While I believe most healthcare advice to be well-meaning, if you take everything 100% literally this can be very dangerous – my own advice included. One thing that we all need to bear in mind is – for long-term, overall health – variation is key.
Variation is really a “paleo” health concept. Paleo is a broad way of looking at our innate way of living – how we were genetically designed to eat, live, heal and function and what we can do to support that. Our ancestors did not eat the same thing every day or every week. They didn’t have taco Tuesdays or order pizza with family every Friday, and they didn’t order their favorite sandwich several times per month. They didn’t run 15 minutes three times a week, they didn’t clock in at 9 and clock out at 5. Their lives were filled with variety, and we should make a conscious effort today to incorporate variation into our health habits.
Two important steps must take place for a person to have a healthy, long-term diet. First, they need to learn to eat real food. That step alone accounts for the overwhelming majority of nutrition-based health conditions and would dramatically shift the health in our country if we all made the choice to only eat real food. Once that decision has been made, the next step is variation! Often the “healthy” eaters have the least variety because they find healthy foods they love and they only eat those. They only eat cashews for nuts, they only eat salads with the same lettuce and dressing, they make the same smoothie every day for the past 5 years. While these habits are great, we need vitamin and nutrient variety! Each natural food has a different vitamin and nutrient profile, and we need a little bit from each one. Switch up your nuts, switch up your vegetables, switch up your smoothies. The Institute for Functional Medicine teaches a great protocol for kids – have one food from each color of the rainbow each day.
Possibly the most important foods to vary are your good fats. Increasing your good fats is a great idea in general, but don’t just start eating one kind of good fat. Fats are the building blocks for your cell membranes and your hormones and play major roles in inflammatory processes. You have anti-inflammatory omega-3s, pro-inflammatory omega-6s, omega-9s, PUFAs, MUFAs, MCTs from coconut oil, saturated fats, cholesterol, EPA from fish oil, ALA from flax oil ….all these incredibly important fats from various sources so it’s important to not just take a fish oil every day and think you are getting good fats!
On a larger scale, it’s a great idea to do health challenges and short-term diets, but once again – variation is key. For example, juice fasting is a great health resource.I’ve had patients experience tremendous results going 7, 14, or even a full month on a juice-only diet. Juicing is a nutrient express right into your bloodstream, giving you vitamins, nutrients, and enzymes that you simply would not be able to get from eating alone. Juicing also gives your digestive system a break, because there is no solid food to break down. Juice fasting can kickstart metabolism and weight-loss, it can improve all areas of function including sleep, cognitive function, and energy. It can improve biomarkers seen on lab tests including cholesterol, CRP, triglycerides which are critical for heart disease. But I don’t think juice fasting something to be done exclusively for the rest of your life!
The same is true for restrictive diets and metabolic therapies like the ketogenic diet, of which I am a huge proponent. Going in and out of these diet-induced metabolic states challenges your metabolism and challenges your cells and they become stronger and more efficient. This is why I encourage diet variation. Maybe in the summer when fresh fruits and vegetables are plentiful you eat more of a raw, plant-based diet. In the winter you follow a higher-fat diet, possibly moving in and out of ketosis. For many people January might include a 28-day challenge for the new year where you restrict your diet for a month. This is healthy variation!
This one is important because we are such creatures of habit, and so many people take the same supplements because someone told them to 5 years ago and they are still taking the same thing, and often it’s a lower quality brand which could be doing more harm than good. This creates nutrient and vitamin imbalances, which I would argue are more of an issue in our country than deficiencies (I think we are eating plenty of everything). For example, taking Magnesium can cause Zinc imbalances, although both are critically important. Calcium can also create imbalances, and calcium supplements are linked to heart disease, but if you poll most 55+ Americans, what do you think they are taking? Calcium. What else? Fish oil – taking the same fish oil without variation can create massive inflammatory imbalances. Probiotic? Taking the same strain repeatedly, even a “beneficial” strain, can create a mono-culture of good bacteria in your gut leading to digestive, immune, and hormonal imbalances. I even like to vary brands, because even among the most reputable brands formulas are different. Working with a natural healthcare practitioner is key to getting the right supplements, but if you aren’t, make sure you are getting a variety. I personally am taking different brand and different types of supplements each month if not week based on my health goals to get proper variation and balance.
First – exercise is exercise, and if you run three times a week great job, you are better than most of our country. Let me start there. But, to get the most out of your exercise, variation is key. This is a paleo principle, our ancestors did not do exercise programs. They ran, they played, they worked, they chased animals, they were chased BY animals. They ran or walked for hours at a time and they sprinted for meters at a time. Real life includes a massive variety of movement, and that’s how we were designed. Movement variation is key to challenge all the areas of your health – cardiovascular exercise improves heart and lung function and efficiency, resistance training increases strength and lean muscle mass, stretching improves range of motion and joint mobility. Following the same program for a long period of time can create imbalances, so make sure that your regular exercise routine involves more than just walking the block and is constantly varying and challenging your body from different angles.
Overall I hope you see that variation or variety is incredibly important to your long-term health and well-being, but don’t let this discourage you from your trusted life-long health habits. You don’t need to VARY brushing your teeth every day or praying regularly or drinking enough water. I would never ask my 89 year-old grandfather to VARY his habit of waking up every morning and stretching, doing push-ups, sit ups, and calisthenics, but he also gets a lot of variety by playing golf, tennis, biking, and working with his hands (coordination). If you like to run, please run. If you like to eat berries for breakfast, please do. I’m only asking you to keep this concept in mind when developing healthy habits and DON’T GET STUCK IN A RUT!
This Episode is Sponsored by Align Utah.