Food Variety: Good or Bad?

Typically when we think of healthy diets, we think of a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole foods and smiling stock images of people in the produce section. But is this the reality for most of us, or are you simply rotating the same three vegetables each week? On the contrary, are you trying to add so much variety to your diet that you find yourself overeating? There is a dichotomy to food variety that we need to explore in order to balance your gut health, relationship with food and weight maintenance.

The first thing most people do when their diet is cut out foods, for good reason. Many foods are hyperpalatable and can create a stronger desire to overeat. Did you read our article about hyperpalatable foods? If not click here. If your goal is to reduce calories, it’s logical and practical to reduce the variety in your food for lower-calorie, macro-friendly options. However, reducing food variety too much will wreak havoc long term on your gut.

To reduce it to the simplest form, your gut is filled with bacteria. Those bacteria create enzymes. Those specific enzymes digest specific foods. When you stop eating certain foods, after a while, your body downregulates this enzyme production. Evolutionarily speaking, this makes perfect sense. What doesn’t get used doesn’t need to be produced. However, what happens when you do want to add that food back in because you inevitably will? You’re asking for digestion distress.

After cutting out food for weeks or months, your body is a lot more sensitive to digesting those foods. In my coaching experience, these sensitives are a lot more apparent after months of dieting, too. Does this mean you’ve created a whole list of food sensitivities and you’ll never digest food the same? Certainly not. There are a few steps I take with my clients to incorporate more food variety back into their diet.

First, we’ll identify what foods might be causing the specific GI distress based on journaling and food recalls. Next, we’ll only add in a few small servings of X food back into their diet per week. There seems to be a threshold to how much people can tolerate, meaning it’s often not the food or food group itself, but the amount that might be triggering the distress. From there, see how you respond with the small, targeted additions of the food or food group. Over the course of a few weeks, clients will generally see a huge relief in any distress based symptoms like bloating and overall slow digestion.

The best way to stop this from happening is to consume a wide variety of foods on a weekly basis. A varied diet will have the widest array of micronutrients, especially if we’re talking about fruits and vegetables. However, I previously mentioned having too much variety can be a bad thing when trying to diet. But having too much variety can also psychologically be much more straining than limiting the variety in your diet. We call that a good ol’ dichotomy.

Too much food variety has been shown repeatedly in the scientific literature to promote overeating. Why? There’s a little known phenomenon known as sensory-specific satiety that basically acts as our dessert stomach. Once your taste buds get tired of one flavor profile, they’ll be done. But if there’s a new and exciting flavor profile, even if it’s comparable i.e. savory to savory, those taste buds are not tapped out per se. They’ve shown this in research with things like different flavored yogurts and sandwiches, but think of it in more realistic terms in your life.

You’ve just eaten a banging burger with sweet potato fries and you’re stuffed. But the dessert menu comes around and you’re ready to crush that brownie sundae. On an even less extreme level, even if you’re simply adding in lots of different foods over the week it’s easy to feel unsatisfied and craving more of each food. Once again, this becomes a lot more pertinent when a client is dieting and in general a lot leaner and hungrier.

It’s important to touch on truly how important a great food environment is to your adherence. If you’re constantly fighting with your willpower, you’re much more than likely to crack at some point. Making it harder on yourself is never the best idea, especially if you’re deep into a diet.

So how do you balance having enough food variety but not too much so that it hinders your results? I like to think of meals on a weekly basis: Keep variety within the week moderate but the variety over the weeks high. This will keep enough diversity within your diet to avoid the gut bacteria and enzyme problems but also keep hyperpalatability and cravings under control.

There is no one size fits all approach to how much food variety will work within your diet, your lifestyle and your own gut microbiome. A nuanced approach where you are being aware of what is and what isn’t working for you individually will always be the best plan.

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