Are You Trying Too Hard to Eat Healthfully?

A healthy diet need not be a perfect diet

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I was always a very efficient student. What I mean is that whatever grade I needed to get me where I wanted to go, well, that was the grade that I got. In my early university years, that meant getting marks in and around the high 70s and low 80s, since my career plans at the time involved getting into graduate school and pursuing a career in medical genetics. But after what I found to be a deathly boring summer working in an actual genetics lab, I decided I wanted to go to medical school, and suddenly high 70s and low 80s weren't good enough. I needed 90s, and I needed them across the board. I learned quickly that the effort required to get in the 90s, for me anyway, was at least an order of magnitude more than what I'd been putting in. I truly had to spend at least twice as much time studying to get that measly extra 10 percent. But the fact was, without those 90s, I wouldn't be a physician today. There simply wasn't a choice.

So what does this have to do with healthy eating?

Quite a bit, actually. It seems that when it comes to health, we're fixated on trying to get 90s, when really, high 70s and low 80s would be pretty great grades.

Diet and health gurus—they've all got their formulas for you. This guy says you can't eat wheat and that dairy's deadly, while that gal says that meat is poison and raw is righteous. Newspapers and glossy magazines will happily regale you with stories that deify or demonize specific foods. Supplements are peddled. Repulsive green drinks are touted. "Superfoods" drain our wallets and rot in our refrigerators. And come January, you can bet there'll be a fresh crop of New Year, New You books on the shelves telling you that everything you thought you knew about healthy eating was backwards and wrong.

Ultimately I think we're trying too hard, and more importantly, I don't think we have to. Unlike when I was trying to get into medical school, that 10 percent grade point difference isn't likely to have any dramatic tangible impact on our longevity or quality of life. What's more, even if there were a clear path to getting an A-plus, the amount of effort required to get there might lead a person to decide it's too much, and to eventually abandon her healthy eating efforts in frustration.

I think we should be aiming for some solid B-pluses, which in my book, would mean:

• Including vegetables or fruits with pretty much every meal.

• Cooking the vast majority of meals from fresh, whole ingredients.

• Limiting restaurant meals, only eating out to celebrate or socialize—never for convenience.

• Avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages (including juice).

If you want an A, just make sure to exercise for at least 30 minutes per day, most days of the week. While it's not an eating behavior, the impact of exercise on health is profound, and gives you a few easily obtainable bonus grades.

Life's too short to be trying to get perfect grades, so keep up with your basic studies, don't spend too much time in the library, and enjoy the ride.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and is also easily reachable on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work will be published by Simon & Schuster's Free Press in April 2013.