First of all, I am coming to the conclusion that there isn't one. Each of us has different needs and must tailor his/her healthy eating to individual goals and lifestyle. Taken in this perspective there is no "one size fits all."
I urge the reader to look at this website - Beyond Vegetarianism. If you read through the posts on this website, you will see many eye-openers that challenge the conventional wisdom among us purist vegans. It is not that the contributors to this website are contrarians, as much as they have all experienced both the pluses and minuses of strict eating styles. We have testimonials from vegans, fruitarians, Paleoists, vegetarians, and natural hygienists.
I conclude that each of us must pursue our own quest for perfection, and may never find it. There are potential downsides to many extreme eating styles. Fruitarians get lots and lots of sugar, and some do not thrive on this style over time. Vegans also have run into "failure to thrive" issues and some have seriously compromised their health. Sometimes anorexia can be an issue. Calorie deprivations apparently do not show up quickly. The symptoms may take months and years to develop. The other problem is that some of these highly devoted eating stylists do not go to a physician, for anything. So, even when symptoms start to develop, they grin and bear it, blame it on failure to achieve total commitment to their eating regimen.
I was particularly struck by this article found on the website linked above. For some, there is a real challenge getting enough healthy calories when you adopt diets that focus on vegetables, fruit, beans, nuts/seeds and whole grains. Each of the these foods are very nutritious, but too many of any one group may cause problems. You can't eat too many vegetables, they are the king/queen of foods. But it is hard to get many calories from many of the most nutritious vegetables. Fruit is very high in sugar, yet we can eat 7-8 servings a day healthfully. Any more than that may raise questions about whether we are consuming too much sugar. Most experts who I follow recommend no more than 1 cup of beans per day and for some people 1/2 cup is better. And some people are allergic to whole grains. Those that will not cook food, raw foodists, get their grains mostly from sprouts. So if one needs lots of calories, where do you get them beyond these foods. The answer is starches. Starches such as sweet potatoes, white potatoes, rice, etc. are nutritious foods. Some would argue that starches are a critical mainstay of any healthy diet. I enjoy them on most days.
One healthy source of lots of calories is nuts/seeds. Some of the experts say that lots of nuts/seeds is fine and contributes to good health. Others say that research has not demonstrated the health benefits of over 2 oz. of nuts/seeds per day. These experts say that to play it safe, stay within 2 oz. per day. I try to stay at or below 2 oz. per day, which seems nutritionally fine especially since I take a vegan DHA supplement and a tbsp of ground flax seeds per day. Flax seeds are rich in Omega 3 oils. The analysis I have done with CRON-o-METER shows that I get plenty of Omega 3 oils on this regimen as well as a healthy ratio of Omega3:Omega6. However, I am not afraid to exceed 2 oz. per day on occasion.
So what is the answer. I don't pretend to know, but I do think that the following principles are sound:
-- Eliminate or drastically reduce the amount of foods eaten from animal sources. I am convinced by the research, especially The China Study, that says food from animals, including dairy, is best eliminated from the diet or reduced to no more than 10% of calories. I choose to eat no food from animals because moderation is difficult for me. Also, if animal foods are suboptimal nutritionally and contribute to many chronic diseases, why eat any at all? You will see in the links that I have provided above, however, that some former fruitarians and vegans now eat small amounts of healthy dairy from goats milk and a small number of other sources. I see no reason to do that.
-- Eliminate or drastically reduce all processed foods. One good rule of thumb is that if something comes in a can or a package and has a nutrition label, put it back. Well, there are exceptions to this, like low salt canned beans and tomatoes, for example, or rolled oats in a box with a label.
-- Eat a wide variety of healthy plant-based foods. The mainstay of my diet these days is green leafy vegetables, starchy vegetables, fruit, starches, beans/legumes, nuts/seeds, and whole grains. Depending on the day, I will emphasize some of these foods more than others. I try not to get hung up on eating from a small list of foods. Variety is important, and just as with financial investments, diversification is the key. I also find that restaurants are easier to deal with if I follow these principles, but stay flexible.
-- Significantly reduce salt in your diet. Although the experts disagree on how much to reduce salt intake, all agree that lots of salt, especially from processed foods, is a very bad idea. I will get into the reasons for this in another post. Dr. McDougall says it is okay to manually sprinkle a little salt on your food, and Dr. Fuhrman advises to only consume salt found naturally in whole foods. I try to follow Dr. Fuhrman's advice. I don't consider this to be a major disagreement between the two. Dr. McDougall says, "There is no downside to low salt."
-- Only eat when you are truly hungry, when at all possible. This is one of the most valuable lessons learned from Dr. Fuhrman. More so than other nutrition-based physicians I have consulted, Dr. Fuhrman goes beyond prescribing the most healthful foods to eat. He addresses the psychological and physiological issue related to eating style. His advice to learn how to recognize "true hunger" and leave plenty of time between meals to let your system rest and detoxify is sound advice.
-- Make your eating style as effortless as possible. Learn how to plan your weekly meals and exercise too. Have plenty of healthy foods around the house and plan carefully before going to a restaurant. I cook a large pot of healthy soup each week. I then have my lunches taken care of for the week. I don't always get around to doing that (this week, for example.)
-- Be an individual when it comes to eating style. Let's face it, these principles are considered too onerous by most people. Nevertheless, I am not swayed by social or family pressure to alter my approach. I try not to preach to others, but I do remain focused on healthy eating and will only very rarely diverge from my path.
I fully expect that my quest for the perfect eating style will be a lifelong endeavor. However, I will not waver from the above principles. I am convinced that my health, and hopefully my longevity, will benefit.
One more thing, we must keep in mind that eating style is not the only issue for a healthy lifestyle. The right amount of quality sleep, managing stress, getting at least daily moderate exercise and nurturing positive social relationships are also extremely important. I wish it were as easy as just having the perfect eating style. Nobody said this would be easy. But, the rewards are phenomenal!