I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked variations of the question above. One of the really cool things about my major is that it applies to everyone – after all, everyone eats. Because of this, most people are interested when they find out what I’m studying.
This can be hard sometimes, because people also have very strong opinions about food. Some people genuinely want my opinion while others prefer to argue with it. One of my professors told us that when strangers ask her what she does, she lies and tells them she works in Human Resources. She said it’s just easier than getting into an argument that she’s not going to win.
Another reason this question is tricky is because I really don’t have a good answer. I can tell people the general recommendations for a “good” diet but the scientific community is starting to realize that we are all so different and these recommendations don’t always apply to everyone.
Some of these differences are genetic. A classic example of this is a disorder called phenylketonuria (PKU). People with PKU can’t break down the amino acid phenylalanine (amino acids are the building blocks of proteins). When phenylalanine builds up, it can cause neurological problems so people with PKU have to eat a very specific diet to avoid phenylalanine.
Allergies, which I talked about here, are another example of personal differences that change the way you eat. They are thought to be partially genetic and partially environmental in origin, which makes things even more complicated.
There are even genes that can change how well our body absorbs certain nutrients. A gene called MTHRF controls how well we absorb folate, which is a one of the B vitamins. People with slightly different versions of MTHRF do not absorb folate as well, which means they need to eat more of it to meet their requirements. Folate is necessary to make DNA, so it is pretty important that everyone gets enough.
We all live very different lives, with different abilities and priorities. This is reflected in our food values. The way we eat can change depending on our budget, ethics, individual taste preferences, and the amount of time we have (among other things).
There is a stereotype that college students, who are strapped for both time and cash, tend to eat pretty much whatever they can get their hands on as long as it tastes good. There is definitely some truth to this. I know many people who prioritize their health and how ethically their food was made as well, but this may be biased based on the people I am surrounded by.
But really…what should I eat then?!
We are moving towards a world where nutrition is far more personalized. As the science gets better and we are starting to realize how different everyone really is, it seems almost silly to make broad recommendations for everyone. In our children’s generation, people might be getting complete genetic tests and personalized nutrition plans based on their genes. It sounds a little like something from a sci-fi movie, but we already have the technology and it’s mostly just a matter of making it accessible.
For now, since it is not easy to get a full genetic workup, I would say quite simply to eat whatever works best for you. If you have a medical condition that requires you to eat a certain way, please do so. Pay attention to what you eat and how it makes you feel. Find a way to eat that fits within your lifestyle (this is really important if you want your dietary changes to be sustainable and long lasting). All of these things are going to be different for everyone, so feel free to draw inspiration from other people but when push comes to shove, you have to find your own way. Don’t be afraid to reevaluate – as your life changes, the way you eat will change too. Try new things. See what you like, and what you don’t. Experiment, explore, and have fun with it.