Is diet diversity the key to health?

Before we dive into the importance of diversifying your diet, let’s pause for a quick check-in. 

You’re still a human, right?

Ok, good. In the age of zeros and ones, it’s easy to forget that our bodies evolve at a much slower rate than technology does. Robots may walk among us now, but humans still run on the same software that powered our Paleolithic ancestors. To feel our best as homo sapiens, we must consume a wide array of nutrients – from vitamins, minerals and fiber to phytochemicals and antioxidants. 

Sorry, Soylent fans. 

You embody ecosystems, not algorithms.

To understand why humans don’t thrive on a mono-diet, consider the natural world from which we evolved. A healthy jungle ecosystem, for instance, brims with verdant foliage, tropical colors and millions of different species. Biodiversity breeds vibrancy. And this concept applies to your body, too. 

In addition to ensuring you get a broad range of macro and micronutrients, eating a diverse diet can help feed your healthy gut bacteria and reduce oxidative stress. On an experiential level, that means more energy, a sharper mind, clearer skin and other shiny totems of health. Studies also indicate that people who eat a wider range of nutritious food, especially vegetables, experience lower rates of colon cancer, metabolic syndrome and oral cancer.

To be clear, diversifying your plate is only beneficial when it contains healthy foods. This study shows that diverse vegetable consumption helps fight obesity, but it also shows that people consume more empty calories when they’re presented with multiple kinds of sweets, refined carbohydrates and other processed snacks.

The variety principle

Millions of years ago, the earliest humans evolved to crave a wide variety of foods. Known as the “variety principle,” this adaptive trait still exists in us today. If we don’t fulfill our omnivorous desire to satiate all five taste senses, an experience called “palate fatigue” will drive us to seek out new flavors. Unfortunately, this built-in survival mechanism doesn’t always work to our benefit in the post-industrial world. 

The sugar content, artificial flavors and other chemicals in highly processed foods can hijack our taste buds. So instead of craving new fruits and vegetables, we might reach for a sweet soda to wash down some salty chips. As a result, more and more of the human population is overweight yet undernourished. 

Revamping the menu

The good news is we can re-appropriate the variety principle to our advantage. First, let’s use it to reframe some common, yet potentially unhelpful, diet ideologies. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you probably ventured to cut calories, fat or sugar. This can lead to feelings of deprivation. But instead of demanding restriction, the variety principle encourages us to eat in a more abundant, exploratory way. When your body gets the nutrients it needs, you’re less likely to crave junk food.

The variety principle also challenges us to think beyond nutrition labels, which only reflect macro and micronutrients. Just because you’ve checked all the boxes: carbs, proteins, fats, vitamin A, vitamin C and so forth, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve optimized your diet. As we mentioned earlier, elements like phytochemicals and antioxidants make a difference as well. Yes, spinach and arugula are both healthy, green vegetables with similar nutritional traits, but they’re not interchangeable.

Barring the foods to which you may be allergic, sensitive, or inclined to avoid for any other reason, eat something new every day from each of the following categories:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Spices
  • Whole grains
  • Animal or plant-based proteins
  • Oils

Finally, if it sounds inspiring, strive to prepare a meal that hits all the flavor notes: sweet, bitter, salty, sour and umami. Eat the rainbow, but not if it has Red Dye 40 in it. Do this for a week and see how you feel.