A few weeks ago I had my first session with a new client. At the end of our time together I asked her how she felt about my recommendations and she replied, “Good. Really good, actually. I was afraid that you were going to tell me I had to stop eating meat!”

This is a conversation I’ve had with almost every client that I’ve ever worked with. Last fall I worked with a client who was vegetarian and was afraid that I was going to tell her she had to start eating meat! Clients often have preconceived notions about what it means to be healthy, and in particular that the path to healthy living is paved with restrictions.

There are many nutritionists who advocate for a vegetarian or gluten-free or dairy-free or all-three-of-these-things-free diet for everyone on the planet and my own newsfeed is constantly bombarded with listicles of the 10 Foods You Should Never Eat. I can understand why someone would be led to believe that in order to be healthy they have to give up [insert delicious food here].

So where do I stand? My simple answer is no, I don’t think that you have to give up specific foods or eat in a certain way in order to be healthy. I’m sure that many of my colleagues might disagree with that statement, but I am firm in my belief that there are no “bad” foods and that what you do most of the time matters more than once in awhile.

The not so simple answer is, it depends.

Nutritionists will often recommend cutting out foods such as gluten, wheat, eggs and dairy because they are commonly found to trigger or exacerbate symptoms like bloating, inflammation, hormonal imbalance, skin issues or headaches, just to name a few.

But does that mean that every person everywhere should avoid these foods at all costs forever if they want to be healthy?

No, of course not! While I do make recommendations to my clients to cut back on or completely eliminate specific foods, I don’t have a blueprint of restrictions that I hand out to everyone.

While I do make recommendations to my clients to cut back on or completely eliminate specific foods, I don’t have a blueprint of restrictions that I hand out to everyone. Nutrition is science, but nutrition coaching is an art and there are a number of things to be considered when it comes to making nutrition recommendations.

Here is exactly what I take into account when I’m creating a plan for my clients:

What are your health goals? 

Do you have a specific health condition that you are trying to manage with diet? Or are you just not feeling your best and sense that eating differently could improve your day-to-day wellness? There is a lot more room for moderation in the second scenario than when you’re trying to manage a health condition.

How often are you eating common allergenic foods now?

Unless you have Celiac disease, one bite of gluten isn’t going to send you spiralling into illness. But even so, eating gluten at every meal might not be doing you any favours either. When I see foods that are high on that list of common allergens showing up in a client’s food journal day after day, that’s a red flag that we might want to consider cutting back or eliminating that food to see how it makes her feel.

What can we add instead of eliminate?

I’ve always been a glass-half-full kind of gal, ao I like to focus on adding in more nutritious foods rather than hard-and-fast restrictions. Often the simple guideline to eat more plant-based foods is enough to crowd out many of the foods that make up a standard North American diet.

How does food make you feel? 

At the end of the day, what’s most important is how you feel! If you eat dairy or wheat on a regular basis but you have no complaints, then why change what you’re doing just because you read a book or a blog that said you should eliminate those foods from your diet? But if you’re feeling like shit, making a change to your diet might be a good place to start.

There isn’t a single path to health, especially when it comes to what we eat. Just because I feel great eating certain foods doesn’t mean that you will. And just because someone felt great not eating certain foods doesn’t mean that eliminating that same food is going to make you feel amazing.

Need some help navigating the confusing world of health food? Let’s talk.