Dietary variety (eating lots of different foods from all the different food groups) has long been considered a pillar of “good nutrition”. Blanket dietary recommendations like this are intended to support the greater population, but when these guidelines are solely focused on nutrients and physiological health, many groups of people get overlooked, left out, and placed in a disadvantaged position where health and wellness (when measured by whether or not a person is meeting a given recommendation) are essentially out of reach. And when these folx continue to chase after an impossible standard, other aspects of health (mental, emotional, relational, financial, etc.) suffer… and that isn’t really supportive of health at all.
When we talk about health, instead of trying to fit everyone into one box, we need to consider and understand what is REALISTIC, CONTEXTUAL, ACCESSIBLE, POSSIBLE, and SUSTAINABLE, and we need to recognize that these factors are going to be different for everyone.
For many neurodivergent’s, (one of many marginalized identities that isn’t considered within these one-size-fits all guidelines), the constant struggle of trying to fit into the boxes of what is “right”, “good”, or “responsible”, when it comes to food and nutrition (among other things), often leads to stress, guilt, shame, a sense of failure, and in some cases, even disordered eating. This isn’t because ADHDers, Autistics, and other neurodivergent folx aren’t working hard enough or aren’t motivated enough. Actually, it is because nutrition “standards” are meant for neurotypical brains and require high levels of executive functioning.
So what do we do about this? Well, as a neurodivergent-affirming, intuitive-eating dietitian, I like to encourage my clients to get curious about what might be lacking or missing from the guidelines and then decide if and when the information (rather than the “rule”) embedded in these nutrition “standards” can be helpful, neutral, or possibly even harmful for them.
As an example, let’s go back to that commonly known nutrition advice that we must eat a wide VARIETY of foods from each food group in order to be “healthy”. This guideline doesn’t take into consideration that eating a wide variety of foods may not always (or even sometimes) be all that realistic, contextual, accessible, possible, and/or sustainable for someone with decreased executive dysfunction. Hello internalized ableism!
Here is a list of some common characteristics / experiences related to executive dysfunction that might provide more insight into the difficulties of eating a variety of foods with a neurodivergent brain:
The benefits of eating a variety of foods boils down to two main things - nutrition profile and supporting the digestive tract. Basically, the more variety of foods and food groups you consume, the greater your potential for expanding your nutritional profile and meeting all your nutrient needs, specifically on a micronutrient level (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients). Eating a variety of foods will maintain the muscles of the digestive tract and can encourage things to move along at an appropriate (and hopefully comfortable) rate. Also, the greater diversity of intake, the higher your chances are for feeding and multiplying all of the different types of beneficial gut bacteria.
So yes, variety most certainly has its benefits.
Not so fast. We have to remember that for the majority of history, humans haven’t had the access to a variety of foods at all times, like many of us do now. Historically, it was common to eat foods that were accessible and easy to find within a given region of the world, when they were available. For example, the traditional diet of Arctic people was limited to fish, seal, whale, caribou, and waterfowl, and with cold temperatures and short summers, fruit and vegetables were sparse to non-existent. While this diet would not be considered nutritionally diverse (read: not an example of “eating the rainbow”), dietary patterns like this have been sustaining lives for many thousands of years. Our ancestors endured because they habitually ate (and even enjoyed) the same types of foods from season to season, year after year. Aiming for anything else would have risked their survival.
Why does any of this matter? It is a very simple example of why the rationale behind encouraging or pursuing variety may be beneficial for some, but isn’t always a helpful, or even health-promoting goal for everyone. At Wise Heart Nutrition, we like to say that it is important to invite both compassion and nuance into consideration when talking about food and eating experiences of neurodivergent folx. Yes, eating a variety of foods can be valuable and supportive of nutritional health, but only if someone is ready, and has the skills, resources, and capacity to do so, and if it doesn’t lead to the detriment of other aspects of health and wellbeing. And if they aren’t there yet, or even if they never land there… that’s ok too!
It feels important to note that if someone is truly not getting enough variety, the body is both incredibly wise and impressively resilient. Most often, it will ask for (and actually even demand) what it needs. This is part of why we have cravings. And, if those needs aren’t met, the body will continue to do its job of pushing us towards what will help us survive. We are biologically wired to eventually seek out the variety that our bodies require.
It is also true that extremely limited food choices can lead to nutrient deficiencies and impact health. Nutrient deficiencies do occur, but are most often due to likely elimination of an entire food group (for example not eating ANY grains) or if there is another underlying physiological cause (such as Celiac disease), or in cases of significant overall malnutrition from not eating enough in general. If you are concerned about possible nutrient deficiencies, please seek out the support of a medical professional for proper assessment and treatment.
If you find yourself struggling with food variety, it might be helpful to zoom out and evaluate:
1) if you are eating consistently throughout the day (at least every 3-4 hours)
2) if you are eating enough (both honoring hunger and allowing for fullness) most days
When these 2 basic food needs are met, it can be easier to focus more on variety without feeling overwhelmed. Establishing this foundation will help your body learn to trust that it will be fed reliably and abundantly before you experiment with mixing up the types of food you are choosing.
If you are ready, and you WANT to increase variety in your diet (vs feeling like you SHOULD), but don’t know where to start - here are some neurodivergent-friendly tips:
You can also join our amazing Intuitive Eating with ADHD™ Facebook group for additional community and support! *Be sure to answer ALL the required membership questions and read/agree to the group rules!*
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