At the same times every day, my grandpa Joe sat down and ate the same three meals and three snacks. He also walked 3 miles daily, in rain or shine, until the day he passed. He lived until 93. Is my grandpa Joe's longevity attributable, at least in part, to his monotonous diet? From a nutrition standpoint, there are pros and cons to following his lead. Let me explain:
If the meals and snacks you already have in your repertoire are filled with fruit, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, healthy fat and dairy, then you're off to a great start. Kudos for developing a habit to eat a varied diet that includes all the recommended food groups, as this in itself is no easy feat. According to the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, about 90 percent of Americans don't get enough of the recommended daily amount of vegetables and 85 percent don't get enough of the recommended daily amount of fruit.
Creating a repetitive but well-balanced daily meal plan is also a good way to practice meal preparation and planning. It's better to have this healthy eating plan in place, as opposed to grabbing a bag of chips or running to the nearest fast-food joint.
What's more, some science suggests a non-diverse diet is the way to go. One 2015 study, for instance, looked at diet quality and diversity in over 5,000 adults of various backgrounds. It found that a more diverse diet was associated with a greater waist circumference and a higher-quality diet was associated with a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes. The researchers concluded that a more diverse diet does not necessarily lead to a higher-quality diet or better metabolic health. A more diverse diet can also include unhealthy foods, which isn't necessarily good for you.
On the other hand, even if your daily diet is well-balanced on paper, there's a good chance it still doesn't contain everything you need. "I definitely don't recommend repeats of the same foods and meals," says Dana Angelo White, a registered dietitian and certified athletic trainer in Fairfield, Connecticut. "It's certainly all right to frequently eat your favorites, but there's no way you can meet all your nutrient needs by eating the same things day after day. Variety is essential to a healthy, balanced diet."
Most science also backs up White's claims. Studies have found health benefits associated with eating a more varied diet. A 2015 study, for example, examined the diets of over 7,000 adults who were at least 20 years old. It concluded that greater food variety was associated with a lower risk of metabolic syndrome compared to those who consumed a less varied diet.
The Bottom Line
Although eating a variety of foods is important, what you choose to eat is most important. A 2002 study looked at how the variety of healthy and less-healthy foods affected mortality in close to 60,000 women. It found that women who followed a healthy diet by eating a high variety of fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, cereals, fish and low-fat dairy products had significantly lower mortality than women who consumed few of these foods in their varied diet. The study further found that the risk of death from heart disease was particularly low in women who reported eating a high variety of healthy foods. The researchers concluded that it's probably better to increase the number of healthy foods in your regular diet than to decrease the number of unhealthy foods.
Of course, eating a variety of healthy foods can be easier said than done. In the craziness of everyday life, it's tough to find time to try new healthy recipes. But White encourages experimentation to prevent getting stuck in boring food ruts. "If you love quinoa, but always have it for dinner," she says, "try cooking it like oatmeal for breakfast or mixing some into a veggie burger for lunch."
You can also make life easier by doing some meal preparation. If you find a simple dish you want to try, give it a whirl on Sunday when you have downtime and are not rushing to get food on the table. If it's successful, you can rotate it through your healthy meal repertoire and even make a double batch the next time. Just be sure to freeze it for later -- and not rely on it for breakfast, lunch and dinner the next day.