Sometimes the simplest things matter most. Health and fitness-minded people face many challenges in determining their best choices in the key lifestyle areas of diet, exercise and stress management. None is more important than that most basic question, “What should I eat?”

Anyone seeking information about diet and nutrition quickly discovers that there are countless nutrition books and websites, each with a different set of rules and regulations. With nutrition, as with many things in life, it is helpful to begin with the assumption that many roads can lead to the desired destination. Since there are healthy people following diets that differ substantially from one another, it follows logically that no single set of guidelines must be rigidly adhered to by all people seeking good health. Fortunately, we have choices.

This does not mean that we can eat and drink all manner of junk foods and beverages and expect that everything will turn out fine. While it is true that some people can follow a grease-filled, vegetable-poor diet, yet live to be 90 and never develop heart disease, and others can smoke two packs of cigarettes a day and never get lung cancer or asthma, these people are the exceptions. For the vast majority, such courses of action can have grave consequences.

Despite there being many dietary variations consistent with good health, some areas of common ground are shared by all evidence-informed approaches. The most important of these is choosing whole foods rather than processed foods. On this point there is broad agreement among health science researchers and sources like the surgeon general and National Institutes of Health, as well as opinion leaders favoring newly popular dietary approaches ranging from vegan to Paleolithic. Agreement is essentially unanimous on the value of vegetables and fruits. A diet too light on vegetables and fruits misses out on nature’s primary sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and more.

From my point of view, the two most important dietary recommendations are to come as close as possible to (1) a 100 percent whole foods diet and (2) complete elimination of processed sugars, particularly sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. Without a doubt, if everyone were to follow these two guidelines the health of our society would be immeasurably improved.

If, in addition, the entire population were to stop smoking, keep alcoholic beverages and caffeine intake to a modest level, and exercise regularly, the effects would be truly revolutionary. These simple recommendations have been repeated so often in recent years that they have become health clichés. Yet most people I’ve seen as patients ignore at least a few of them and some people’s diets seem tailor-made for self-destruction.

Fortunately, no one needs a doctor’s prescription to eat a healthy diet. Well-informed health professionals can be very helpful partners as you make a transition, but success depends mainly on your own willingness to make healthful changes and sustain them over time. People who refuse to change their unhealthy habits severely handicap their chances to achieve optimal health. To the extent that a society collectively ignores this information, as is still the case in much of America, it is choosing illness over health.

Today is as good a day as any to think deeply about your health and what you can do to improve it. All steps in the right direction, small or large, deserve encouragement. To a great extent, your health future is in your own hands.

Daniel Redwood, DC, is the director of the all-online Master of Science in human nutrition and functional medicine program at University of Western States.

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