Routines: Some people swear by them, while other loves to mix it up. But what if we're talking about your weekday turkey wrap lunch, or that bowl of cereal you have nearly every morning? Does it matter if your diet is, well, boring? We found out whether variety really is the spice of—a longer and healthier—life.
First of all, people tend to stick to the same stuff—at least on a weekly basis, says Rania Batayneh, M.P.H., author of The One One One Diet. "Those foods are the ones they know and like and have recipes for,” she says. And there’s more than just comfort in having a routine meal plan.
If you’re filling up on fruits and veggies, rest assured that you’re flooding your body with nutrients and antioxidants, and bolstering your immune system in the process, say Lyssie Lakatos, R.D. and Tammy Lakatos Shames, R.D., co-owners of The Nutrition Twins. Since this go-to strategy means you’re never wondering what to eat, you’re less likely to deplete your Dorito supply (if you even have one) while pondering your next meal, Batayneh says.
“It also triggers more healthy habits," Lakatos says. “It takes time to mentally prepare to eat healthily, so when one thing’s out of the way, you can focus on other habits.” Think: squeezing in a workout or carving out time to meditate.
Plus, a structured eat-and-repeat routine may help keep your waistline in check. Consider this: A recent study found that a more diverse diet is associated with a greater waist circumference. The study authors speculate that perhaps having more variety in the diet might lead to eating more healthy and unhealthy foods—which goes to show that you still have to keep tabs on your calorie count.
Things get murkier if your per diem plan routinely incorporates less-than-stellar choices (looking at you, fries and wings). Batayneh says that occasionally indulging in unhealthy meals may help you sustain an otherwise healthy diet and keep you motivated. Of course, there's a bit of an asterisk to that statement too: One or two cheat meals might be OK, but it greatly depends on what your cheat meal looks like and what your personal health goals are. But it may not work so well if you’re the kind of person who falls off the wagon after the first bite of a bacon double cheeseburger or if you give in to nutritionally empty temptations daily.
Still, there are drawbacks to maintaining a Xeroxed menu. First up: By eating the same thing day in and day out, you’re limiting your diet to certain nutrients and depriving yourself of others—even if you have a healthy, well-balanced meal plan, Shames says. For example, if your diet lacks probiotics (hi, yogurt!) or prebiotics (the carbs that probiotics eat that come from whole grains and honey), you could throw off the bacteria in your gut, which could affect mood and immunity, she says.
Plus, noshing on the same stuff exposes you to the same pesticides (yep, even if you go organic), and it's possible to develop food sensitivities if you OD on any one food, Lakatos says.
“Another drawback is monotony,” Batayneh says. “It can be very easy to get bored of what you’re eating after three nights of the same dinner!” (Word.) And boredom can bring on overeating or a quest for diet-derailing treats.
Plus, recent research suggests that eating a greater variety of healthy foods may boost health in a big way—it’s associated with a lower likelihood of developing metabolic syndrome (risk factors that up your odds for heart and health problems). And another (albeit older) study on women says that greater variety of healthy food lowers the risk of death.
Eating the same healthy foods every single day isn’t going to hurt you. So yes, you’re still healthy if your Friday menu is a carbon copy of Monday's. Batayneh suggests eating a mix of different-colored fruits and veggies, though she also gives the green light to eat the same ones that you love every day.
But even an already-healthy diet can welcome new all-star ingredients into the fold, and the variety is probably good for you. Try making small tweaks—like adding an extra veggie to your dish, switching up the go-to greens in your salad, or seasoning food with lime instead of lemon—to amp up your nutrient intake, Shames says. And to keep boredom at bay, Batayneh suggests having a few different meals—they don’t have to be complicated—on deck.
Whatever you do, make sure you stick to the healthy stuff, since one too many French fries or other less-than-awesome options means you’re just exposing yourself to artery-clogging foods on a regular basis, Lakatos says. You can indulge on occasion, but learn to recognize when an indulgence turns into the new normal. If you start running low on energy, feeling guilty, packing on pounds, or generally feeling less healthy, it might be time to cut back on the junk. “There’s no perfect number of cheat meals for everyone—it really depends on how you can fit the foods you love into an overall healthy lifestyle,” Batayneh says.