Few topics stir as many emotions and awaken as much fear, hope, confusion and even judgement as our diet. The overabundance of opinions, dogma and conflicting claims repels and confuses us, yet we, justifiably so, feel the need to make sense of it all. We have always known that diet is indeed one of the cornerstones of good health. The founder of western medicine, Hippocrates, well over two thousand years ago strongly emphasized the fundamental role of food and exercise in health. Food is also one of our greatest sensory pleasures, one that brings people together and celebrates our connection to the natural world.
To sort it all out, let’s first consider why we eat, and why we should pay attention to what we eat, in the first place. Food serves several functions: it acts as a source of energy for the body, it serves as a building block for our constantly renewing tissues and it gives us ingredients that facilitate various other processes in the body, among them thinking, hormonal function, reproduction etc. But in a time of relative abundance, we tend to turn our attention from these important roles and focus more on the shadow side of food; the fact that, when eaten in quantities larger than what we need, it can wreak havoc on our bodies and cause negative effects such as obesity, inflammation, and diabetes. This often colors out relationship with food and leads us to think of it not as a life sustaining force but as something of a threat. “Are eggs bad for me?” we ask. “Will carbohydrates harm me?”, “Will eating meat give me a heart attack?”.
As is true for most choices in life, choosing our diet based on fear, without a clear paradigm, can have us running back and forth like a ball boy at a tennis match, vegan this day and keto the next, enthusiastic about the newest food religion one day, fearful that we may still not be getting enough of the latest superfood the next. Choosing a diet based on what it doesn’t contain is arguably not enough. Thinking instead about what our bodies actually need (the “macronutrients” fat, protein and carbohydrate as well as “micronutrients” such as vitamins and minerals), and how to get enough of each type is the only logical and comprehensive approach.
Humans evolved over a very long period of time eating an omnivorous diet, consisting of a wide variety of plant foods and animal foods, sometimes with a bit more to eat, sometimes going for a little while without food. While our genes haven’t had time to change much (read: we still thrive on a very similar diet to the one we evolved with) there have also been some relatively recent changes in our genome, and as opportunistic omnivores we inarguably have much more leeway when choosing what to eat than a single-plant eating panda bear.
While there is no need to buy into the latest egg or lectin scare, there are some things that make their way into our food that we would do better without. These include certain, potentially problematic, (inflammatory, neurotoxic, xenoestrogenic, carcinogenic) non-food aspects of the modern diet. They have less to do with the food items we eat and more to do with how we grow and handle our food. Modern additions to our diet that we did not evolve to tolerate well include things like vegetable seed oils (sunflower-, corn- and safflower oils etc), synthetic trans fats, an abundance of processed acellular carbohydrates, an abundance of refined sugar, pesticides, food coloring, preservatives, pasteurization, and so on. We would do best to view these more recent additions to our lives as science experiments we choose not to participate in. Uniquely nutritious food items no longer ubiquitous in our diet include organ meats and collagen-rich organs like bone, skin and tendons, and making up for this loss may support optimal health.
While science is usually a good starting point for understanding our world, food science is unfortunately not best known for its rigor and quality. Fortunately we do know a great deal about the human body and what it needs, and can most certainly nail down some basic facts. Instead of looking to self-proclaimed gurus espousing complicated diets based on the purported dangers of this or that food item, we might do better to look to our ancestors and our bodies for answers.
Let’s take a big step back and consider a few facts:
- We need protein, fat and carbohydrate (fiber is a form of carbohydrate).
- Our carbohydrate need isn’t static. More carbs are needed by physically active people, less by sedentary individuals. The best carbs come attached to fiber (vegetables, berries, fruit, legumes, whole grains).
- Our protein need isn’t static. We need less protein when we are young (0.8g/kg of bodyweight) and more when we are recovering from injuries or surgeries or dieting, or over 65 years of age (1,2g/kg).
- Everyone, but especially people recovering from injuries, surgeries and individuals with joint hypermobility, would probably benefit from adding more collagen to their diets.
- If you follow a diet that is based on eliminating certain basic food groups, be consistent with supplementation of nutrients that are missing in your diet. As an example, vegan diets need to be supplemented with fat soluble vitamins like A and D, vitamins such as B12 and riboflavin and minerals such as zinc.
- We also need time away from food. A nightly fast of 12-16 hours has been shown to have great health benefits.
- Our water supply has also changed. It can be beneficial to remineralize the water we drink, and this is especially important for individuals that sweat a lot during heat or exercise, drink alcohol or suffer from low blood pressure or POTS.
There you have it. Like the author Michael Pollan famously said: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Get enough protein, including collagen, good, natural fats, plenty of plant foods. Consider who you are (your age, activity level, injuries and recovery, body type etc) and choose your macro- and micronutrients accordingly. Eat fresh, organic, grass fed - you know, whatever your great grandparents would have recognized as food. Avoid unnecessary chemicals such as pesticides, preservatives and food coloring whenever you can, and listen to your body.
Love food, don’t fear it, and it will love you back.