So you decided to change your diet? Good for you. Now you just have to figure out what to eat and that’s when the problems start.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad advice out there. If you’re not careful you’ll wind up no better off then when you started. Should we eat meat or is it bad for us? How about red meat? What about wheat? Are potatoes good for me? Pretty soon you are so far down the rabbit hole, reading competing philosophies that you’ll end up more confused then ever. So let’s see if we can use our minds to cut through the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) and get as close as possible to the truth.
We’ll start by clearing out some types of thinking that will absolutely lead you down the wrong path as you explore diet and health. Here they are:
– Thinking there is a perfect diet for everyone
– Believing that if you can cut out one category of food you’ll be fine
– Imagining that mankind can make something better than nature, when it comes to food
If you hold any of the following beliefs, then I encourage you to re-examine them thoroughly. Let’s take a look at why.
First off, there is no perfect diet. Anyone who tells you that is misguided or selling something. What works for one person may not work for another. That’s because the human body is incredibly complex. We have over 100 trillion cells in our body, three trillion nerve cells, 60,000 miles of blood vessels and that’s just a mere fraction of its complexity. We simply don’t understand everything there is to know about the body. Not even close. A number of different ways of eating have proven to be successful over the eons we’ve lived on this little blue dot. Heavy meat, little to no meat, lots of starch, not much starch, seafood and everything in between have made up the centerpiece of diets for countless different cultures. And yet if we look closely, we can find some common denominators that will set you on the right path. What we can’t do is create the absolute perfect list that works for everyone.
Let’s take something as seemingly simple as whether starches are good or bad. We have an enzyme in our saliva called Amalyse that starts the process of breaking down starches into sugars that our body can use for energy. But not all humans have the same amount of that enzyme. Some of us only have two copies of the genes that code for the enzyme, AMY1, and some of us have fifteen copies of it. While we don’t fully understand all the aspects of how starch is broken down in the body, we do know that there is a lot of variation. While we have to be very careful not to draw too many conclusions from a single study, what I want to illustrate is simple: how humans process food is not uniform. Not even at the most basic level, like how we deal with a lot of starch.
In other words, I may tolerate lots of starch fine and you may not. As such, you’d do well to keep them to a minimum, but I can eat it or vice versa. Another person may deal with wheat easily, but if you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, it doesn’t matter if whole grains are good or bad, they are bad for you. This brings us to a crucial point: listen to your own body. Life is a perfect feedback loop. If you listen carefully, then your body tells you everything you need to know. If you’re getting headaches, getting sick regularly, have patchy/blotchy skin, feel bloated, need three or four cups of coffee a day and still feel tired, are carrying too much weight, these are not little insignificant problems. They are serious warning signs that you’re headed in the wrong direction when it comes to your health. Your body is trying to tell you something. Just because a particular food is on the World’s Healthiest Foods list doesn’t mean much if it makes you sick. Pay attention to what your body is saying. It is all connected.
A perfect example for me is wheat. There is a lot of controversy around whether it’s good for you or not. Paleo dieters hate it and vegetarian diet adherents think it’s perfectly fine. However, after I changed my diet, I started examining every food I ate to see if it would effect little things like my acne. I’ve had acne for pretty much my whole life. It’s diminished considerably as I’ve gotten older, mostly confined to my body, but when I was young I had it bad and went on the very powerful drug, Accutane, twice. It’s no longer on the market because it had some bad side effects. Nobody told me my American diet was the problem. In fact, the doctors told me there was little to no connection. Don’t eat any sugar or don’t eat this and that, they said. It didn’t make any difference. I can tell you I eat plenty of sugar in low glycemic index fruits now and it did not make my breakouts worse. In fact, as I started to change my diet, my body acne started to disappear. I recently saw a dermatologist again and asked her if anything had changed in those studies. Have we found any link between food and acne? No she said. And yet I was discovering through my own experimentation that there absolutely is a connection. Yet despite my positive changes, my acne didn’t fully disappear. Then I noticed when I ate wheat, even the good 100% whole grain from Whole Foods, I would get a flare up again. Cut it out and it disappeared. Eat it again, and it reappears. Little changes can make all the difference.
Now the reason many people don’t think food effects acne is because they are looking for one food. If I just cut this out, they think, I’ll be ok. You won’t be. I can tell you that if I kept eating potato chips and deep fried chicken and burgers and cut out wheat it would not make a damn bit of difference. And yet when I made positive changes across the board, that one change made a huge difference. We can’t see the problem because the problem is everything we are consuming. Until we change that, nothing changes.
Our second example of thinking that will lead you astray is believing that carving out one category of foods will make you healthy, as we saw above. It may make a difference, after you have changed your diet across the board, but until you do that, it absolutely will not. Of course, the exception is if you actually have a disease related to a particular food or an allergy. If you don’t the picture becomes a lot murkier. Here is a list of enemies in various popular diets:
- Starchy vegetables
Notice a trend there? Other than non-starchy vegetables, that’s pretty much everything you can possibly eat!
If all of these things are really bad for us then the Universe is a horrific designer. In other words, almost everything you can possibly consume is deadly or will make you sick. That doesn’t stand up to even the most basic consideration. What kind of ecosystem evolves in such a way that it is hostile to all the life it supports? Answer: none. There are ecosystems that are hostile to life in the galaxy, as well as some on Earth, like deserts, but they all share one thing in common: there is practically nothing alive there. Ecosystems that are teaming with life evolved to support the creatures that live in it. Otherwise the Universe sucks at its job.
All of these things cannot possibly be bad for us. It really is as simple as that.
Cutting out one of these things does not make you healthy.
What we eat does not exist in a vacuum. Simply eating right is not good enough. Instead people are much better off focusing on the essential cluster of good habits that give you the best statistical chance at longevity:
- Limiting alcohol and drug consumption
- Not smoking
- Getting good sleep
- Eating in moderation
- Eating a balanced meal
These factors in combination show up again and again in just about every type of study ever conducted on health and longevity. In other words, attempting to isolate one of these factors as more important than the others is a fool’s game that leads nowhere. Only by doing all of these things do we have a chance at beating disease processes and living a long life where we can still take care of ourselves at an old age. If any one of these is out of whack you are doing untold damage to your system.
After changing my diet, my eyeballs are not bloodshot, my skin is no longer puffy, my belly is gone, my left leg that was feeling sluggish and desensitized has almost its full feeling back, I get angry/frustrated/tired a LOT less, etc. I can tell you that eating a steady diet of grass fed burgers with some vegetables sprinkled in occasionally will not make this change. I know because I tried it. Looking back I shake my head at my stupidity. When everyone around you is insane, you begin to think that’s sanity. Everyone has acne, everyone has a belly, everyone’s skin is puffy, and therefore it must be normal. It’s not. It’s really not.
Our third example of thinking that will lead you down the wrong path is believing that we can make something better than Mother Nature when it comes to food. As a SF writer, it’s safe to say I am pretty bullish on the long-term beneficial effects of technology. As soon as we understand a compound to be beneficial, like vitamin C, we isolate it and put it in powder form. The problem is that these substances don’t exist in isolation in the foods we consume. A whole constellation of proteins, enzymes, sugars and all kinds of substances we don’t even have names for exist in our foods. They don’t act by themselves. They act in concert with everything else, changing how things get absorbed, processed, expressed and much, much more.
For example cacao leaves have a naturally occurring amount of cocaine in them. For thousands of years native peoples at high altitudes in Peru munched on cacao leaves which gave them small bursts of energy that helped them live at high altitudes where we think oxygen is murder on the body’s systems. It had little to no long term effect on their health. But when we isolated the compound, boosted it by hundreds of percent in potency and snorted it the effect was disastrous. The result of this was: addiction, overdose, rapidly declining mental cognition and health. The compounds in the cacao leaves that limit and balance the cocaine are essential. Separating them is the problem.
Why don’t fragrances isolated from flowers smell the same as real flowers? Because they are not the same thing. You cannot cut apart a flower to find its essence. In the same way, vitamins and minerals taken in pill form don’t affect us in the same way as nutrition derived from the foods we eat. Even worse are the synthetic versions of these molecules that we whip up in a lab, believing they will somehow make it much better and more powerful. Sometimes the fact that biology limits the power of a particular nutrient through complementary or antagonistic processes in our food is a good thing.
In other words, you can head over to the local muscle building super store and come out with fifty ten gallon jugs of various powders, pastes and pills and end up not the least bit healthier. A person who never exercises, eats deep fried, fatty foods constantly and pounds energy drinks all day will still end up very, very sick. And yet, if that same person switches to nutrient rich whole foods and drops the energy drinks and processed sugar, their health will improve dramatically in as little as a few months.
And that’s not even to mention the fact that most lab created powders/pills contain other elements that you can’t pronounce in order to aid in the process of isolating them. Need a little magnesium stearate in your diet? How about some cellulose? How about some vegetable stearic acid? Don’t worry. They’re all inert. Right? I mean we’ve never been wrong about stuff like that before, right?
All this tells you that vitamins in isolation are not what we think they are, so leave the supplements at the store. Get your vitamins from food as much as possible. A little supplementation to give you some balance probably won’t hurt now and again, but just know it is not the same thing as getting it from Mother Nature. When my eyes hurt after a marathon session of staring at my backlit computer screen all day I took some turmeric pills to help fight the inflammation. Use pills as a targeted choice but don’t expect miracles. I also spent the rest of the day munching on some carrots and some vitamin C rich foods to help relieve the pressure on my eyes.
It’s also worth noting that I am not a fan of messing with our food supply through gene splicing. When it comes to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) we simply don’t understand the effects of what we are doing, so it’s best to avoid GMOs all together. Because I have worked in Information Technology for so long, I’ve seen a few thousands lines of code lead to bugs and crashes in a near constant stream. When we start jacking with genetic code, which is infinitely more complex, we are playing with fire. When corporations insert selfish agendas into the genome, such as plants that produce sterile offspring so that customers have to buy them again from the company next year, that’s about as short sighted and stupid as anything I have ever heard and humans have a long history of doing stupid things. Even though, contrary to popular belief Monsanto sacked the sterile offspring in 1999 due to public outcry, the fact that they even thought this was a good idea points to a diseased way of thinking about the world, that does not take into consideration the collective effects of one’s actions on people’s health and the health of the planet. Maybe we don’t produce sterile offspring anymore, but instead we put pesticides INSIDE the plant itself. It was bad enough to think that we might suffer from residual effects of pesticides simply sprayed on our foods. How do you think your body will react when that poison is now interwoven into the very essence of the tomato?
I’ll add one more thing that didn’t make the list. It’s not bad thinking, but it is a potentially negative phase in your journey to better health. I call it the “evangelical phase.” This is the one where you can’t shut up about your new diet to anyone, nag your friends and lovers about what they eat and in general view everyone around you as an idiot who needs to wake up. This type of thinking does not help you or the people you love. I am super guilty of this one. Unless you are a nutritionist, food blogger, exercise guru or trainer you are best off keeping your new found eating discoveries to yourself. Take a gentle approach with people, especially loved ones. Remember you were in the same spot not long ago. As soon as you feel yourself becoming the food Nazi and describing in exhaustive detail why your wife shouldn’t eat this or that thing, you are in trouble. Get over this unhelpful phase fast and let your own results speak for themselves. If people ask you about it, then go ahead and tell them all about it. If not, keep quiet.
Okay, so now that I’ve spent a bunch of time on how not to think about food, let’s see if we can figure out how we should think about it.
As you start to dig into your diet and lifestyle, it’s very easy to get lost on the road to good health. Once you realize you shouldn’t eat the Standard American Diet (the appropriately nicknamed S.A.D diet) that doesn’t mean you are out of the woods. The rabbit hole of health can lead you to belief systems that are just as negative as the ones that kept you eating burgers, fries, pizza and ice cream on a daily basis.
The biggest problem in understanding what is good for us is our belief systems. You believe that you “like” certain foods and “hate” other ones, without realizing that your tastes evolved over time and are fluid. After all, I don’t eat Kraft Mac and Cheese anymore, but I ate a lot of it as a kid. My tastes changed. When you start to eat the right foods, your tastes will change too. If you never touched a vegetable, after a few weeks of a plant heavy diet, you’ll suddenly find yourself craving a delicious juice smoothie, or a pile of Kale, when once you craved yet another burger. You’ll smell the sickening, fatty reek of dead, burnt foods in a fast-food restaurant and wonder how the hell you ever interpreted that smell as inviting. The body adapts and when you eat the right foods it will alter your tastes to encourage you to continue to feed it correctly.
Our belief systems hold us back. They distort what we see. There is objective reality and there is what you believe. Objective reality is real. What you believe only exists in your mind.
Only where objective reality and beliefs overlap are beliefs correct, otherwise they are wrong. So drop the notions you have in your head and see what is actually right in front of you.
One of the best ways I’ve found to figure out what I should and shouldn’t eat is by comparing the various diets that are out there. What do they agree on? Where do they disagree? Do a majority support salmon while decrying non-whole wheat? Let’s look.
Here’s what makes the bad list for all of these diets:
- Heavily processed foods
- Refined flower
- Refined sugars
- Deep fried foods ( in anything but serious moderation)
- Lab produced anything – aka any ingredient you can’t pronounce
- Chemical preservatives
- Industrially processed vegetable oils
- De-natured foods
- GMO foods
- Overindulgence in alcohol
- Overindulgence in drugs
- Overindulgence in stimulants like caffeine
- High glycemic fruits
- Large amounts of red meat
What makes the bad list for most of these diets?
- White potatoes
It’s also worth noting that some of these diets are vehemently against certain types of food that most of the others diets deem healthy. Foods that fit that category are:
- Red meat
Let’s put those in the “controversial” category for now and come back to them.
Now what do all of the diets agree are good foods to eat?
- All non-starchy vegetables, especially green vegetables
- Low-glycemic fruit
- Emphasis on whole foods
What do they mostly agree on?
- Olive oil
- Lean meat
- Whole grain
- Sweet potatoes and other colorful potatoes
- Nuts and berries
OK, now we’ve finally got a base to start from, something to build on. I am going to go with majority rules here and include everything on the “maybe” list. While this type of thinking could reasonably be called a logical fallacy (just because everyone believes something does not make it true), I have to have some way to eliminate things from my list, so I might as well go with the collective wisdom of everyone who has ever bothered to spend time studying the problem of health and nutrition. This is not an example of us polling every Tom, Dick and Harry on the street and asking for their diet suggestions. These five diets I’ve highlighted represent the distilled, collective wisdom of anyone who has ever written on the subject of diet. If that’s wrong we have pretty much no hope of ever figuring it out, so we might as well give up now (hint: not a good idea).
So a healthy diet is very likely to include all or most of these things: nuts and berries, leafy green vegetables, fish, low GI fruit, olive oil, lean meats and legumes. Now we are getting somewhere.
Let’s get back to the things they can’t agree on.
- Animal fats
- High fat dairy
- Red meat
- Lacto-Vegetarians vehemently oppose any meat, fish or dairy.
- Paleo/Primal advocates oppose all grains like wheat and rice, as well as legumes like black beans, while piling on the animal fats.
These foods are polarizing to say the least. Paleo/Primal diets emphasize meats and vegetables. Lacto-vegetarian adherents forgo all animal products as dangerous and deadly. Who’s right? How can two diets that are totally opposite in their belief systems achieve good results for people?
The answer lies with our earlier discussion of objective reality and our belief systems. When our belief systems don’t line up with reality then they are wrong. It is as simple as that. Here’s why:
Objective reality is what actually happens in the real world. I might believe that I can eat fried foods every day, never eat a vegetable and smoke three packs a minute with no problems but life will happily teach me the error of my ways as I collapse from a heart attack in my thirties. What happens is the truth. What IS, is the truth. What we believe is of no consequence.
Vegetarians believe all meat eating will kill you. And yet for thousands and thousands of generations people have eaten meat and lived long healthy lives. So it simply cannot be true that all meat and fish are bad for you or else all civilization would be dying in their forties for most of our history. However, vegetarians are right that vegetables should remain the stars of your plate. What they should not be is regulated to the side dish and drenched in thousand island.
On the other hand, Paleo/Primal folks believe meats are absolutely crucial and that everything we’ve ever been told about fat is a lie. And yet if you never exercise and think you can consume vast quantities of animal fats you are out of your mind. Paleo/Primal diets are founded on the idea that we were actively in pursuit of our food for the majority of human existence, aka hunter/gathers. As such we need to stay active in order to process those fats properly. That tells you that fats by themselves are not the foundation of good health unless we combine them with lots of exercise to burn them up.
I’ll also note the tendency of Paleo cookbooks, of which I own several, to emphasize bacon, red meat and fat to an almost fetishistic degree. Overemphasizing red meats when numerous scientific evidence exists questioning that assumption is a really bad idea.
So what can we take from the controversial list? Your best bet: moderation.
As Aristotle and my father taught me, “balance is best in all things.” Actually Aristotle said, “moderation is best in all things” but close enough.
So to sum up:
- Eat a lot of the 24 healthiest foods from this article
- Make vegetables the foundation of your diet
- Feel free to enjoy fruits, nuts and berries but stick to mostly low GI fruits
- Dig into that tasty fish
- And keep the meats lean and in moderation
- And whatever you do:
- Avoid pretty much anything that comes in a box with a convenient packaging.
That should get you going on the road to radiant health and longevity. Adjust as you go. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Trust your own results. Experiment. Keep learning and you will have managed to re-learn what we knew for thousands of generations but somehow forgot in our modern, technologically advanced and supposedly “superior” society.