A large percentage of the world population is overweight and (as a result) suffering from chronic health issues. What we’re doing right now is obviously not working for us. People are getting fatter and sicker despite paying more attention to their diets than ever before in human history. We spend astronomic amounts of money on health and diet products, with astonishingly little benefit.
Most people understand that a good diet is crucial to health and longevity. But it stops there. They don’t know what good is, since the market is flooded with contradicting information. One day fats are bad, the next day carbs are the devil’s advocates and the day after that animal products are to blame.
What is the optimal human diet?
Anthropological research suggests that our ancestors ate a varied diet of high fiber plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Meat and animal products were consumed when available. Historically, the colder the climate, the higher the percentage of animal products in the diet (Eaton/ Konner, 1985).
Although it is often presumed that our digestive tract didn’t change much over the last 200000 years, that’s not quite the case. As a species, we are constantly evolving and adapting to environmental changes. Innovations such as cooking and food processing increased our capacity to extract nutrients from the foods we ate and thus greatly boosted our chances of survival (Wrangham, 2009).
So what can we learn from the original human diet? Are we vegetarians? Meat-eaters? Fruitarians? Should we all be eating a Mediterranean diet? Or is paleo better? What about the vegan diet?
Never in the history of mankind has there been one single diet. There’s no such thing as a universal hunter-gatherer diet and no one modern industrialized diet (Lieberman, 2014). They might share particular traits and patterns but they are not one and the same. Our progenitors ate what was available to them, at the time. They didn’t have the luxury to avoid animal foods due to their saturated fat or fruits and vegetables due to their carbohydrate content.
I’ve talked about the ideal diet being the particular individual’s ideal diet before. There will never be a single regimen that ticks all the boxes. Although this is the idea behind most diets or eating templates, it is simply not possible. Stop thinking in terms of diets or templates. This reductionist perspective is not going to help you in any way. My ideal method of eating will differ from yours. There are, however, a couple of rules that universally apply to each and everyone of us.
What do the most healthful diets have in common?
- Heavy emphasis on natural, unprocessed whole foods
- Balanced amounts of plant and animal foods
- Balanced amounts of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins)
Why should you bother eating right if you’re not overweight? You might not be experiencing any ill effects of eating a processed food, low quality diet yet, but it will catch up to you eventually. The quality of your diet determines the quality of your life.
“Optimal eating is associated with increased life expectancy, dramatic reduction in lifetime risk of all chronic disease, and amelioration of gene expression.” (Katz/Meller, 2014)
Reap maximum benefits with the least amount of effort
“But why can’t I just eat like everyone else?”
You can. If you want to look and perform like everyone else, go ahead. But know this – eating right for you doesn’t have to be a struggle. Your life must never revolve around specific foods or nutrition habits. I don’t advocate diets or restrictive eating templates.
Your goal must be to find a way of eating, that fuels your body and maximizes your physical and mental (!) performance without resorting to extremes. Improving the quality of your nutrition shouldn’t come at the expense of your life quality.
A good nutritional regimen is rewarding, sustainable and effortless. You should have zero issues staying on track, regardless of what situation you’re in or where you choose to eat. If you’re on the paleo or ____ (fill in random “hip” diet here) diet for example, you’ll find yourself struggling to access “permitted” foods on the go. You’ll likely have to decline invitations to dinners or gatherings, so you don’t go off your plan.
If that sounds anything like you, you’re doing it wrong (unless you’re making a living as a model or fitness professional). Food selection and meal preparation shouldn’t require surgical precision (“Did your bread just touch my raw vegan/gluten-free zucchini lasagna?”).
Choose your fuel wisely
“Insulin is the most important hormone in the human body.” – Ori Hofmekler
The importance of choosing the right fuel foods is overlooked by most of today’s experts. I sincerely believe that eating the right balance of macronutrients for YOUR body, is a huge contributor to diet success, long-term health and well-being. That’s right. Eating the right amounts of fats and carbohydrates alone will have a massive impact on your state of health.
Fats and carbohydrates represent your body’s major energy sources. Contrary to popular belief though, fat is the preferred energy source. It is easily metabolized and provides steady, long-lasting energy. Carbohydrate based meals, on the other hand, can leave you feeling hungry very shortly after consumption due to the large rise and subsequent drop in blood sugar. I challenge you to eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast and not feel like chewing your work buddy’s arm off 2 hours post meal.
“…our digestive systems are not well adapted to the rapid swings in blood sugar levels they cause. When the pancreas tries to produce enough insulin that fast, it often overshoots, causing elevated levels of insulin, which then causes blood sugar levels to plunge below normal, making you hungry.” (Lieberman, 2013)
Does that mean you shouldn’t eat carbohydrates?
Far from it. Unfortunately this is the idea behind most dietary recommendations today. If too much is bad, cut it out completely (see low-carb/ ketogenic or vegan diets). Whatever happened to moderation? If a lot is bad, how about cutting down on the amount? How about finding your personal sweet spot? Carbohydrates are vital for performance and well-being. The source and the total amount are what you should be focusing on.
Apples or Fruit Loops?
The glycemic index of your diet has little to no impact on weight management. Doesn’t matter if all your carbohydrates come from pop-tarts or carrots, the total calories will determine whether your weight goes up or down. However, in my experience and according to the research, the carbohydrate source (and total amount) is highly relevant to health (read, read). If you choose to “carb-up” be sure to favor whole food sources over processed sugar bombs and eat balanced meals of proteins, fats and carbs.
Combining foods the right way greatly impacts your body’s insulin response to a meal. Make sure to eat sufficient fats and proteins with your meals to promote satiety and regulate appetite (Weigle et al, 2005). But don’t start putting butter in your coffee (seriously?) or deep-frying your chocolate bars to get your fats in. Eat balanced meals and never fully eliminate a particular macronutrient.
Shift your focus
In order to reach your personal optimum, you need to shift your focus away from specific foods to your own physiological and psychological requirements. This is something no diet can and will ever teach you. Respect what is happening to you and adapt your nutrition accordingly. If you don’t feel right eating a certain way change what you are doing and reevaluate. If a particular food is bothering you, reduce the intake or eliminate it completely. Always take note of your body’s reaction to a particular meal or food item but never focus solely on the foods themselves.
How to optimize your diet:
- Eat predominantly whole foods
- Eat balanced meals – Don’t eliminate certain macronutrients
- Eat a low glycemic impact diet – Reduce refined carbohydrate intake
- Eat foods that are in season and locally grown – Chia seeds and acai berries? Don’t think so
- Eat the foods you naturally lean towards – Gummy bears are not food
- Focus on your body, not on a particular diet or food item
It’s remarkable how little attention most people pay to their diets. Nothing contributes more to your health, performance and well-being than the foods you choose to eat. What could be more important than that? I truly believe that eating right will improve your life in every conceivable way. But finding your personal balance, your right way of eating is up to you, not some diet or nutrition expert. If you stick to the above recommendations, you’re already better off than the majority of people walking the earth.
Thank you for reading
Eaton, S. B./ Konner, M. (1985). Paleolithic nutrition: a consideration of its nature and current implications.” The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 312, no. 5 (Jan. 31, 1985), pp. 283-289.
Katz, D. L., and S. Meller. (2014) “Can We Say What Diet Is Best for Health?.” Annual Review of Public Health 35.1 (2014).
Lieberman, D. (2013). The Story of the Human Body. London: Penguin
Weigle, D.S. et al. (2005). A high protein diet induces sustained reductions in appetite, ad libitum caloric intake, and body weight despite compensatory changes to diurnal plasma leptin and ghrelin concentrations. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 82: 41-8
Wrangham, R.W. (2009). Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books