Craig Valency, CSCS & Christa Crawford
High protein. Low carb. Ketogenic. Vegetarian. Vegan. South Beach. Atkins. The Zone. The Metabolic Typing Diet, The Blood Type Diet . . . Are you confused yet?
These are just a few of the diets out there that are purported to be ideal for weight loss, health, and longevity. They all seem to have studies that back up their claims, along with happy and healthy zealots who swear by them.
Personally, I have swung all the way from the Eat Anything and Everything You Want Diet, to a strict vegetarian diet, to a meat-based diet. Is there one perfect way to eat for every person on earth? Yes and no.
People are Different . . . and the Same
People share, pretty much, the same physiology. We are the same species, and we come from the same small genetic pool. Nonetheless, we have some different adaptations based on our ancestral environments. For instance, Northern Europeans seem to tolerate dairy into adulthood because of a long history of dairy farming. On the other hand, some people have specific allergies, intolerances, and autoimmunity issues that may necessitate eliminating certain foods. Also, depending on what you do, your demands for specific macronutrients may be different. An endurance athlete will probably not thrive on the same diet as a stockbroker or an Olympic caliber sprinter.
But what are the optimal food choices for most people? The answer to that question, I believe, lies in looking at what humans were naturally meant to eat. This is no different than figuring out what to feed an animal. To do that, we would start by looking at what it thrives on in its natural habitat, and then we would feed it accordingly.
Treat Yourself as Well as You Treat Your Pet
Consider that animals in the wild are rarely obese or even overweight. Lions eat plenty of red meat, but they never seem to need stents or coronary bypass surgeries. The absurdity of feeding our pets engineered human food is apparent. But for some reason, we have no problem giving ourselves and our children alien substances that we were never meant to eat. Our pet snakes, lizards, and turtles are fed whole foods that match those found in their natural diets. So why would we feed our human family members unnatural foods that are pulverized, reconstituted, and processed?
The Origins of the Human Diet
Using this logic, we can deduce what our optimum diet might look like. This human diet makes sense, and it is not a diet at all. Here it is: Eat real, whole foods that humans have evolved to eat. There is no need to count calories. You don’t have to micromanage your portions and meal frequency. Early humans did not suffer from many of the diseases of modern civilization. They were generally lean and had athletic builds. They had thick, strong bones, and little evidence of tooth decay. This same phenomenon can be seen in modern hunter-gatherer societies that have not yet been introduced to Westernized diets. This does not necessarily denote cause and effect, but it is a correlation worth noting.
What is Real Food?
I used to say that real food has just one ingredient. The ingredient list on beef is beef; on lettuce, it’s lettuce; on oats, oats. While it is important to stick to a short ingredient list, it is also important to minimize the level of processing. Obviously, foods like Twinkies and Doritos are highly processed. But even oats, for instance, require heavy machinery and several levels of processing to make them edible (steel cut, rolled, etc.). It might not be the kind of processing that goes into making a Snickers bar, but it’s still processing. If something is inedible unless it is highly processed, is it food?
A real food is something that man has evolved to eat over time. Most of these foods can be eaten with minimal processing or cooking; but as we have adapted to using fire, our digestive systems seem to tolerate certain foods even better when cooked. Cooking can actually make some of these foods more digestible and the nutrients more bio-available. Although macronutrient ratios (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) and food sources historically varied based on geographical regions, hunter-gatherers ate protein in the form of large game, small critters, bugs, insects, birds, fish, etc., along with seasonal vegetables, roots, tubers, fruits, and nuts. This is how humans ate for hundreds of thousands of years before the advent of agriculture.
What is Not Real Food?
About ten thousand years ago, the agricultural (Neolithic) revolution changed everything. Humans soon learned to cultivate and process foods that they had never eaten before. Today, without enough time to adapt (by evolutionary standards), we have new foods at our disposal all year round. Although some groups of people can handle these foods, many of us have not adapted to eating them. The natural balance of eating human-appropriate foods, in the right quantity, and at the right time of year, was lost.
The Problems with Grains
Grains, which are the seeds of grasses, were not originally human foods. It’s not in any grain’s best interest to get eaten. Plants have varying degrees of natural defenses to protect themselves from being eaten by insects (and us). These defenses come in the form of anti-nutrients such as lectins and saponins. These substances can irritate the lining of the gut. This can cause intestinal permeability, which potentially leads to all sorts of diseases and auto-immunity. Berries, on the other hand, reproduce when they are eaten, as their seeds spread in the animal’s feces. Still, it’s not a black and white issue. Some foods, such as nuts, that have been part of the human diet since before the advent of agriculture, also contain a degree of anti-nutrients that can be problematic for some people. Compared to meat, fowl, eggs, fish, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, grains generally lack nutrient density. At the very least, they are a waste of precious calories and money.
The amazing ingenuity of human beings has made many of these plants edible so they pose less of a risk to humans. Techniques include fermentation, soaking, and sprouting. Additionally, many anti-nutrients can be cooked out. Others simply cannot survive the digestive process.
Despite all this processing, grains still manage to cause problems for millions of people. Gluten is especially difficult to purge, even with all these methods. Some problems caused by these anti-nutrients are linked directly to the gut: Gas, bloating, IBS, GERD, and other GI issues plague many people. In other people, gluten and other anti-nutrients wreak havoc in ways not often associated with food. Chronic migraines, joint inflammation, endometriosis, PCOS, and fibromyalgia are just a few of the debilitating problems that gluten can cause.
Another problem with grains is their very high glycemic load. Even whole wheat bread, which is often hailed as a health food staple, rivals plain table sugar in terms of its glycemic effects on your body. Glycemic load is, basically, a measure of how quickly a food releases its sugar into your system and causes a corresponding insulin response. The blood sugar crash leads to more hunger, more eating, and eventual weight gain. The production of high amounts of insulin is also a problem in itself, as it is a storage hormone that leads to fat gain. Chronically high insulin levels in women (even women who are at a normal weight) can also lead to painful diseases like PCOS and endometriosis.
The fiber from grains isn’t all its cracked up to be either. Insoluble fiber, which is the indigestible outer portion of the grain, irritates the gut. This literally forces your body to expel the foreign invader, and it also adversely affects the absorption of minerals. Early man actually consumed more than twice the fiber of modern man, but it was in the form of fruits and vegetables, which contain mostly soluble fiber. This type of fiber is fermented in the colon by beneficial bacteria and is subsequently converted into short-chain fatty acids for energy. Soluble fiber also reduces the glycemic effect of meals, reduces cholesterol and triglycerides, and promotes overall colon health (Konner, M. 2010).
Dairy: A Gray Area
From an evolutionary standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to drink milk. Mammals only drink milk when they are very young and are rapidly developing. By adulthood, most people lose the enzyme responsible for digesting milk sugar. This lactose intolerance can lead to gastrointestinal distress. However, high-quality dairy can be beneficial for some people if used properly. If you’re going to do dairy, drinking low-fat, pasteurized milk is the worst way to go. Bad things are bound to happen. At the very least, blood sugar and insulin levels soar. Acne, weight gain, gut irritation, and hormonal upset are a few possible side effects. However, raw, full-fat dairy tends to be less problematic and can even be helpful if used strategically. Grass-fed yogurt, heavy cream, butter, and ghee (clarified butter) are less problematic than mainstream low-fat milk, due to their high content of good fat, lower lactose levels, and beneficial bacteria.
Beans and Legumes
Today, we eat beans and legumes that early man could never have eaten safely without ample preparation and thorough cooking. Even after hours of soaking and cooking, gas is pretty much inevitable. What is most amazing to me is that even though most of us experience major gastrointestinal distress after each bowl of lentil soup, we do not listen to our own bodies. So many times, we have been told, “Beans are good for you!” They’re low in fat and high in protein and fiber, so we convince ourselves that they are healthy, despite the unpleasant side effects that they cause.
While we often scrutinize the nutritional qualities of our entrées and snacks, the quality of the oils we use to cook our foods is usually overlooked. Of course, most people recognize that oil is fat, and they still think that fat is bad (especially if it’s saturated); so they try to use as little oil and fat as possible. (Enter “zero-calorie” canola oil spray.) I want to be clear: Fat content is not the problem with oils. High quality fat, including saturated fat, does not make us fat or sick. Oil is harmful when it has inflammatory qualities.
Vegetable and seed oils (canola, grapeseed, sunflower, safflower, corn, etc.) are comprised largely of polyunsaturated fats. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids both fall under the umbrella of polyunsaturated fats. While we do need both types, we tend to overeat omega-6 fatty acids, and we usually don’t get enough omega-3. When the 3:6 ratio is imbalanced, inflammation is likely to occur. Vegetable and seed oils are very high in omega-6 fatty acids. Combined with a diet that is heavy in grains and sugar and low in wild-caught fish, inflammation is inevitable.
Even trendy oils that are high in omega-3 fatty acids (flax, chia, hemp, etc.) are highly unstable. They quickly become oxidized and create free radicals, which cause damage to cells. This is why olive oil, which also has beneficial monounsaturated fats, is best when used unheated.
Rather than relying on polyunsaturated fats for cooking, it is better to use clean saturated fats, such as coconut oil, grass-fed butter, and grass-fed meat fat (yes, even lard). These fats are very stable and are excellent sources of fuel for your body. They increase levels of HDL and, despite conventional wisdom, are beneficial, as long as they are not combined with harmful grains and sugars. More on this in a later post.
Making Wise Food Choices and Integrating Neolithic Foods
Just because our ancestors ate something, it doesn’t necessarily make it healthy. By the same token, just because they never ate a certain food, it doesn’t mean that we can’t thrive on it. Our ancestral past should be seen as a template to begin our search for what modern humans ought to eat. We are not trying to do a historic reenactment of Fred Flintsone’s family dinner. Rather, we are looking to the past to inform our current research. Fred, Wilma, and Pebbles didn’t eat dark chocolate or olive oil. They didn’t drink coffee or alcohol either. But there is evidence of the health benefits of moderate consumption of these foods today, so live it up once in a while and party like it’s 19,000 BC!
How did we start eating this way? Christa’s friend, Dr. Eleanor Womack, recommended a strict Paleo diet to address some serious health problems. Coincidentally, the day before, I had just purchased Robb Wolf’s book, The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet. I was certainly intrigued to find out what humans originally ate. But I was still Moderation Man, and I wasn’t about to go all the way. In the interest of household harmony, I finally relented. The day after Thanksgiving, we dumped out all the inflammatory, Neolithic foods in the house.
Within a month, I was astonished when the many digestive disorders I had suffered from for so many years, including IBS and GERD, disappeared. I shed fourteen pounds of fat, and I had more energy. In addition, for years, I had chronically suffered from various inflammatory musculoskeletal issues, starting with low back pain at the age of twelve and progressing to hip bursitis, plantar fasciitis, and elbow tendonitis in recent years. I had never connected them to the foods I was eating, but in the last year, since changing my diet, the joint pain is gone. Christa’s current bloodwork shows that her inflammation is down to almost nothing. This has huge implications for her health. Both of us lost some weight, but we don’t do this for cosmetic reasons alone. Eating this way is powerful.
How to Make it Happen
It’s easy to eat well when you have a roadmap based on our natural diet. There are no food groups that are off limits when you’re on a real food diet, because all real food is allowed. Just because it’s edible, and you don’t die or immediately feel sick, it does not mean that it’s optimal to eat.
The easiest way to start eating like a human is to go to a farmers’ market. There, you can easily find local, chemical-free, seasonal foods. Focus on eating pasture-raised meats, fowl, and eggs, and wild caught fish. Also emphasize seasonal vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
I recommend trying this out for three months, without cheating. Yes, it can be a challenge at first, but it’s easier to break sugar addictions when you’re not teasing yourself with little cheats. If life is just not worth living without some of your favorites, re-introduce them one at a time after a strict 30-60 day elimination period. See how well you tolerate them. I’m a pretty simple guy. If I feel better, I have no need to start eating something that was hurting me. Also, beware that very often, a person might feel fine after re-introducing a food, but the damaging effects could manifest down the road in other ways.
Experiment with macronutrient ratios until you find the perfect balance. If you are an endurance athlete, a higher carb intake might be in order. If you are going for weight loss, a low carb approach might be best. If you are a strength athlete, for instance, than maybe a higher protein intake is warranted. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Use real food as your template and adjust the fat, protein, and carbohydrate ratios so you can optimize your health and performance.
Speaking of Evolution . . .
As you can see, our eating philosophies have evolved over time. As long as we keep on learning and exploring, we will continue to evolve. So take in all this information and make it your own. Question everything. Then, do a little research to come up with your own informed conclusions. Please share your insights on this site so that we and others can be stimulated to further question, learn, and grow.
Konner, M., & Eaton, S. B. (2010). Paleolithic nutrition: 25 years later. Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 25(6), 594 – 602.
Milton, K. (2003). The critical role played by animal source foods in human (homo)evolution. The Journal of Nutrition, 133, 3886S–3892S.
Wolf, R. (2010). The paleo solution: the original human diet. Las Vegas, NV: Victory Belt Publishing.
Cordain, L. (2012). The paleo answer: 7 days to lose weight, feel great, stay young. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.