Virtually everyone strives to eat a healthy diet. But ask yourself, what does that even mean? Would it be one loaded with fruits and vegetables? One devoid of fast-food? One which finds room for the daily chocolate bar? One where you eat whatever you want, just in small quantities? Or just a balanced diet, one with as much variety as possible? The concept of balance is very popular in nutrition spheres; after all, balance ensures that if one food turns out to be rather insidious, it only ever constituted a small part of your diet. Anyone reading food packaging in the modern day can’t avoid the words healthy and balanced, since they’re are used so regularly. But do people really understand what is meant by healthy and balanced, or has the words’ overuse made them nebulous concepts, to be interpreted favourably by individuals?
It turns out, and many people don’t realise this, that the exact definition of a healthy diet is heavily disputed in the world of nutrition, broadly and personally. Obviously for someone with a nut allergy, a healthy diet would be nut-free, but there are broader rules for dictating what you should eat. Martyrs on all sides of the argument muster what amounts to religious fervour when defending their own nutritional paradigm. Should you be vegan? Should you strive to eat less fat? Should you eat more complex carbs, or no carbs at all? The disagreements seem to outnumber the agreements.
With this article I’ll try to establish what a healthy diet really looks like.
The first thing to do is to define health. Health means vigour and vitality, and a general absence of disease. Apply this to the present day. Look around you when you’re out in towns and cities. Does everyone look healthy? Are their eyes radiant, is their skin even and unblemished? Are they spritely and full of energy? I hate to be a cynic, but I am always shocked and the general health of populations in ostensibly developed countries. The problem we have encountered in the present day is everyone thinks they know what they should be eating, but they don’t, and our collective health demonstrates this. Why else would type II diabetes be such a growing problem? Why would cancer, atherosclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease be so common? Are we just living longer so modern man now has the time to develop these diseases, or are we leading more unhealthy lives, and these diseases are a manifestation of this? Modern medicine is criticised for treating the symptoms, but does anyone really know the cause? What if diet were more crucial than we thought, after all, the prevention is obviously better than the cure. Is the modern Western diet (a.k.a. Standard American Diet) poisoning our people?
What do we agree on?
Hardly anything. The sugar industry would have you eating all the sugar you want, so long as you burnt off the additional calories. But dentists would urge you to avoid sugar like the plague if you value your teeth. The government would have you base your diet around complex carbohydrates, but the obese and diabetics get fatter and sicker eating that way. Vegans would have the world stop eating meat, but some subarctic populations still live almost entirely off meat.
As far as I’m concerned, any discussion of a healthy diet should begin by looking at what humans ate throughout our recent evolution. Broadly speaking, homo sapiens have been evolving in our present form for around 2 million years. Throughout that time, and depending on which early population you study, we ate meat, seafood, insects, nuts, berries, and various plants- sometimes starchy but mainly leafy and green. Only roughly 10,000 years ago, (about 0.5% of our recent evolution), did we being eating grains in any significant quantities, and only over the last 400 years or so did we begin consuming sugar. Dairy is another recent addition to our diet, which is why so many of the world’s population is lactose-intolerant. think for a moment about our present diet, full of sugar, bread, pasta or noodles, and rice.The big question mark hovers over whether we have adapted as a species to eat these types of food. The increasingly supported answer is no. That we can eat them is one thing, whether we thrive on them is another. Chemically, grains and sugars are quite different to what we evolved eating. These are carbohydrates, but we evolved on much higher proportions of fat and protein in our diets. Physiologically, humans are fat burners, that’s why we store it so effectively. Fat is an awesome fuel, it burns evenly and cleanly, stores relatively inertly, and is densely packed with energy. Carbohydrates are rocket fuel, and burned preferentially to get them out of the system. They give you an energy high followed by a wash out, leaving you zapped and lifeless, craving your next carbohydrate meal. So the present diet is high in carbohydrates, but we evolved eating diets low in carbohydrates and high in fat. There is strong and bountiful evidence that early man preferred tucking into the high quality fat of an animal rather than the meat. Why? Because he knew the fat was a better source of energy. Did he die of heart disease at a young age? It’s hard to know, but it’s also difficult to imagine that dieing young would be a helpful survival advantage.
It’s easy to get caught up in the present.
Can you see the discordance of our modern food paradigm? Can you see how out of context the message to eat a low-fat diet is? Did you realise that it is an uncontroversial fact in human biology for decades that we need fat and protein in our diets but have no physiological need for any carbohydrates at all? Why on earth would eating fat and cholesterol (i.e. meat) kill you, if we spent so long doing just that throughout our evolution? Fat shaped our genes, and the iron, protein and fat in meat helped our brains grow so large, relative to other land dwellers. In this context, it’s absurd to think that meat is bad for you. All that can be said of carbohydrates is that the huge quantities we eat today make us sick and unhealthy. Anthropologists have known about this for a long time, and some have even generated some noise about the benefits of so-called Paleo diets, a dietary regimen based on hunter-gatherer style foods. So the next time you’re told to base your diet around grains, remember that they are not only nutritional devoid, but totally unnecessary, and actually damaging to many if not most people. When you tuck into your next chocolate bar, or sugary drink, remember how recently humans started eating sugar in any significant quantities, and understand the link between growing sugar intake, and growing incidence of obesity & diabetes. Hint: before sugar, essentially no one was obese, cancer incidence was almost non-existent, as was heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
A simple rule to follow is NSNG (No Sugar No Gluten). Avoid these problem foods 80% or more of the time, base your diet around vegetables, greens, meats, seafood and nuts, and you’ll live longer and better. You might even lose weight too by getting your insulin down.
Sounds like a healthy diet to me.