"Obsessed with the idea of the microbe we often forget the most fundamental of all rules for the physician, that the right kind of food is the most important single factor in the promotion of health and the wrong kind of food the most important single factor in the promotion of disease."
The first principle of optimal health is eating more nutritious foods. While this may seem obvious, the definition of "nutritious" in the US has radically changed over the last century. Initially, minimally-processed whole foods from both plants and animals were advocated. Then, as the Industrial Revolution made its way towards food producers, Americans started eating pseudo-foods like margarine, industrially-produced vegetable oils, pasteurized milk, highly-processed meats, unfermented soy, canned foods, white sugar, and bleached flour. These adulterated foods were cheaper than whole foods and, according the the US Government, seemed to be just as healthy. But these pseudo-foods are not more healthy than whole foods and generally cause nothing but disease. (1,2)
The Destructive Nature of Pseudo-Foods
Foods don't exist simply to taste good: They provide the essential nutrients humans need to allow their minds and bodies to operate optimally and with very little disease. (3,4,5,6) Humans evolved eating fresh or minimally-processed whole foods. These foods, in many different forms, were eaten by all humans and supported various levels of health and resistance to disease. Then, around the early 1800s, Europe (and then the US) started to apply the knowledge gained from the Industrial Revolution to
improve alter how food was grown, processed, shipped, and stored. Soon, highly-refined, shelf-able industrial foods that traveled hundreds or thousands of miles started to replace traditionally-prepared, locally-grown whole foods in Westernized countries.
To maximize profits and avoid food waste, businesses started finding ways to cheaply make foods that didn't spoil easily, which required the whole foods used in these processes to be subjected to intense heat, high pressures, and caustic chemicals. Unfortunately, whole foods contain delicate nutrients (e.g., vitamins, minerals, enzymes, essential fatty acids) that can become degraded, destroyed, or oxidized when aggressively processed. To make these shelf-able (and damaged) foods edible, manufacturers usually have to taste enhance, vitamin/mineral enrich, deodorize, and preserve processed foods with chemicals that humans have never been exposed to. But these chemicals can't replace the nutrients lost during processing and can often provide new hazards themselves.
It's hard to imagine that before the 1900s heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity were very rare. Curiously, about the same time that the West started moving away from traditionally-prepared whole foods, degenerative diseases also started to become much more common. Around this time cheap pseudo-foods like white flour, white sugar, and canned products started to provide a tempting alternative to healthy whole foods. As consumption of industrially-prepared, nutrient devoid, and chemically altered pseudo-foods increased, degenerative diseases started to replace lethal infectious diseases (a major cause of death for most living things) as the leading causes of death in the US.
|Early in the 20th century cardiovascular disease (CVD) replaced infectious disease (shown as the sum of deaths from tuberculosis, influenza, and pneumonia) as a leading cause of death in the US. The precipitous drop in deaths from lethal infections resulted from improved sanitation, personal hygiene, and food regulations started in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Source: Infoplease.com.|
Why would these pseudo-foods cause disease? The growing popularity of aggressively and carelessly processed whole foods changed how the human body received and absorbed nutrients, causing deficiency diseases. These new diseases led to the accidental discovery of essential nutrients like vitamins in the early 1900s. Instead of trying to find ways to process foods without damaging these delicate nutrients, manufacturers tried to compensate by adding isolated or synthetic vitamins to these devoid foods (known as enriching). Unfortunately, these added vitamins are a poor substitute for the original nutrients.
And where are we today? Americans often don’t eat anything real and whole anymore. For breakfast, they typically have highly-processed grains submerged in pasteurized low-fat milk that is chased with either a caffeine-infused beverage or sugar-sweetened fruit "juice." Lunch brings taste-enhanced burgers, soy-filled pseudo-meats, and bubbly sugar water. Dinner usually offers most of the quality nutrients someone eats during the day, but not by much: Some meat and vegetables, but often something pre-made and filled with chemicals that is reheated in a microwave or oven for the convenience of a quick meal. No one can be healthy eating this stuff.
The Value of Traditional Wisdom
It has been observed over and over again that traditional, non-industrial human populations who don't eat modern, highly-processed pseudo-foods also don't suffer from Western degenerative diseases (e.g., heart disease, obesity, stroke, or diabetes). In fact, this observation is so universal that the degenerative diseases we commonly suffer from are called the Diseases of Civilization because they only seem to affect Westernized cultures. (1,2)
Some have argued that these traditional populations are somehow immune to these diseases, but this has been shown to be untrue. When any healthy individual from these disease-free populations spends several years in Westernized areas, they will eventually develop the degenerative diseases typically found in the West. However, when these ailing individuals return to their original home--again enjoying their traditional diet and lifestyle--their acquired diseases usually stop progessing. It was also not uncommon for these diseases to disappear altogether. (1,2)
So if these humans are not genetically immune to the Diseases of Civilization, then what do these traditional populations do to be so healthy? They eat high quality, nutrient-dense, minimally-processed whole foods from both plants and animals. And it doesn't matter if the foods they eat are high in carbohydrates, saturated fat, animal products, fruits, or vegetables: If it is prepared according to their established tradition, and provides adequate nutrients and calories, then it doesn't usually produce degenerative disease. (1,2)
Why are traditional diets so much better than modern ones? Because they provide the human body with the most usable essential nutrients. Modern food processing methods are based on profit and cost effectiveness, not nutrient preservation. These modern methods produce foods that are less nutritious than traditionally grown and prepared foods. This lack of essential nutrients leads to the problem of being malnourished with a full stomach.
Since the early 1900s, modern medicine has found ways to compensate for the negative consequences of modern food production methods. Traditional populations, on the other hand, can't rely on modern medicine as a shield against poor diet and lifestyle choices. Instead, the survival of these populations depends on their ability to actually figure out how to make healthy, strong, disease-free humans from local foods through a long and very painful trial and error process. This dietary information is then passed down from generation to generation, ensuring that every generation is always able to enjoy optimal health. This hard-won wisdom is not only extremely valuable to these traditional human populations, but to all human populations!
But here's the kicker: Traditional Western diets were also healthy up until very recently. (1,3) Modern medicine only became effective within the last 100 years. Before that, traditional western meal plans (e.g., Italian, French, Spanish, Russian, American, etc.) also had to figure out how to build and support healthy humans. While it isn't discussed much today, before modern medicine became prevalent, high-quality nutrition was considered the best medicine for most diseases. This is still true today.
How to Eat more Nutritious Foods
There are a few simple steps that you can take to instantly increase your nutrient intake:
- Avoid the 7 Deadly Foods. All of the foods in the AVOID section in the Rapid PT Food Pyramid are (in my opinion) responsible for most of the misery that can be attributed the foods we eat in the West.
- Avoid wheat, soy, and gluten grains. The human body hasn't fully evolved to eat them, and modern processing techniques often don’t remove enough of the toxins and anti-nutrients naturally found in these foods. If you are exposed to these toxins every day, then you may experience malnutrition and small amounts of chronic inflammation, both of which can produce chronically elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol (see Potbelly Syndrome).
- Reduce your intake of refined fructose sweeteners. Highly-refined fructose sweeteners are devoid of nutrients and can cause chronic elevations of cortisol when eaten habitually. Consume no more than 20-30 grams of refined fructose or sugar a day. This sugar limit only applies to added sweeteners like table and corn sugars, not to the sugar found naturally in foods like fresh fruit and dairy.
- Avoid high-omega-6 oil intake. These high-omega-6 oils usually come from vegetable and nut oils and are pro-inflammatory. If they aren't balanced with omega-3 intake, your body can become chronically inflamed, which can cause a chronic elevation of cortisol. Replace these fats with healthier oils like organic butter, ghee (clarified butter), animal fats (e.g., lard, beef tallow), virgin coconut oil, and/or extra virgin olive oil. These natural oils have been eaten by humans for hundreds or thousands of years without causing degenerative diseases.
- Avoid chemical additives. Processed foods will often have chemical additives that enhance taste, preserve foods that sit on a shelf, and ensure that a food maintains a specific visual appearance. It's best to avoid all foods that contain these artificial additives and eat primarily fresh whole foods (e.g., meats, eggs, vegetables, and fruits).
- Avoid man-made trans fats. Any oil that is partially or fully hydrogenated will have trans fats. These artificial fats are not natural and can cause the body to malfunction (i.e., it causes disease). Avoid all foods (and edible oils) that are made from these hydrogenated oils.
- Avoid all sugar drinks. Sugar drinks like soda, juice, and energy drinks provide no nutrients and supply you with unneeded refined sweeteners (e.g., sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup). Switch to filtered water, whole pasteurized milk, and/or whole raw milk (from cows grazing on green grass).
- Buy most of your produce (meat, eggs, vegetables, and fruit) fresh and minimally processed. Most of your vitamins and minerals will come from these whole animal and plant foods. When buying meats, eggs, vegetables, and fruits, you should first try to get them locally or certified organic. If you can’t use either of these sources, then purchase industrially-grown foods (just make sure that these foods are as fresh and unprocessed as possible). If you are forced to chose between frozen or canned, choose frozen (nutrients seem to be less affected by properly frozen produce).
- Minimize your intake of foods that are enriched or shelf-able (usually everything that comes in a box, bag, or can). Replace these foods with fresh whole foods. These enriched and shelf-able foods are also full of unhealthy and unnatural chemical additives (e.g., preservatives, taste enhancers).
- Gently cook your foods. Don’t expose your foods to torturous temperatures. You should primarily use low-temperature cooking (e.g., cooking in a crock pot, medium heat when sauteing). You should NEVER deep fry your food (pan frying in virgin coconut oil is fine on occasion). The nutrients in your fresh whole foods are very delicate and high temperatures can destroy some or all of those nutrients.
- If you drink milk, drink whole only. If you buy skim, 1%, or 2% milk you are only wasting your money: The cream in that milk is one of the most valuable parts of pasteurized milk. If you can find it, try fresh raw whole milk from cows that graze on green grass. Raw milk is one of the most nutritious foods that you can eat.
- Don’t be afraid of foods high in saturated fat, cholesterol, or whole carbohydrates. Neither saturated fats nor cholesterol cause heart disease and whole carbohydrates (e.g., potatoes, fruit) DON'T cause obesity (however, if you are suffering from chronic stress, any kind of carbohydrate can cause abdominal obesity and diabetes). In a healthy diet, saturated fat, cholesterol, and whole carbs will make you look, think, and feel better.
- Start eating fermented foods. One of the best ways to improve nutrient absorption and fight infections is to have a healthy gut. Eating fermented foods helps to nourish and rebuild the good bacteria in your gut. Eat at least one serving of a fermented food (e.g., yogurt, kefir, kimchi) every day.
- Drink 64-ounces of water a day (not in addition to the water normally found in your food). Being properly hydrated allows your body to function normally, and that means improved physical performance. Also, be sure to filter all water that you drink, even bottled water.
- Improve your protein quality and intake. You should consume at least one gram of protein for every pound of your lean body weight. To improve the quality of your protein intake, ensure that you have at least 2-3 different protein sources in each meal (e.g., eggs and bacon; steak and potatoes; rice, beans, and sausage).
- Use safe starches as filler. These fillers add inexpensive calories and nutrients to high-quality (and expensive) protein sources without adding their own toxic ingredients (e.g., gluten, lectins, phytates, excitotoxins). White potatoes, root vegetables, and white rice are examples of these safe starches.
To help you get a better idea of what you should and shouldn't eat, here is a food guide that I created for my Rapid PT blog that you can use to help you select the most nutritious foods for you and your family:
|Click here for PDF file.|
When choosing the ingredients for your meals, always remember this one rule: Eat fresh whole foods. Of course, you don't have to eat fresh all the time. You can enjoy birthdays, holidays, and the occasional crap meal with little guilt. So long as you eat fresh whole foods at least 80% of the time, your body will be more than capable of dealing with the occasional abuse.
And when you need to use oil for cooking, use virgin coconut oil, lard (or bacon grease), or butter. When you need to add oil to a salad, use extra virgin olive oil.
How to Build Your MealsIf you still don't know exactly how to construct your meals, you can boil all of this advice down into a simple formula. Each meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) should have:
> 25g fresh high-quality protein + 50-100g safe starch + 1-2 servings of fresh vegetables + 1-2 servings of fresh fruit
Once you start to primarily eat healthy whole foods, your brain should be able to automatically regulate a healthy body weight. This means that you can rely on your hunger to guide your actual calorie needs. Do not force yourself to under-eat to accelerate the loss of your extra fat weight; just eat when you are hungry and don't when you are not. However, if you don't eat enough calories in a given meal it is perfectly fine to eat snacks when you become hungry before another meal. But these snacks should always be fresh fruit (and not processed fruit like fruit roll ups or canned fruit).
Today, after more than a century of exposure to modern pseudo-foods, we are not getting healthier, we are getting sicker. We are so sick that we need a huge medical industry to supply doctors and drugs that can allow us to be comfortably sick. The symptoms of our ailing society start with allergies, acne, cavities, low energy, poor eyesight, overeating, and behavioral problems and eventually result in degenerative diseases like insulin resistance, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
Interestingly, these degenerative diseases are not the natural consequence of a longer life. There are non-industrial human populations living today that have zero chance of developing diabetes, Alzheimer's, or heart disease, even as they live into their 80s and 90s. (1,2) They have outstanding health not because of superior genetics or some kind of ancient medicine, but because they simply enjoy a diet filled with high-quality plant and animal whole foods.
So, this means that the easiest way to instantly improve your health is to AVOID eating heavily processed pseudo-foods. These nutrient-devoid and shelf-able "foods" are not what the human body was exposed to as it was evolving. Being made with the cheapest ingredients and processed as quickly as possible, pseudo-foods lack the essential nutrients necessary to keep the human machine operating without disease. They also often have additional modern ingredients like refined fructose sweeteners, unfermented soy, and modern wheat that can cause their own health problems.
I really can't place enough emphasis on how following this first principle can make a HUGE impact on how you feel, the maintenance of your body weight, and the stability of your mental attitude. But this is only the first of my six optimal principles for optimal health. In my next post, I'll talk about the second principle of optimal health: Avoid Toxins.