Monday, April 15, 2013

The Six Principles of Optimal Health: Intro

When I designed the Rapid PT Program, I tried to find the root cause of each problem that would make it difficult for someone in the military to pass their physical training (PT) Test. I then focused on the fewest solutions that would produce the greatest change; conversely, I didn't focus much on solutions that would produce very small changes (this is generally known as the 80/20 Principle). This approach allowed me to identify six essential principles that will help anyone easily get 80s and 90s on their PT test.

As it turns out, my six principals aren't just excellent for improving PT test scores, they are also amazingly useful in addressing a vast array of health issues. My research has painted a picture of what causes heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and many of the other so-called Diseases of Civilization that is very different from what I'd previously been led to believe. What I've discovered is that if you continue to use this program for the rest of your life, being healthy and maintaining a healthy weight will become nearly effortless.

Identifying the Six Principles of Optimal Health
With all the noise out there, it seems impossible for anyone to truly find out what a healthy diet is, or what a healthy diet can actually do for your health.

As I started reading about diet and health, I couldn't help but ask myself several questions: Is it normal to get heart disease, diabetes, and cancer as we age? Should we need doctors to keep our teeth straight and our eyes correctly focused? Is the human body really as frail as we've been led to believe, requiring powerful drugs to keep it alive?

These questions encouraged me to search far and wide for answers. But, to make sure that I wouldn't draw the wrong conclusions, I had to gain some perspective. As I set out to figure out what a healthy diet actually is, I researched:
  • 12,000 years of human population change data.
  • The diets of past and present hunter-gatherer, agricultural, and Western diets.
  • The changes in causes of mortality for past and present hunter-gatherer, agricultural, and Western societies.
  • How well current theories for degenerative diseases jibe with contemporary hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies.

Today, with nearly 70 books and countless internet and journal articles under my belt, I've begun to see a pattern in the noise. I arrived at two conclusions:
  • Given their conspicuous lack of degenerative diseases and being overweight, I found that traditional, non-industrial human populations exemplify the basics of an ideal diet. (1,2
  • Given their impressive ability to control lethal infectious diseases, prevent infant and maternal mortality, grow food at will, and fix the broken human body, Western societies have largely controlled the many dangers inherent in living with nature.  

Usually, traditional and Western approaches to life are seen as competitors, but I don't see it that way: I find that each system has important contributions to make to human society as a whole that--when taken together--can radically improve a person's quality of life.

Relearning the Definition of a "Healthy" Diet
It's hard to talk about traditional, non-industrial human populations without sounding like a snake oil salesman. But it is inescapable that these human populations are exceptionally healthy when compared to Western populations. So long as these populations eat their traditional foods (and don't eat much Western food), they have:
  • No problem with body weight (unless excess weight is intentional, which happens with great difficulty in some populations). (1,2)
  • No heart disease or stroke. (1,2)
  • Little to no rates of cancer. (1)
  • No acne. (1)
  • No diabetes. (1)
  • Little to no dental carries (cavities). (2
  • No dementia or Alzheimer's. (1)

Because traditional, non-industrial populations don't have modern medicine to compensate for poor diet and lifestyle decisions, each one had to figure out how to be healthy in their unique environment through painful trial and error. As a result, these traditional populations excel at making healthy people.

Here's an excerpt of a recent study talking about a traditional population's lack of heart disease:
The main results of the Kitava study, that there is no ischaemic heart disease (and no stroke), are unanimously confirmed by medical experts with knowledge of the Trobriand Islands or other parts of Melanesia. Likewise, Jüptner noted no cases of angina pectoris, myocardial infarction or sudden death during his 5 years as a provincial doctor on the islands at the beginning of the 1960s, when the population was roughly 12,000. (Jüptner H, unpublished data). His experience is based partly on patients that visited him due to illness, and partly from systematic health examinations given in all the different villages at three separate times. The same observation was made by Schiefenhövel, physician and human ethologist from the Max Planck Institute in Munich (Schiefenhövel W, unpublished data). He can speak the language of the Trobrianders, Kilivila, and has his own hut on Kaileuna, one of the Trobriand Islands, where he examined close to 3,000 patients during his repeated visits over the course of close to 15 years. Like Jüptner, he is very familiar with the nature of cardiovascular disease and did not see any cases of the disease. (1)

What were the Kitavans doing to be so disease free?
The residents of Kitava lived exclusively on root vegetables (yam, sweet potato, taro, tapioca), fruit (banana, papaya, pineapple, mango, guava, water melon, pumpkin), vegetables, fish and coconuts. Less than 0.2% of the caloric intake came from Western food, such as edible fats, dairy products, sugar, cereals, and alcohol, compared with roughly 75% in Sweden. The intake of vitamins, minerals and soluble fibre was therefore very high, while the total fat consumption was low, about 20 E% [percentage of energy intake], as was the intake of salt (40-50 mmol Na/10 MJ compared with 100-250 in Sweden). Due to the high level of coconut consumption, saturated fat made up an equally large portion of the overall caloric intake as is the case in Sweden. However, lauric acid was the dominant dietary saturated fatty acid as opposed to palmitic acid in Sweden. Malnutrition and famine did not seem to occur. (1)
So, their secret to exceptional health is nothing more than eating fresh, whole foods (both plant and animal) that are comprised of all macronutrients and quite a lot of saturated fat and carbohydrates. What they don't eat is a lot of trans fat, sugar, vegetable oil, soy, or wheat. (1,2)

Actually, while each traditional, non-industrial population has their own unique diet (ranging from high-fat to high-carb), they have at least two things in common: They enjoy their traditional diet and they consume very little of the 7 Deadly foods. (1,2)

Due to high infant mortality, the Kitavans have a low average age of 45. However, many elders make it to be older than 80-years old. The gentleman above is 100-years old!
As healthy as these traditional populations are, they still suffer from high infant mortality and death from infections. In fact, until recently, infections have always been a leading cause of death for all human populations. However, once the West adopted agriculture and started domesticating animals, death from new lethal infections skyrocketed. (3) But every cloud has its silver lining.

Learning not to Hate Everything Neolithic
Having participated in the Paleo community for a while, I'm very aware of their sometimes intense love of all things Paleolithic (e.g., meat, eggs, vegetables, and fruit) and fear of all things Neolithic (e.g., grains, legumes, modern produce, dairy, and industrially-processed foods). This fear isn't unfounded: The adoption of agriculture 12,000 years ago caused humans to suffer from more disease. (3) Then the second industrial revolution and Green Revolution caused additional problems (e.g., malnutrition, reliance on highly-modified grains).

But advances in the Neolithic weren't all bad. During my analysis of human population over the last 12,000 years I noticed a curious shift in overall population change that took place during the mid 1300s. Before the mid 1300s, population would expand and contract regularly, creating a slow rise in overall human population (see graph below). These expansions and contractions generally moved with environmental conditions (e.g., global temperatures, rain fall, soil quality, etc.). However, after the mid 1300s, population almost always expanded with very little contraction, despite the many famines and disease outbreaks that followed this point in time. What caused this radical increase in human population? The Black Plague. (4)

The graph above shows the estimated change in human population from 10,000 BCE (when agriculture was adopted) to 2009 ACE. When the line is above zero, population is expanding (getting bigger); when it is below zero, it is contracting (getting smaller). Notice that there was a large change in human expansion after the Black Plague. Click here for larger image.

It's hard to overestimate the Black Plague's hand in creating our modern Western world. For good or bad, we owe our ability to grow near limitless amounts of food, fight infectious diseases, and fix broken bodies to a devastating infectious disease that ravaged Asia, Europe, and the Middle East between 1347 and 1350. During this second major outbreak of plague (known as the Black Plague), not only did half the population of Europe die, but the faith peasants had in the clergy and medieval doctors to prevent disease was irreparably damaged. This lead to the Age of Enlightenment, which produced two critical features of the modern era: The printing press and modern science. It also restructured Western society, killing the old order and allowing peasants to break free of their lowly station in life. (4)

It is at this point that the Neolothic really started to shine. Armed with science and communicating through cheap books, the West achieved its greatest triumphs: Conquering lethal infectious diseases, preventing infant and maternal mortality, growing food at will, and fixing the broken body.

Of course, life would have to get worse before it got better. As the West triumphantly controlled lethal infectious diseases and learned how to feed the world, it started industrially processing food. This processing was used to make food cheap and shelfable, but its application of high temperatures, incredible pressures, and caustic chemicals also altered food in ways that brought the Diseases of Civilization to the masses.

The 6 Principles of Optimal Health
If all of this talk of disease makes living a healthy life impossible to imagine, then just keep on reading. After two years of constant detective work I have identified six core principles of optimal health. These principles combine the wisdom and chance discoveries offered by traditional and Western populations that build healthy, strong, long-living, and disease-free humans with relatively little effort and cost. While many seem obvious, my definitions of these principles are very different from those offered by conventional wisdom.

I will cover each of the six principles individually and in great detail in this series. The first (and most obvious-sounding) principle is this:  Eat more nutritious food!  This seems like a no brainer, but I have uncovered a very different idea of what nutritious is.

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