When you spend as much time as I do poking around medical journals, healthcare articles, and all the latest research on nutrition, you come to understand that this so-called “science,” is just about anything but.
Now don’t get me wrong — I place an extremely high value on scientific study; In fact, I believe there are very few subjects as worthwhile of our time and thorough understanding as science.
The difficulty when it comes to science, however, is that the more you know, the more you really become aware of how much there is that you don’t know, and that no-body really knows.
Nutrition is a perfect example of this.
For every 100 research studies published on the harmful effects of drinking coffee or kombucha, there are 100 that have concluded the opposite. For every nutritionist that swears by the benefits of x, y, and z, there will be another who advocates for a different practice, a different procedure, or an altogether different size plate.
At any rate, it can be incredibly hard to discern what’s left from right and what’s right from wrong. We are, for the most part, left to figure out what’s best for ourselves, by ourselves.
So, somewhere between eating intuitively and intermittently, either two times per day or five, it can be helpful to recognize that there are a few core ideas that form the basis of all nutritional science.
These are the philosophies that appear time and time again throughout the research, substantiated not only by just about every medical publication and healthcare professional in existence, but also the experience of self-proclaimed “very healthy people” all over the world.
These are 7 words for 3 different guidelines that comprise the foundation for everything we know to be 100% true in the field of nutrition.
These are the simple premises that are most helpful to hold onto in a world of the far too complicated, controversial, and nutrionally complex:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” — Michael Pollan
I know what you’re thinking. Eat food has got to be the stupidest piece of nutritional advice on the planet. But hear me out.
What exactly is it that you’re defining as food?
If you’re vegan, then animals and animal products definitely aren’t making the cut. If you’re paleo, then you likely don’t count anything that wasn’t around for our ancestors to devour. And, if you’re accustomed to a life of fast food and processed meats, then unsurprisingly a fridge full of broccoli stalks and curly kale might appear to be the least edible items on the planet.
Food for rabbits, perhaps, but humans? Not in a million years, bud.
The point here is that what we consider to be “food” can be highly subjective, and in order to level up our nutrition and start taking responsibility for our health, we need to start viewing it as objective.
When we examine the research on the the Standard American Diet — quite fittingly referred to as S.A.D — we begin to develop an understanding of just how grossly misinformed our national conceptualization of what constitutes a “real food” may be.
I mean, 9 out of 10 of the top causes of death and disability in this country are preventable, direct consequences of our eating habits, and that’s a true fact (1, 2).
Consider that the average American diet centers around carbonated sodas, refined white carbohydrates, and highly carcinogenic cuts of cured meat.
Understand that 3 out of 4 Americans are currently not managing to eat a single serving of fruit per day, with a whopping 90% failing to meet the minimum daily requirement for green vegetable intake (3).
Begin to recognize that our relationship with “food” is — for lack of a better word — completely and utterly out-of-whack.
Shockingly, a recent investigation documented that only a mere 2.7% of Americans lead what can be considered a ‘healthy lifestyle,’ based on measures of health that combine participation in regular exercise with healthy eating habits (4). Safe to say, we have got this food thing very wrong and we are in dire need of a redefinition.
The solution? Eat FOOD.
Eat real, grows-out-of-the-ground food.
Eat foods that you can peel and pare and not the ones that come wrapped in plastic packaging. Eat foods without additives and artificial preservatives, and aim for anything with an ingredients list that doesn’t read like the inside of a chemistry textbook.
Focus on what your definition of food means for your definition of health, and work, first and foremost, on getting those two things to align.
Not Too Much
This is one idea in particular where the science always holds true. No matter how healthy the food on your plate might be, eating too much of it on a regular basis is going to lead to some negative consequences.
When you eat food, hormones such as cholecystokinin, leptin, and peptide YY are responsible for detecting the presence of calories, and signalling a feeling of “fullness” to your brain.
In a perfect world, this would be the end-all-be-all of over-eating; our brains would receive the relevant signals, and our desire to consume any more food would come to an abrupt halt (until further notice, of course).
But, when it comes to foods that are high in sugar and fat, research has shown that our brains begin receiving signals even before we have enough time to take a first bite (5).
And, unlike the signals that tell us when we’re full and should stop eating, these ones — namely dopamine neurotransmitters — have to do with anticipation and pleasure. I mean, these are the same signals involved in gambling and drug use, to give you an idea of just how powerful of a motivator they can be.
What’s more is that when most of our diet is comprised of these highly palatable yet highly processed foods, we begin to experience a desensitization to dopamine whereby our brains demand more, and more, and MORE, in order to achieve the same level of gratification as we were accustomed to getting before.
It’s actually only very recently within human history that we’ve even had access to these calorically-dense foods. Foods, for that matter, that have been purposefully engineered to provide the perfect ratio of sugar, salt, and fat that we’re evolutionarily hard-wired to crave. (See Bliss Point for more information on this).
“For most of our history the challenge for human beings was getting enough to eat to avoid starvation, but for many of us, the modern world has replaced that with a very different challenge: avoiding eating more than we need so we don’t gain weight.”
— Michael Lowe
Just 5 years ago the percentage of Americans that were overweight or clinically obese was 66%. Now, it’s over 71%, with the number of people estimated to be a normal weight as the result of living a healthy lifestyle (versus genetic predisposition) at a paltry 5% (6, 7).
So we have to talk about not only what we’re eating, but also how much we consume.
Unfortunately, there’s no article out there that can address exactly what that might look like for you and your individual lifestyle, so understand that all bodies are different and there is no one size fits all when it comes to portion control.
There’s an irrefutable amount of evidence that demonstrates a direct connection between a diet high in a variety of whole plant foods and a significantly lower rate of all major causes of death and disability.
The notion that an optimal diet is one that features a range of different fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, herbs, and spices, is about just as close as we can get to a unanimous agreement within the nutritional community.
Simply put: we know this is the best way for us to eat!
In fact, a recent research study that compared and contrasted the benefits of a primarily plant-based diet versus a conventional one, found significant improvements in weight status, energy metabolism, and inflammation in both healthy and clinically unhealthy patients (8).
In 2010, the Global Burden of Disease Study was designed to assess the various lifestyle and diet factors with the greatest success in predicting disease, in what is currently the largest conclusive analysis of this type to exist.
Over 500 researchers in 50 different countries not only found that poor nutrition was responsible for every predictive factor for disease across the board, but their analysis also revealed that not eating enough fruit — and more specifically, not eating enough berries — was the number one most accurate indicator of risk of developing diseases (9).
Additional studies have pin-pointed that a 20 gram-per-day intake of legumes provides an 8% direct overall reduction in the risk of death (10), with others finding a correlation between the daily consumption of a handful of nuts and a major decrease in the risk of multiple chronic diseases such as atherosclerosis and type-2 diabetes (11).
Consider the research that sulforaphane, a compound found within all cruciferous vegetables, is responsible for preserving our eyesight, protecting us against free radicals and hazardous products of our environment, and treating and preventing the growth of several types of cancer, and hopefully you begin to get the idea (12).
“High animal protein intake was positively associated with mortality and high plant protein intake was inversely associated with mortality. Substitution of plant protein for animal protein, especially that from processed red meat, was associated with lower mortality, suggesting the importance of protein source.”
― Mingyang Song
Plants are highly protective to us, and there’s no controversy that we ought to be consuming more of them — ideally around 30 different types per week.
By centering your current diet, whatever that may look like for you, around a varied and generous selection of the plant foods you know you enjoy, you’re already taking the single most effective step towards a long and healthy lifestyle you possibly can!
Alexandra Walker-Jones — February 2021
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