In my first post I suggested three broad categories that we can put dietary information into to help us sort out the good, the bad and the useful. In this post I am going to begin to explore the first category, or what I call “Universal Dietary Principles”. These are principles that apply regardless of what specific foods we may be emphasizing or avoiding in our diets. They are simple, broad concepts that apply to all of us because they meet universal human biological needs. Because of this they have a powerful ability to improve our health if we apply them in our lives.
The first, and probably most important principle is to eat primarily fresh, whole, unprocessed foods. We all know the term “whole foods” and that it is probably a good idea to eat them, but what are they exactly, and why should we be choosing them instead of all that yummy other stuff?
Foods are complex and the ways that our bodies interact with them to create health are complex. I often marvel at the fact that any given food, a carrot, a piece of broccoli or a grain of brown rice has hundreds, if not well over a thousand individual chemical compounds in it. I’m not talking about chemical additives or pesticides here (although they are often present) but the naturally occurring chemical constituents of the plant or animal that are present in the food when it shows up on our plate. When we combine a number of foods and spices into a meal we are talking about thousands of chemical compounds that we are taking in at a single time!
Now at this point in time, scientists have identified only about 50 specific chemical compounds that we get from foods that are considered to be essential for life. These include some of the building blocks of protein (amino acids), vitamins, some minerals, essential fatty acids and a few other things. The truth is, however, that if you were to live on foods that only contained those 50 or so ingredients your health would decline over time suggesting that we actually need more than that to maintain optimal health. Sadly, most Americans who are eating a “standard American diet” are not even getting the minimum requirements of some of these 50 or so recognized nutrients.
There are, however, many other “non-essential” compounds within foods that have important recognized health benefits. While a mouse in a laboratory may not show signs of illness in the short run if you withhold one of these constituents, when our diets are deficient in a whole range of these constituents over time, our health clearly suffers. This is more than evident if you look at the relationship between the way we eat as a nation and the soaring rates of chronic illnesses from which we suffer.
Not only do unprocessed foods usually contain significantly higher levels of known essential nutrients than processed foods, but they also contain hundreds of health promoting compounds that are currently not considered essential and that are largely missing from processed foods. Many of these compounds have recognized health benefits such as anticancer properties (lycopene from tomatoes, EGCG from green tea and the fiber in fruits and vegetables to name a few), protection from Alzheimer’s disease (curcumin from the herb turmeric, medium chain triglycerides from coconut), help balance hormones (DIM from broccoli and cabbage) or eliminate toxins such as pesticides (limonene from citrus, dill and caraway seeds). And, while nutritional supplements are certainly useful at times, there is no way to replace all the beneficial ingredients in whole, unrefined foods with supplements, partly because we have yet to discover all of the health promoting compounds that foods undoubtedly contain!
There are many ways in which foods are processed and virtually all of them reduce the amount of health supporting nutrients. For example, turning whole grains into “white flour” removes vitamins, oils and fiber and makes the remaining oils more vulnerable to rancidity which makes them harmful to health. Processing food usually exposes the constituents of food to heat, light, oxygen and sometimes pressure, all of which can damage or destroy healthful nutrients. Furthermore, processing foods is often done to make them more “stable” on the shelves of warehouses and supermarkets. Foods sitting on shelves are losing more and more nutrients over time.
A few other points to consider. All government recommendations regarding nutrients in foods are based on avoiding specific deficiency diseases such as scurvy and beriberi, not on promoting optimal health. In fact, governmental dietary recommendations are not even aimed at reducing the risk of the most prevalent diseases of our society: cancer and heart disease. Secondly, all societies from around the world that have enjoyed unusual longevity and extremely low rates of chronic disease have eaten diets of whole, unprocessed foods. Lastly, when people from other cultures who eat more traditional, whole food diets and have lower disease rates immigrate to the US and take on our diet and lifestyle, their disease rates virtually always increase to match ours. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
So, if you are seeking a high level of health or seeking to restore your health from chronic disease , you can see why it’s critical to eat whole, unprocessed foods. Our bodies need hundreds of important constituents in foods, not just a few.
I like to tell my patients to “eat more foods that look like something nature made”. You know without blinking that a seed, a nut or a leaf of lettuce were made by nature. If you grind that seed into a flour or powder it no longer looks like something nature made. Similarly a grain of white rice looks less like something nature made than a grain of whole grain brown rice. Try to opt for whole grains over products made from flours, whole, raw nuts and seeds over roasted and salted ones, fresh fruits and vegetables over canned or frozen and fresh meats over packaged and preserved.
Do Cheetos or Mountain Dew look anything at all like something nature made? They look more like something found at a chemical spill! (Sorry if you like Cheetos and Mountain Dew). I’m sure you get the idea.
To continue: Universal Diet Principle No. 2
I am a type 2 diabetic with hypothyroidism, so far, figuring my best diet has been an ongoing project for about 10 years now. Currently, I am vegan and chose that diet based on a calories in versus calories out approach towards weight loss. I’m currently in the process of figuring out if I can take a paleo approach towards a vegan diet. I don’t know more than a vague understanding of a paleo diet. The hypothyroid makes weight loss a real test in patience as I’m in the gym 6 out of 7 days a week, 45 minutes of cardio daily and weight bearing exercise every other day. My problem is weightloss. I’m open to suggestions of how to better my program because I grow tired of jumping through the medical hoops that seem to produce little or no results.
Hi Jon, I’ll address the hypothyroidism first. If you are on thyroid medication and still feeling sluggish or having other signs of hypothyroidism, then in my opinion, your condition is not being properly managed. I would recommend finding a naturopathic doctor to work with near where you live. Naturopathic doctors take a much more nuanced and individualized approach to thyroid disorders and should be able to help you optimize your thyroid levels. This will help you lose weight, as well as probably help you feel a lot better. With regards to your diabetes, I think it is critical (and quite possible) to normalize your blood sugar levels. You will know you are eating the right diet for you when your average blood sugar is about 100 (a hemoglobin A1c of about 5.0). I just wrote a blog about blood sugar that you might enjoy reading called “Your Average Blood Sugar: Why it Really Matters”. A naturopathic doctor can help you with this as well.
Hello Jon – there are hundreds of Paleo blogs online, but there are two blogs specifically that I would recommend you read that promote a Paleo diet/lifestyle but all in the quest to overcome impaired health or disease. The first is by a medical doctor – Dr. Peter Attia who authored the blog The Eating Academy: eatingacademy.com . Like you, despite working out 4 to 5 hours a day as an endurance athlete and eating what he thought was a healthy diet based on the current food pyramid – focusing on complex carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables and low fat foods – he was gaining weight and developing markers for metabolic syndrome – elevated blood sugar, triglycerides, etc. This blog details his quest to change his health through diet modifications alone because he was already exercising more than most. He ultimately shifted to a low carb/ high fat diet and the results he achieved were amazing and dramatic. So much so that he joined with Gary Taubes (author of Why We Get Fat) to start NuSi a non-profit foundation that will do clinical trials and properly controlled research (without the conflicts/biases of the pharmaceutical industry) to determine the causes of obesity and its related diseases. The second blog was started by a couple – both scientists – who developed chronic health problems in middle-age and began experimenting with low carb Paleo diets to improve their health. Their blog (and resulting book) are the Perfect Health Diet – perfecthealthdiet.com . Another blog/book to consider is Wheat Belly (wheatbellyblog.com) by Cardiologist Dr. William Davis who like you was diabetic, jogged everyday and had upped his intake of healthy whole grains (just like the American Diabetic Association recommends) but found himself gaining more weight and getting sicker every day. He found that grains (especially wheat) actually raise blood sugar and insulin more than table sugar (sucrose). By eliminating grains from his diet and that of most of his heart patients, he not only cured their diabetes, but eliminated many other health conditions they had, reduced their weight and got them off of statins and blood pressure medications. I agree with Dr. Sandro that you should seek out the advice of a naturopathic doctor as most medical doctors would prefer to put you on more medications than determine the cause of your symptoms and have little understanding of the nutritional implications of specific diets beyond what the USDA and ADA recommend. Based on what I have learned from reading these blogs and books is that a calories in /calories out approach to weight loss does not work because different foods impact your blood sugar and insulin differently. And high blood insulin causes fat accumulation. For instance, Dr. Attia found he could eat twice the number of calories than he did when he was overweight eating a high carb diet (200 lbs. and exercising 4 hours a day) and achieved the greatest success eating a low carb, ketogenic diet (50 grams of carbs, 120 grams of protein , 425 grams of fat per day) – totaling 4,360 calories – 50% more calories than when he was fat. His weight dropped from 200 to 170, his waist from 36 inches to 32 and he reversed his metabolic syndrome. And he only had to exercise 2 hours a day to maintain his endurance on this diet (he is a cyclist). The other myth that has been debunked as of late is that saturated fat is bad for you. If you became a vegan simply to avoid saturated fat and the problems it supposedly causes – heart disease, weight gain, cancer – you are in luck, because it has now been proven that saturated fat does not make you fat, does not raise your cholesterol or triglycerides and does not cause arteriosclerosis or heart disease. (Trans fats are still bad for you.) The new enemy is sugar (and processed carbohydrates like white flour, corn starch, soy products and processed Omega 6 oils ) which research is now showing cause inflammation, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight gain, Alzheimer’s etc.,. So if you do not have a moral or spiritual commitment to Veganism you should give it up (these blogs also debunk The China Study research because it was cherry-picked) because organic eggs, grass fed meat, pastured butter and cheese all taste better than tofu and veggie burgers! Good luck and I hope you find the right diet that brings you both health and vitality.
Clean eating diet
The fresh fruit and vegetables are definitely better than the apples in pies and
cakes. Try and vary the types of fruits and vegetables you eat and make sure
they make an appearance on your plate daily. It is a
good idea to not force your child to eat everything that
they do not like, but to at least try everything.
Listen, I have been doing research in this for 30 years. A low carb high fat diet never worked for me. I get some lean protein a few times a wee. I add beans and non GMO tofu to my salads. I have tried “The Perfect Heal Diet” by Paul Jaminet. I am not about losing weight but about being healthy. We need to incorporate the aspects of Paleo with Vegan. Does that make sense?? Yes. Eat your grass fed meat with lot’s of veggies. Don’t do it daily. Incorporate non GMO sources of protein and lots of fruits and veggies. Does that make sense?