Q: What Should I Eat?
The mother of all FAQ’s…
Human beings are omnivores with the ability to eat a wide variety of plants and animals. For nearly 2 million years, our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate a whole foods diet of animals and plants, in various ratios and combinations, depending on season and geographical location. Therefore, our bodies are probably well-adapted to a whole foods diet. A whole foods diet consists of some combination of meat, poultry, and/or seafood, and whole fruits and vegetables (see Paleolithic Diets). All available scientific evidence strongly supports the notion that a whole foods diet is the healthiest dietary pattern on the planet.
Then, about 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, depending on location, most of our ancestors adopted the practice of agriculture, adding dairy products, grains, and legumes (beans) to their diets. In evolutionary terms, this is not very long, so many of us have probably not adapted completely to these “newer” foods. This is probably why dairy and grain intolerance are so common. These foods are more difficult for us to digest and can even aggravate our immune systems. Anthropological evidence tells us that our ancestors were healthier before agriculture than after agriculture. Therefore, avoiding these foods (i.e. Paleolithic Diet) or minimizing these foods, or using traditional processing methods to improve their digestibility and nutritional quality (i.e. traditional diet), may be wise.
Sometime during the late 1800’s, about 150 years ago, refined carbohydrates entered the scene. Foods like white sugar and refined flours became widely available for the first time. There are many researchers and food writers who believe that the addition of significant amounts of refined carbohydrates is largely to blame for most “diseases of civilization”—such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. There is plenty of evidence now to support this belief. There is a growing consensus that these foods should be avoided as much as possible to minimize disease risk.
About 70 years ago food production became industrialized, adding artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives to our food supply. Industrialization also led to the super-processing of whole foods into unnatural extracts and chemically-altered ingredients. We do not yet fully understand what the effect of these chemicals has been on our health, but common sense tells us that it would be wise to avoid these as much as possible, even if they are “natural” in origin.
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Q: Won’t meat, fat and cholesterol clog my arteries?
A: No. Cardiologists are discovering that refined carbohydrates, such as sugar and flour, are the most important dietary risk factors in coronary artery disease.
Numerous studies by cardiology researchers have finally disproved the myths that dietary fat, meat, and cholesterol cause heart disease. In fact, some of the healthiest diets in human history have been very high in meat and animal fat. We have been eating animal meats, animal fat, and cholesterol for two million years, but heart disease has only been a major problem for us for about 50 years. So what is the real culprit?
Cardiologists are discovering that “high glycemic index” carbohydrates (sweet and starchy foods that cause blood sugar to rise rapidly) are, by far, the most important dietary risk factors in coronary artery disease. The steady rise in the incidence of heart disease around the world over the past century closely parallels the rise in refined carbohydrates (sugars and flours) in the human diet. Diets high in refined carbohydrates, such as sugar and flour, raise “bad cholesterol”, lower “good cholesterol”, and raise triglycerides (fats in the blood), all of which are associated with heart attacks. In addition, refined carbohydrates set the stage in the blood vessels for inflammation, which allows dangerous artery-clogging plaques to form in the first place. A helpful way to think about it is to picture smooth, slippery, healthy, innocent cholesterol particles becoming “sticky” when sugars and starches are around. Cholesterol can only cause trouble and form plaques when it’s been corrupted by sugars. Sugars turn good cholesterol into bad cholesterol. So, to protect your heart, avoid sugar, flour, and other refined carbohydrates as much as you possibly can.
Q: Don’t I need fiber to prevent constipation, colon cancer, and other digestive diseases?
A: No. There is no evidence that fiber protects us from colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, intestinal polyps, chronic constipation, or hemorrhoids.
Despite hundreds and hundreds of studies looking at the role of fiber in digestive diseases, there is no convincing evidence that fiber protects people from intestinal polyps, colon cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic constipation, or hemorrhoids. In fact, there is no evidence that fiber is required in the human diet in the first place. Many cultures throughout human history have eaten very low-fiber diets and not suffered from these relatively modern gastrointestinal conditions. Eskimos of the past, for example, ate a diet almost completely free of fruits, vegetables, and grains, and historical writings tell us that they were virtually free of all cancers. The rise in the prevalence of all of these conditions parallels the arrival of modern and processed foods, such as refined carbohydrate, in the human diet.
In the late 1800’s, there were two major advances that significantly changed what modern people ate: 1) sugar became much more plentiful and affordable than ever before, and 2) modern milling equipment was invented that made it possible to remove the fiber and natural oils from grain and grind it into highly refined flour. Decades ago, doctors noticed that when people started eating more processed sugary and floury foods, their risk for digestive diseases increased dramatically. Some of these doctors then jumped to the conclusion that the reason why the so-called “Western” diet was constipating and irritating to the digestive tract was because the Western diet contained less fiber than traditional diets. The problem with that idea was that adding the fiber back in to the diet didn’t get rid of these Western diseases, so their theory turned out to be wrong.
When grains are refined by modern milling equipment, their fiber coats and natural oils are removed and their inner contents are ground into an ultra-fine powder. This powder consists mainly of two types of carbohydrates–rapidly digestible starch, which breaks down easily into glucose (blood sugar), and resistant starch, which we cannot digest. Bacteria in the colon can digest resistant starch by fermenting it, which creates gases as a by-product. These starches can therefore cause bloating, cramping, and constipation in some people. Grain flours also contain plant proteins, the most infamous of which is gluten, a family of plant proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale. Gluten is not only very difficult to digest; it can also damage the lining of the intestinal tract, causing gastrointestinal disease in susceptible individuals. The flour milling process removes the protective fiber-rich coating around these starches and proteins, so we are much more exposed to them than if we eat the grains whole.
Now, some people do find that eating bran cereal or fruits and vegetables helps relieve the constipation that an unhealthy diet can cause, but this doesn’t solve the underlying problem, so it is unlikely to protect you from developing intestinal diseases. Adding fiber to a high-sugar, high-flour diet can’t save your body from the damage that the flour and sugar can cause; only removing the flour and sugar can do that.
Q: Don’t I need to eat dairy products to keep my bones strong and healthy?
A: No. Studies have shown that eating dairy products does not strengthen our bones.
We think of dairy products as good sources of calcium, and we are told that calcium is the key to strong and healthy bones. However, studies have not been able to show that eating dairy products or taking calcium supplements strengthens the bones of children and teens, or protects post-menopausal women from osteoporosis. Instead, the most important factors in building and maintaining healthy bones seem to be Vitamin D and dietary protein.
For most of human history, people did not drink the milk of other animals, and yet they had very healthy bones and teeth (much healthier than ours). Evidence of osteoporosis didn’t appear in human history until people turned away from hunter-gatherer lifestyles and began farming, and domesticating livestock, about 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. This agricultural revolution fundamentally changed the nature of our daily diet; grains, legumes, and dairy products became staple foods for many people for the very first time. Why did osteoporosis appear once agriculture was born? One reason may be that grains (as well as beans, nuts and seeds) contain a naturally-occurring chemical called “phytic acid”, which acts like a mineral magnet, and removes calcium from our bodies. People eating a typical Western diet absorb only about 40% of the calcium they consume. If you stop eating foods rich in phytic acid, your body should be able to hold onto more of the calcium that naturally exists in other foods.
Q: Aren’t whole grains good for me?
A: No. There is no evidence that whole grains are good for us; in fact, there are good reasons to believe that eating grains puts our health at risk.
There is no evidence that humans require grains in their diet at all. There are hundreds and hundreds of studies looking at the benefits of eating whole grains, but the problem is that these studies compare diets rich in whole grains to diets rich in refined grains and sugars. These studies do show that whole grains are healthier for us than refined grains (flour), but they do not prove that whole grains are healthy. In order to prove that, you’d have to compare a diet that contains grains to a diet that contains no grains. Pretty much any food is healthier for us than refined carbohydrates, so proving that whole grains beat refined carbohydrates is…well…a piece of cake. When you think about it, it doesn’t make sense to say that whole grains are essential but that powdered grains are dangerous…how can the same food be both incredibly good and incredibly evil?
What makes more sense is to think of it like this: the more refined a grain is, the worse it is for you. The reason for this is probably that pulverizing the grains into flour releases more of the carbohydrates and other potentially damaging contents from inside the kernel. If we eat grains whole, the tough outer coating, or hull, of the grain keeps more of these pesky particles inside the grain. If we remove the hull by “polishing” the grain (white rice is a good example), there is nothing left to protect our bodies from being exposed to everything inside. What is inside? Special plant proteins like gluten, which are potentially damaging to the intestinal tract, digestible starches (which break down into glucose and raise blood sugar), and resistant starches, which are very difficult to digest.
Q: Don’t I need to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to reduce my risk of cancer?
A: No. There are good examples of cultures around the world that ate very few fruits and vegetables and had extremely low rates of cancer.
Fruits and vegetables are probably much better for you than junk food (what isn’t?), but there have been no studies that prove that eating vegetables or fruits is necessary for human life or health, and no studies that prove that they can protect us from disease. Vegetables even contain naturally-occurring defensive toxins, to which some people are sensitive.
There have been numerous peoples throughout history who have eaten very few fruits and vegetables and have had very low rates of cancer. The Eskimos are the most striking example of this fact. For centuries, Eskimos lived on a diet of 90 to 100% animal foods—only meat and fat—no fruits or vegetables at all for the majority of the year, and, at most, about 10% fruits during the summer months. Early physician explorers noted that Eskimos seemed to be virtually cancer-free. Were the Eskimos somehow different from the rest of us? Did they have a different genetic makeup that allowed them to be healthy without colorful, high-fiber plant foods?
No—every non-agricultural society that has ever been studied, from primarily hunting cultures, like the Masai of Kenya or the Gauchos of Brazil, to the numerous traditional hunter-gatherer cultures around the world who ate meat and a small variety of locally, seasonally available wild plants, has been shown to be much healthier than we are. These native peoples had very low rates of cancer and virtually none of the “Western” diseases we take for granted, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity. This is changing now, of course, since nearly all civilizations around the world are leaving their traditional diets behind and adopting a more Westernized diet, complete with refined carbohydrates and chemicals. However, studies have shown that when these people return to their traditional ways of eating, they can quickly undo the damage that the Western diet has caused. The difference between these traditional diets and our diet is NOT that traditional diets contain more fruits and vegetables, because in many cases, they contain fewer of them than our diet does. It is far more likely that other factors, such as the high refined carbohydrate content of the Western diet, which triggers inflammation and oxidation throughout the body, is the most important difference.
So, why do we believe that fruits and vegetables are so good for us? There are many reasons, but one of the hottest new theories is that fruits and vegetables provide powerful antioxidants that protect our cells from internal damage that can lead to cancerous changes. However, the truth is that there are no studies that prove that plant antioxidants work as antioxidants in our non-plant bodies. After all, they were made for plants, and many of them are destroyed by digestion or transformed by the liver into completely different chemicals. Luckily, Nature, in its infinite wisdom, provided us with our own built-in antioxidants, designed especially for our animal bodies, such as cholesterol, melatonin, urea, and uric acid.
Q: Isn’t meat bad for me?
A: No. Humans and their ancestors have been eating meat for two million years; some cultures even ate a nearly 100% meat diet year-round and yet were much healthier than we are.
Fresh, unprocessed meats from animals raised on their ideal diet are very good for you. Meat is the only complete food—it contains all of the protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals we need, and is naturally extremely low in carbohydrate. During our long evolutionary history, it would have been the only food that was available just about everywhere on the planet, year-round. The best evidence available suggests that most of our Paleolithic ancestors ate high-meat diets, supplemented by locally-available wild plants. In fact, the addition of meat to our diet about 2 million years ago is thought by many experts to have been the key turning point in our evolution, allowing us to spend less time foraging, and less time chewing and digesting fibrous foods. Eating meat provided us with a more efficient way of fueling the growth of our brains. How could we have evolved so successfully for so long if the staple food we relied upon for two million years had been dangerous and carcinogenic? If meat is so carcinogenic, why was cancer so uncommon until the last century or so? We are not eating any more meat now than we did a hundred years ago, yet cancer incidence is skyrocketing.
One popular belief about how red meat might cause cancer is that it has too much saturated fat, but saturated fat has been found to be innocent when it comes to cancer. Another belief is that charred meats and wood-smoked meats contain dangerous levels of “PAHs” (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and “HCAs” (heterocyclic amines). These chemicals have been shown to cause cancer in lab animals. However, grilled and fried chicken also contain HCAs, and yet studies have shown no connection between poultry intake and cancer, and cereal products, not meats, are the major source of PAHs in the typical American diet. This doesn’t mean that PAHs and HCAs are safe to eat; it just means that grilled and smoked meats are not the most important sources of these chemicals.
The popular belief about how processed meats might cause cancer is that they contain nitrite and nitrate preservatives. . What’s interesting is that fruits and vegetables have much higher levels of nitrites than processed meats do. Spinach is so high in nitrites that pediatricians advise parents not to feed it to infants. A glass of pomegranate juice contains 100 times more nitrite than a hot dog.
Now, not all meats are created equal. Meat from naturally-raised animals is high in omega-3 fatty acids and often lower in calories than factory-farmed meats. Cows are healthiest when they eat grass, not corn and soy. Chickens are healthiest when they eat insects and grass, not corn. Fish are healthiest when they swim freely and choose their own food.
Unfortunately, most meats available come from factory farms, where animals are fed the wrong foods and given hormones and antibiotics. Many fish are now raised in fish farms and fed processed, grain-based diets. Some meats and fish then go through extensive processing, which may involve the addition of numerous artificial chemicals and “natural” additives, such as soy protein, or whey protein, sugar, and salt. These types of meats are probably not as healthy for us as naturally-raised meats, but one can say this about any whole food–once it’s been sufficiently processed, it is not as healthy as in its natural state. In a perfect world, we would all have access to unprocessed meat from naturally-raised animal sources.
Q: Don’t I need to eat carbohydrate to fuel my brain?
A: No. Your brain is capable of using a variety of other fuels, and even when it prefers to use glucose (blood sugar), your body can manufacture all the glucose it needs from dietary protein.
Your brain is capable of using a variety of fuels, and only one of them isglucose, which is a simple sugar found in the bloodstream. Even at times when your brain prefers to burn glucose for energy, you do not need to eat any carbohydrate to make that glucose. Your body can manufacture all the glucose it needs from fat and protein. In fact, eating carbohydrate is completely unnecessary for human life and health. The only exception to this is during infancy; babies drink breast milk, which contains naturally occurring sugars. Once weaned from breast milk, a human being can live an entire lifetime without eating a single carbohydrate. This is not true of protein or fat. Human beings must have access to both protein and fat throughout their lives in order to be healthy.
The brain is made almost entirely of fat (57%) and protein (38%), and contains very little carbohydrate (5%). Our modern brains grew up in a low glycemic index environment. For 2 million years of our evolution, we ate much less carbohydrate than we do now, and no refined or processed carbohydrates, and therefore, our systems are simply not designed to handle the big swings in blood sugar levels caused by the Western diet, which is very high in carbohydrates of all kinds. The brain needs blood sugar and insulin levels to be nice and even in order to keep brain chemistry stable. Refined carbohydrates (such as sugar and flour) are especially disturbing to the natural balance of chemicals in the brain. For example, unstable blood sugar levels interfere with the proper function of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that are critical to maintaining our mood and concentration. The reason why so many people feel as if they need to eat carbohydrate every few hours in order to feel calm, happy, and productive is because they are on this invisible blood sugar roller coaster.