Recently, The MALESTROM asked me to discuss my approach to nutrition and healthy eating. In the simplest of terms, my approach combines ancestral wisdom with modern nutritional science. I’ll explain what this means, but first it might be instructive to highlight how I arrived upon this understanding of nutrition.
I grew up in the 1980s, an era I refer to as the “Dark Ages” of nutrition. During those years, the food industry, the US government, and various health-oriented institutions began heavily pushing the idea that saturated fat and cholesterol were the driving forces behind heart disease and many other health problems.
Most kids – then and now – don’t worry about heart disease, but because my grandmother was battling the disease at the time, it captured my attention. I tried to avoid fat whenever possible, not realising that the low-fat cookies and other snack foods I was eating were typically very high in sugar.
I fully bought into the dogma regarding fat. Years later, in my early 20s, I fell for another dogma-fueled, nutritional myth – the idea that animal foods, particularly red meat, are unhealthy. After about 5 years on a vegetarian (and at times vegan) diet, I noticed my energy levels declining. I was tired more than I should have been. I may have had chronic fatigue, but I never bothered to seek a diagnosis.
Instead, I wiped the slate clean, putting aside everything I thought I knew about nutrition. I decided to approach the subject anew, with no preconceptions and with a completely open mind. This learning process, which took many years, finally culminated in the publication of my book, Nutritional Grail. So this leads us back to original question: what is my approach?
Ancestral wisdom, as mentioned above, refers to ancient knowledge about food, which has been passed down from one generation to the next. Broadly speaking, we can separate this wisdom into two epochs: the Paleolithic and the Neolithic. The former refers to the earliest humans and proto-humans, starting from about 2 million years ago and going all the way to about 12,000 years ago. These people were hunter-gatherers. To survive, they ate whatever they could catch or find, but certain foods were prized above others. For example, Paleolithic people treasure organ meats, which are the most nutritionally dense of all foods.
The Neolithic marked the advent of agriculture, and with it, new foods, including dairy, cereals, and legumes. Advocates of the contemporary Paleo diet shun these Neolithic foods, based on the notion that we don’t digest them properly because we didn’t consume them during most of our evolution. While there is truth to this notion, it doesn’t tell the whole story. During the early Neolithic, human health declined, but eventually, we discovered processing techniques, which enabled us to better digest and assimilate these new, Neolithic foods, thereby leading to improved health. These processing techniques included soaking, sprouting, and (especially) fermenting.
When I say “ancestral wisdom,” therefore, I’m referring to the collective knowledge gathered by all our ancestors, from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic, and beyond – the knowledge of what to eat, when to eat it (eating according to the seasons, for example), and how to prepare it (food processing techniques to optimize nutrition).
During the past century, we have abandoned so much of this ancestral wisdom, usually in favor of new, industrially produced foods. We need to reclaim and revive our ancestral wisdom; it can and should form the foundation of all contemporary, healthy diets.
The second part of my approach, as mentioned above, is modern nutritional science. Just because we’re emulating our ancestors, doesn’t mean we’re living in the past. We should embrace modern science and technology, but only to the degree that it serves us, from a health perspective. Nutritional science can be confusing, but it needn’t be. One of the biggest problems is that population studies (epidemiological studies) inspire dramatic, typically unjustified, headlines. A population study can show correlation (people who eat red meat, for example, have a higher risk of heart disease), but not causation. To even begin speaking about causation, we need randomised controlled studies, the so-called “gold standard” of nutritional science.
The bottom line is that nutritional science is important and extremely relevant. It has been instrumental to our understanding of many contemporary nutrition topics, including fructose metabolism, insulin resistance, gluten intolerance, leaky gut, the omega-6/omega-3 ratio, microbiome health, and many others. In general, we can say that nutritional science usually serves to reinforce and refine ancestral wisdom.
Putting it all together
So what are the practical implications of this approach? In other words, which foods should we favour and which should we avoid? All calories come from one of three sources: carbohydrates, fat, and protein. During the past century, we were told that fat should be absolutely minimised. Consequently, this led to diets that were much higher in carbohydrates. Most people, however, do better with proportionally more fat and less carbs (with protein accounting for around 20 to 30% of calories).
We need to embrace good sources of fat, which include all animal sources of fat, coconut oil, avocado, olive oil, and whole seeds/nuts. Simultaneously, we need to eliminate all bad sources of fat, particularly seed oils (canola, sunflower, safflower, corn, soy, grape seed, etc.)
Practically speaking, this can be attained through a diet that embraces animal foods, including beef, lamb, chicken, fish, and organ meat. Equally important are vegetables of all varieties. The next most important categories would be fruit, nuts, and seeds. Taken together, what I have just described is the contemporary Paleo diet. It’s an excellent template and an ideal starting point, but what about dairy, cereals, and legumes?
There is space for these non-Paleo foods in a healthy diet, but they need to be prepared properly. For example, dairy is much better when it’s fermented. This means yogurt and kefir, instead of milk. Non-gluten grains are best (quinoa and buckwheat, for example), but they should be soaked before cooking. The primary foods to eliminate/avoid are sugar and the above-mentioned seed oils. Additionally, we should avoid all heavily processed foods and foods with artificial ingredients.