The following 3 basic principles are in my opinion an essential foundation of any healthy diet. They make the most important aspects of healthy eating easy to understand, and their simplicity resolves much of the confusion caused by conflicting information. Whether you’ve been struggling with your diet for a long time or have just recently decided to make some changes, these principles of healthy eating will provide you with a health based perspective on nutrition that will help guide you towards a higher level of wellness.
1. Eat Food, not Nutrients
“The whole is more than the sum of its parts” is a phrase commonly used to signify the added value that can only result from the cooperative interaction of individual parts. This concept is generally referred to as synergy. It has powerful implications in modern medicine, and in regard to nutrition, implies that whole foods offer greater nutritional value than processed foods.
Despite the myriad of health claims found on the packaging of processed foods, whether it be for vitamins, antioxidants, essential fatty acids, or whatever else, the bottom line is that these foods are nothing more than a sum of isolated nutrients, some of which don’t exist in nature and are potentially harmful. In fact, prior to a change in legislation in the 1970s, such products were required by the FDA to be labeled as food immitations. Not only do these manufactured foods lack the synergy of whole foods, they create an entirely new synergy that is clearly not serving us well.
Infant formula is an excellent example of this concept. Early use of formula was catastrophic with death being a frequent outcome, and even though we now have a much better understanding of essential nutrients, concerns over infant formulas still exist. Fruits and vegetables are another great example. There’s a lot of evidence supporting their role in the prevention of many diseases, and this protection is often attributed to antioxidant content. However, most research on antioxidant supplementation has produced disappointing results. The difference is most likely a result of the synergy between the thousands of phytochemicals that exist in whole fruits and vegetables.Processed foods and supplements are much less likely to have this health promoting synergy.
In the book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan describes a philosophy called nutritionism which is the current standard of thinking and focuses on individual nutrients more so than the foods that they constitute. For the most part, this narrow perspective makes it difficult to appreciate the value of synergy and has the effect of making processed foods seem a lot more healthful than they really are. For example, a list of vitamins fortified into a breakfast cereal may make it easier to misjudge the overall quality of the product. We clearly haven’t reached the level of scientific understanding needed to effectively reinvent foods, and we may never, but food manufacturers are doing it anyway. The artificial food that they create now constitutes the majority of our diet.
In short, eating whole foods in place of processed foods as often as possible is probably the most effective thing you can do to avoid the health risks associated with the modern diet. A few characteristics of whole foods that make them easier to identify are that they spoil relatively quickly, come directly from an animal, tree, or plant, and are generally not sold in packaging.
2. Emphasize Quality
There’s a lot of truth to the saying that you are what you eat. This is because many of the compounds from the food you ingest literally become part of your body tissues. Since this is the case for plants and animals as well, it’s also accurate to say that you are what your food eats. For the most part, the nutrients eaten by animals or absorbed by plants is what dictates their quality as food.
Beef is perhaps the most obvious example. It’s one of the most common sources of meat in the American diet, and the majority of it comes from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) which are more commonly known as factory farms. The cattle on these farms are given hormones to accelerate their growth, are fed grains instead of their natural grass diet, and are forced to live in small areas overfilled with feces. To compensate for the health concerns presented by this type of environment, the cattle are also treated with antibiotics on a regular basis. The beef from these cattle is significantly different from the beef of cattle raised on a strictly natural diet of organic grains, and even this organically produced beef is different from the beef of cattle raised on grass pastures. For example, beef from grass fed cattle has been shown to have a more favorable ratio of essential fatty acids and a lower susceptibility to lipid oxidation which is likely a result of higher vitamin E content. Another important difference is the likeliness of conventionally produced beef to contain residues of hormones and antibiotics.
Similar differences exist with plants as well. Most of the produce sold at American grocery stores is from industrial farmers who rely exclusively on synthetic fertilizer to replenish their soil. This results in a smaller subset of nutrients being made available to crops and increases the need for pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. As a result, conventionally grown produce is different than organically grown produce, and even organic produce is different than produce grown in rich soil maintained by sustainable farming methods. For example, both organically and sustainably produced corn, marionberries, and strawberries have been shown to have a greater content of vitamin C and total phenols than their conventionally grown counterparts. Phenols are natural plant substances that include a variety of antioxidants and are thought to contribute to the health benefits associated with fruits and vegetables. In addition, although the concentrations of chemical residues found in conventional produce are usually small, they’re still there, and it doesn’t make much sense to expose yourself to them if you don’t have to.
Choosing organic meat and produce is generally better than choosing their conventional counterparts, and getting meat and produce directly from a sustainable and pasture based farm is even better. However, if neither of these options are possible, choosing conventionally produced whole food over any type of processed food, including organic, can still greatly improve the nutritional quality of your diet.
3. Be Inspired
You may feel disappointed by the simplicity and perhaps obviousness of the previous two principles. I don’t disagree that they can be regarded as a matter of common sense, but given that the majority of the American population is overweight and that the prevalence of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other diet related health concerns is alarmingly high, it appears that most people have trouble putting this common sense into practice.
Just because something is easy to understand doesn’t mean it’s easy to do, and this is certainly the case with healthy eating. Processed foods, which in my opinion are often the basis of an unhealthy diet, tend to taste good and provide maximum convenience. Overcoming these temptations requires a level of dedication and effort that many people simply don’t want to bother with.
Although there are ways to significantly reduce the amount of time and effort required to prepare whole food meals, this isn’t always enough to compensate for low motivation. In my opinion, staying committed to healthy eating habits, or any other type of health related habits for that matter, requires intrinsic motivation. This type of motivation, which I like to refer to as rage, is driven by meaningful personal values and is usually very strong as a result. Without this type of motivation, the comfort and convenience of old habits will probably be too enticing to overcome.
Basically, you need to make sure that your reasons for wanting to eat healthier are connected to one or more of your deep personal values. For example, you might want to improve your quality of life, be a role model for your children, or live long enough and well enough to enjoy the experience of watching your grandchildren grow into adults. In contrast, simply wanting to eat healthier to lose weight and look better probably won’t provide a strong enough sense of urgency.
Time Tested Simplicity
The primary value of the three principles of healthy eating summarized above is that they address the most important principles of healthy eating and do so in the simplest way possible. While I encourage everyone to look beyond them, doing so is not required. These principles can have a significant impact on one’s wellness without any further consideration. Either way, it’s important to not let them be diluted by overemphasizing other less significant aspects of nutrition.
A very long history of natural selection is very likely to have been the most significant determinant of what types of diets humans can thrive on. For this reason, some scientists have embraced the concept of paleolithic nutrition which is based on reproducing the diet of our preagricultural ancestors as closely as possible. Our departure from this type of diet is believed to have played a significant role in the high prevalence of modern disease. Although there are obviously some limitations to this approach, it’s a simple and effective way to establish an emphasis on whole foods. In fact, research is beginning to show health improvements in people who follow it. A much more extensive explanation of paleolithic nutrition can be found in The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain as well as its accompanying cookbook.
For those who are skeptical of an evolution based approach to nutrition, the much more recent observation of isolated indigenous cultures within the past century provides even stronger evidence for the superiority of whole foods. Some of the most convincing evidence, which is thoroughly documented in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, comes from Weston Price’s observations of isolated cultures transitioning from their traditional whole food diets to processed foods. Time after time, Price witnessed a dramatic decline in their health. Similar investigations have been carried out by a number of other researchers. The strikingly consistent observation made by most of them is that modern diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity were practically non existent in these populations prior to the introduction of processed foods.
Our ancestors had no choice but to follow the “big 3″ basic principles. Whole foods were the only type of food available, their quality was dictated by nature, and since death was the only alternative to whole foods, there was plenty of motivation to eat them. This once necessary and unquestioned way of life has now been reduced to a choice; one that most people pass up for the convenience of processed food. It’s not as if we have to hunt and gather our food as our ancestors did, we just have to prepare it and perhaps be willing to spend a little more money for it. Considering the possible implications to health and quality of life, it’s a relatively minimal commitment.