Choosing a truly healthy diet can be a monumental source of confusion. Contradictory advice from so-called experts is all over the map. Differences among diets of long-lived, healthy people around the world also add to the mystery. Here are a few ideas for how you can sort it all out.
The Top Healthy Diet
Oops…there is no such thing as a “best” choice. Why not??
Consider that at least two excellent books have summarized the diets of long-lived people. They are:
- Healthy at 100: The Scientifically Proven Secrets of the World’s Healthiest and Longest-Lived Peoples (John Robbins)
- The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People (Dan Buettner)
They describe several different diets that long-lived people consume across different cultures.
Both books point out that food is not the most important key to health and longevity among different peoples. Many other factors have a much greater impact on health. At the end of this post, I will briefly mention what some of these other main health factors are. (They will comprise several separate articles on this blog in the near future.)
Meanwhile, back to the topic of healthy eating.
Insights into Healthy Eating
Before going further, one principle that is absolutely critical for healthy eating is this:
This is why the American public was plagued by the disastrous U.S.D.A. Food Pyramid for so long. It is why we are still plagued by bad advice, which these days comes in the form of the ChooseMyPlate diet. Absolutely awful! See more of why I say this in a previous article, Latest Federal Dietary Guidelines: Still a Nutrition Minefield.
Sorry for the mini-rant…now back to the subject at hand.
Credit for this summary comes from Denise Minger’s book, Death by Food Pyramid: How Shoddy Science, Sketchy Politics and Shady Interests Ruined Your Health … and How to Reclaim It!.
(She is one of the best critical thinkers I know of in regard to health-based research. Her blog is truly a delight (Denise Minger: Rescuing Good Health from Bad Science))
The final chapter in Denise’s book (A Future Informed by the Past) summarizes various so-called ‘healthy diets’ and what they have in common. The most intriguing and educational aspects of this chapter are the descriptions of Weston A. Price’s research on bygone cultures from the 1930s.
Healthiest Traditional Diets
Summary diets of the main groups of people that Price studied are:
The Swiss of the Loetschental Valley
Generous amounts of hand-milled rye bread, extraordinarily nutritious dairy products (typically as raw cheese), meat about once per week, small amounts of butter and raw milk, and an assortment of vegetables (fresh in the summer, stored in the winter).
The Gaelics in the Outer and Inner Hebrides
Rich in oat products (porridge and oat cakes at nearly every meal), ample seafood (mainly fish, lobsters, crabs, oysters, and clams), various vegetables (fresh in summer, stored in the winter).
An important dish was cod’s head stuffed with oatmeal and chopped cod livers.
The Eskimos of Alaska
Liberal amounts of seafood – especially high in organ meats from various sea animals, plus fish, seal oil, seal meat, whale meat, and fish eggs. Also caribou. Plant foods were sparse. When available, they included summertime cranberries kelp, sea grasses, bulbs, ground nuts and flower blossoms preserved in seal oil. Some plant foods were saved for winter.
The Native American Indians of the Rocky Mountains
Wild game (mostly organ meat from moose and caribou; not much skeletal meat), tree bark and buds, and some summertime vegetation.
The Melanesians and Polynesians on South Pacific Archipelagos
Rich in shellfish and finfish, plenty of tubers and tropical fruits. A staple included starchy taro roots (actually, corms), plus tender taro leaves.
The Tribes of Eastern and Central Africa
Sweet potatoes, beans, corn, millet. Fish when available from nearby waters, various wild animals, domesticated goats and cattle for meat and dairy, and a variety of insects (especially ants and locusts).
The Australian Aborigines
Native plants and wild animals (especially wallabies, kangaroos, rodents and other small mammals). Seafood when living near the ocean.
The Maori of New Zealand
Lots of shellfish, plus muttonbirds and plenty of tropical fruits and vegetables (e.g., fern rhizome).
The Malay Tribes on Islands North of Australia
Abundant seafood, including sea cow (a mammal), plus tropical roots, greens, and fruits.
The Indians of the Andean Highlands
An abundance of potatoes, llama meat, and guinea pigs. Also dried fish eggs and kelp.
What Diet to Choose?
As you can see, a healthy diet can include a variety of carbohydrate, fat, and protein intakes. No one diet emerges as essential for all cultures.
Does this mean that no single diet is best?
Nevertheless, there are important commonalities that support good health and longevity among such a wide variety of diets.
All of the traditional diets provided high nutrient density. Price noted that the foods in these diets contained at least four times the level of vitamins and minerals recommended by American nutritionists.
Specifically, these nutrients included plenty of the fat-soluble vitamins – A, D, E, and K. Sources of these vitamins included the most-prized foods in every culture: summertime butter for the Swiss, cod liver for the Gaelics, organ meats for the Eskimos, fish eggs for the Andean Indians, and so on.
Note that none of the diets were strictly vegan. Indeed, Price searched extensively for cultures that had lived for generations on a plant matter alone. He found none.
What is Missing?
You don’t have to look too closely to see that all of these health-promoting diets omit the following:
- Refined flour
- Refined sugar
- Industrially processed vegetable oils
- Chemical preservatives and artificial anything
- Mass-produced processed foods of any kind
Different ‘modernized’ diets also share this list, including the popular Paleo and Mediterranean diets.
As you can see, none of the healthy traditional or modernized diets include the U.S.D.A.’s crappy refined-grain-permissive, vegetable-oil-filled, lowfat-dairy-pushing food pyramid.
The Not So Obvious
Looking at food intake alone is misleading. Certain kinds of missing information have a seemingly hidden impact. For example, the high nutrient density of dairy in the Swiss diet relies on cattle that feed on springtime grasses. This is high-nutrition food for cattle, which transfers to high-nutrition meat and dairy. In comparison, modern beef and highly-pasteurized dairy from grain-fed cattle is severely nutrition-deficient.
The highly touted Mediterranean diet was first described from the Greek isle of Crete. The spectacular health and amazing longevity of that culture also depend on a religion-based eating style that entails frequent fasting. It also includes abstinence from olive oil, all animal products except shellfish and snails, and alcohol for just over 180 days a year. Therefore, food alone does not explain the health and longevity associated with the so-called Mediterranean diet.
Other Crucial Contexts
The most significant way to undermine the health benefits of any kind of diet is living a circadian mismatch.
What is a circadian mismatch? Fundamentally it means living a comfortable indoor lifestyle – artificial lights (esp. blue light toxicity at night), lack of sunshine, poor sleep, constant exposure to non-native electromagnetic fields, cut off from Earth’s electrons – this list is seemingly endless.
A circadian mismatch will undermine everything you do for your health. Neither food nor supplements, no matter how valuable, will be sufficient to overcome the negative consequences of such a lifestyle.
Furthermore, your current health status directs how you respond to the energy from food. Of primary importance is how well your leptin signaling pathway works. HINT: If you are overweight, your leptin is not working right for you.
Crucial Food for a Healthy Diet
In spite of all the variations among healthy diets across several cultures, one type of food stands out:
Seafood – i.e., fish and shellfish – is a consistent source high-nutrition food. It is also a source of the native form of the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). DHA plays a crucial role in so many aspects of metabolism that you must consume it regularly.
It is a component of fish oil that is at the heart of the supplement industry. Before you decide to take supplements, though, take a look at this earlier post: Fish Oils – Industry BS Just Plain Fishy. (Spoiler Alert: Supplementary DHA is not the same as whole-food DHA.)
Missing Commentary on Cooking
food is cooked is fundamentally flawed.
Indeed, this pretty much covers nearly all dietary research.
Why is this important? Consider this: no matter how nutritious food is, it can undermine your health and speed up aging, depending on how you cook it. Any approach to a healthy diet absolutely must account for how food is cooked. Some of the more important details on this topic can be found here: Foods That Speed Up Aging.
A Crucial Consideration
Although you may be looking for the best way to eat, Price’s studies spanned the results of generations. In doing so, his message also states:
SIDENOTE: If you are wondering why I cite only maternal lineages, two factors dominate. 1) Mothers have a major impact on developing fetuses; and, 2) health and longevity rely on healthy mitochondria, which are only passed down through maternal lines.
Can You Choose a Healthy Diet Now?
This brief foray into the world of healthy eating gives you some action steps for improving your own diet. Dietary advice articles are a dime a dozen (actually, not even that valuable). Hopefully, this post does not fit into that kind of modern dietary dogma.