Your health and body composition are largely determined by what you eat. Not only that, but your diet also has a profound impact on your mood, brain function, energy levels, and mental health. While a refined Western-style diet will make you sick and metabolically deranged, a nutrient-dense and balanced whole foods diet on the other hand will help optimize gene expression, cool down inflammation, and provide you with robust health.
If you’ve been following the research on Paleolithic diets, evolutionary health promotion, and nutrition in general, you know that you shouldn’t place your bet on official dietary guidelines if your goal is to achieve optimal health. Current dietary guidelines in the U.S. and most other industrialized nations have some flaws, and contrary to what some people believe, the recommendation to eat a grain-based, high-carbohydrate diet is not based on the best possible evidence.
I’ve written hundreds of articles about diet and health on this website, as well as for other blogs and magazines, and I’ve repeatedly discussed what science and evolution can tell us about how to eat for optimal health. However, as I realise that a lot of people aren’t interested in reading long and comprehensive articles about saturated fats, optimal carbohydrate intake, and micronutrient deficiencies, but rather just want a simple list of what they should eat, I thought it was time to put up a simple step-by-step guide to designing a healthy diet.
To keep this article from getting excessively long, I don’t go into the smaller details or discuss the scientific evidence on each and every point. This is something I’ve done repeatedly in the past, so if you’re interested in learning more about one or more of the things I mention in this article, just use the search function on the site. You can also drop by a comment in the comment section below the article if you want me to provide more information or additional sources for some of the claims made in this article.
Without further ado, let’s get to the 12 steps…
1. Decrease or eliminate your consumption of doughnuts, pizza, chips, and other highly processed foods
- These foods have an abnormal nutrient composition, low satiety index score, poor micronutrient profile, and very high energy density.
- These foods negatively impact gene expression, promote chronic low-grade inflammation, and perturb the gut microbiota (1, 2, 3, 4).
2. Decrease or eliminate your consumption of cereal grains, processed fatty meats, milk, added salt, refined sugar, and refined vegetable oils
- These foods are evolutionarily novel additions to the human diet and have several characteristics that make them inferior to the types of foods our preagricultural ancestors consumed. E.g., Cereal grains contain several problematic antinutrients, are very high in starch, have a poor micronutrient profile when compared to fruits and vegetables, contain opioid peptides that bind to opioid receptors in the brain (especially wheat), and can contribute to the manifestation of chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases by increasing intestinal permeability and initiating a pro-inflammatory immune response (especially wheat) (5, 6, 7, 8, 9).
3. Eat moderate amounts of high-quality protein at every meal
- A protein intake of about 18-28% (of total daily calories) is a good fit for most people (10, 11).
- Choose grass-fed and/or organically produced animal foods when possible.
- Protein increases satiety and thermogenesis to a greater extent than carbohydrate and fat (10, 11, 12).
- “High-protein diets” (>20% of daily total calories from protein) may improve leptin sensitivity in the central nervous system and have been shown to produce increased fat loss when compared to diets lower in protein (10, 11, 12, 13).
4. Eat plenty of fiber-rich vegetables
- Vegetables are a great source of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and simple and complex carbohydrates.
- The fiber found in fruits and vegetables increases satiety, promotes good gastrointestinal health, and has anti-inflammatory activities (14, 15, 16).
- If you can, eat some fresh, raw, and minimally washed vegetables from a trusted source (e.g., farmers market, backyard garden). The bacteria that cling to these foods may help you develop a more diverse and resilient gut microbiota.
5. Consume fatty fish and organ meats on a regular basis
- The omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids found in fatty fish possess potent immunomodulatory properties and decrease the risk of several types of chronic diseases (17, 18, 19).
- Organ meats such as liver, heart, and kidney are nutritional powerhouses packed with fat-soluble vitamins, protein, and medium- and long-chain fatty acids.
6. Choose real food over supplements
- Many, if not most, nutritional supplements do more harm than good. E.g., vitamin and mineral supplements may interfere with quorom sensing in gut biofilms, cause nutritional imbalances, and increase chronic disease morbidity and mortality (20, 21).
7. Include healthy fats in your diet
- There’s no reason to fear avocados, fatty fish, eggs, grass-fed meats, coconuts, and other whole foods rich in healthy fats.
- Processed, highly concentrated sources of fat such as olive oil, coconut oil, and lard can also be a part of a healthy diet, but are best consumed in moderation (e.g., cooking purposes, salad dressings).
8. Consider adding fermented foods to your diet
- Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and beet kvass are chock-full of lactic acid bacteria, contain high levels of several vitamins and minerals, and are a good source of dietary fiber.
- Fermented foods (especially fermented vegetables) can help repair a damaged gut microbiota. However, if your gut is already very healthy, you don’t necessarily have to eat fermented foods on a regular basis.
9. Consider including smaller amounts of fruits, berries, nuts, and/or seeds in your diet
- Fruits, berries, nuts, and seeds can certainly be included in a healthy diet. However, these foods are best consumed in moderation. Some people tend to go overboard with these foods, often consuming handfuls of nuts every day and/or snacking on fruit every other hour in order to get their “sugar fix”.
10. Aim for a carbohydrate intake of about 20-40% of total daily calories
- A carbohydrate intake of 20-40% (of total daily calories) is a good fit for most people. The exact value depends on activity levels, goals, and health situation. E,g., those who are metabolically deranged and/or insulin resistant may benefit from a very restricted intake of starch and simple carbohydrates, while those who are physically fit and perform a lot of anaerobic training often benefit from a somewhat higher carbohydrate intake.
- Fruits and vegetables and “safe starches” such as sweet potatoes and yams are the preferred sources of carbohydrate. Those who perform a lot of high-intensity exercise may also benefit from including some white rice, quinoa, and other similar foods with a higher carbohydrate density in their diet.
11. Consider skipping breakfast
- Intermittent fasting may improve the lipid profile, decrease inflammatory responses, change the expression of genes related to inflammatory responses, and aid in the prevention of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. among other things (22, 23, 24).
12. Make smaller tweaks to your diet so it better fits your situation, lifestyle, etc.
- Each person’s goals, activity level, and health condition have to be taken into account when food choices, macronutrient ratio, etc. are to be determined.
- You don’t have to be fanatical about the diet to get good results. E.g., a lot of people find that they prefer sticking to a 85/15% or 90/10% rule, rather than being 100% strict with their diet.
- High-quality dairy products, wine, dark chocolate, or other such items are commonly included as smaller additions to a healthy diet.