Are you looking to make 2015 the year where you really take charge of your diet and health? Establishing new and healthy habits can be hard, and as we all know, new year’s resolutions to “eat healthy”, “exercise more”, and “lose weight” often fail. Why? One fundamental reason is that our genes were primarily selected for in ancestral environments where food was scarce, junk food was nowhere to be found, and regular physical activity was a demanded part of life. In these setting, the instincts to seek out energy-dense, palatable food and relax when possible were highly adaptive. In the modern industrialized world, calorie-dense foodstuff is cheap and easily available, and few of us have to spend much energy to procure food and survive. The previously mentioned ancient adaptations are mismatched to this type of obesogenic environment, a discordance that manifests itself as widespread junk food consumption, sedentary lifestyles, and an obesity epidemic. Add to that the fact that unhealthy dietary habits trigger a vicious cycle where you develop an appetite for chocolate, sugar-laden drinks, and other highly processed food items you’ve been consuming regularly, and you’ve got a recipe for broken New Year’s resolutions.
So, how can we overcome these obstacles to healthy eating? My two cents:
- Make a commitment to follow a relatively strict diet for several weeks before you ease up and stick with a 80-90% rule. In other words, avoid “half ass” attempts. This is especially important if you know you find it hard to eat a healthy diet for more than a few days without falling back into bad habits.
- Do not let the initial cravings for unhealthy foods that occur the first couple of days and weeks following the transition from a “unhealthy diet” to a healthy diet get the best of you
- Design a diet where nutrient-dense, whole foods/food groups – such as the 9 listed below – contribute the bulk of the calories.
High-quality organic eggs
Those of us who grew up during the “low-fat craze” were taught that eggs, red meat, and other cholesterol-rich foods were artery-clogging foes, and a common belief for a long time was that the consumption of eggs should be restricted to once or twice a week. However, today, most people with a basic understanding of nutrition acknowledge that the advice to limit the consumption of eggs was largely unfounded. Actually, organic, free-range eggs from egg-laying creatures are among the most nutritious foods you’ll find at the supermarket, packed with vitamins, minerals, complete protein, and healthy fats. That doesn’t mean you should necessarily go bananas and eat 5 large chicken eggs every morning. However, there’s no reason eggs can’t be a part of a healthy diet. For those who follow a Paleo-based diet, eggs tend to be an especially valuable part of the diet, as scrambled eggs, omelets, and hard-boiled eggs are great alternatives to grain-based meals.
Grass-fed liver and other organ meats
Organ meats such as liver, heart, and kidneys were a treasured part of the diet in many traditional populations, but in today’s world of abundance, people have become picky. When most of us go to the grocery store or farmer’s market to get some meat, we go for the red and juicy tenderloin and rib-eye, not the more freakish-looking organ meats. This conventional way of doing things has led many people to miss out on the nutritional benefits of eating organ meats, which are far superior to muscle meats in terms of nutrient density. Not only that, but the practise of not consuming the “entire animal” is clearly less than optimal from an environmental perspective. The taste of organ meats is definitely different from that of a tenderloin straight from the grill, but given the right preparation techniques and some time to adjust to the taste and texture, organ meats are great.
Sauerkraut and other traditionally fermented foods
In the 21st century world we’ve largely abandoned traditional processing techniques such as soaking, sprouting, and fermentation. Yogurt, kefir, fermented cabbage (“sauerkraut”), acidophilus milk, and other such food items are available at grocery stores worldwide, but these foods tend to be very different from the fermented foods consumed in traditional populations. The milk that is used to make today’s fermented beverages often come from unhealthy cows confined to unnatural living conditions, and it has generally been pasteurized and homogenized prior to fermentation. The fermentation process has also changed, with new types of isolated lactic acid bacteria being used. High-quality fermented vegetables can also be hard to come by at many grocery stores, as the “sauerkraut” and “kimchi” you’ll find often have been pasteurized after the fermentation process is completed, essentially removing many of the benefits. However, that doesn’t mean all hope is gone. High-quality traditionally fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir can be made at home or bought at some health food stores, local farms, and farmers markets. The fermentation process improves the bioavailability of many nutrients, prolongs storage life, reduces the carbohydrate content, and leads to the growth of probiotic bacteria. Not only that, but fermented foods are delicious.
Omega-3 is one of those components of our diet that has gotten the most attention both in scientific journals and mainstream press, and it’s one of those few nutrients everyone seems to agree that we should eat more of. In comparison with hunter-gatherer diets, modern diets tend to be low in omega-3 and high in omega-6, and the shift in this ratio is often singled out as an important driver of chronic low-grade inflammation. Ditching refined vegetable oils and processed foods is of course important to bring your omega-6 intake closer to ancestral levels, but what about omega-3? The reason so many of us get too little omega-3 through our diet isn’t just that we’re not eating enough omega-3 rich foods, but also that conventionally produced meat and fish tend to be much lower in omega-3 than organic and wild varieties. Compared to the farmed salmon that is popular among consumers, atlantic mackerel is a much better option. Mackerel is relatively inexpensive and rich in both proteins and healthy fats.
Just like eggs, coconut has long been unjustifiably labeled as an unhealthy food in the conventional nutritional community, a characterization that is largely based on the recommendation to limit the intake of saturated fat. In reality, coconut is a nutrient-dense, real food that has been an essential part of the diet of some of the healthiest populations that have ever been studied (e.g., the Kitavans on the Island of Kitava), and lauric acid, the primary fatty acid in coconut, actually has a protective effect against many of the diseases saturated fat has been linked to (1). Indulging in butter, cream, bacon, and other dense sources of saturated fat definitely isn’t the way to go for good health, but there’s no reason to restrict the intake of nutritious whole foods such as coconut. Coconuts are especially rich in healthy fats, dietary fiber, and potassium.
Dietary fiber intake in true hunter-gatherer diets typically far exceeds the average intake in industrialized nations, a mismatch that is largely caused by the fact that uncultivated fruits and vegetables are much more fibrous than commercial varieties (2). Another obvious reason is that we simply eat less fibrous plant foods than before. For many, fruits and vegetables are largely left out of the diet in favor of grain products, sugar-laden drinks, and fatty foods, and as a result, the intake of dietary fiber has plummeted since our days as hunter-gatherers. Even those who consume plenty of whole grains will be hard pressed to get as much Microbiota-Accessible Carbohydrates (MACs) (carbohydrates fermented by gut bacteria) into their diet as hunter-gatherers and other populations eating Paleolithic-type diets, as grains are lower in fiber than fruits and vegetables (on a calorie-by-calorie basis) and contain a higher proportion of unfermentable fibers. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this low intake of MACs in the western diet has profound consequences to our health, largely because we don’t adequately feed our beneficial gut bugs. Fermentable fibers – such as the inulin-type fructans found in leeks – increases satiety, enhances the production of short-chain fatty acids in the colon, and promotes a healthy gut microbiota.
Grass-fed lamb and other high-quality red meats
Red meat is in the same boat as eggs and coconuts in the sense that public dietary recommendations advocate a very restricted intake. As for processed meats such as bacon and sausages, this recommendation is clearly justifiable, but what about unprocessed meats? Several lines of evidence suggest that meat started becoming a more dominant part of the diet of the hominin species that eventually led to Homo approximately 2.6 million years ago (3). That doesn’t mean that the stereotypical image of a meat-heavy caveman diet is necessarily correct, as there are certainly many hunter-gatherer tribes that have subsided primarily on plant foods. However, there’s no doubt that meat has played an essential role in forager diets, a notion that is supported by research which shows that most worldwide hunter-gatherer societies derive >50% of their subsistence from animal foods (4). Studies on meat intake and chronic disease are consistent with the evolutionary template as they suggest that it’s primarily processed meat that is problematic. However, as we all know, the red meat you find conveniently lined up at your regular grocery store isn’t the same as grass-fed meats or animal products derived from wild animals. One of the main problems with supermarket meat is that it tends to be higher in saturated fatty acids and lower in mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids than meat products derived from game animals (2). Red meat of high-quality (e.g., grass-fed) is an especially good source of complete protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B12, and even healthy fats.
Unripe, organic bananas
Resistant starch (RS) – a type of microbiota-accessible carbohydrate that is fermented by bacteria deep in our colon – has gotten a lot of attention in the ancestral health community the last couple of years. The gut microbiota has quickly gone from being a “forgotten organ” to being the part of the human body that everyone talks about, and it has become increasingly clear that we have largely neglected the feeding of our microbial symbionts. As previously discussed, the intake of fermentable fibers has plummeted since our hunter-gatherer days, a lot of which is due to a decreased intake of resistant starch. If you don’t pay attention to the types of foods you regularly consume and how you prepare your food, chances are your intake of RS is less than optimal. RS – such as the RS2 found in green bananas – brings with it many health benefits, such as improved glycemic control, increased satiety, and better digestion.
Healthy fats are an essential component of a nutritionally sound diet. For those of us who follow a Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet, choosing good sources of fat is especially important, as fat often contribute a relatively large percentage of the daily calories. Whole, “natural” foods such as avocados, grass-fed meats, coconuts, seafood, and eggs are especially good sources of fat, as they are nutrient-dense, filling, and rich in healthy fats. The primary fatty acids in avocado are monounsaturated fatty acids, a type of fat that most of us could benefit from getting more of into our diet. Avocados can be eaten as a stand-alone meal or used together with other foods in a salad, smoothie, or dinner.