Healthier skin, weight loss, better digestion, more energy, enhanced brain function… The potential benefits of taking up a healthy diet are numerous. If you’ve been eating a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet for some time, you’ve likely experienced one of more of these health improvements, and when you try to explain to family and friends why they should consider giving up all the sweet, processed foodstuff they’re eating, you probably bring up these positive changes as one of your core arguments for why you believe everyone should consider making the leap to a healthier diet.
What is sometimes forgotten is that there are several other benefits that accompany the transition from an unhealthy diet to a dietary regime that is more congruent with our genetic make-up than those that are directly related to health, one of which being that a healthy dietary template can serve as a framework that helps us safely navigate our current, toxic food environment.
Making healthy decisions in a toxic food environment
Obesity rates have skyrocketed these last couple of decades, fast food joints have popped up on every street corner, and more and more people struggle with diet-related health problems. In other words, you don’t have to look far and wide to realise that a lot of people have an unhealthy relationship with food.
Having an innate preference for calorie-dense foods rich in sugar, fat, or starch obviously didn’t make our Paleolithic ancestors fat, unhappy, or decision-fatigued, because back then, honey and meat were the most energy-dense and palatable foods around. Moreover, for our primal ancestors, food procurement typically required hours of walking, hunting, and/or digging.
Needless to say, things are very different today. Many of the ancient adaptations and innate preferences that helped our ancestors thrive in the niche they occupied on the African savanna are working against us in today’s world of abundance. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s really no surprise that obesity rates have skyrocketed lately or that a lot of people struggle with making healthy decisions about food. It could be argued that we’re just following the signals and orders our bodies give us.
When our preagricultural ancestors went out into their local environment in the search for food, they seeked to maximize the amount of calories they got for the amount of work they had to put in. This strategy, which is seen among all animals, is rooted in optimal foraging theory, which states that natural selection favours animals whose behavioural strategies maximize their net energy intake per unit time spent foraging.
The problem is that we’ve now completely changed both sides of the equation that are used to determine optimal foraging behavior: We’ve designed evolutionarily novel foods with “supernormal” concentrations of fat, sugar, starch, and calories, and we’ve severed the link between energy expenditure and energy intake, in the sense that food acquisition now simply involves a short drive to the nearby grocery store or supermarket. We’ve taken optimal foraging behavior to the extreme.
We didn’t evolve to make decisions about food based on what is best for our long-term health and happiness. Rather, we were sculpted by natural selection to make food choices that benefitted our survival and reproduction.
Planning for long-term health and happiness
Several studies have shown that some people essentially become addicted to fast food and that good or great smelling, looking, tasting, and reinforcing food has characteristics similar to that of drugs of abuse (1, 2, 3). It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that some people find it almost impossible to follow the “everything in moderation” rule that is advocated by many dietitians.
It can be extremely exhausting and depressing to go around every day wrestling with decisions about food, which is something a lot of people do. If you have no rules or framework to guide your decisions about what to eat, you may find it almost impossible to make healthy decisions in today’s obesogenic environment.
If we do like our primal forefathers and just give into our immediate desires regarding what to eat, we may quickly end up fat and unhappy. In other words, when it comes to food choices, “just listen to your body” may not always be the best advice. We need a set of dietary principles or guidelines that help us safely navigate an ocean that is filled with shallow rocky reefs in the form of burger joints, ice cream vendors, and pastry shops.
The importance of having a set of dietary principles to follow
Some people will tell you that adhering to a set of rules or guidelines regarding what you should and shouldn’t eat will make you unhappy, stressed, and obsessive about diet and food. When taken to the extreme, this may be true, but for most, having a set of dietary guidelines to follow is actually a very good thing. If you don’t have any rules or restrictions regarding food, it’s easy to lose your way and end up fat, sick, and unhappy.
By making a firm, conscious decision to adhere to a healthy diet plan, you’ll not only achieve better health, but you may also find that your stress levels decline, your food-related decision-fatigue disappears, and a lot of mental space is freed up; because you now have a framework to follow and thereby no longer have to constantly wrestle with decisions about food.
In other words, you may find that many of the daily battles related to food and diet disappear. If you’ve already made the choice of sticking to a healthy diet plan, you don’t have to struggle with the decision of whether or not you should buy a doughnut in the cafeteria at work, because you’ve already decided not to do so in advance.
Perhaps needless to say, all of this doesn’t mean that you can never eat junk food if you adopt a healthy diet. Rather, it means that when you adopt a set of dietary principles to follow, you start making decisions about food in advance; decisions that enhance your health and well-being, as opposed to decisions about food you make in the moment; decisions which often undermine your health and well-being.
For some people, the previously mentioned benefits associated with getting a set of dietary guidelines to follow may be even more important than the weight loss, improved sleep, and healthier skin that usually accompany the transition to a healthier way of eating.
Now I want to hear from you: Do you stick to a set of rules or principles regarding what and when to eat? If so, do you feel this strategy positively or negatively impacts your mental well-being?