I’m going to let you in on a secret. But before I get to that… There is much conflict over diet. Many will claim that their own is the one true way. And some do have more research backing them up than others. But even that research has been extremely limited and generally of low quality. Hence, all the disagreement and debate.
There have been few worthwhile studies where multiple diets are compared on equal footing. And the results are mixed. In some studies, vegetarians live longer. But in others, they live less long. Well, it depends on what kind of vegetarian diet in what kind of population and compared against which other diet or diets. The Mediterranean diet also has showed positive results and the Paleo diet has as well, although most often the comparison is against a control group that isn’t on any particular diet.
It turns out that almost any diet is better than the Standard American Diet (SAD). Eating dog shit would be improvement over what the average American shoves into their mouth-hole. I should know. I shudder at the diet of my younger days, consisting of junk food and fast food. Like most Americans, I surely used to be malnourished, along also with likely having leaky gut, inflammation, insulin sensitivity, toxic overload, and who knows what else. Any of the changes I’ve made in my diet over the years has been beneficial.
So, here is the great secret. It matters less which specific diet you have, in the general sense. That is particular true in decreasing some of the worst risk factors. Many diets can help you lose weight and such, from low fat to high fat, from omnivorian to vegetarian. That isn’t to say all diets are equal in the long term, but there are commonalities to be found in any healthy diet. Let me lay it out. All health diets do some combination of the following.
Eliminate or lessen:
- processed foods
- vegetable oils
- carbs, especially simple carbs
- grains, especially wheat
- sugar, especially fructose
- dairy, especially cow milk
- foods from factory-farmed animals
- artificial additives
Emphasize and increase:
- whole foods
- omega-3s, including but not limited to seafood
- fiber, especially prebiotics
- probiotics, such as fermented/cultured
- foods that are organic, local, and in season
- foods from pasture-raised or grass-fed animals
- fat-soluble vitamins
There are some foods that are harder to categorize. Even though many people have problems with cow milk, especially of the variety with A1 casein, more people are better able to deal with ghee which has the problematic proteins removed. And pasture-raised cows produce nutrient-dense milk, as they produce nutrient-dense organ meats and meat filled with omega-3s. So, it’s not that a diet has to include everything I listed. But the more it follows these the greater will be the health benefits.
It does matter to some degree, for example, where you get your nutrient-density. Fat-soluble vitamins are hard to find in non-animal sources, a problem for vegans. But even a vegan can vastly increase their nutrient intake by eating avocados, leafy greens, seaweed, etc. The main point is any increase in nutrients can have a drastic benefit to health. And the greater amount and variety of nutrients the greater the improvement.
That is why any diet you can imagine comes in healthy and unhealthy versions. No matter the diet, anyone who decreases unhealthy fats/oils and increases healthy fats/oils will unsurprisingly increase their health. But as an omnivore could fill their plate with factory-farmed meat and dairy, a vegan could fill their plate with toxic soy-based processed foods and potato chips. The quality of a diet is in the details.
Still, it is easier to include more of what I listed in some diets than others. Certain nutrients are only found in animal sources and so a vegan has to be careful about supplementing what is otherwise lacking. A diet of whole foods that doesn’t require supplementation, however, is preferable.
That is why there are a surprisingly large number of self-identified vegans and vegetarians who will, at least on occasion, eat fish and other seafood. That also might be why the Mediterranean diet and Paleo diet can be so healthy as well, in their inclusion of these foods. Weston A. Price observed some of the healthiest populations in the world were those who lived near the ocean. And this is why cod liver oil was traditionally one of the most important parts of the Western diet, high in both omega-3s and fat soluble vitamins and much else as well.
Whatever the details one focuses upon, the simple rule is increase the positives and decrease the negatives. It’s not that difficult, as long as one knows which details matter most. The basic trick to any health diet is to not eat like the average American. That is the secret.
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Getting that out of the way, here is my bias.
My own dietary preferences are based on functional medicine, traditional foods, paleo diet, nutritional science, anthropology, and archaeology — basically, any and all relevant evidence and theory. This is what informs the list I provided above, with primary focus on the Paleo diet which brings all the rest together. That is what differentiates the Paleo diet from all others, in that it is a systematic approach that scientifically explains why the diet works. It focuses not just on one aspect but all known aspects, including lifestyle and such.
Something like the Mediterranean diet is far different. It has been widely researched and it is healthy, at least relative to what it has been tested against. There are multiple limitations to health claims about it.
First, the early research was done after World War II and , because of the ravages to the food supply, the diet they were eating then was different than what they were eating before. The healthy adults observed were healthy because of the diet they grew up on, not because of the deprivation diet they experienced after the war. That earlier diet was filled with meat and saturated fat, but it also had lots of vegetables and olive oil as. As in the US, the health of the Mediterranean people had decreased as well from one generation to the next. So, arguing that the post-war Mediterranean diet was healthier than the post-war American diet wasn’t necessarily making as strong of a claim as it first appeared, as health was declining in both countries but with the decline in the latter being far worst.
Working with that problematic research alone, there was no way to get beyond mere associations in order to determine causation. As such, it couldn’t be stated with any certainty which parts of the diet were healthy, which parts unhealthy, and which parts neutral. It was a diet based on associations, not on scientific understanding of mechanisms and the evidence in support. It’s the same kind of associative research that originally linked saturated fat to heart disease, only to later discover that it was actually sugar that was the stronger correlation. The confusion came because, in the American population because of the industrialized diet, habits of saturated fat consumption had become associated with that of sugar, but there was no study that ever linked saturated fat to heart disease. It was a false or meaningless association, a correlation that it turns out didn’t imply causation.
That is the kind of mistake that the Paleo diet seeks to avoid. The purpose is not merely to look for random associations and hope that they are causal without ever proving it. Based on other areas of science, paleoists make hypotheses that can be tested, both in clinical studies and in personal experience. The experimental attitude is central.
That is why there is no single Paleo diet, in the way there is a single Mediterranean diet. As with hunter-gatherers in the real world, there is a diversity of Paleo diets that are tailored to different purposes, health conditions, and understandings. Dr. Terry Wahl’s Paleo diet is a plant-based protocol for multiple sclerosis, Dr. Dale Bredesen’s Paleo diet is part of an even more complex protocol including ketosis for Alzheimer’s. Other ketogenic Paleo diets target the treatment of obesity, autism, etc. Still other Paleo diets allow more carbs and so don’t prioritize ketosis at all. There are even Paleo diets that are so plant-based as to be vegetarian, with or without the inclusion of fish and seafood, more similar to that of Dr. Wahls.
Which is the Paleo diet? All of them. But what do they all have in common? What I listed above. They all take a multi-pronged approach. Other diets work to the degree they overlap with the Paleo diet, especially nutrient-density. Sarah Ballantyne, a professor and medical biophycisist, argues that nutrient-density might be the singlemost important factor and she might be right. Certainly, you could do worse than focusing on that alone. That has largely been the focus of traditional foods, as inspired by the work of Weston A. Price. Most diets seem to improve nutrient-density, one way or another, even if they don’t do it as fully as the best diets. The advantage of the Paleo diet(s), as with traditional foods and functional medicine, is that there is scientific understanding about why specific nutrients matter, even as our overall knowledge of nutrients has many gaps. Still, knowledge with gaps is better than anything else at the moment.
The list of dos and don’ts is based on the best science available. The science likely will change and so dietary recommendations will be modified accordingly. But if a diet is based on ideology instead, new information can have no impact. Fortunately, most people advocating diets are increasingly turning to a scientific approach. This might explain why all diets are converging on the same set of principles. Few people would have been talking about nutrient-density back when the FDA made its initial dietary recommendations as seen in the Food Pyramid. Yet now the idea of nutrient-density has become so scientifically established that it is almost common knowledge.
More than the Paleo diet as specific foods to eat and avoid, what the most important takeaway is the scientific and experimental approach that its advocates have expressed more strongly than most. That is the way to treat the list I give, for each person is dealing with individual strengths and weaknesses, a unique history of contributing factors and health concerns. So, even if you dismiss the Paleo diet for whatever reason, don’t dismiss the principles upon which the Paleo diet is based (for vegetarians, see: Ketotarian by Dr. Will Cole and The Paleo Vegetarian Diet by Dena Harris). Anyone following any diet will find something of use, as tailored to their own needs.
That is the purpose of my presenting generalized guidelines that apply to all diets. It’s a way of getting past the ideological rhetoric in order to get at the substance of health itself, to get at the causal level. The secret is that there is no single healthy diet, not in any simplistic sense, even as every healthy diet has much in common.