The Secret of Health

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
  • nutrient-density
  • 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.

* * *

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.

7 thoughts on “The Secret of Health

  1. I agree with your diet ideas.

    There’s too much crap in our diets and that’s in no small part because of the farm lobby. Our whole obesity crisis is in part due to run away capitalism.

    • Health problems have everything to do with the combination of capitalism, industrialization, inequality, and other related crap. It’s not that any of this is necessarily inevitable within modern civilization. But to solve our health problems would require transforming society. An individual can do a fair amount to ameliorate the damage. Still, that leaves the individual reacting to what is so far beyond his or control.

      When 40% of global deaths are caused by air pollution and when climate change has caused refugee crises, that is no longer an individual issue. And at this point, most health conditions have a large element of the economic, social, and environmental.

      We are constantly barraged by food additives, farm chemicals, industrial toxins, etc. The ocean is now filled with microplastics, mercury, and much else. Many communities are forced to use water that is polluted with lead. There is the overuse of antibiotics that might cause the next disease epidemic. We are presently doing a mass experiment with pharmaceuticals from childhood that no one knows the long term consequences of. And on and on.

      It is getting worse with each generation. Every major disease is on the rise. For example, most of the American population is overweight, prediabetic, or diabetic with what was once called adult-onset diabetes now being common among the young. The fastest increasing form of diabetes is type 1 which doctors tell us is genetically inherited, but if that was true it wouldn’t be increasing. Our bodies are overloaded with multiple stressors while being malnourished and so unable to fully detox, heal from damage, and fight off disease.

      The mainstream medical model can’t even meaningfully comprehend diet and nutrition, much less any of the rest. Most doctors have no answer to any of this other than to offer yet another drug. Or when it gets really bad, surgery or chemotherapy. The worsening state of public health means that, if it continues, we won’t be able to afford healthcare in the near future. We’re already to the point that a large part of the population can’t even afford basic healthcare at present.

  2. So I’ve seen that you’ve written quite a bit about nutrition and I’ve been kicking around this idea for a while about what I call “complexity nutrition.” Complexity sciences study how many parts of s system interact and the emergent properties that arise out of such interactions. Feedback loops, nonlinearity, emergence, etc. I’ve seen the complexity lens applied to a wide range of phenomenon like networks, statistical mechanics, computer sciences, cellular automata, etc but I’ve neever really seen it applied to nutrition. I think there are obviously hints that our nutritional systems may behave like htese other complex systems – the mind-gut connection is the first thing I think of. John Walker’s the Hacker’s Diet also seems to indicate using an engineering mindset to create a diet that uses concepts from thermodynamics. I’m not personally well-versed enough to write a full excursion on it, but I sense the potential for a field of study like “complexity nutrition.” Have you come across anything like this in your independent research?

    • Yeah, diet has been on my mind lately. That is because I’m in the process of educating myself. I help myself learn by writing about it. I’m much better informed since I started this dietary project. And because of this, my views continue to shift. I don’t entirely agree with the earliest posts I wrote. This post is the most recent expression of my developing attitude toward health.

      I totally get what you mean by “complexity nutrition”. I’m not sure there is any specific book that exactly covers such a view, at least not explicitly. But I suppose many books touch upon it. The closest example I can think of offhand is The Secret Life of Your Microbiome by Susan L. Prescott and Alan C. Logan. That book isn’t entirely about diet but more broadly about what it means to be a healthy human as part of a healthy environment.

      I have had this on my mind. That is what interests me about the paleo diet, in that it combines health and nutrition with functional medicine. What functional medicine does is uses a systems approach toward healthcare. Both Dr. Terry Wahls and Dr. Dale Bredesen are mainstream )doctors who later trained as functional medicine practitioners in using a dietary approach among other tools (both using a variation of a paleo diet to treat patients, respectively for multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.

      The problem is that our present science is not up to the task. We know too little. And most scientific research so far has been constrained by a dominant paradigm that doesn’t pose and can’t answer the tough questions. The scientific establishment is just now coming to realize this. The replication crisis is forcing debate.

  3. I quickly scanned this article and will return to it. I didn’t spot a reference to Greek-style Yogurt. It’s certainly part of my Aunt Sophie’s “Mediterranean Diet,” having emigrated from Greece at age 20. She makes her own. I’ve taken to eating it most mornings (store-bought) and have the notion that it’s good for me, fat-wise (10%), calcium-wise, and probiotic-wise. I could be wrong. I add pomegranate molasses to sweeten it, add blueberries, raw sunflower seeds, a banana, and a clementine or other citrus fruit. Your thoughts?

    • I did list “probiotics, such as fermented/cultured.” But for the sake of simplicity, I didn’t reference any specific example, as there are thousands of traditional probiotic foods. Greek-style yogurt has gained much popularity in the US this past decade or so. I personally love kefir and kombucha. The only downside for commercial varieties of such foods is that they often have high levels of added sugar, and in the US this typically means high fructose corn syrup. Besides, wild fermented foods have a greater diversity of microbes which is optimal. Making one’s own probiotic foods could count as “wild fermented”, depending on how its made. I get some great fermented vegetables from the local farmers’ market.

      For my more specific thoughts in response, what you describe sounds potentially healthy. From a perspective of paleo diet, traditional foods and functional medicine, it is better to have more healthy fats and less simple carbs and refined sugar. With that in mind, it would depend on a number of factors. The best yogurt would be home-made with traditional cultures using organic milk from cows, goats, sheep, etc fed with grass on healthy pastured land. As for sweeteners, it depends on what exactly you are using and in what amount. Most of us moderns in industrial society consume way more sugar than humans have ever done before. Over the past few centuries, average sugar intake has been skyrocketing with predictable results.

      Along with added sugars, typically refined, we eat way more fruit than in the past and the fruit we eat is much lower fiber than what is available in nature. Bananas, for example, are a highly cultivated fruit that has been developed to be sweet and have almost no fiber. Such fruit is better to have in limited amounts. A handful of berries a day would be a healthier option, as berries have many health benefits when taken in moderation. In general, fruit is best eaten when ripe and in season which can be easily done by emphasizing locally grown.

      I might add that some people have issues with dairy, often without realizing it. Other foods can be problematic as well, such as wheat. An elimination diet can determine such allergies or sensitivities, especially when re-introducing a food to see what impact it has. I’m still unsure about how dairy effects me. I had a milk allergy as a child and so I try to limit it in my diet, but certain dairy foods have many health advantages.

      There is, of course, cultured dairy. But the one dairy food that even many paleo dieters will make an exception for is ghee from a good source, since it has potentially problematic proteins removed and if it is from a pastured animal it will be high in healthy fats such as omega-3s and high in fat-soluble vitamins. Still, to be on the safe side, I might advise avoiding or limiting dairy from cows (originating in northern Europe: Holstein, Friesian, Ayrshire and British Shorthorn) that produce A1 beta-casein (as opposed to A2 beta-casein from other breeds: Guernsey, Jersey, Charolais and Limousin; and from goats, sheep, etc). This matters because of exorphins that are produced and can effect brain health. There is also the issue of lactose tolerance, but culturing dairy or processing it as ghee largely eliminates that potential problem.

      Besides that, I’d go back to the maybe bigger issue of nutrient-density. The best thing to do is simply eat lots of organ meats, especially liver, wild-caught seafood, cod liver oil, krill oil, seaweed, nutritional yeast (gluten-free), etc. Weston A. Price found that farming communities that ate high levels of raw butter from pastured cows were often extremely healthy, but it’s harder for most people today to find the same high quality of food. I’d also recommend flax seed oil, along with borage oil, evening primrose oil, or black currant seed oil for other reasons (the first one has alpha-linolenic acid and the latter three have GLA).

      I hope that is helpful. If you wanted to explore any of this for yourself, I could mention some useful books and other resources. I’m not sure what kind of info you might be interested in.

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