It’s surprisingly hard to get a consistent answer to the question, “What should I eat for maximum health and longevity?”
Almost everyone can agree on the consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and a plant-based diet overall. But animal foods, legumes, and grains are constantly under fire.
Respectable MDs and nutritionists in the vegan camp champion whole grains and legumes, and demonize animal products as unhealthy and unethical. From Cornell MD Michael Gregor’s non-profit website NutritionFacts.org:
“Animal products, including eggs, dairy, meat, and animal protein in general may increase inflammation. A single meal of meat, eggs, or dairy may cause a spike of inflammation within hours that can stiffen one’s arteries. Several factors may account for this, such as heme iron, endotoxins, saturated fat, a high bacteria load, TMAO, tapeworms, advanced glycation end products or AGEs, and NeuGc, a foreign meat molecule that may increase the risk of heart disease and cancer.”
(For links to each of the factors mentioned above, visit Gregor’s site by clicking here.)
On the other side of the fence is the paleo crowd. Saturated animal fat? For most people, eat plenty of it! Beef tallow > canola oil. Grains are the devil (especially wheat). From the book Perfect Health Diet by Paul and Shou-ching Jaminet: “Cereal grains — the seeds of grasses — are rich in toxins that poison humans. They are the most dangerous foods.” They then dedicate many pages of their book to backing up this claim.
Both sides offer good points. I’ve found relief from IBS symptoms by removing wheat from my diet, but I also find that I do better with certain legumes than I do with a lot of paleo-friendly starches such as yucca and plantains. Even after a decade of experimenting with my diet, I still have much to learn. Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot along the way. Here are the rules that have given me the most success in optimizing my diet (and sticking to it):
1. Don’t get lost in the details. Have high-level strategies you can always come back to.
I used to get lost in the weeds when learning about diet. I’d read about goitrogenic foods, for example, wonder if the health implications of those foods applied to me, and then spend two hours tweaking my diet. I would do this a few times a week and end up with a constantly-changing diet. I’d forget what was “good” and what was “bad” to include in my diet. And when you’re hungry and sitting in front of a menu — unsure of what the latest version of your diet lets you eat — you often give up and order the tastiest thing that just might squeeze into some version of your diet, even if it’s far from the healthiest option. Oops.
The same issue can emerge from jumping back and forth between dogmatic diets (e.g. paleo to raw vegan to fruitarian to the latest weight loss diet).
Lately, I’ve done much better by remembering the three simple rules proposed by food author Michael Pollan: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” No matter how deep into nutrition research (and dogma) I delved, falling back on these rules has always proved helpful in deciding what to eat when I’m put on the spot.
2. When in doubt, opt for moderation.
Paleo people say grass-fed meat is great for you. Vegans say all meat will put you at risk for a shorter life span. From a nutritional perspective, both sides have research to back up their arguments.
Unless you have a PhD or truly enjoy digging through hundreds of thousands of research papers, your best bet is to find the moderate middle between those two approaches. E.g. cut your meat consumption by 50%, and make sure to have some grass-fed meat and some fish a few times per week, while completely avoiding CAFO meat.
Using this example, if you feel better by cutting meat consumption, see what happens if you take out even more meat from your diet. Keep calibrating until you find the range that works best for you.
3. Keep an eye out for food sensitivities.
Unless you’re extremely lucky, there’s likely to be at least one food out there that doesn’t work well for you. Over the years, I’ve learned that my body doesn’t tolerate tomatoes, cream/cheese, wheat, industrial vegetable oils, chocolate, coffee, inulin/chicory root fiber, and heavily fermented foods (e.g. fish sauce). I can get away with a little bit of these foods, but I experience side effects if I overdo it (poor digestion, lethargy, joint pain, acne, etc.).
I did a rotation diet called the Autoimmune Paleo diet to discover my food sensitivities, along with a food journal. If there are any nagging health issues you deal with, identifying sensitivities is a worthy endeavor. I won’t go too much into detail here, but if you have questions around food journaling or discovering sensitivities, leave a comment at the bottom of this post.
4. Data about your health and nutritional status is important too.
In an effort to optimize my diet, I’ve done lots of lab work (both covered by insurance and out of pocket). A few tests that I’ve done to optimize my diet and overall health:
– Blood sugar testing (finger prick)
– Blood work to determine nutritional status, omega-3/6 levels, heavy metal levels, and small, dense LDL levels
– Organic acids test (I’m still unsure how scientifically validated this test is)
– SIBO breath test
– uBiome microbiome tests every few weeks
– Gut health stool test
– Cortisol test
At a minimum, I’d recommend blood sugar testing (very affordable and useful information), blood labs at least twice a year, and working with a gastroenterologist for testing SIBO/gut health if you have gut issues.
Most recently, I’m concerned with optimizing my sleep, so I have an appointment with a sleep specialist to rule out any issues such as sleep apnea.
5. Learn to cook.
Let’s say you discover that you’re sensitive to soybean and corn oil. If you can’t cook, you’re at the mercy of restaurants who are likely to use these oils without making it explicit on their menu. Having at least a few recipes you can confidently make is like creating a safe space for your dietary needs. It gives you control to put only the healthiest foods on your plate. But at the same time…
6. Find some safe restaurants in your area.
This isn’t feasible for everyone, but if you live in an area that caters to specialty diets, you may be able to identify one or a handful for restaurants that work for you. I’ve written about this topic at length because of how important food and dining out is for your social life.
For many people, the stress of doing a strict diet outweighs any marginal gains in nutrition, especially when you’re sacrificing your social life to stick to the diet. Knowing where you can compromise to maintain a happy life is important.
In California, I’ve found a vegan restaurant and a paleo restaurant that fit my dietary needs quite well.
Conclusion: Diet optimization is a lifelong process.
Your body changes, research evolves, willpower waxes and wanes, and our industrial food supply trudges forward. Therefore, it’s advantageous to stay connected to the latest in health and nutrition. Unfortunately, there’s so much dogma out there, it’s hard to know who to trust. Dr. Michael Gregor of NutritionFacts.org and Paul Jaminet, PhD from the Perfect Health Diet are the two people I trust more than others, so perhaps they may help you as well.
Here’s to your health.
Featured image credit: Gemma Billings