-Guidelines for Threading the Needles of Diet Options
There are many diet strategies to choose from, but more often than not, a successful diet has at least as much to do with what is removed as what is added. Ultimately, the strategy you pick should promote long-term health, which is not merely an absence of disease but the presence of boundless vitality and energy.
Today, we find ourselves more confused about food than ever. Blame it on information overload, special interest groups, or even the government. I think part of what makes things confusing is that we often see people having success with different diets, whether it’s primal/paleo, keto, carnivore, or vegan. I believe the “right” diet is one that offers you stable energy and nutrient density, allows flexibility with your eating schedule, and also protects against modern diseases.
Ahead of drilling into dietary comparisons, let’s briefly survey the root of our nation’s chronic disease epidemic and what our diets contribute to it specifically.
Inflammation has been described as the root cause of all disease. There are two types of inflammation; acute and systemic. Acute inflammation is useful and necessary for healing cuts in the skin and other bodily injuries. Systemic inflammation, however, causes unfavorable gene expression and mutation leading to disease.
We can promote either health or disease through our diet and lifestyle choices. The human body’s default setting is health, but whatever our current state of health is doesn’t have to define us. There are things we can do to help position ourselves to live the healthiest lives possible. If we have lost our birthright to health, how might we get it back? I believe it starts with what we are eating and there are three primary drivers of disease found in most diets. If we’re going to regain our health, we must work diligently to remove them.
1. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are found in vegetable/industrial seed oils. Vegetable oils should be the first thing to be eliminated from the diet, as it is believed that consumption of PUFAs contributes significantly to systemic inflammation and is associated with obesity and other chronic diseases. PUFAs found in vegetable oils are particularly problematic due to their susceptibility to oxidation. Oxidized molecules in the body are bad news where there’s an overabundance of them. Chemically, these are molecules that have lost electrons and are trying to steal them away from other molecules in order to be neutralized, or “reduced.” Too many of these molecules, also known as free radicals or reactive oxygen species, causes trouble.
Fats that can become oxidized are toxic to just about every part of your body. How and why certain fats can become oxidized comes down to their molecular structure. PUFAs are highly oxidizable because of their chemical structure.
Conversely, saturated fat found in butter, lard, coconut oil, and other traditional fats do not share this same vulnerability to oxidation. In her book Deep Nutrition, Dr. Catherine Shanahan explains how vegetable oil consumption plays a significant role in our mental health because our brain is the most vulnerable to oxidative stress.
Additionally, the fats found in vegetable oils are artificial and our bodies don’t know what to do with them, creating free radicals, which are associated with every modern disease, including heart disease, cancer, obesity, chronic inflammation, and accelerated aging. Chronic inflammation inhibits fat loss, creating extra hurdles in achieving ideal body composition.
There are a variety of these oils, but the most common ones to avoid are canola, soybean, sunflower, safflower, corn, cottonseed, anything with “partially-” or “fully-hydrogenated” in the name, refined palm, grapeseed, and rice bran. Vegetable oils are most commonly found in restaurant meals and packaged, processed, and frozen junk foods. Familiarize yourself with the ingredients in your food and get rid of anything containing these toxic oils. This link provides a list of oils to use in a variety of cooking situations and which ones to avoid.
2. Gluten and most other grains should be the next thing to be removed from the diet. Gluten found in wheat has attracted quite a bit of attention lately and has even sparked a whole industry of gluten-free products. What’s the issue with gluten? There are several considerations:
- A portion of the gluten protein can’t be broken down by the human digestive tract. As a result, the body unleashes an immune response in the form of inflammation to combat what it sees as an invading chemical. The degree to which the body activates the immune system is a matter of one’s individual biology, but the fact is that everyone has some level of gluten intolerance.
- The primary form of wheat consumed today is dwarf wheat, which is far different from what our ancestors would have eaten. Dwarf wheat is a more profitable form of wheat and has been modified significantly to withstand pesticide killers and to produce greater yields. The stored form of carbohydrates in this type of wheat drives blood sugar levels extremely high and fast and is problematic when consumed daily.
- The use of glyphosate, found in the pesticide killer RoundUp, has steadily increased over the years and is used as a desiccant (a drying method) to enable earlier harvesting of the wheat. The prevalence of Celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that involves a severe intolerance to gluten, has been steadily increasing as shown in the chart below. We know correlation doesn’t equal causation, but I think it’s worth considering the potential side-effects of glyphosate use on wheat.
- In addition to the issues listed above, gluten has been linked to what’s called “leaky gut” or gut permeability. This is believed to be the precursor to autoimmunity. You most likely won’t be able to ask your primary care physician for a leaky gut test, but Chris Kresser offers some advice on his website found here regarding causes of leaky gut.
- Your gut lining is designed to allow certain nutrients into the bloodstream and keep other things, like undigested food and bacteria, out. When you have a leaky gut, bacteria is allowed into the bloodstream and your body’s immune system launches an attack and in some instances attacks the body’s own healthy cells, which is the definition of autoimmunity.
- Does occasionally consuming gluten mean you will develop an autoimmune disease? Probably not, but if you’re sensitive to gluten it’s typically recommended to completely avoid it. Considered the gold standard of discovering whether you’re sensitive to gluten is by self-testing. Completely remove gluten from your diet for at least 30 days, then reintroduce it and take note of how you feel. Gluten sensitivity can show up in a variety of ways, so be sure to pay attention to things you wouldn’t necessarily expect. Chris Kresser offers a guide to discovering how non-celiac gluten sensitivity can manifest itself, found here.
- For more information related to wheat, autoimmune disease, and the rise of increased glyphosate usage, watch What’s With Wheat? for $4.99 on Vimeo.
3. Finally, not to beat a dead horse, but sugar is another underlying factor that contributes to systemic inflammation. It’s toxic and pro-inflammatory in the bloodstream because if it sticks around too long, it literally sticks around too long and becomes oxidized.
Elevated insulin levels lead to insulin resistance, where cells in the body become less sensitive to the effects of insulin. It is estimated that nearly half of U.S. adults have insulin resistance, most of which don’t even know they have it.
Fortunately, there are several things we can do to help maintain insulin sensitivity.
Regular exercise and adequate sleep will both help with insulin sensitivity. Conversely, avoiding regular exercise and not getting adequate amounts of sleep will increase the likelihood of developing insulin resistance. Exercise helps combat insulin resistance by removing excess glucose from the blood without the use of insulin. Morning walks or other forms of exercise in a fasted state can be a great way to start your day. And as Coach Bradley already went over, sleep helps with pretty much everything, including blood sugar regulation.
And, of course, modifying our eating plans have a tremendous impact on how our body responds to insulin and whether we put ourselves at risk for these preventable diseases.
Here are a few considerations when evaluating potential diets:
Starting Point. Someone going from the Standard American Diet (SAD) to a vegan diet could potentially see dramatic improvement if they’re going from eating fast food daily to eating mostly salads and fresh fruit. Does this mean that a vegan diet is the best choice? Probably not (vegan diets make it very difficult for your body to obtain adequate levels of vitamin K2, B12, taurine, and other amino acids) but by eliminating hyper-processed foods, you can see how this could yield positive results. This is of course assuming that Oreos and other vegan junk foods aren’t included in the diet.
The moral is, just by removing seed oils, modern wheat, sugar, and ultra-processed food-like products, we’re probably 50% of the way there.
Nutrient Density. When evaluating diets, the importance of nutrient density cannot be overstated. We often come across certain plant foods as being in the category of “super,” as in, “kale is the new superfood!” Yet, there isn’t really a hard and fast definition of what that means. So, let’s take an example of a few plant-based “superfoods” and compare it with the original powerhouse of nutrition: pasture-raised red meat. Yeah, that’s right, the stuff that supposedly causes heart disease.
Now, this doesn’t mean that blueberries and kale are “bad,” but you want your food to contain as many nutrients as possible. This is also why the quality of your food matters. For example, grass-fed beef has shown to have a superior nutrient profile compared to conventionally raised beef (grain-fed).
Primally aligned. The initial idea of the “Paleo” is a diet that is theoretically based on how the hunter-gatherers of the past ate, that offers a variety of nutrient-rich foods. “Paleo” as a dietary strategy has been abused and even a big ol’ bag of chocolate chip-based trail mix could be considered “Paleo” if it uses date syrup and honey in place of high fructose corn syrup, but we all know what they’re up to.
So, to avoid the mix-up of these ideas, we’ll stick with the idea of being “primally aligned.”
Our ancestors hunted game for food and gathered in-season fruits and vegetables. Consuming organ meat would have been commonplace as our ancestors enjoyed a “nose-to-tail” diet, leaving nothing to waste. Many people, including myself, have found that this way of eating has resulted in improved body composition, enhanced mood and energy levels, and pain-free eating due to the elimination of highly inflammatory foods such as grains and dairy products.
When I eliminated these foods completely, my daily stomach pain, gas, and bloating disappeared immediately. This felt like a miracle and for whatever reason I never made the connection between what I was eating and how I felt. It seems odd now, but at the time I never truly connected the dots. I also recall losing 20 pounds of body fat, going from 205 lbs to 185 lbs, without starving myself. I felt faster and more energetic while playing sports. I felt like I could interact better with my kids and be much less irritable. I felt like a new person.
Energy levels. If the diet you’re following isn’t providing you with adequate energy levels, then the diet might not be a great fit for you. A primally-aligned, ketogenic diet is a good example of something that can work great for some people and not so great for others. For someone who’s very active, carbohydrates in the form of wild rice, seasonal fruits, potatoes and other root vegetables, can be beneficial in the way they provide a quick energy source for muscles being used for explosive movements during exercise.
The ketogenic diet, often referred to as “keto,” is a diet that restricts carbohydrate intake, typically under 50 grams per day. This type of diet can have a lot of benefits including being a powerful tool against inflammation and has shown dramatic improvement in the treatment of epilepsy patients and other cognitive disorders. It’s important to mention that simply reducing carbohydrates isn’t the same or as powerful as a ketogenic diet, which is rich in organic whole foods, pasture-raised/grass-fed beef, and other pasture-raised animal meats and eggs. The quality of your food matters.
By restricting carbohydrates, your body is forced to metabolize stored body fat for use as energy, resulting in the production of ketones, which are by-products of fat metabolism in the liver when blood glucose and insulin levels are low. I think there is a time and a place for keto, but it is probably most effective when used as a tool to accomplish specific goals. Carbohydrate restriction during times of being less active, such as during the winter months (I live in Minnesota), I think is a great way to maintain ideal body weight.
However, during the summer, when I am much more likely to be doing more outdoor activity, I am generally consuming more carbohydrates by eating more in-season fruits and vegetables. The biggest differences between Paleo and keto are the number of carbohydrates consumed daily and the inclusion of high-fat dairy. Many people following a ketogenic diet will include dairy as it is low in carbohydrates and offers some nutritional benefit to those that tolerate it. However, I think most of the dairy found in grocery stores is overly processed and not something I personally consume.
Your goals. Finally, when evaluating diet plans they should align with what your goals are. Both primally-aligned and keto diets offer plenty of potential benefits, but what if your situation requires something more dramatic?
Dr. Paul Saldadino, author of The Carnivore Code, describes the carnivore diet as eating meat, organs, and the least toxic plant foods like squash and avocado (as opposed to legumes, nuts, and other portions of the plants that have more naturally occurring defense chemicals). This diet is going to seem radical, but the results are hard to argue with, particularly for those suffering from autoimmune disease. This way of eating has helped many people improve autoimmune symptoms including psoriasis, eczema, inflammatory bowel disease, and a host of other conditions.
As a father of a child with an autoimmune disease, I’m very interested in his work. I’ve found that autoimmune diseases are extraordinarily challenging and require dramatic changes to get to the root cause of what is triggering autoimmune symptoms. The argument for eating a carnivore diet is that plants don’t want to be eaten and therefore create natural insecticides that can prove to be toxic to humans in certain doses. Of course, animals don’t want to be eaten either, but the difference between them and plants is that they are not stuck in the ground and have a body allowing them to escape potential predators.
When evaluating diets, self-experimentation is really the only way to find out which one is best for your body. 30 days is typically long enough to get a good understanding of how the eating plan is working for you. It’s also important to realize that what we remove from the diet is much more powerful than what we add to it. Pay particular attention to your energy levels, mood, and your sleep as these can be indicators of how the diet is working.
Dietary changes are not easy and there has been a lot of information provided throughout this module. Give yourself grace and time with these changes. If you are not 100% successful the first time, that doesn’t mean you failed, it just means you are still working your way through the changes. Strive to be better than you were yesterday and you will be well on your way to enjoying a successful dietary and lifestyle transition.
I am confident that if you implement the changes we’ve discussed, you will notice a dramatic improvement in your life and happiness. May you live fully and abundantly with enough energy to accomplish everything you imagined… and more.
– Coach Chris Lewis
Today’s Assignment – Revisit Your Commitment
- In the very first lesson of this course, you were asked to rate yourself on your readiness, willingness, and confidence to make significant lifestyle changes. Food can be one of the most significant ones because it’s such a regular part of life and is associated with memory and emotions in a profound way. Today, take time to reflect on those ratings and whether you feel the same way now.
- With those ratings in mind, what is a realistic change you could make to your eating plan today that could be sustainable for you?
- What foods do you regularly consume that you believe are not considered primally-aligned? Of those foods, which ones do you feel ought to stay and which ought to go? What are your reasons for this?
You’ve learned or revisited a bunch of exercises over this course. Let’s put them together in a single workout. You’ll need whatever weight you used for your goblet squats the other day.
Warm up – Work through five minutes of jumping jacks, push-ups from the knees, and a few slow, walking lunges.
Run/walk one mile, progressively getting faster each minute.
4 rounds of –
15 Goblet Squats
10 Hollow Rocks
15 Air Squats
15 Jumping Jacks
Finish with 90 seconds of plank hold. You can break it up into sets of 30 seconds.