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Eating healthy is incredibly tricky because we often don’t fully understand what makes food good or bad for our body. As a result, we follow what everyone else is doing, or what our parents thought us. However, while making positive changes to your dietary habits might be challenging at first, it’s doable if you have the right information.
In this ultimate guide to a healthy diet, I’ll break down everything I have learned over the past few years, including the latest scientific research, in easy-to-understand language and easy-to-follow steps.
After reading this article, you’ll be able to differentiate healthy and unhealthy food, and you’ll know how to use that information to improve your diet and your overall wellbeing.
If you don’t have time to read the full article (which I strongly recommend), here are my healthy eating tips in a nutshell:
If you’re lucky enough in your life to avoid a fatal accident, the flu and pneumonia, there’s a good chance you’ll die of a chronic disease that you likely could have prevented.
Have you noticed that few people die of old age? When was the last time you heard in the news that the heart of a famous person just stopped after having beaten for 89 years? I’m sure it still happens, but nowhere near as often as it should. Instead, most people die of heart disease, cancer, stroke, mental diseases (such as Alzheimer’s) or complications from diabetes.
Seven out of 10 of the leading causes of death in the United States — which account for 75% of all deaths — are chronic diseases. And they usually have a common root: Inflammation! The good news is that you can directly influence inflammatory pathways with the food you eat. That’s why I care, and I hope you will too.
Many friends, family members, and even casual acquaintances or strangers have noticed that we eat and live differently than others. Quite a few of those observers have followed in our footsteps to varying degrees, and I enjoy it helping people make changes that positively impact their lives.
People always ask us about our dietary lifestyle and why we eat or stay away from a specific food. Others sometimes ask us if eating rice is better than eating wheat, or if drinking wine is better than drinking beer.
As a result, I decided to write the ultimate guide to healthy eating and explain all the factors that I take into account when deciding what to put on my plate, what foods to omit, and why.
Before we dig into the nitty-gritty of food science, let’s get the basics out of the way.
Throughout this article, when I use the term “diet,” I usually mean dietary lifestyle.
With some exceptions, a diet is only effective if you make it your lifestyle. Cutting out sugar for a few weeks as a New Year’s resolution won’t make a difference. You need to cut it out permanently if you aim for long-lasting results.
That’s why it’s crucial to find a diet that you can grow into and sustain until you die — hopefully of old age and not a chronic disease.
Peer-reviewed, double-blind scientific studies are the best tool we have to figure out whether something constitutes a scientific truth. That’s one of the reasons why I refer to such studies, if possible, when making an important decision.
The issue is that conducting scientific studies related to diet with humans is difficult. For example, nobody would agree to eat only red meat for 10 years in order to confirm, beyond reasonable doubt, that it causes cancer.
Instead, we often have to rely on observation or animal studies. As a result, we often find correlations that might not translate to causation.
For example, owning a TV is correlated with an increased risk of developing heart disease. Obviously, owning a TV doesn’t cause heart attacks, but people who have one are more likely to sit more and move less. Thus, those people have a higher risk of suffering from a heart attack.
What you’d read in the news is a headline such as: “TVs can increase the risk of having a heart attack!” That’s one of the reasons why we seem to be getting so much conflicting news regarding studies.
Additionally, it’s vital to understand the context of a scientific study in order to correctly interpret its results. People like to cherrypick parts of studies to suit their desires, positions and preconceptions.
For example, I have seen studies demonstrating the health benefits of whole grains and legumes. It’s factual that those foods have health benefits, because they are good sources of fiber and micronutrients.
However, they also contain anti-nutrients and inflammatory proteins, such as gluten. As a result, I pick other types of food that provide the same benefits without those risk factors.
To stay sane given the incredible amount of conflicting information, I use evolution as my nutritional framework when deciding if something is healthy or not. Let me explain!
Most of us accept evolution as a scientific fact, and recognize that throughout human development only the strongest survived. As a result, the food our ancestors ate for the past 2.6 million years is, with high probability, what our bodies need to thrive.
Everything else — and in particular, the type of foods humans started consuming around 10,000 years ago thanks to the advent of agriculture — may or may not be compatible with our genetic makeup. The fact that our ancestors began farming and domesticating animals around that time led to the increased consumption of grains and dairy, but that increased consumption was based on technological advancement rather than evolutionary motivation.
Of course, evolution hasn’t stopped since then. Instead, it’s an ongoing process, and our dietary needs might change over time. Who knows? Maybe in a million years humans will thrive on added sugar as their primary source of fuel. But frankly, I don’t want to be the tip of that spear and gamble with my health. Instead, I’d rather stick to the diet my body is genetically compatible with right now.
Our ancestors had limited food choices. They ate what they could kill or find, which is the reason why we call them “hunter-gatherers.”
Despite the simplicity of food choices back then, our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t have it easy. Hunting for food meant always being on the move, so finding time to exercise wasn’t an issue.
If they didn’t catch an animal or find other sources of food, they often went days without a meal. So intermittent fasting wasn’t something they had to worry about either.
Besides those issues, it’s also important to understand that early human beings didn’t all have the same diet. They had different sources of protein, fats and carbs depending on the resources available where they lived.
For example, people who lived near the water likely consumed higher amounts of fish or other seafood. There were also seasonal changes to take into account. During the summer months, our ancestors probably ate more fruits and vegetables. In the colder months, they probably relied more on animal fats.
So keep that in mind when someone tries to convince you that a particular diet or food is better for you than something else. Most of the extreme views I have seen out there do not hold up in the context of this evolutionary framework. For example, I don’t think eating only fat, only plants, or only meats are healthy lifestyle choices.
When presented with new food choices, I usually follow a decision tree to figure out whether it fits my definition of healthy food.
The first thing I do is determine whether our ancestors could have had access to a version of the food I’m considering eating.
That decision point immediately rules out dairy and grains, because humans didn’t become farmers until about 10,000 years ago.
Next, I determine whether I can eat the food raw, without cooking, boiling, soaking or fermenting it. If the answer is “no,” I often don’t eat it.
That rules out most legumes (such as soy or beans), which are toxic if you eat them raw.
In a nutshell, here’s what I eat and don’t eat as far as fresh food is concerned. The principal rationale behind this “eat and don’t-eat” list is the evolutionary framework, as I explained before. But don’t fret; we’ll go into more details and scientific research further down.
Macronutrients refer to protein, fat and carbohydrates. Your body cannot synthesize protein or fat, which is why you need dietary sources to supply them.
On the other hand, your body doesn’t need carbs to function because it can make glucose from other sources. Despite the fact that our bodies don’t need carbs to thrive, we consume them in astounding quantities — especially sugars and other refined carbs.
Protein consists of peptides, which are compounds made up of amino acids, the building blocks of life. You might have also heard the term “essential amino acids,” which refers to those amino acids that your body cannot produce on its own. As a result, you have to get them from food. In other words, you need to eat protein for your body to function.
The two primary sources of protein we have available are animals and plants. The former is often easier to digest and more bioavailable. However, don’t take this as an indication that you don’t need plants in your diet! While we don’t need them for their protein, non-starchy vegetables are irreplaceable because of their micronutrients and fiber.
Fat consists of fatty acids, many of which are essential. Again, that means that your body cannot make them. As such, you need to eat fat for your body to function. Similar to protein, fat can come from both animal and plant-based sources.
Did you know that 60% to 70% of your brain is made up of fat? Additionally, every cell in your body is wrapped in fat so that the cell membranes can function properly. That’s why it’s crucial that you have sufficient amounts of healthy fats in your diet.
While many types of fat are beneficial for your health, there are numerous fatty-acids which promote inflammation and, ultimately, increase your risk of developing a chronic disease. For example, most vegetable oils contain an unhealthy amount of damaged omega-6 fatty acids. Those molecules have the potential to cause inflammation by damaging other cells. That’s why you should stay away from canola, soybean, and similar oils.
Instead, stick with oils that have a more favorable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, or ones that don’t oxidize as quickly. Examples include coconut oil, avocado oil, or olive oil. To learn more about the vital role of fat in your diet and why eating fat doesn’t make you fat, check out this related article.
Carbohydrates are the only macronutrients that are not essential. While it is true that your body can convert carbohydrates into glucose and use it for fuel, it doesn’t have to. You heard me – your body does not need carbs to function. Instead, it can convert non-carbs, such as fat, into glucose and use it as energy. We call that process Gluconeogenesis, and it’s the principal idea behind the Ketogenic diet.
Knowing that carbs are not essential for the body to thrive and understanding that too much glucose (sugar) can wreak havoc to your body’s metabolism, I’d encourage you to pay close attention to the so-called glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) of the food you eat.
The GI and GL combined tell you what impact a food has on your body’s blood sugar and insulin levels. For example, dates or watermelons have a high glycemic index, resulting in a sharp rise of your blood sugar levels, if you eat them in large quantities. On the other hand, strawberries have a low GI, making them a favorite fruit of the Ketogenic diet.
Food can negatively impact your wellbeing in numerous ways. If you are allergic or sensitive to a certain food, your body’s immune system can respond. An example of an immediate immune response would be a peanut allergy.
In other cases, your immune system might respond with a delay of several hours or even days, such in the case of celiac diseases.
While you can often trace an immediate or delayed immune response back to the food you ate, some silent killers won’t manifest until it’s usually too late. I’m talking about food-induced chronic inflammation and the disturbance of your gut bacteria.
Every time to take a bite from that delicious hamburger or doughnut, you feed inflammatory processes in your body and the “bad” bacteria in your gut. In the long-run, these habits increase the risk and speed up the development of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
As a result, I try to reduce the amount of food I eat that have the proven potential to cause inflammation and mess with my gut microbiota.
Some things are worth paying more money for, to get better quality. For my family and I, food falls into that category.