By Elizabeth Rowan, DSOM, LAc
Over the past 50 years, experts have struggled to understand the relationship of diet to health and disease. Many doctors disregard nutrition. Others look to national organizations such as the American Heart Association for guidance. Unfortunately, these large bodies are slow to change their recommendations even when contradictory evidence mounts. It can be difficult to sort through all the conflicting advice. Who can you trust? Which changes are the most important? By observing how actual bodies respond to different foods, researches are gaining a solid grasp on which foods, and in what quantities, promote health and which promote disease.
This article contains guidelines based on the latest nutritional science. Many of the recommendations run counter to established advice. This is a TON of information and may seem overwhelming. Rather than attempting to make a massive shift, commit to gradual sustainable change. Eventually you will accomplish your goals.
Here’s the basic tenet: Eat delicious whole foods prepared in ways that maximize nutrition and digestibility
The ideal diet includes:
About one pound per day of appropriately prepared starchy foods
Another pound per day of sugary plants such as fruits, carrots, and beets
As many low-calorie vegetables as you like
One half to one pound fatty meats, seafood, and eggs including cold-water fish such as salmon
4-6 TBSP of healthy fats like butter, coconut oil, and olive oil (some with every meal)
Spices and natural salt to taste (salt is the most important digestive aid in our food).
Raw milk and/or minimally processed dairy products from goat and sheep milk.
Small amounts of snacks and desserts such as nuts, dark chocolate, alcohol, and treats made with fructose-free sweeteners like brown rice syrup
Supplemental foods like beef liver, egg yolks, bone and joint broth (another excellent digestive tonic and important source of minerals), fermented vegetables and beverages to promote digestion.
Dilute apple cider vinegar and Swedish bitters are excellent digestive aids. Liberal use of acids like vinegar and lemon juice to improve flavor and digestibility.
A bit of seaweed, for minerals
Naturally derived supplements as needed especially magnesium, iodine, and vitamins C, D, and K. The body cannot absorb calcium without adequate vitamin A and D from animal fats.
Practice intermittent fasting
Exercise in the morning and expose skin to moderate sunshine
Difficult to digest grains and legumes
Sugar, corn syrup and all things containing them
Omega-6-rich vegetable oils and foods containing them (most processed and fried foods)
As I said, this is the ideal. If this seems unrealistic to you, strive to move toward this over time. Even 80% compliance will give excellent results.
Now we’ll look at the details
The average person needs to eat 0.5-1.0 lb/day (roughly 15% of total calories consumed) plus whatever is needed for athletic endeavors. A daily serving of meat or fish should be about the size of one deck of cards and can be eaten in addition to a couple of eggs each day. A large man may need twice this much to feel satisfied.
Grass-fed meat, cold-water fish, and pastured eggs are the best sources.
Eggs are best cooked soft boiled. The egg white should be cooked well for maximum protein utilization and the yolk left runny to minimize oxidation and prevent loss of nutrients.
Whole-fat minimally processed dairy may be well tolerated and provides an excellent ratio of proteins, fats, and sugars. Ideally, this would come from organically raised, grass-fed cows, sheep, or goats. If raw milk is unavailable, it is best to limit dairy consumption to cultured milk, yogurt, butter, and raw cheese. Pasteurization destroys all enzymes which puts enormous stress on the digestive organs and it reduces the availability of milk’s vitamin and mineral components. Contrary to common belief, high consumption of pasteurized dairy has been linked to osteoporosis.
Eating a quarter pound per week of beef liver or lamb liver provides essential trace nutrients that are difficult to acquire in other foods (particularly copper)
Excess protein creates toxicity in the body.
Some plant proteins, such as those found in many legumes, are inherently toxic.
Soy, egg whites, and pasteurized dairy are harder to digest and may cause problems at lower doses especially in those with poor digestion.
*Recommendation: Occasionally restrict protein to extend life span
This can easily be accomplished by intentionally limiting protein consumption for 1-2 days/week. Simply increase intake of other foods to meet energy needs on these days. Why? Because reduced intake of methionine, which is present in all food proteins, extends life span by reducing oxidative stress on mitochondria (the energy production factories in each of our cells). Excess methionine can promote atherosclerosis.
Acidity, protein consumption, and bone health
Eating large amounts of animal protein can challenge the body to maintain a healthy pH balance because protein tends to slightly increase acidity in the body. However, it’s an oversimplification to say that people eating a diet high in animal protein will have more acidic blood. This balance is carefully monitored and maintained by the body. When the blood becomes even slightly acidic, calcium is pulled from storage in the bones. The real concern here is actually bone and tissue health. Rather than reducing protein, focus on incorporating whole foods containing adequate minerals. Bone broth and raw dairy are the best two dietary sources of large amounts of readily absorbable calcium and other minerals. Calcium supplements are typically poorly absorbed and may contribute to arterial plaque.
Carbohydrate consumption is passionately debated in the nutrition sphere. The low-carb diet fanatics and the high-carb diet diehards are equally adamant that they espouse the only Truth. After experimenting on myself and examining the claims in myriad books, blogs, and studies, I follow the middle path. Let’s break it down.
Nearly everyone can agree that humans do best on a plant-based diet.
Carbohydrates are the primary macronutrient associated with plant foods.
Plants store carbohydrate calories in two ways: starches and sugars. Starches digest entirely as glucose. Sugars, such as sucrose, break down into fructose and glucose.
Fructose consumption is problematic as we’ll discuss momentarily.
Glucose is the body’s preferred carbohydrate
Glucose has three main functions:
It combines with proteins to form structural molecules called glycoproteins
It is an efficient source of fuel used by the mitochondria (our cellular energy factories) in nearly all cells during cellular respiration. Red blood cells and neurons prefer a mix of glucose and ketone bodies. In low oxygen situations, such as during intense exercise, glucose is required for cellular metabolism.
Glucose is a precursor to “reaction oxygen species” (ROS), the killing compounds made by immune cells
Clearly we need glucose for basic functions. Fortunately, it is easy to see how much glucose the body naturally uses, because when too little glucose is consumed, the body will manufacture it from protein. When too much glucose is consumed, the body will dispose of excess by conversion to fat.
The optimal range is achieved with a moderate carbohydrate diet containing 30% total calories from carbohydrates. This is roughly 600 carb calories or 1 lb/day for the average relatively sedentary person plus whatever is needed for athletic endeavors.
Low-carb diets may be beneficial for short periods of time, but they’re neither necessary nor sustainable long-term in most circumstances. High-carb diets, especially if those carbs are refined, are associated with weight gain and metabolic syndrome.
Virtually all pre-industrialized peoples soaked or fermented their grains before making them into porridge, breads, cakes, and casseroles. Traditionally in India, rice and lentils were fermented for two days before being made into dosas and idli. Europeans made slow-rise sourdough breads from fermented starters and soaked oats and other grains overnight in sour milk for porridge. Ethiopians fermented teff for several days before making bread. Mexican corn cakes were soaked and fermented for up to two weeks in banana leaves. We may not understand how ancient people figured out the importance of soaking and fermentation, but we do know that these practices dramatically improve nutrition and digestibility.
All grains contain an antinutrient called phytic acid. When left untreated, it combines with calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and zinc in the intestines and blocks their absorption. Diets high in grains can lead to mineral deficiencies and bone loss. The result is a compromised immune system, chronic inflammation, and increased susceptibility to chronic infection.
*Soaking and fermentation allow enzymes and helpful organisms to break down and neutralize phytic acid.
Scientists have learned that the proteins in grains are also difficult to digest, especially gluten. This puts a tremendous strain on the digestive system and creates permeability of the intestines. As the integrity of the intestinal wall deteriorates we see an increase in allergies, autoimmune disease, mental illness, cancer, heart disease, and neuropathy. This process is insidious. Regardless of whether a person experiences digestive discomfort directly after consuming gluten, we know that this damage is occurring. It might seem hard to imagine that this is true. Grains are ubiquitous and delicious. People have been eating them daily for generations. As a baker that used to add gluten to my bread, I was part of the resistance to the gluten-free craze. However, the research is compelling. Now I know too much to ignore the warnings. Consider this an invitation to join me and begin exploring other foods. Paleo and gluten-free recipes abound on the internet. Restaurants are routinely offering gluten-free and grain-free options. Take care of your future self. Make the change slowly if necessary, but do make the change.
*For anyone in digestive distress, eliminating gluten is a first step to healing. For those without digestive symptoms, soaked and fermented whole grains may constitute about 20% of a health promoting diet.
Ideally, the following glutinous grains would not be consumed unless fermented or soaked for at least 7 and up to 24 hours:
Teff and Amaranth do not contain gluten but should be soaked 24 hours.
The following grains are naturally gluten-free and have lower levels of phytates. It is beneficial, but not necessary to soak them.
*If you are working to repair your GI system, cook unsoaked grains for at least two hours in a high-mineral gelatinous broth. This will help neutralize remaining phytates and replace some of the minerals that are still bound.
These time-consuming methods of food preparation have been lost to our modern world and may seem like a luxury. Consider this an invitation to experiment. Soaking takes little active participation and dramatically reduces cooking time.
*Combine coarsely ground grain with warm water and a couple tablespoons of buttermilk or lemon juice. Let it sit overnight and then prepare as desired. For more detailed cooking instructions and hundreds of delicious recipes consider obtaining a copy of “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon.
Controlling Glycemic Excursions:
After a meal, it’s normal for the blood glucose to rise. However, a healthy digestive system Ideally, blood glucose levels remain relatively stable. High blood glucose levels are associated with damage to organs and nerves while greatly increasing risk of stroke and cancer.
What doesn’t work: Lowering carbohydrate below 600 carb calories/day does not work. To protect the brain, the body will shunt all available glucose to the liver where it is stored for later use by the brain. The rest of the body will take up relatively little glucose and this can actually increase postprandial hyperglycemia.
What does work: First, avoid all refined grains and added sugars. Highly processed starches cause blood sugar spikes and crashes.
If starchy foods are cooked gently and eaten as part of a meal that includes vegetables, protein, fat, and an acidic source (like vinegar, lemon juice, or fermented vegetables), even diabetics can expect a low risk of postprandial hyperglycemia.
Intermittent fasting also promotes stable blood sugar.
Safest starches: consume about 1 lb/day or roughly 4 fist-sized servings
Potato and yam
White rice – there’s an interesting hybrid option of rice that is milled to remove the bran, but the nutrient dense germ remains intact. This can be found at Asian food markets.
Except for white rice, it is best to avoid all refined starches. However, here are some guidelines for occasional eating:
Use safe starch flours: rice flour, potato starch, and tapioca starch. Rice noodles and rice crackers are okay (beware of vegetable oils – see below).
Use sweeteners that digest into glucose: rice syrup, tapioca syrup, and dextrose powder are a few. Mix them with honey to produce an 80% glucose sweetener.
Naturally Sweet Plant Foods: Consume about 1 lb/day
These are the healthiest options:
Tubers, roots, and bulbs: sweet potato, carrot, onion, and beet
Fruits: tomato, cantaloupe, raspberries, papaya, banana, strawberry, peach, plum, orange, pomegranate, watermelon, grapes, pineapple, mango, pear, apple, and blueberries (fruits can be eaten raw and need not be combined with meal ingredients)
Fructose intake should be below 25 grams (100 calories) per day.
This can easily be accomplished by eating roughly 1 fruit or 2 servings of starchy vegetables per meal, plus a fruit snack or dessert
Eating 25 grams of fructose daily improves glycemic response to starchy meals.
However, fructose is chemically reactive and has no specific role in the human body. The digestive tract shunts it to the liver where it is immediately converted into glucose, glycogen, lactate, and fat.
Excess fructose rapidly reacts with proteins to disrupt normal functions. This manifests in joint stiffness, aged skin, DNA damage, hastened aging, stiff blood vessels, high blood pressure, and kidney disease.
Fructose promotes gut permeability and poisoning of the body by endotoxemia, a condition in which intestinal bacteria leak into the bloodstream promoting inflammation and insulin resistance.
Fructose promotes fatty liver disease and metabolic syndrome
Fructose disposal generates uric acid, which can cause gout or kidney stones
If the liver can’t dispose of the fructose quickly enough, it promotes cancer
High doses of fructose clearly promote obesity in clinical trials especially when combined with polyunsaturated fatty acids.
A natural component of most plant matter, dietary fiber goes undigested into the intestines where it serves as food for healthy bacteria. The amount of fiber in the diet determines how many bacteria live in the gut, the type of fiber determines which species flourish. Some fibers, like those contained in cereal grains, may improve transit time in the colon but they cause damage to the intestinal wall. Other types are highly beneficial. Pectin, cellulose, and resistant starch appear to offer many benefits. Pectin, common in fruits and vegetables, appears to protect against atherosclerosis. Berries are high in pectin and contain antimicrobial agents that improve gut flora. Ingesting pectin and resistant starches promotes endogenous production of an important saturated fat called butyrate.
*Butyrate improves health in remarkable ways:
Improves insulin sensitivity and prevents obesity.
Decreases intestinal permeability and heals the gut thus preventing toxins from entering the bloodstream. It has been shown to treat Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Prevents colon cancer by preventing cancer-causing cell mutations.
Improves nerve function, thus preventing neurodegeneration
Lowers blood cholesterol, triglycerides, and fasting insulin levels
Downregulates inflammatory cytokines and calms the immune system
Fosters cardiovascular tissue repair and recovery
*Butter is one of the best sources of butyrate. The healthy starches recommended above contain resistant starch.
*Eating according to these recommendations provides the right amount of fiber. Supplementing would overfeed the bacteria and cause digestive disturbance.
Like grains, legumes naturally contain multiple toxic substances. Traditional preparation methods that including overnight soaking and long cooking times effectively remove most of these toxins making beans safe to ingest. However, our modern lifestyle rarely permits such elaborate preparation. Since human protein and carbohydrate needs can easily be met with safer and more nutritious foods, it makes sense to avoid beans. If you choose to include beans, take the time to properly prepare them. Nourishing Traditions is an excellent guide.
The science on fats is finally clear. Nutrition advice over the past 40 years is being turned on its head.
Here’s what we know:
Short and medium chain fats, such as those found in coconut oil have no known negative effects. In fact, they may improve gut health, protect against infections, improve neurological function, and reduce cardiovascular disease risks. Consume 2 TBSP of coconut oil or 6 TBSP of coconut milk daily.
Omega-3 and Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFAs)
*These are essential in small quantities for healthy inflammatory immune function. When consumed in appropriate quantity, omega-3 fats reduce inflammatory processes while omega-6 fats promote inflammation. Ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is important because of the role these fatty acids play in regulating inflammation in the immune system.
*The ideal ration is 3 to 1 in favor of omega-3.
This ratio improves bone mineral density, relieves, depression, decreases anger and anxiety, aggression, suicidal behavior, and self-harm. It also improves recovery from sepsis and operations and shortens stay in intensive care units.
If a little is good, more must be better, right? One of the prevailing nutrition fads over the past decade has been the push for greater and greater consumption of PUFAs, especially fish oil.
*Omega-6 consumption above 4% of energy increases the inflammatory effects and has a toxic effect on the body promoting liver disease, atherosclerosis, obesity, allergies and asthma, mental illness, bowel disorders, and cancer. This toxic effect is exacerbated if consumption is combined with fructose or alcohol.
In fact, studies show that liver disease can be reversed by consuming saturated fats (cocoa butter, butter, lard, and coconut oil) instead of PUFAs (whether omega-3 or omega-6) while eliminating alcohol and fructose.
How could something so good be bad?
Lipid peroxidation is the oxidative degradation of lipids in cell membranes. This extremely dangerous chain reaction is initiated by free radicals. It results in cell damage and end products that are mutagenic and carcinogenic such as aldehydes, which mutate DNA, damage mitochondria, oxidize LDL, and turn proteins into Advanced Lipoxidation End products. ALEs are proteins or lipids that become glycated when exposed to sugar and promote inflammation. They are highly correlated with chronic disease. In nearly all modern diets, PUFAs are preferentially oxidized.
The rate of lipid peroxidation appears to be a dominant factor in longevity. The more PUFA animals have in their membranes, the shorter their life span. Likewise, the lower the peroxidation index, the longer the maximum life span.
*When PUFA intake exceeds about 6% of caloric needs, the body cannot utilize them fast enough and they start accumulating, especially in adipose tissue.
*Most Americans’ intake averages 9% of overall calories!
Excess omega-6 consumption has a direct correlation with:
Higher obesity rates. This is strongest on diets high in sugar and weak with low-carb diets.
Depression, mental illness, and high rates of violence.
Suppression and distortion of the immune system resulting in allergies (runny nose, asthma, skin rashes) and weakened response to intracellular viruses and bacteria. This presumably increases susceptibility to diseases associated with intracellular infections, such as atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s, MS, Lyme disease, Parkinson’s and other diseases of aging. Studies show correlation between mothers with high PUFA diets and increased occurrence of allergies in their infants.
*Omega-3 PUFAs are the quickest to react with oxygen and this gives rise to the highest Oxidized LDL levels, a contributor to elevated serum cholesterol and atherosclerosis. *Omega-6 are about half as reactive.
What can you do?
Achieving the optimal fat ratio requires ruthlessly avoiding vegetable seed oils (and foods prepared with them like doughnuts, cookies, crackers, chips) while eating foods naturally rich in omega-3.
You can get enough omega-3 from 1 lb/week of raw or gently cooked cold water seafood such as salmon, sardines, herring, mussels, clams, and shrimp. Chia seeds are also an excellent source.
Choose grass-fed animal products which have higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 than conventionally grown. The fat profile of these foods is also weighted toward saturated fats which are protective.
For best results, avoid fructose and alcohol consumption with meals containing PUFAs to reduce oxidation.
Cod liver oil is a trusted remedy, but remember that this oil is highly volatile and prone to oxidation. Once inside the capsule, it’s difficult to discern whether the oil is still fresh. There is some research on fish oil supplements showing correlation with shortened life span - likely due to peroxidation. If you choose to supplement, it would be wise to take an oil rather than a capsule or to break open the capsules occasionally to taste for rancidity. Whichever you choose, buy a small bottle, keep it refrigerated, and consume it quickly.
Omega-6 fats naturally occur in most plant foods at the ideal quantity of about 2% of total calories. There is no risk of becoming deficient in this fatty acid while eating a whole food diet as described in this handout.
Saturated fatty acids (SaFA) and monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA)
Despite decades of misguided derision, there is no upper limit for saturated fatty acids (SaFA) and Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA). Unlike all other nutrients, they are not toxic at any dose because they are chemically stable. They do not contribute to cardiovascular disease. In fact, they’re protective!
*Saturated fats don’t oxidize and monounsaturated fats are only slightly more likely to oxidize.
The body utilizes other fats by converting them to cholesterol and saturated fat because it is the preferred fuel of the body. The only place they are chemically modified is in the liver and in mitochondria (the organelles inside every cell that oversee energy production and cellular respiration). Each of these transformations is benign and produces no toxic products.
High amounts of SaFA and MUFA have dramatic benefits including:
Improved lipid profiles thus diminished risk of heart disease by increasing levels of protective HDL cholesterol and making LDL particles larger and more buoyant (this protects them from glycation and oxidation and makes them far less likely to bond to arterial walls).
Improved triglyceride and insulin levels: triglycerides are essentially the storage form of carbohydrates. Insulin inhibits the removal of triglycerides from the blood.
Increased muscle mass. The body naturally stores excess SaFA and MUFA by increasing cells in muscle tissue. To gain muscle mass, eat the normal carb intake (30%) and the rest of the diet should mimic that of muscle tissue itself – 18% protein and 52% fat as SaFU and MUFA. This is also critical. Eating “fat” doesn’t make you fat. It all depends upon the type of fat and the way it is combined with other macronutrients. One classic study “proving” that saturated fat and cholesterol caused arterial plaque involved dissolving egg yolk in vegetable oil. When they inserted this into a mouse artery it adhered to the vessel wall. It is unclear whether anyone considered the role of the PUFA in this outcome.
*The biggest takeaway: Commit to eating 80% minimally processed whole foods without added sugars. If you’re at your ideal weight, there is no need to limit the quantity of dietary cholesterol, SaFAs or MUFAs.