You Are What You Eat... So What Should You Eat?
The phrase 'You are what you eat' used to get thrown around a lot. Maybe it still does, but not in my direction. It's one of those rare phrases that is not only beautifully simple and intuitive but also scientifically accurate.
The cells in our body and constantly dying, being killed off and subsequently replaced with new ones. It's simply a natural part of growing and aging. In order to create new cells and maintain our bodies nutrients are extracted from the food that we eat. Hence, 'You are what you eat'... literally. You may have even heard that over the course of 7 - 10 years every cell in your body will have been replaced, leading us to wonder are we even the same person? (Note: This is not entirely true, certain cells, like the neurons in our brains are never replaced. See sources below.)
So if you literally are what you eat then a good question to ask yourself is probably 'what should I be eating?' It seems like a simple enough question right? In an attempt to answer this seemingly straight forward question I've done a bunch of reading and research. The result of my efforts? Total confusion.
Depending on what book you read, YouTube video / documentary you watch or scientific paper you slog through you will find many different answers to the question 'What should I eat in order to be healthy?' For every passionate vegan doctor telling you that a plant based diet is the best you will find others telling you that a high fat, high protein diet is what you need in order to thrive. There are even people following a 'carnivore' diet in which they consume only red meat and claim that they feel better than ever.
At the time of writing this there are a bunch of diets that are on trend:
Eat like a caveman. Meat, fruit and vegetables are ok but grains are not. In a nutshell it's all about eating like humans did before the advent of agriculture
High fat low carb
Similar to Paleo. Meat, fish, dairy, oils and non starchy vegetables (no potato, but broccoli is fine) are all on the menu,
No animal products (even honey for some).
Eggs and dairy are ok, but no other animal products
Whole food plant based
Basically vegan, but I make the distrinction here because a vegan can eat nothing but Oreos all day and still be a vegan. Anyone on a WFPB diet will avoid all processed food and focus instead on vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes.
Meat only or predominantly meat
I don't want this blog to turn into a space for me to moan about health, environmental and social issues and so I have a goal - to provide some sort of positive and actionable outcomes from the topics that I am exploring. When it comes to diet I don't want to take sides in the paleo vs carbs debate or the everyone vs vegans debate because that's just not helpful. Instead I will try a expose the common grounds. The things that everyone agrees on when it comes to healthy eating.
In order to do this I think the best approach is to change the question. Instead of asking 'what should I eat in order to be healthy', start with 'what foods should I avoid in order to be healthy'. This question is a lot easier to answer.
It's not a very long list because people disagree a lot... but it's simple:
Eat whole, unprocessed, unrefined foods
Eat organic where possible
Drink plenty of water
That's it. Follow those three rules and you will be doing much better than the average person in western society. Let's dive into each one individually.
Eat whole, unprocessed, unrefined foods
Junk food, fast food, sugary drinks. We all know that this stuff is bad for us, but there are more insidious foods out there. Processed meats, for example, have been categorized as a class 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization. This puts them on the same level as tobacco smoke! So it might be wise to avoid bacon, hot dogs and the many lunch meats available on the market.
The message really is simple. The food you are eating should be as close to it's natural state as possible. This includes even minimal processing. Apple's are great, but apple juice is not. In a glass of apple juice you are getting the sugar content of several apples with none of the fiber. You probably wouldn't sit down and eat 6 apples, but it would be pretty easy to drink six apples worth of juice... and that is a lot of sugar.
To follow this rule simply make an effort to check the ingredients on anything you buy. If there are a bunch of words on there that you don't understand or can't pronounce then you are probably better off avoiding.
Eat organic where possible
Organic produce is expensive, which is why I added 'where possible' to this one. In terms of nutritional value the general consensus is that there isn't much difference between organic and non-organic products. However, the amount of toxins you are putting in your body will differ. Non-organic animal products will have traces of anti-biotics and various other toxins stored away in the fat, and plant foods will have been sprayed down with pesticides that can be harmful to your health. You should wash your veg anyway, but this still won't get rid of all of the toxic residue.
Non-profit environmental and health group EWG has published a list of 12 fruits/vegetables that should be avoided if non organic. If buying organic is not possible then this list will at least let you make more informed decisions about what organic produce you do buy.
There is also the environment to consider, but I'll save that for a future blog post and this one is long enough as is.
Drink plenty of water
Water has a massive effect on your physical performance, energy and focus. Your body is about 60% water so keeping yourself hydrated just makes sense!
To get an idea of just how critical water is, consider the fact that the human body can survive for thirty days without food. Go without water and you will likely only last three or four days.
If your diet consists of a lot of sugary drinks (coke, pepsi, fruit juices, red bull) then ditching all of these in favor of water will likely yield huge health benefits, even if this is the only thing you change.
Why Is Nutrition So Complicated?
Nutrition is difficult to study because there are so many variables. Sure, you can compare what two people eat and analyze/compare their overall health but this doesn't tell you whether it was actually the diet that caused any health problems that may appear. You also have to look at other habits. Do they smoke? Do the exercise? Do they drink a lot of alcohol? Genetics also plays a part so that needs to be factored in too.
Then we need to think about where the people live. Living in a polluted city is very different than living in a remote unpopulated area. To see this in effect you just need to compare the lungs of a city dweller with someone from the countryside. The city dweller will have black spots and general discoloration caused by constant exposure to toxic gases. Accounting for all of this is very difficult and so it can be hard to have any certainty when it comes to the results of dietary studies.
Another influencing factor is money. Many studies that claim eggs and dairy are good for your health were funded by the dairy and egg industries, so it is hard to take them seriously. It has also happened in the past that scientists were paid by vested interests to skew the results of studies. This means we need to be careful when interpreting studies. Some questions to ask are:
Who funded the study?
How was the study carried out?
Scientific studies need to be carefully designed to account for the above variables, and improperly designed study will yield invalid results
Was the study peer reviewed?
Once a study is published it should be reviewed by other scientists and its results confirmed and or replicated
Finally, it's worth thinking about the roll the mainstream media plays in our view of health and nutrition. News outlets love sensationalist attention grabbing headlines, and this is true now more than ever. It is very easy to take a study that suggests some correlation between two things and present it as fact (see time magazines 'Butter is Back' article). As a rule you should take everything the media says about diet and nutrition with a pinch of salt (pun intended). Remember that they are trying to make money and are not necessarily in the best position to interpret the results of a complex scientific study.
It's worth mentioning that in all of the reading/research I've done it seems that most people are lacking in vitamin D3. Also, if you are eating a plant based diet it is probably worth looking into taking some B12. Other than I think the goal should be to get all of the nutrients you need from real food. Taking every supplement you can get your hands on will do nothing for a bad diet - they are supplementary, ie. they enhance/ compliment an already healthy diet.
There are a couple of quotes that I came across in my research that I think sum up the approach that we should take to our nutrition and health.
If you love Coke and you see a news report that tells you Coke is actually healthy you are likely to simply accept that report at face value. This is a form of confirmation bias and is something we should try to be aware of. Recently a lot of studies seem to be suggesting that high fat is good, which makes it easy for all of us to justify eating donuts!
Unless of course it is an unhealthy diet. The important thing here is that your diet needs to be sustainable. Don't think about eating healthy for the next week, think about the next ten years. If you can't maintain your current diet for a decade then what's the point? Find a diet that follows the basic rules outlined earlier in this post and make sure it will work for you long term.
Here are some of the more interesting books/websites/podcasts that I have stumbled across in my quest to find out what I should be eating (specifically from a health point of view - we'll leave environment and sustainability for another day).
The Big Fat Surprise: why butter, meat, and cheese belong in a healthy diet, Nina Teicholz
How Not To Die: Discover the foods scientifically proven to prevent and reverse disease, Dr Michael Greger
The Plant-Based Solution: America's Healthy Heart Doc's Plan to Power Your Health, Joel K. Kahn and John Mackey
WHO (International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC) Group 1 Carcinogens
Pelletier, TC. (August 10, 2010). Do We Replace Our Cells Every 7 or 10 years? Retrieved from http://askanaturalist.com/do-we-replace-our-cells-every-7-or-10-years/ on April 9, 2018
What The Health - Controversial Netflix documentary around diet and health
Podcasts / Youtube