Sometimes, it is easy to get caught up in minutiae and lately, reading a lot of arguments amongst nutritional gurus, it seems all they care about is the details, missing the vast majority of what we agree on.
I find similar arguments occurring in my head when I get caught in the details sometimes, depending on which research I've read most recently and which symptoms are bothering me most.
We know what's wrong. We know most of us mostly eat processed foods full of crap.
We also know the USDA guidelines are not optimized for human health. They emphasize grains, which are very low in all necessary micronutrients, thus mostly empty calories even if you ignore the issues with anti-nutrients. They lump together all fruits and vegetables as if potatoes and raisins are nutritionally equivalent to kale and blueberries on either macronutrient or micronutrient levels. And they minimize the necessity of fats, in a world where many of us are low on fat-soluble micronutrients; of the fats they allow, they prefer the inflammatory high omega 6 fats. So we know the USDA is not the ultimate purveyor of optimal human health.
What do we know that is right?
- We know foods contain macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals).
- Of the macronutrients, we know we don't really need much carbohydrate since the body makes glucose out of both protein and fat when needed. We know we need some protein, which cannot be made from the other macronutrients and must be had directly. And we know we need some fats, saturated fats including medium-chain triglycerides, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats limited except for CLA, EPA and DHA.
- Of the micronutrients, we have vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals of both the water-soluble and fat-soluble types.
- We also know there's anti-nutrients (phytates and lectins) which prevent us from absorbing micronutrients and outright toxins in some foods.
(And the foodies amongst us know even more - that real food doesn't come as a micronutrient or macronutrient package, but as a glorious mixture infinitely tastier than food-like products sold in the typical supermarket!)
In summary, we need good protein and healthy fats from both water-based and fat-based foods.
Jackie's food groups and "eating groups"
Based on the macronutrient, micronutrient and anti-nutrient composition of foods, these are the food groups that make sense to me:
- nonstarchy vegetables
- protein sources
- low-sugar fruits
- nuts & seeds
- starchy vegetables
- high-sugar fruits
- processed foods (i.e. food-like products)
Just as real food isn't macronutrients and micronutrients, the meals and snacks we eat aren't "food groups". So I am simplifying further down to three "eating groups":
- nonstarchy vegetables, cooked or dressed with healthy fats
- good protein sources, which come with healthy fats naturally (or can be bought low-fat with good fats added during preparation)
- everything else
And here's my big ass picture to summarize what constitutes a maximally healthy diet:
Half your food as nonstarchy vegetables cooked or dressed in healthy fat,
a quarter of your food as good protein with natural fats (if pastured or wild)
or added healthy fats (if CAFO)
and a quarter as everything else.
a bit more detail
Pick some of these of different colors and eat more of them by volume than any other food.
Get them from your garden, a CSA, a farmer's market or a grocery store. Get them organic or non-organic, fresh, frozen, dried or even canned.
Eat them raw in salads, juiced or in smoothies; eat them fermented; eat them cooked via boiling, steaming, frying, braising, roasting, pressure cooking or microwaving; eat them in soups, stews and casseroles.
Add some fat to improve the bioavailability of nutrients: cook with butter, coconut oil, lard, schmaltz or tallow or dress with avocado oil, butter, coconut oil or olive oil.
Pick some of these that you like and eat a decent serving with every meal.
If pastured or wild-caught, get the highest-fat versions and eat them with all their natural fats.
If from a cheap source, get them low-fat as toxins are concentrated in fat and the fat won't have much nutrition anyway. Make up for the lack of good fat by cooking or eating with lots of butter and coconut oil.
Fill in the rest of your diet with low-sugar fruits, starchy vegetables, high-sugar fruits, nuts & seeds, legumes, grains, sugars, processed foods and alcohol.
The details here depend on your genes, the epigenetic expression of those genes, known health issues you have and any dietary religion you subscribe to.
how to do the popular diets to maximize health
Rather than tell you what is wrong with your dietary religion (which many folks subscribe to more fervently than their actual spiritual beliefs), I am instead going to give advice about how to maximize whatever eating plan you follow with my "eating groups".
Summary - so which diet is best?
Truly, I don't think it matters for most people.
If you're eating all your veggies and protein with healthy fats, you've crowded most crap out of your diet. I am of the opinion that if you have good genes and are relatively healthy, you can get away with the other 25% of your food being candy, cake, ice cream and pie! You'd still be ahead of 99% of the folks out there who are eating mostly food-like products with little nutrition rather than actual food, let alone nutrient-dense food.
That is good enough for many folks. It's the advice I always start with when asked about nutrition. However, if you keep asking, I can spout lots more!
For people who don't want to think about it a lot - just eat real food, mostly nonstarchy veggies and protein well lubed with healthy fats. That's it.