The goal of life is to thrive and a determining factor in your ability to maintain a consistent state of mental well-being is the state of your physical well-being. Quite simply, it is more difficult to find joy in your existence if you are consistently sick and tired. The triumvirate of diet, exercise and adequate sleep are proven ways to better health, with diet taking the lead role. Improving your diet will do more to improve your health than any other factor. Yet, with the inundation of diet information available how do you know what is really going to improve your nutrition? Everybody seems to have a recommendation on how to eat. Even the government is in on the act and with the abundance of resources and research at their disposal they should know what is best, right? Just eat the My Plate recommendations. It’s the government. What could possibly go wrong? A quick look at our evolution and a non-biased review of the scientific literature tells quite a different story, however. And, as in so many other areas of life, the key to the future lies in the past.
In order to know what to eat to optimize health you have to understand your heritage. And no, this doesn’t give you Southerners the green light to put mayonnaise on your black-eyed peas like your Pappy who lived to be 100 did. It means to look at our evolutionary heritage. What foods did our species evolve to eat?
Humans evolved over millions of years during the Paleolithic Era and for 99% of our evolutionary history we were hunter-gatherers. It was only 10,000 years ago that we began to cultivate and plant grains. Although 10,000 years sounds like a long time to you and me, it is nothing in evolutionary time and our dietary needs have not changed from our evolutionary roots as hunter-gatherers. In short, we are hard-wired to thrive on a very similar diet to that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. So what did people eat back then? The diet consisted, as the name implies, of things that could be hunted (meat) and things that could be gathered (vegetables, fruits and nuts.) Again, grains as a staple did not appear until 10,000 years ago when we transitioned to an agriculturally based lifestyle and the anthropological record reveals an interesting fact about this transition. The bones of hunter-gatherers as compared to the bones of farmers demonstrate that the former where much healthier. Yes, healthier. They were larger in stature, less brittle and showed fewer signs of disease. Why was this, the case? Wasn’t a nomadic life much more onerous than an agricultural one? The answer lies in the fact that hunter-gatherers ate in alignment with their evolutionary heritage and to achieve optimal health so should you.
Now don’t get me wrong, the move to agriculture was an astounding intellectual accomplishment that laid the ground work for our complex society, the market based economy and undreamed of affluence. Crops that were relatively easy to grow and store changed the trajectory of human civilization. However it came with many costs (see the Downside of Agriculture.) And the cost I want to focus on here is health. A grain-based diet does not provide optimal nutrition. I know this flies in the face of what you have been told your whole life, but hey, that’s why I’m here.
Grains like all living things have evolved mechanisms to forward their genetic material on to future generations. Grains don’t have brains or teeth to protect themselves, but they do contain compounds that inflame and irritate the human body when ingested. Some people have mild reactions and some people have strong reactions, such as those suffering from Celiac disease. The whole gluten-free movement that you may have noticed at your grocery store or favorite restaurant is based on the preceding fact. Another downside to grains is their high glycemic index which means that they are easily and quickly converted to glucose by the body. A quick conversion means a quick crash after your body gets the initial sugar rush. Slower burning foods like protein help keep more consistent glucose levels in the body. Glucose primarily matters because it is what fuels your brain. Without it you don’t think straight and are more likely to lose self-control, which usually doesn’t bode well for most of us. Glucose is also a key factor in Type 2 Diabetes. Chronically high levels of blood glucose caused in part by eating too much sugar and high glycemic index foods, like grains, contribute to the diminished effectiveness of insulin in the body. Insulin is what regulates glucose levels in the blood, which become toxic if they reach too high a level. Needless to say, that ain’t good. And this is why your health care company wants to know your blood glucose level as this helps determine what kind of risk you are for diabetes. The preceding health woes, not to mention obesity, heart disease and general malaise are brought to you in part by eating against your evolution.
If grains are so bad, you may ask, then why does the government tout them as part of a nutritious diet? That is a good question. If I had to guess I’d say it has something to do with the fact that the three largest cash crops in the US are corn, soy and wheat and there is several large, deep-pocketed food companies that sell products derived from these crops. While corn and soy are not as insidious as wheat they mimic its effect with similar compounds. I’m not suggesting there are government/corporate conspiracies to poison us. I’m just trying to follow the money. The government food pyramid that I grew up with or the new My Plate allocation has a political component. Interested groups lobby to be included in the recommendation for a healthy diet. It is difficult to objectively determine the components of a healthy diet when inclusion can be swayed by monetary concerns. Unfortunately however that is the reality of the bribeocracy in which we live.
In order to be healthy you have to tune out the noise and look to the science. The research suggests a diet of lean meat, vegetables, fruits and good fats is the key to longevity and health. It has worked to produce healthy people for millions of years and I believe that it will work for you.
For an exhaustive review of the science and details of the eating program please read The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf (unfortunately I’m not getting any kickbacks.) The title is appropriate because it is not a diet in the restrict calories to lose weight sense; it is a solution for poor nutrition. Before I began to eat Paleo I was grumpy, constantly battling nagging colds and could barely summon the energy to stay up after a long day at work to play with my sons. I had (and have) so many things I wanted to do beyond that but had no gas in the tank. I was eating the standard American diet (SAD) and working out but still wasn’t getting the results I wanted. Once I began to eat Paleo however all that changed. I’m 43 and unquestionably in the best shape of my life. I lost weight and I’m keeping it off almost effortlessly. With two small boys sleep is at a premium in my house but even with limited sleep I have consistent energy throughout the day. When my head does hit the pillow I sleep well. I stay regular and am flatulent very rarely (although passing gas is a source of entertainment for me and my two sons so I may have to move lack of gas to the liability side of the ledger.) I’m rarely sick and various bodily inflammations, including allergies, have all been assuaged. I feel great, my blood work is great and I’m happier and healthier than I ever have been. Sorry for the infomercial but I thought you should know that I have done this and it works.
A relatively easy way to improve your well-being with fast and noticeable results is to improve your health. I encourage everyone to pick the low hanging fruit of dietary change to improve physical well-being as a foundation and confidence builder for the challenges of improving mental well-being that are at the heart of thriving and the main purpose of this blog.