Sorting the wheat from the chaff

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Another day, another article in the media telling you to ignore the nutritional advice they said yesterday because today there’s a NEW study that proves that a diet consisting of 1kg of jelly beans a day is good for you.

It can be hard to make sense of the bombardment of news, views and opinions when it comes to food. Ironically we care more now about what we eat than ever before, yet the consensus about what we should be eating is more complicated and confusing than ever. We eat more calories than ever before, have more choice than any generation before us yet we’re fatter and unhealthier than ever. Modern medicine is a marvel, but our health systems are struggling (I live in the UK) and few us enjoy spending time in a hospital.

A good chat with a friend at the bar the other night about his new eating plan, how everyone has a fucking opinion on food these days and the rise and rise of ever more ridiculous diets got me thinking: Can I, as a normal person who eats food, make sense of all the noise and figure out some common ground and sensible advice for all of us?

I want to see what a variety of doctors, nutritionists and other experts have to say with no agenda (other than helping improve your health), no sponsor and no expectation. We going to avoid ridiculous fad diets such as the grapefruit diet or the tapeworm diet (don’t ask) and diets that severely restrict calorific intake. And because this post is about what we SHOULD eat, we’ll save the conversation around fasting and ideal calorie intake for another day.

What I will look at is as wide a range of views as possible and see what you should be eating for the rest of your life to live a long and healthy life and see if there’s any common messaging between them all.

We’ve become obsessed with weight loss, perfect abs and the size of our butts, whilst at the same time becoming more obese than at any time in history so I want to set a couple of metrics to define what good health means.

  • Longevity – increasing lifespan whilst also being healthy at an older age so you can enjoy more of your life
  • Disease prevention – reducing your chances of getting a serious disease such as cancer, heart attacks for diabetes

So let’s begin…

Fill a room with nutritionists and they’ll argue until their next meal about what is the perfect diet, citing studies from here and there and occasionally with an agenda or product to sell, but is there anything that most nutritionists do agree on?

At the extreme ends of the nutritionist scale, we find two, seemingly, vastly differing viewpoints: those that promote a whole food plant-based diet (not to be confused with vegan), and those that promote the caveman-like paleo diet. One eschews meat in favour of plants, and the other focuses on a meat-heavy, high protein, low carb way of eating.

If we can find something that both of these views agree on, then we should be a step closer to making some sense of all this food noise.

According to Dr. Loren Cordain, the foremost expert on the Paleo Diet, your food choices whilst eating Paleo have some common ground with those experts, such as, Dr. Dean Ornish, who advocates a whole food, plant-based diet, including:

Cut down on, or completely exclude certain types of food:

  • Refined Sugar – Not to be confused with sugar that comes attached to natural sources, like fruit
  • Processed Foods – Soda, cake, crisps, bread, pastries
  • Salt – All agree that our diets contain far too much salt
  • Refined Oils – Oils high in saturates such as sunflower or vegetable oil
  • Dairy – Milk, cheese, yoghurt etc

Whilst increasing your intake of:

  • Fresh fruit & vegetables – Leafy greens are particularly important
  • Nuts and Seeds – Coconut, almonds, walnuts, chia, pumpkin etc
  • Healthy Oils – Olive, coconut, avocado, flaxseed

So now we’ve got some common ground between both ends of the scale: Eat more fruit & vegetables, nuts & seeds and healthy oils whilst cutting out salt, refined sugar, processed foods, highly saturated fats and dairy.

Putting aside our immediate external appearance and looking to long-term health, what are the longest-lived, least diseased and healthiest people on the planet eating?

We don’t need to look far here, as Dan Buettner, in his book, The Blue Zones Solution, has done a lot of the hard work for us. Dan and his team looked at the areas of the world where groups of people live the longest and healthiest (the Blue Zones) and tried to discover some key factors that are common to all these groups. There were common factors involved in their longevity, including regular movement and exercise, strong social circles, low mental health illness and regular time spent in nature, but this post is about what we eat, so let’s look at their diets.

It seems that there is some commonality amongst the food they eat:

  • 95% of their calorie intake came from plant-based food
  • They all ate a high carb, low protein diet
  • Nuts and beans were staples of their diets
  • When they did eat meat or fish, it was unprocessed and organic

And if you’re wondering where the Blue Zones are:

  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Lomo Linda California, USA
  • Sardinia, Italy
  • Nicoya, Costa Rica
  • Ikaria, Greece

Dr. Michael Greger has dedicated his working life to providing impartial, scientific nutrition advice and recently published his #1 best selling book How Not To Die. Dr Greger highlights that poor diet is the biggest cause of premature death and analyses how food can help prevent and reverse the 15 most common causes of death in the United States including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and degenerative brain disease. What did his research find? That we should all cut out processed food, reduce our refined sugar and salt intake and eat more vegetables.

So what can we make of all this if we want to eat for a long and healthy life?

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables
  • Eat organic, grass-fed, unprocessed meat where possible
  • If you want to snack, then grab a handful of unsalted nuts
  • Cut out processed foods such as crisps, soda (including diet sodas), cake and pastries
  • Avoid fried foods, refined oils and processed meat
  • Include beans (kidney, chickpeas, black etc) wherever possible
  • Cut back on dairy consumption

Combine this with plenty of sleep, regular exercise, the occasional nap, regular sex with a regular partner, plenty of real social interaction and managing mental health and you should live a long, healthy and happy life. I look forward to your 100th birthday invite.

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