Rant: Why diet labels are a problem.
We’ve all seen the diet labels: Paleo, Vegan, Zone, Atkins, Low carb high fat, gluten free etc.
Dietary labels describe an eating philosophy, however the label itself leads to problems unintended by the author of that label.
As much as I love the paleo diet and it transformed my health – I hate what the label has become.
Lets look at what paleo actually is: being informed by evolutionary biology as to the best / most healthy diet for humans. We also take into account modern nutrition science to confirm whether foods are problematic, for example “do grains really have gut irritants and what is the process by which they damage our gut?” and also what foods we need to give ourselves the most nutritious diet possible.
We know that the foods available today are not the same as our caveman ancestors ate, so with any food available today we can judge its safety and nutrition using modern science.
Here are a few of the problems with a diet label:
1. Academics and others use the label to make ridiculous criticisms, for example Marlene Zuk (here) criticises popular notions of paleo – like this “Trying to emulate what people ate 10,000 or 100,000 years ago is really difficult. Our foods have changed so much that virtually every item in a supermarket is drastically genetically different from its prehistoric equivalent.”
If you read any popular lay article on paleo you’ll get images and titles like this giving the idea that paleo is all about the meat:
To Marlene and others who make these claims: We are not trying to emulate a caveman diet, we are informed by what our ‘wild’ ancestors ate, much like a zookeeper is informed by what a wild lion eats. Does the zookeeper feed the lion a wild antelope? No he feeds it whole lamb or cow or whatever is available. Likewise we are informed by wild human diets and eat a natural diet from foods available in our own environment.
2. People simplify the diet to ‘eat this not that’ – rather than finding the diet that best suits them. Examples are eating what is ‘allowed’ on a diet, but missing the point of the diet. Paleo again is about maximising nutrients and minimising foods that YOU don’t do well on. This differs for each person. Lean CrossFitters with great insulin sensitivity and high activity levels will crash on a very low carb diet (Read Robb Wolf’s excellent series on carbs here). Some people tolerate well prepared legumes while others don’t. If you don’t have the genes for celiac disease, it is unlikely a little grain will cause you health issues, and being insanely pedantic about a miniscule amount of gluten eating out is a stress that is not necessary.
3. Along the lines above – ‘eat this, not that’ gets translated into – “as long as we are eating the right ingredients we can make whatever we want with said ingredients” and we convince ourselves we are still eating a healthy diet. Paleo muffins, cakes, cookies, and pancakes anyone? Take lashings of ground nuts, soaked and puree dates or dried fruit and refined coconut fat, and combine them into numerous tasty treats, call it paleo, feel virtuous. Is is any wonder people eating this diet fail to be healthy or lose their excess fat? (I bet you are thinking of googling the recipe below?)
A point to note is the desire for delicious / sweet is a human one – hunter gatherers gorge on honey when they find it.
We should all be striving to find the perfect human diet for us – as a species, and more importantly as an individual.
Here are questions to ask yourself about your own diet (this applies to any diet not just paleo):
1. Do you get all the nutrients your body needs from your diet? Is your diet supernutrient?
Here are a few examples: Vitamin A and copper – found in large amounts in liver. Selenium, low in New Zealand soils, and found in brazil nuts, kidneys and seafood. Iodine, also low in NZ soil and found in sea vegetables, seafood, thyroid support supplements, and iodised salt. Polyphenols – the colours in fruit and veg, great for their anti-inflammatory properties and gut bacteria nurturing nutrients – found in colourful fruit and vegetables. Sulphur – found in cruciferous and onion groups of veg. Omega 3 – found in oily seafood. Starches and fibre that support the growth of our healthy gut bacteria found in starchy and other vegetables, cooled potato and rice, green bananas and asparagus.
And that’s just for starters – build your diet around a large range of plant food, and healthy proteins from land and sea, and whole food fats.
2. Is your diet supporting your energy needs? Do you get the calories and starch required for your activity levels? Are you getting adequate – but not excess protein for maintaining your muscles and bone?
3. Are you eating an anti-inflammatory diet? Anti-oxidants, (both water-soluble like vitamin C, and fat soluble like vitamin E tocotrienols) polyphenols, omega 3 and adequate nutrients – vitamins, minerals and trace minerals are all essential.
4. Have you taken out the foods that don’t work for you? If you have an auto-immune condition you may need to remove not only grains and legumes, but all nuts, seeds, dairy, alcohol and nightshades.
5. Is your diet supporting a healthy microbiome? Kate has a good overview here. In a nutshell – remove medications like ant-acids, antibiotics, and oral contraception if possible, and eat foods that nourish your gut bacteria, like vegetables and fruit and fermented foods.
6. Are you eating in a way that supports healthy hormonal response to meals? For me what works is roughly along the lines of a zone diet: a palm of protein at EVERY meal for satiety, lots and I mean lots of vegetables – 3/4 of a plate full, and a little if any added fat. With the protein at each meal plus the veg, I get by on 3 meals a day and don’t need to snack, once I eat I don’t think about food for another 5 hours. Find what works for you.
7. Has your diet become one of “What treats can I eat with the ingredients allowed?” and when you eat those foods – you can’t stop eating them? If so it is time to reevaluate your diet and go back to a reset. Go back to basics and cut out all treats for 30 days.
Here blog posts to help you get your diet back to healthy high nutrient basics: