Evolving Thoughts on Human Nutrition

Nutrition. Food. Diet. Sustenance. Nourishment. Dining. Meal Planning. Health. Longevity. Performance. All are interesting topics which occupy the popular mindset  in no small manner. And for good reason. What we consume can certainly have profound impacts on our beings…and their well-being.

This is much more a reflection and opinion than any summation of research. I’m going to list out a number of phrases and terms and then say what I think. I hope this provides food for thought for you and of course the pun is totally intended.

Doctrine and Dogma: These words are similar. Doctrine can be viewed as a set of principles held central by a group or organization, such as church or government. Dogma would generally be the portion of doctrine considered most essential and put forth with the greatest fervor. For some reason, we’ve always been told what to eat…or we’ve wanted to be told what is best for us to eat. The problem here is so much of that guidance around nutrition has been relatively context-specific and poorly generalizable to the entire population. The phrase “take that with a grain of salt” comes to mind when I think of a lot of nutritional advice. There are many experts, authorities, and organizations that are so sure that they know what you or I should eat. They will confidently recommend that you should eat low protein and calorically restrict for optimal longevity, based on data taken almost entirely from rodent populations. Or that you must get so much of such and such micronutrient with little regard for your genetics and environment. Or that the ideal macronutrient ratio for every human is fairly rigid and not dynamic with respect to body type and activity patterns. And the problem continues, because a lot of what we have been taught, and in some cases “force-fed,” has proven to be completely wrong. Consideration of dietary dogma requires, actually mandates, a mix of acceptance and skepticism.

Adoption and Buy-in: Anybody selling you on a system, whether they stand to make money from it or just sincerely believe “it’s good for you,” wants you to be an adopter. Early adopters are those who readily see value in something, or are just simply easily convinced. This is not necessarily bad, especially when said system (in this case dietary model) appears to be helpful. The developers of doctrine and the disseminators of dogma want, and need, you to adopt their model. They are seeking buy-in. When you are bought in on something you are all in. You no longer need to question it. In some ways this makes life easier because it lessens decision-making fatigue. Our brains have enough to deal with on a daily basis so why not just adopt a set of nutritional principles that seems to work for you. Just keep an open mind, and be willing to question and adjust your thinking on food. And most of the time this can be done respectfully and sensibly. But maybe don’t forget the past. Hydrogenated vegetable shortening, made from seed oils and full of trans fats was originally, and quite successfully for decades, marketed to us as better than natural products and more healthy for us. Same for margarine. With the help of big business, the masses bought it hook, line, and sinker. There are numerous other examples. Beware finding yourself marching toward a cliff with all the other lemmings.

Camps, Religions, and Belonging: Now here’s a really unique part of human nature. Even the most introverted people among us are still social animals. Being evolutionarily consistent, just think of the clan or tribe. We have a tendency to want to belong to a collective, to feel that we are a part of something, and to be justified in that association. Don’t you find it humorous or even disconcerting that such things as “the low carb camp” or “the high protein community” even exist? I’ve certainly done my share of eating low carb and high protein, but I never felt the need to label my eating as some sort of cool lifestyle. I think people, mostly well-meaning and excited about these things, take it a little too far. I’ve met a lot of folks who say “I’m keto” or even more retro “I’m Paleo.” They are usually massively unimpressed when I say that no, we modern humans are actually Meghalayan, which is a subdivision of the Quaternary Period of the Cenozoic Era. Nobody loves a joker apparently. Where this tendency becomes its worst is when how you eat becomes a pseudo-religion. Historically speaking, the religious pursuit of anything, particularly including religion itself, has resulted in war and decimation. A lesson that keeps being repeated yet never heeded. To be clear, I’m not dissing anyone’s actual religion. I’m merely saying don’t turn your food into one.

The Need to be Right: The goal of science is to be less wrong over time. This is the central tenet of the scientific method and is universally recognized. Ego and bias exist everywhere, in all fields and amongst all of us (despite our best efforts). But they seem to be rampant in nutrition science. There has been a steady stream of researchers and government officials whose proclivity has been to cling to dogma with religious zeal. They need grants and funding. They need to be right. Their careers and reputations depend upon it. The problem is a lot of them have been wrong, and have existed in stubborn denial. Science needs to police itself a little better in the human nutrition field. Study designs need to be improved and the peer review process must be updated. Published papers need to be more trustworthy. Same goes for Simple Sally and Average Joe. We’ve got to be careful about what we tell others. Whether that is making your kid eat broccoli or telling your aging parent that those blanks (insert snack food of choice) are going to kill them. 

Toxicity is Dose-dependent: These topics are rolling off my head but they seem to flow from one to the next. Unless you are talking about cyanide and other poisons, toxins in food (whether real or perceived) really do have quantity and frequency tied to their noxious characteristics. In other words, certain things that may be generally regarded as “bad” for us, such as junk or fast food…are probably so on a dose-specific level. A small amount, every once in a while, may have little to no deleterious effect on metabolic health in most cases. And…this is going to vary from person to person based on genetics, health status, and age as well as being dynamic within that individual in the context of stress, sleep, environmental irritants, etc. This comes down to those bathroom walls in the 70’s. A large percentage of public restrooms had these words scribed upon the walls by a graffiti artist: “Eat shit and Die Motherfucker!” No, these vandals were not necessarily visionaries who knew that consuming more than just a little of the Standard American Diet (SAD) would lead to an early demise…and were advising us to use prudence. But the phrase does bring up a point. Whether you are talking about highly processed foods, or steer manure used in your garden to grow a carrot (that you dust off while harvesting and eat it fresh on the site), you can eat a little shit and not get fucked up. But if you pound shit all the time, in high and frequent doses…well, you get the point.

Generality versus Specificity in the Human Organism: These concepts blend and dance together in artistic fashion in biology. Each Lifetime Athlete needs a general amount of fuel, rest, stimulus, and other inputs to thrive. But the ranges are broad. A developing child, a pregnant woman, an Olympic athlete, a middle-aged office worker, and a great-grandparent have basic needs for nutrition. But each individual is a little different in what might be ideal or optimal. The kid needs high micronutrient diversity, the mom similar with some density considerations, the athlete more calories, carbs, and protein, and probably a little less for those less active and older. I obviously work with a lot of fitness and longevity enthusiasts and recreational athletes. Many of the endurance athletes such as runners, backcountry hikers and hunters, triathletes, and cyclists will say they feel flat and lethargic when training at relatively high volumes in the summer heat. I refer to the position statement from the American College of Sports Medicine which recommends as much as 10 grams of sodium per day for athletes training hard in the heat for several hours. It’s amazing how rapidly this  improves the situation, keeping in mind that we are monitoring many other factors. However, I’d never recommend that level of intake for someone who is sedentary and a sodium-sensitive hypertensive with signs and symptoms of metabolic syndrome/insulin resistance. Adequate hydration and wholesome (if not always “whole”) foods are valuable for everyone, but we benefit greatly from personalized adjustments in diet.

Thoughts versus Instincts: I used the word “thought” in the title. Probably should have stuck with opinions so that I didn’t muddy the waters here. This will still make sense. What we know, believe, and trust to be “fact” represent thoughts about diet. We act on knowledge and information and rely upon data and devices. Research suggests that we need anywhere from 0.7-1.1 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass per day. We can read food labels and use trackers to make sure we are meeting that need. Yep, that is good and it works. But we also need to remember that we are animals. We are beasts that until just a few thousand (or even a few hundred) years ago were very reliant on our inner senses and signals for most of our behavior, including eating. Sometimes you get that signal that you need a certain something, or a little more of less of it. It’s good to explore that. Now keep in mind that most of us modern humans have hijacked metabolisms that have learned to crave fudge brownies, ice cream and other “goodies” (I hesitated to call them “baddies”) so we need to use that innate intelligence to separate learned craving from true need. All that stated, the intricacies of human metabolism can speak to us if we can listen. Pregnant women are great examples here. They know they need something and certain foods will taste good to them during pregnancy (or bad) that they normally did not include in their diet. We need to combine our instinctive wisdom with our education for best results in nutrition.

Dynamic versus Static Behavior: I talk about this one a lot with regard to exercise, and the seasonality model I use in much of my programming. It’s actually a modern contrivance that much of our society believes you should have the same schedule, routines, workouts, and diet all year round. That is actually very evolutionarily inconsistent. We are wired, with our hormones and neurotransmitters, to require, seek, and consume different types of food, in differing amounts throughout the year. This consideration around diet is just beginning to emerge in the field of circadian biology. We are not inventing something new here, we are re-discovering something very old. Actually, a lot of weight gain, what is often called “creeping obesity” in some literature, is a result of people eating in the same patterns for decades (perhaps with too many calories and processed foods as well). Simply eating more when you need it – and less when you don’t – is probably the greatest secret (not) in weight and body composition maintenance.

Realistic Assessments: You believe what you want to believe (thank you to the late and oh so great Tom Petty). So do I. We all do. But it’s important to not be delusional about many of the ideas we’ve discussed. And putting too much thought, and emotion, and worry…into your diet can possibly be counterproductive. Have you ever noticed how the happy, content person can eat some cake and not seem to get fat or sick, but the depressed or stressed-out person becomes obese and diabetic (overstatement for example). Pretty much how you look, feel, and perform says it all. This certainly represents not only what you eat, but how you train, sleep, and live your life. However, what goes down the old pie hole is definitely an important consideration. There is just some irony in all this because many people will say they do not look, feel, and perform their best – yet when even a gentle suggestion that changing their food can help the situation – the walls of resistance come up. 

So in all honesty that’s probably only a little bit of what I have to say about nutrition. I’m certain I’ll be changing my mind on some things and learning more about others. I hope I offered you some information, maybe a little amusement, and possibly some opportunity for evolution in your own thoughts on human nutrition.

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