The following is a guest post by Phedre.
With the upcoming holidays this may not be the most fortuitous time for a post on nutrition, but maybe some of you will find it helpful in formulating plans for the new year.
As this is my first time trying to really delineate what I’ve learned about nutrition in a thorough yet simple way, I know some things may not be entirely clear. All feedback is welcomed of course, and if anyone has questions about things I’m taking as granted or glossing over, please let me know and I will happily provide explanations or appropriate linkage/reading suggestions. While this post might work as an introduction to good nutrition, I really meant it as an aid for fine-tuning an already decent diet – when you’ve made some successful changes, but haven’t yet reached your goals, whether they be related to weight loss or to specific health conditions.
For a bit of background, I’ve been researching nutrition in my free time for the past three or so years. My fiance has diabetes and used to be over 100 lbs overweight. I have had a plethora of symptoms, some from early childhood, others acquired later – everything ranging from digestive problems, to mental health problems, to hair loss, brain fog, heart palpitations, anxiety attacks, the list goes on and on. (I’m in my mid-20s by the way, so none of it can be ‘explained’ by aging.) I faithfully went to doctors to try to diagnose and treat what was going on. Pretty much every test came back normal, so they would just assume I was a hypochondriac and send me off to the next specialist. On the flip side, my fiance, having a well-known ‘disease’, was treated with standard protocol and all the evidence we brought to them indicating that it wasn’t working and that maybe there could be other solutions was just ignored. All top doctors, by the way. This is just how our medical system is. Treat the lab values in the standardised way. Apply any additional medication to alleviate symptoms. If something doesn’t fit in with the taught schema, apply cognitive dissonance.
As a disclaimer, please understand that I am not suggesting that doctors are incompetent, or uncaring, or shouldn’t be trusted. But they inevitably manifest those problems which exist in our educational system across the board, in nearly every (or every) discipline. This means that if the standard protocol has done little to alleviate your health problems, or has merely ‘put a bandage’ on the problem, then your only remaining option, besides ignoring the situation, is to branch out on your own. This is what we have done, and although we go back for lab testing occasionally to confirm our progress, most of the confirmation has been in how we look and feel.
My fiance has lost 80 lbs to date and is leaning out, as it seems, by the day. My symptoms have almost all been eliminated with no recurrence. The few that remain are much improved and I have no doubt will eventually be gone too. How did we do it? Through what I like to call hyper-nutrition.
We have all heard about the importance of gut-health and of getting enough vitamins/minerals through your food. But it’s not so simple. The body is a very complex organism, which means that there are a great many (mostly unknown) factors at play when you are trying to make improvements to your health. But also, the body operates under a general principle of maintaining homeostasis – that is, it tries very strongly to maintain the status quo. Both of these facts together mean that it is quite difficult to effect change, and that, unless you’re very very lucky, doing just one or two things differently isn’t going to be enough to eliminate your health problems. But it is where you have to start. Nobody can overhaul their entire diet in a month, or even a year, nor should you, because as you make changes you want to be paying attention to how each change affects you. Building up an awareness of how you react to various foods (positive as well as negative) is key to making real progress.
My point here is that you have to avoid the trap of thinking that any one or two things are THE answer and are going to make all the difference. This happens very often, maybe universally, to people who work on fixing their diet, whether by conventional teachings, or alternative. You make some changes, feel better, lose some weight, improve some symptoms, say ‘Hey, this works!’, tell all your friends and family about it… But at some point the improvement stops. If you’re quite lucky you might be nearly at 100% right there, but most of us stop well short of that. And when we hit that stage we tend to just keep at the same thing, maybe seeing some minute further improvements, but expecting things to pick up any time now, because if it worked so well before, it must be the right approach, it must continue to work. Now when you tell people about your great diet, you’ll feel a little twinge, because, yeah they’d be better off with it than where they’re at now, but in the back of your mind you no longer have the confidence that it’s a panacea. That’s because it’s not, and the sooner you can admit that to yourself, the sooner you can start to make improvements again.
Now to the meat of it (haha) – what is my approach to improving health through food? It comes down to a few general principles:
1- Increase nutrition by improving gut health. Any disturbance in your guts means that they’re irritated and not functioning optimally. This includes bloating, rumbling, heartburn, any pain whatsoever, any discomfort or difficulty eliminating, and gas. Even a little bit. Perfect digestion means that once the food is swallowed you don’t even feel its presence in your body until it (gently) comes out the other end. Only with perfect digestion are you getting the full nutritional value of your food. Compromised digestion can not only lead to nutritional insufficiencies, but also systemic pain and inflammation (like arthritis or fibromyalgia), a poor immune system (most of it is in your gut), poor mental health, and on.
Make improvements by only eating ‘real food’, and even then being brutally honest with yourself about how various foods affect you. For example, I can’t eat cabbage, raw onions, or rye, and I still cycle between acceptance and denial of my negative reaction to red wine. Some people also have great success with fermented foods – sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, yogurt, kefir, the list is huge. Feel free to ask me for more information on this. But start with a little at a time and don’t expect it to be able to override elimination of irritants.
2- Increase nutrition by eliminating anti-nutrients. The seeds of plants are meant to stay dormant until conditions are right for them to grow into new plants. To make this possible all the nutrition in a seed is ‘locked away’ by certain compounds – phytic acid, enzyme inhibitors, etc. This means that when you eat grains, nuts, or legumes dry or just cooked until soft you are getting very little nutrition out of your food, and some potent gut irritants to boot. But if you mimic the conditions that are favourable for plant growth those inhibiting compounds are broken down in preparation for sprouting. Then you can eat those seeds and get their full nutritional value, as well as an easier digestive process.
Mimic plant growth conditions by soaking your seeds in warm water, lightly acidulated with a spoonful of yogurt, raw or fermented whey, buttermilk, or, if you really can’t tolerate dairy, any other acid. Soak for a minimum of 7 hours. Up to 2 days is usually fine, after that you’ll get mould growth.
If you’re doing this with nuts you can then dehydrate them in the oven or a dehydrator. With grains and legumes you can proceed with normal cooking. Actually, your cooking time will be greatly reduced.
3- increase nutrition by eating more nutritious foods. I’m going to be very direct here. If you want to improve your health to the absolute maximal point that you can, you have to view every single instance of eating as an opportunity to increase nutrition. This means asking yourself every time you choose to put food in your mouth – is this directly contributing to increasing my nutrition? Or even – is this the single most nutritious thing I could be eating right now? Obviously, you want to lay out a plan so you’re not engaging in neurotic thinking like that every time you eat, but the point is that you should be eating in such a way that the answer would almost always be ‘yes’.
What should you be eating to increase nutrition? Contrary to popular wisdom, vegetables are far from the most nutritious food out there. Human bodies are not terribly efficient at extracting nutrients from plant matter. You can facilitate the process by always consuming vegetables with some fat (no seed oils, these really have no place in the human diet) as fats have compounds which make the assimilation and conversion of vitamins and minerals from plant to animal form much more efficient. But there are animals that make this conversion far better than we ever could – ruminants. When you consume their fats, organs, and bones (muscles don’t have much stored nutrients by comparison) you are taking in those vitamins and minerals in a form already optimised for the animal body. Vegetables are good for variety and a few compounds that are harder to get through animal tissues, but the bulk of your nutrition should come from animal fats (more heat stable than seed oils, by the way, which means less intake of oxidised fats), organs (liver is nature’s multivitamin. Eat it once a week, twice if you have deficiencies. It’s an amazingly potent source of almost every micronutrient), and bones (bone broth is absolutely key to good health. Take bones from any animal/fish, simmer them for a long time with a spoonful of vinegar for optimised mineral extraction, use for soups, sauces, cooking grains or vegetables, or just drink straight up. You know your broth is good if it’s gelatinous when cold).
If you have digestive issues to overcome, or any bone or joint problems, you should consume bone broth at least once a day, ideally 2-3 times. The gelatin in it soothes the intestinal tract, improves nutrient uptake from other foods, reduces inflammation, and supports the elasticity of your own collagen tissue. Gelatin is also protein-sparing, which means that less meat goes a longer way.
Dairy is also very valuable nutritionally, but only if it’s well tolerated. Shellfish is great too, as are eggs – I eat 1-6 a day and tolerate them better than some meat! As for everything, pastured is ideal, but that’s not always an option.
Finally, and this is primarily for those who still have weight to lose:
4- Eat to maximise satiation. Despite what some low-carb and paleo folks occasionally like to claim, you do need to lower your caloric intake to lose weight. There is no magic mechanism that bypasses that. But nobody can force themselves to undereat constantly. It is not possible to sustain a lower weight by feeding yourself less than your body thinks it needs. So the solution is: Eat in such a way that you feel satiated on a smaller number of calories. Now, getting there is highly individual.
You’ll notice I’ve made no mention of macronutrient ratios so far. From a health perspective, humans have sustained thriving, healthy populations in various parts of the globe on diets of highly varied macronutrient composition. There really is no case against high carbs or against high fat as a major % of calories. And likewise when it comes to weight loss there is no one way that is best for everyone.
See, the body has a very complex and finely-tuned mechanism for maintaining stable weight. So when your weight is elevated it means that there is something about the food you’re eating that overrides your body’s ability to properly sense caloric sufficiency. It’s obvious with processed ‘food’, because it’s been engineered for precisely that purpose. That’s why you can eat a big bag of chips all in one sitting, and that’s why quitting processed foods will make virtually anyone lose some weight. But most people have a smaller degree of the same effect with one macronutrient, or with a particular combination of macronutrients. For most people it’s carbs, which is why low-carb diets work well for many – by massively reducing the macronutrient that overrides proper fullness signalling, meals end up being more satiating at a lower caloric count. My mom on the other hand isn’t driven to overeat on carbs, but give her some nice salami or ham and she’ll eat way more than she needs. So when she went low carb she gained weight. On the other hand, if you eat low fat, everything is so bland that your body isn’t driven to eat any more than the true minimum it needs.
I know this sort of sounds like it’s about taste, but it’s not really. If you can hit the macronutrient ratio that’s right for you, then you can be making yourself really delicious food within those parameters and still your body will know when enough is enough. If you’re carrying extra weight then your body doesn’t know when it’s had enough. Play with your diet until you find a combination that makes you satiated at a lower calorie count. It’s pretty simple. You’re still going to have to exert some willpower to break habits like taking seconds or clearing your plate regardless of fullness signalling, but you wont be *undereating*. You wont feel like you’re starving. You’ll just not need as much food.
As an illustration, we ate a high-meat diet for many years. We did low carb and zero carb. When my fiance would try to lower his calories he couldn’t go past 1800. Just couldn’t; he would be literally starving. (His maintenance is about 2400 but he needed a big deficit to lose weight.) Then based on some reading I decided to try adding a small amount of carbs into our diet. He ate potatoes, rice, etc for the first time in years. You’d think he would be likely to gorge, but no, he was able to drop his intake to about 1600 with no extra effort.
In the past 3 months he’s been eating quite differently. Lots of bone broth, a small amount of protein (we hardly eat muscle meat any more, mostly it’s eggs, organ meat, shellfish), a good dose of carbs, and a bit of vegetables for variety. Some animal fat or ghee but not a lot. Also some raw dairy. He’s eating 1000-1200 calories a day and he’s not starving. His hunger is the same as it was when he was eating 1800 calories. That’s what happens when you hit on your maximally satiating diet. Your body knows when you’ve gotten your minimum nutrition (minerals, vitamins, amino acids) for the day and just gets the rest of the needed calories from your fat tissue. He’s lost over 20 pounds since we started this, and we’ve confirmed that it’s all been fat loss. No muscle wasting at all.
So if you’ve lost weight making some change in your diet but you’ve stalled, or if you’ve made some improvement to one or more health conditions but still have more to fix, consider that while your approach was an improvement, it nevertheless was not optimal for you. The way to see continuous progress is to be brutally honest with yourself about what’s working and what isn’t, which foods make you feel good and which don’t, and what things you’re just avoiding because it’s not an easy change. But at the same time you have to be gentle and patient with yourself, while keeping those truths at the back of your mind, because you can’t exert superhuman willpower and nail your diet all in one go. Just don’t let yourself get stuck, patting yourself on the head for improvements that are in the past and not being reproduced in the present.