The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Diet: Part 1 – Solid Ground

One of the initial reasons why I started my first blog was frustration with how a simple subject was becoming clouded.

Sure, nutrition science is deeply nuanced and complex, which is why I love it and intend to continue on from MSc to PhD – but this is precisely the point – 98% of people I work with couldn’t give one f@ck about nutrition science. 

They just want to know what the hell to eat.

This has been a personal challenge that I’ve wrestled with since I started writing – my default state, my inner geek that loves spending days wrapped in research deep dives, wants to delve far into the science. Often, the first draft of many posts reads like an academic essay.

But this blog has never been about my ego, and the purpose of the posts is to make the information accessible and actionable to the majority; the 98% of people who could care less about whether a study matched its subjects for BMI, and want to know, in the face of ever-conflicting advice through social media, friends, or the latest “guru” diet book…

What do I eat to lose/maintain a weight I’m happy with, and achieve optimal health?

This is the first post in a 6-part series over the next 6 weeks, which will cover:

  1. Solid Ground: What does a diet for optimal health actually contain?
  2. Bricks & Mortar: The foundation nutrients of a diet optimal for health, weight loss and maintenance.
  3. Structural Integrity: The importance of dietary fat, and where to get it.
  4. Energy Efficiency: Clearing up carbohydrate controversy, and how to get your carbs right.
  5. Minimalist Design: Habits of good nutrition and how to eat.
  6. Strategies for Success: Hacks for sustainability and how to stay on track.

Getting One Thing Straight About Diets

Let’s get one thing straight first – there is no such thing as one, universal, optimal diet. But just to hammer home the point, I’m going to hit you with a series of quotes from a 2013 review of different diets in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

“The assumption that one diet is optimal for all persons is counterproductive because this assumption ignores the variation in adherence influenced by food preferences, cultural or regional traditions, food availability, and food intolerances.

The dietary debate in the scientific community and reported in the media about the optimal macronutrient-focused weight loss diets sheds little light on the treatment of obesity and may mislead the public regarding proper weight management… The only consistent finding amongst the trials is that adherence…was most strongly associated with weight loss and improvement in disease related outcomes.

Numerous randomized trials comparing diets differing in macronutrient composition (e.g. low-carbohydrate, low-fat, Mediterranean) have demonstrated differences in weight loss and metabolic risk factors that are small (i.e. a mean difference of <1kg) and inconsistent.”

You needed to hear this. Everyone needs to hear it. Because one day you pick up the Happy Pear cookbook and think you need to be vegan and keep your fat intake to <10% of total calories (and say bye to your sex drive – more on that in Part 3). The next day you hear your friend talking about a ketogenic diet and think you need to smear butter on yourself and drink duck fat in your coffee.

In the abbreviated parlance of the vernacular, WTF?

There’s a few points to take home before we get on to the what part of an optimal diet.

  • Low-carb, low-fat, Mediterranean – it’s all the same in the long term. The only question is can you stick to it? 
  • In other words, do you actually enjoy eating that way?
  • Stop assuming one diet fits all. You know that annoying friend you have that tries to push their way of eating on everyone around them? Punch them. Wait, harsh. Open-handed slap.
  • Unless you have aspirations to diet into single digit body fat (or low teen % for women), or are an elite athlete with a specific body composition goal, focusing on ‘macros’ is unnecessary (and maybe counter productive, because you don’t develop good nutrition habits first).

Ok, What Actually Makes a Diet ‘Healthy’?

Two words: nutrient density

This is why this post is called ‘Solid Ground‘, because we have certain biological requirements that are essential to human life: essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, the spectrum of vitamins and minerals, salt, water and, although it’s not technically considered essential, fibre.

And in this sense, micronutrients, vitamins and minerals that are required in small amounts but are essential to biological function, are a cornerstone feature in a diet that promotes optimal health.

Micronutrient deficiencies are a big factor in the onset of modern disease. Ironically, given that overweight and obesity are a result of overnutrition, i.e. calorie excess, obesity is also associated with micronutrient deficiency. It’s easy to see why: an average 160g apple and a 100g chocolate muffin are roughly the same size; one has 80 calories, is high is fibre, vitamin C and potassium while the other has relatively no nutrition and 440 calories.

Many popular weight loss diets that exclude or restrict what amount of protein, carbs or fat you eat are flawed because, whether its low carb or low fat, they can lead to deficiencies in our vitamin and mineral needs.

In another example of what happens when we neglect essential biological requirements, lack of fish intake in populations is associated with cognitive decline and depression, a result of low intake of the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA.

Where Do I Get This Nutrient Density?

There are two lists that are relevant. One is the average nutrient density list i.e. the foods with the greatest density of nutrients per weight of food. The other is average nutrient density relative to caloric weight of foods i.e. total weight, minus grams of water and fibre.

No.1: Average Nutrient Density

  1. Organ meats and oils
  2. Herbs and spices
  3. Nuts and seeds
  4. Fish and seafood
  5. Cacao
  6. Pork
  7. Beef
  8. Eggs and dairy
  9. Vegetables (raw and unprocessed)
  10. Lamb, veal and wild game

And here is the adjusted list, which ranks the average nutrient density relative to the caloric weight of a food:

No.2: Average Nutrient Density/Caloric Weight

  1. Organ meats and oils
  2. Herbs and spices
  3. Nuts and seeds
  4. Legumes (raw or cooked edible)
  5. Fish and seafood
  6. Pork
  7. Beef
  8. Cacao
  9. Lamb, veal and wild game
  10. Poultry

(For a more detailed rundown of these lists, read this).

The reason vegetables are low, and fruit does not appear on the list, is because of the weight issue; the volume of vegetables that would have to be consumed to obtain appreciable amounts of nutrients is huge and when you subtract water and fibre from fruit, leaving only the weight which contains calories, there is not a huge amount of nutrients in the caloric weight of many fruits.

But as we’ll see in Part 2 and Part 4, the water, fibre and micronutrient content of fruit and veg are important elements in the overall picture, by providing antioxidants and phytonutrients in the diet.

How Do I Put This Into Practise?

Given the theme of this series is simplicity, I can boil this down to two steps:

  1. Eat Real Food, and;
  2. Don’t Eat Processed Food.

There you go.

More importantly, this list can be applied to any type of diet.

For vegans: Increase the variety of your nut and seed intake, use herbs and spices liberally, include raw cacao powder and dark chocolate often, and make legumes the foundation of your protein intake.

For vegetarians: Emphasise everything a vegan would, but add eggs and diary to the mix, if tolerated and from a quality source (organic preferably). As individual foods, dairy and eggs both show up as solid powerhouses of nutrients across the board.

For meat-inclusive: Move away from lean meats a couple of times per week and try incorporating offal (liver or kidneys).

For Everyone: Eat wild caught fatty fish or take a quality omega-3 fish oil supplement (more on this in Parts 2 and 3).

Remember that these lists do not represents an order in which we should structure our diets, or how often we should eat a particular food, because that’s also a matter of context; you can’t just go stuffing your face with liver, as the levels of certain nutrients, particularly fat-soluble vitamin A, are so high that you could easily reach a toxicity level. There is an inverse relationship with nutrient density and amount of food actually needed: when it comes to organ meats and oils, you’d only need small amounts or larger servings a couple of times per week.

On the other hand, it’s hard to get an appreciable level of the nutrient power of herbs and spices unless you eat the entire plant; in this case, your best bet is using smaller amounts as often as you possibly can. They don’t need to be fresh either; the highest nutrient values for the top 4 herbs – basil, coriander, thyme and parsley – all refer to their dried state.

So for a simple round up:

  • A mix of animal-based foods with particular emphasis on seafood (if eating animals)
  • Small amounts of organ oils (like cod liver) or larger servings of liver or kidneys a few times per week (if palatable)
  • Plenty of herbs and spices
  • Plenty of raw, unprocessed veg
  • Some whole fruit and lots of berries
  • Handfuls of nuts and seeds
  • Eggs and dairy, as tolerated
  • Lentils, chickpeas, beans and other legumes either as an adjunct to a meat-based diet or a cornerstone to a plant-based diet

Eating a broad mix and range of these foods would cover all of your essential biological nutrient needs. You don’t need anything else.

It doesn’t have to be complicated.

Focus on real, whole, nutrient dense foodsIf you do, then you are on solid ground. 

The following posts in this series will guide you through more detail on how to put these components together.

See you next week.

Alan