There is a funny paradox about nutrition: you can delve deep into the nuances and complexities of the science, of a deep and layered subject, but when you build it back up from that reductionist model, the advice is always simple.
Take blueberries for example. To many, they’re just a food. And so when they “see” it, they see its physical properties: they’re purple, spherical, small, delicate.
To a nutrition scientist, those small, spherical, purple balls are layered. You could start with an average punnet-sized serving, around 125-150g, and you could see on a macro level, they have about 14-21g carbs, and 3g fibre, minimal fat, small bit of protein.
You could go further to the micro level, and see that it would contain 25% of your daily vitamin C requirements and 35% of your vitamin K requirements. Interestingly, those two are synergistic: 99% of calcium in the body is stored in your bones and teeth, but it needs proteins dependent on vitamin K to function in order to get there. You could see 25% of your manganese requirements, which is a trace element you require in very small amounts, but is critical to bone formation, enzyme function, and antioxidant action.
You could go further than that. You could see that they’re high in compounds that are not even consider nutrients, a class of compounds known as polyphenols, which develop in plants as the plants’ defence mechanism against environmental stressors like heat or insects. There are thousands of polyphenol compounds in nature, and they’re divided into different subclasses based on their structural differences. The most abundant of these subclasses in the human diet are known as flavonoids, which are themselves divided into different subtypes including flavonols, flavones, isoflavones, flavanones, anthocyanidins, and flavanols (catechins and proanthocyanidins).
While each of those categories have different health benefits, you would look at the blueberries and see high levels of anthocyanins, which are in fact responsible for the purple pigment of the blueberry. And then you would see the strong associations between high levels of flavonoid anthocyanin intake and lower risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and neurodegenerative disease.
This is reductionist science at its best, breaking the blueberry down to its component parts. But building it back up to its simplicity diminishes this complexity.
This is the disconnect between nutrition and medicine.
Picture a scene where I’m speaking to a doctor with a third party, you even, watching. The doc is trained in evidence-based medicine, the application of the scientific method to disease, understanding of mechanistic pathways, disease processes, and in the specific action of medical pharmacology.
In this hypothetical conversation, when I say “eating blueberries daily can improve your memory and protect you against dementia“, the doc and the neutral observer glance at each other with a knowing roll of the eyes: “stupid hippy.”
But what if I said it differently? What if I said, “administration of anthocyanins results in sustained ERK-CREB-pathway-mediated BDNF activation, thus improving cognition, while inhibition of the MAPK and JNK/caspase-3 pathways by anthocyanins prevents cell death induced by oxidised-LDL, attenuates neuro-inflammation, and modulates apoptosis.”
Now that, doesn’t that sound sexy and complex? The doc and the neutral observer, hearing a load of complicated shit that sounds complicated enough to be medical, and plausible, look at each other, and look back: “wow, is anthocyanin a new drug, where do I get it?!”
I smile, and continue to much on the punnet of blueberries in my hand.
You see the paradox. In the science of nutrition, the reductionist method is used to break down a food, right down into the details of non-nutritive compounds with incredibly complex interactions with human health. At that level, you’re in so deep you don’t see a blueberry. When you then want to translate all that sexy mechanistic stuff, the pathways, the interactions, into basic nutrition advice, its underwhelming. It sounds so unconvincing. All that stuff about ERK-CREB pathways, PI3, MAPK and JNK/caspase-3 pathways, COX and iNOS, that translates back to: “eat blueberries every day.” Really?
In that context, here are some basic, simple nutrition action points, built back up from complexities and nuances of the science.
No, I’m not saying fasting. Time-restricted feeding is distinct from intermittent fasting, it’s about aligning your meal timing with your cycle of waking/active with sleeping/inactive.
Don’t eat during your biological night, past 9pm. The Spanish go from gorgeous in their 20’s to fat in their 30’s. Learn from them, and don’t eat late.
Many people in industrialised societies spend 14-16hrs per day in a fed state. Not good. Shorten that. By how much? 12-hours is fine, but 10-11 would be great.
Snacking is bullshit. If you need to snack, it’s a symptom. A symptom of inadequate dietary protein intake, or of not eating enough generally.
Snacking, as some sort of “requirement”, is one of the best marketing ploys the food industry pulled; “you, yeah you, you need energy, you hungry, eat, why you not eating, eat…” And oh, do they have you by the balls/ovaries. Yes, you with your rice cakes.
Snacking is a noted contributor to increased daily energy intake, and increased frequency of eating is yet another environmental variable in the obesity epidemic.
By the way, this is inherently linked to No.1; having regular meal timing on a daily basis, anchored to your eating window, helps regulate your circadian patterns and, as a result, improve your metabolism.
Increasing protein over carbohydrates at breakfast will result in better appetite regulation, and you’ll eat less calories at lunch.
If you’re typical breakfast remains a bowl of cereals and a glass of Tropicana, just put down all the other shit you’re reading about your diet and change your breakfast. Yes, that includes your Weetabix, your Shredded Wheat (it may be shredded, you are not), your granola, and the other “healthy” options.
Eat some eggs. If 2-3 a day is fine for a diabetic, it’s fine for you.
Particularly in the early part of the day, but a high dietary protein intake generally will have you spontaneously reduce overall calorie consumption.
This ties into No.2 above; if you can’t go 3hrs without “needing” to eat, you’re not eating enough protein at the prior meal.
So eat more protein. Doesn’t have to be all animal. High protein plant foods like lentils, chickpeas or beans will give you a heap of fibre, too. That’ll keep you full.
Breakfast? Greek yogurt. Eggs. Quark. Or take a leaf from your granddad and have some smoked fish.
Other meals? Fish, meat, poultry, legumes.
Protein is easy, just do it.
This may be as simple as I can make the microbiome.
You’ve several trillion bacteria in your gut that need feeding, so share the love. If you don’t feed them, they’ll get angry and start upending the place. The place will go to shit.
If you feed them, they’ll be sound. They’ll protect you against inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer. They’ll produce energy for you. They’ll act as bouncers and be vigilant in stopping trouble at the door. They’ll prevent loitering by undesirables.
They like certain things too. Underripe bananas. Broccoli. Oats. Legumes.
Not enough. 5-a-day? 9-a-day? Forget “a-day”. Non-starchy veg comes in a variety of different colours. That’s not nature making it pretty for your admiration. The colour denotes the phytochemical compounds which the veg is going to give you to.
Seldom is something uniformly agreed in nutrition. One thing that is incontrovertible: a high veg intake lowers your risk of all-cause mortality, or in plainspeak, dying of anything and everything.
Whether you’re making a shake in your blender, scrambling eggs for your breakie, or frying up a ribeye for dinner, every single meal you eat is an opportunity to eat more veg. Every. Single. Meal.
Life should be colourful. Make it so. No excuses.
Somewhere along the sublimely long trail that is evolution, some anthropoid managed to get his had on a fish, and eat it. Liked it, kept eating it. Gave it to his hombres. They ate it. Within their little band, they all ate this thing they were catching.
And stuff started going off in the ol’ DNA compartment, genes saying, “this is good, we can use this.” And use it the genes did, encoding for an enlarged brain.
Our anthropoid bro didn’t know, of course, that the fish contained some fats that – due to their evolutionary happenstance – became essential to our development, because we owe our advancement to our brains.
Fast forward to 2017, and people who eat more fish don’t tend to get dementia or Alzheimer’s. People who don’t eat fish? Not so lucky.
Random? Perchance, not. Eat your oily fish.
Back to the flavonoids. Those blueberries and, you’ll be happy to hear, dark chocolate. Blueberries are the highest concentration of those anthocyanins we looked earlier. And no, I’m not repeating the sexy pathway stuff.
Just eat the damn blueberries, every day. The flavonols found in cacao also improve your cognitive function, at a dose of around 750mg – equivalent to around 20g 80%+ dark chocolate.
Eat them both.
Green tea, coffee, and red wine. We’re talking protection against heart disease, Parkinson’s, diabetes, and potentially cancer.
Green tea: 3-5 cups a day.
Coffee: 1-3 cups a day.
Red wine: 1 glass (125-150ml) a day.
You are not a special snowflake that can get by on 5-6hrs a night. You might think you are, but that would make you The Most Unique Human on Earth.
And only your mum thinks that.
So stop cutting the only thing our species decided was so important, it would go catatonic and defenceless to make sure it got back when the whole survival thing was a bit more precarious than it is for us now.
Not sleeping might as well be punching yourself a ticket to Shitedietland. A place from whence return is notoriously difficult, because your tired brain is haaangry.
7-9hrs. Get it.