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What’s the best diet for humans?

Biosuperfood: What's the best diet for humans?

Margarine is heart-healthy (see the heart logo on the pack), and butter is bad! Hang on… Butter is one of the healthiest fats you can eat, and margarine is akin to plastic! Eggs give you high cholesterol. Hey, eggs are healthy for you! Fat is unhealthy. What? Carbs are bad, and fat is good? Missing breakfast makes you fat. What? Giving up breakfast is now known as intermittent fasting, and it is beneficial for weight loss and metabolic health.

No wonder we’re all confused! These are just a handful of the many conflicting nutrition ‘facts’ flying around the media over the past ten years; it’s understandable that people are now more perplexed than ever about what to eat. So what is the best diet for humans?

Everyone, from your personal trainer to your Uber driver, from your health coach to your family doctor, has an opinion on what the best diet for humans is. And they’re all sure that they’re right. Even “experts” can’t agree, though they can always cite some research that backs up their claims. At least on the surface, all of these studies look like they can be trusted because they were done by reputable groups like Harvard Public Health or published in peer-reviewed journals.

And so confusion runs amok among the public as well as doctors. It’s also resulted in dozens of diet books and fad diets, and people are rightly becoming more skeptical of what the media says about nutrition and health advice in general.

Sadly, decades of scientific research and millions of dollars haven’t brought much more clarity—if anything, they’ve only made things murkier. Why? Because, as you’ll see below, we’ve been utilizing incorrect approaches and asking the wrong questions.

Instead of relying only on observational nutrition research, which is extremely problematic, this article will look at the question of what we should eat from many different perspectives, such as ancestral health, archaeology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, anatomy and physiology, and biochemistry.

With this knowledge in hand, you’ll be better equipped to decide what to eat for yourself and what to give your family.

What, then, is the best diet for humans?

Sorry to disappoint. But there isn’t one, or rather, it’s a question that can’t be answered since no single, ideal diet exists for all people.

But that is exactly what dietary recommendations and public health advice assume, and unfortunately, this assumption is the biggest source of confusion and the biggest obstacle to solving our basic nutrition problems.

It’s true, we as a human race have much in common; however, we also have a lot of differences, including our genes, how they are expressed, our levels of activity, our health, and our circumstances and objectives.

Modern dieting advice is frequently imprecise, inconsistent, and even false. There are also some things that people are meant to eat, despite the fact that there isn’t one perfect diet for everyone.

A simple comparison:

  • A 60-pound, 56-year-old, sedentary male office worker with pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity
  • A 24-year-old female athlete who is in excellent condition trains for hours every day and is striving to bulk up for a competition

Should they adhere to the exact same diet? Of course not.

Biosuperfood-different-diets-for-different needs

Our dietary differences are important.

What works for a young, single, male CrossFit enthusiast who gets enough sleep and isn’t stressed out won’t work for a mother of three who also works outside the home and is burning the candle at both ends, even if it is an extreme instance.

These variations in our genes, behavior, lifestyle, and gut flora affect how we metabolize macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat), as well as micronutrients – vitamins, minerals, and trace minerals, all of which have an impact on how we react to different foods and dietary regimens. For instance:

  • Average intakes of saturated fat are not linked to an increased risk of heart disease, according to large, carefully conducted research (with up to 350,000 participants). (3) However, does this hold true for those who have particular genes that make them “hyper-absorbers” of saturated fat and cause a marked increase in the quantity of LDL particles (a marker linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease)?
  • People who have the genetic adaptation known as lactase persistence, which enables them to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk, throughout adulthood, are likely to react to dairy products more favorably than those who do not.
  • Studies of Japanese people have shown, for example, that their gut flora makes enzymes that help them digest seaweed, which is hard for humans to do on their own. (2)
  • Salivary amylase levels are higher in communities with a history of high starch consumption than in communities with a history of low starch consumption. (1) Modifications to the gut microbiota can aid in the absorption of particular nutrients.
  • People with hemochromatosis, a genetic condition that causes iron to build up quickly, shouldn’t eat organ meats or shellfish because they contain a lot of iron.

Even this short list shows the main point: even though we are all different in important ways, nutrition studies rarely look at these differences. Since different people will get different results from the same diet, almost all diet research focuses on top-down, population-level recommendations, which keeps us in a state of confusion and disagreement.

Biosuperfood-Our dietary differences are important

Also, it has kept us stuck in what Gyorgy Scrinis calls “the ideology of nutritionism.” (4)

Nutritionism is the reductive approach of understanding food only in terms of nutrients, food components, or biomarkers—like saturated fats, calories, glycemic index—abstracted out of the context of foods, diets, and bodily processes.

As a result, we prioritize quantity over quality.

Nutrition experts have long thought that fats, proteins, and carbohydrates are always exactly the same, regardless of the type of food they are packaged in.

In most studies, those who consume 50% of their calories from fat in whole foods such as meat, fish, avocados, nuts, and seeds will nevertheless be included in the same “50% of calories from fat” group as people who consume 50% of their calories from fat in the forms of doughnuts, pizza, sweets, and fast food.

Most individuals are startled to find that nutrition research operates in this manner. No expert scientist is required to comprehend why this might be harmful.

Even though there are some indications that trends are shifting(which will be detailed below), this problem affects the vast majority of epidemiological studies that have been used to make public health recommendations and dietary guidelines.

Aren’t there at least some foods that all humans should eat less of or more of?

Though we understand that there is no “one-size-fits-all” diet, that doesn’t imply there aren’t universally applicable fundamentals of nutrition.

We can all agree, for instance, that a diet of doughnuts, chips, sweets, drinks, and other highly processed and refined foods is harmful. And the majority of people agree that eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods is good for your health.

Where we run into difficulties is in the nuances. Is meat good or bad? If it’s bad, does that mean all meats are, or only processed or red meat? Is saturated fat okay? Should people eat dairy products?

A better question might be, “What is a natural human diet?” or, more particularly, “What foods are humans biochemically, physiologically, and genetically adapted to eat?”

There are 2 possible ways to tackle this question:

  1. We can observe evolutionary biology, archaeology, medical anthropology, comparative anatomy, and physiology to determine what a natural human diet is.
  2. We take it from a biochemical perspective:
    1. what essential and nonessential nutrients contribute to human health (and where are they found in foods), 
    2. how various functional components of food influence our body at the cellular and molecular level
    3. how certain compounds in foods—especially those prevalent in the modern, industrialized diet—damage our health via inflammation, disruption of the gut microbiome, hormone imbalance, and other mechanisms.

To ascertain what a natural human diet is, we can look at:

  • evolutionary biology, archaeology, medical anthropology, and comparative anatomy and physiology.
  • From a biochemical angle, we can consider:
    • What nutrients are essential and not essential for human health? (and where are they found in foods)
    • What effects do different food elements have on our body at the cellular and molecular level?
    • how certain food ingredients, especially those found in the modern, industrialized diet, can hurt people’s health by causing inflammation, changing the gut flora, throwing off hormones, and other things.

The Evolutionary Viewpoint to understand the best diet for humans

Humans, like all other animals in nature, evolved in a specific habitat, and this process also determined our biology, physiology, and nutritional requirements.

Evidence from the Archaeology of Meat Consumption

Archaeological studies using isotopes show that our hominid ancestors started eating meat at least 2.5 million years ago. (5) There is also a lot of agreement that even further back in time, our primate ancestors probably ate a diet similar to that of modern chimpanzees, which eat vertebrates. (6) The fact that chimpanzees and other primates use tools and hunt in groups, among other things, shows how important animal foods are to both their diet and ours.

Anatomical Support for Consuming Meat

All species’ digestive tracts, including humans, can reveal a lot about their food through their form and function.

The large intestine, which is useful for breaking down fiber, seeds, and other difficult-to-digest plant meals, makes up 45% (the largest amount) of the overall gut volume of our primate cousins. The small intestine makes up 56% of the volume of the human gut. This shows that we have evolved to eat foods that are easier to digest and get to, like meat and cooked carbs.

Some people who support plant-based diets say that we are herbivores because we have blunt nails, small mouths, flat incisors and molars, and relatively dull canine teeth. These are all characteristics of herbivores. This argument, however, doesn’t take into account the fact that people have come up with sophisticated ways to find and prepare food, such as hunting, cooking, and using sharp objects to cut and tear flesh. Anatomical features that serve the same purpose are replaced by these techniques/tools.

Additionally, the chewing patterns and dental structures of animals can provide clues about their diet. Carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores each have distinct dental characteristics and chewing patterns that are adapted to their specific dietary needs.

Carnivores, such as lions or tigers, have sharp, pointed teeth that are designed for tearing and ripping meat. Their jaws typically move vertically (up and down) and they do not have flat molars for grinding plant material.

Herbivores, like cows or horses, on the other hand, have flat, broad teeth that are ideal for grinding plant material. Their jaws move both vertically and laterally (side to side), which allows them to thoroughly grind and break down tough plant fibers during mastication.

Omnivores, including humans, have a combination of sharp and flat teeth, allowing us to consume a varied diet of both plant and animal material. Our jaws move both vertically and laterally, similar to herbivores, but not to the same extent.

So, while the human chewing action does involve both up-and-down and side-to-side movements, it’s not as specialized as the chewing mechanisms seen in strict herbivores or carnivores. This versatility in our chewing mechanism, along with our varied tooth structure, reflects our omnivorous diet.

Compared to our ancestors the primates, humans have comparatively large brains and small intestines. The majority of scientists think that because animal diets are more nutrient-dense and simpler to digest than plant foods, they are what caused us to evolve larger brains and smaller intestines than other primates. (7)

Genetic Modifications That Might Be Adapted to Animal Foods

After weaning, most mammals stop producing lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose, a sugar found in milk. But lactase synthesis continues into adulthood in around one-third of all persons. This enables those people to consume dairy products’ nutrients and calories without getting sick. We would not have evolved this genetic adaption if we were actually herbivores who should never eat animal products.

Research on modern hunter-gatherers

Studies of current hunter-gatherer populations like the Maasai, Inuit, Kitavans, and Tukisenta, as well as the Aché, Tsimané, and Hadza, have revealed that they consistently take both animal and plant meals, and when either is in short supply, they will go to considerable lengths to obtain it.

For instance, researchers discovered that animal food supplied the predominant source of calories (68 percent) compared to foraged plant meals in one review of field studies of 229 hunter-gatherer groups (32 percent). (8) Only 14% of these societies consumed more than 50% of their calories from plant-based sources.
Similar findings were discovered in another paper based on 13 field investigations of the last remaining hunter-gatherers conducted in the early and middle 20th century: on average, animal food accounted for 65% of total calories, compared to 35% from plant sources. (9) Although the amounts of protein, fat, and carbs, the proportion of plants to animals, and the macronutrient ratios ingested varied, there has never been evidence of an ancient population that strictly followed a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Our Paleolithic ancestors’ Lifespan

Our Paleolithic predecessors all passed away at an early age, according to detractors of the Paleo or ancestral diets. Anthropologists have refuted this widespread notion. (10) While the average longevity among hunter-gatherers is and was lower than it is now, this is significantly distorted by high rates of infant mortality in these cultures (due to a lack of emergency medical care and other causes, among others).

Biosuperfood paleolithic diets

If they make it past childhood, hunter-gatherers’ lifespans, according to research by anthropologists Gurven and Kaplan, are about equal to our own in the developed world: 68 to 78 years. (11) This is significant since hunter-gatherers today can only thrive in remote and harsh areas like those found in the Kalahari Desert, the Amazon Rainforest, and the Arctic Circle.

Additionally, hunter-gatherers frequently reach these ages without developing the chronic illnesses that are so prevalent in Western nations. They are less prone to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other chronic, debilitating diseases.

For example, a study of the Tsimané people in Bolivia found that their rate of atherosclerosis is 80% lower than ours in the United States and that 90% of Tsimané adults between the ages of 40 and 94 have completely clear arteries and no risk of heart disease. (12) They also discovered that the average Tsimané guy in his 80s showed vascular aging comparable to that of an American in his mid-50s. It is interesting to note that people as old as 94 were included in this study. So much for the myth that all hunter-gatherers pass away at the age of 30!

When you combine all of this data, it raises the following themes:

  • Since at least 2.5 million years ago, humans have consumed meat and other animal products as part of a natural diet.
  • All previously researched ancient human populations consumed both vegetables and animals.
  • Within the general framework of the plants and animals they ingested, humans can thrive on a range of diets and macronutrient ratios.

Further Reading

Read these articles for a deeper understanding:

The Biochemistry Viewpoint

Understanding ancestors’ diets and how they affected hunter-gatherer populations’ health is a fine place to start, but it does not imply that these diets are the healthiest for contemporary people.

We must look at this subject from a biological angle in order to understand that:

  • We need to know which nutrients are important for human health
  • where they can be found in food
  • how different food elements and molecules affect our bodies, both in good and bad ways

Fortunately, there are tens of thousands of studies in this category. And they come to the same conclusion as we did above.

The best, and possibly the only way, for us to get the nutrients we need from food is to eat a whole-food diet that includes both plants and animals.

Nutrient Density in Food

So, nutrient density is probably the most important thing to know when trying to answer the question, “What should people eat?”

But what diet contains the most nutrients?

That question was addressed in a study that was released in 2022 in the journal Frontiers of Nutrition. The main author of the paper was Ty Beal, who works as a research advisor for the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition’s Knowledge Leadership team.

Since iron, zinc, folate, vitamin A, calcium, and vitamin B12 deficiencies are the most prevalent micronutrient deficiencies worldwide, especially in industrialized nations like the United States, Beal, and his co-author Flaminia Ortenzi set out to find the foods that are highest in these nutrients.

In contrast to earlier investigations, Beal & Ortenzi’s paper was distinctive because it took into account the crucial significance of bioavailability (discussed above).

The chart below ranks meals by how many calories and grams are needed to give a woman of childbearing age one-third of her daily needs for calcium, iron, zinc, folate, vitamin A, and vitamin B12.

FIGURE 1. – Frontiers in Nutrition

As you can see, four of the top seven items with the highest nutrient density were organ meats including liver, spleen, kidney, and heart.

Additionally, 17 of the top 20 foods on the list were all animal products, such as fish, beef, eggs, and milk.

This study offers compelling proof that animal meals provide the highest concentration of vital nutrients like B12, folate, iron, and zinc.

When used in this context, “essential” means more than just “important” or “vital for life.” Because our bodies are unable to produce critical nutrients on their own, we must obtain them from eating.

Since we can’t live without the important nutrients, it makes sense to focus on them.

Having said that, numerous non-essentials that are crucial to human health but aren’t technically essential have been found during the previous few decades. They consist of:

  • Polyphenols
  • Carotenoids
  • Flavonoids
  • Sulfides of diallyl (from the allium class of vegetables)
  • Lignans

Because fruits and vegetables contain the majority of these nutrients, Beal and Ortenzi’s study would have given them a higher rating if they had been taken into account.

What Are the Implications of the Biochemical View?

Biochemistry and physiology tell us that a natural human diet should include a wide range of foods, such as organ meat, meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds, and starchy plants.

But how much of the diet should be made up of plants versus animals? Depending on each person’s needs, the answer to this question will be different. Looking back at evolutionary history, we can see that, on average, humans got around 65% of their energy from eating animal products and 35% from eating plants, while the exact ratios fluctuated based on geography and other circumstances.

That does not imply that you should eat animal products on two-thirds of your plate! Keep in mind that calories and volume are not the same as what you put on your plate. Animal items and meat have a lot more calories per serving than plant meals. Compared to a cup of beef steak, which has 338 calories, one cup of broccoli has just 30 calories.

Therefore, even if you try to consume between 50 and 70 percent of your calories from animal sources, plant meals will usually occupy between two-thirds and three-quarters of the space on your plate.

(Side note: this is why I’ve never agreed with the idea that Paleo is a “all-meat” diet; a better description would be a plant-based diet that also includes animal products.)

When we look at the value of both essential and non-essential nutrients, it is also clear that both plant and animal diets are important because they are full of different nutrients. In the third installment of her series, “The Diet We’re Meant to Eat: How Much Meat versus Veggies.” Dr. Sarah Ballantyne does a great job of explaining this.

Plant Nutrients

  • Vitamin C
  • Carotenoids (lycopene, beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin) (lycopene, beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin)
  • Sulfide of diallyl (from the allium class of vegetables)
  • Polyphenols
  • Flavonoids (anthocyanins, flavan-3-ols, flavonols, proanthocyanidins, procyanidins, kaempferol, myricetin, quercetin, flavanones)
  • Dithiolethiones
  • Lignans
  • Stanols and plant sterols
  • both indoles and isothiocyanates
  • fibrous prebiotics (soluble and insoluble)

Animal Nutrients

  • B12 vitamin
  • Zinc heme iron
  • synthetic vitamin A (retinol)
  • superior protein Creatine
  • Taurine\sCarnitine
  • Selenium
  • K2 vitamin
  • Nutrition D
  • DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) (docosahexaenoic acid)
  • EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) (eicosapentaenoic acid)
  • CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) (conjugated linoleic acid)

Further Reading
Check out the following articles for more information on these topics:
Why nutrient density is important and what it means to us?
Part three of “The Diet We’re Meant to Eat” How Much Meat Should You Eat?

Focus on Nutrient Density in Your Diet

We get the same result whether we examine things from the perspective of evolutionary biology and history or contemporary biochemistry:

There seems to be no way of getting around it. Your diet will be far less nutrient-dense unless you’re eating BOTH ANIMAL and PLANT foods.

Anthropology and archaeology show that as long as people eat whole, unprocessed animal and plant foods, they may be able to survive on a wide range of food combinations and amounts of macronutrients.

For example, the traditional Okinawans also ate a lot of carbohydrates and not much animal protein or fat. Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, provided 97% of the calories for the Tukisenta of Papua New Guinea. And then we have the Maasai and Inuit, who get a much larger share of their calories from animal protein and fat, especially during certain times of the year.
Your own preferences, needs, and objectives should determine how much animal and how much plant food you eat. So in terms of calories, not volume on your plate; between 35 and 50 percent of calories should come from animal foods, and between 50 and 65 percent should come from plant foods. This seems to be the sweet spot for the majority of people.

Source and Quality is Most Important

In conclusion, regardless of your dietary preferences, quality should always take precedence. Seek out responsibly sourced, pesticide-free, and ideally, organic foods. The allure of a large glass of green juice diminishes if the vegetables used are steeped in pesticides and other chemicals. The energy your body uses to cleanse these substances often surpasses the nutritional gain from the juice. Plus, many of these ‘Forever’ chemicals are stubbornly persistent.

When it comes to eggs, free-range is the way to go due to their higher omega-3 content compared to grain-fed eggs. If you can, choose organic. This same rule applies to meat – grass-fed trumps factory farm, grain-fed animals.

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