What is the Optimal Diet for Humans?
Oh boy here we go again! What’s it gonna be this time? Paleo? Vegan? Keto? Carnivore? Pescatarian? Vegetarian?
The amount of wildly differing nutritional advice we are bombarded with is overwhelming. Our goal is to help you figure out what the optimal diet is for YOU.
The truth is there is no such thing as the best diet for all humans. Even if you figure out the best diet for you, that simply means it’s what is best for your body at the current time, not necessarily what’s optimal for you long term.
There is an interesting human behavioural phenomenon that occurs when it come to choosing the optimal diet: we tend to get attached to certain “ism’s” (veganism, vegetarianism etc.) and our dietary patterns become part of our identity. We can cling on to the belief that our diet is the one diet that is healthiest for all humans, but if we take a step back.. it’s all nonsense.
We can become religious about diet and it’s really no different than arguing over which religion you should follow. If we want to evolve as humans we need to examine our biases and dogmas and keep an open mind especially to those we disagree with the most.
The optimal diet is individual to each person based on what is best for them at that time. We must get away from giving specific dietary recommendations to everyone across the board. If a health expert tells you that “this is the diet everyone should follow” then you can be certain that they aren’t actually a health expert, or not one you should listen to anyways!
If we want to figure out what the optimal diet is for humans, we should probably take a look at what humans eat in their natural environment. We often forget the fact that we are animals and we have certain nutritional requirements to maintain health. If you take a lion from the wild, put it in a zoo and feed it broccoli and kale, it’s going to get sick and die prematurely. If you take a human from the wild, put it in an indoor living space and feed it processed bread products and sugar, it will get sick and die early as well. Oh wait, that’s exactly what we’re already doing!
It’s no wonder our rates of chronic disease are skyrocketing and for the first time in about 60 years, lifespan in the US is decreasing despite the “advances” in medical technology and science. Scary stuff. Perhaps we should go back to a time when our human ancestors were healthy and take a look at what they were eating.
There is a common criticism to the argument that our ancestors were healthier than we are; “they had a shorter lifespan”. It is important to understand that they may have had a shorter average lifespan than us due to a high rate of infant mortality but they had a much longer healthspan. Although acute infectious illness, severe injuries/accidents etc. were certainly present, there was nearly a complete absence of chronic disease.
*Please keep in mind that diet is one of many factors that contributes to healthspan and I’m not suggesting it is the only cause of our decline in health!
The reason I can confidently say that there is no single best diet for everyone is because when we look at our human history, our ancestors have always consumed entirely different diets across the globe yet they all seemed to have great health. The Inuits of the Arctic thrive on a high fat, largely carnivorous diet for most of the year yet cardiovascular disease is non-existent. Conversely, some equatorial populations consume an extremely carbohydrate rich diet but there is no diabetes to be found. It is clear that humans have unique genetic differences that allow for us to survive and thrive eating different foods.
It can be helpful to categorize humans into 3 different categories also called metabolic types based on our genetic needs. This is a simplification and it’s only a part of the nutrition puzzle but it’s an important one.
Equatorial or Slow Oxidizer – Higher plant/carbohydrate intake
If your genes are from an equatorial region, your ancestors had access to abundant plant foods, rich in carbohydrates and your mitochondria (energy producing organelles) are well adapted to creating energy from these foods.
Polar or Fast Oxidizer – Higher animal/ protein and fat intake
Conversely if you have genes from colder climates (polar type) you are going to be more efficient at producing energy and heat from consuming animal foods as they are the primary food available during a good portion of the year.
Mixed Type – Equal mix of both
Somewhere in between you have a spectrum called the mixed type where your macronutrient ratio will be more balanced and vary seasonally.
Environmental and Seasonal Eating
Another aspect that often gets overlooked in the study and discussion of nutrition is the environment and season in which the food was grown and consumed.
From an evolutionary perspective, nearly all the food consumed was grown locally and consumed seasonally. This was the only way it could be as trading, transport, and long term storage (refrigeration/freezers) of food were not available. This is a foreign concept to most of us because we can go to the grocery store and buy bananas from Ecuador whenever we want despite the fact that any Indigenous person from Canada or the US would never have come across a banana in their life.
The question is: does it matter where the food comes from?
We hear about all the positive benefits of coffee, dark chocolate, exotic berries, and herbs and spices from abroad yet they don’t grow in our environment. The answer is yes it does matter because food is much more than its chemical components.
The macronutrients, micronutrients, and phytochemicals in food are definitely important but biochemistry is only part of the picture, biophysics is where the magic is. At the end of the day (figuratively), our food gets broken down into protons and electrons for the mitochondria to produce energy. These electrons and protons carry important energy and information for our mitochondria to function optimally. They provide photosynthetic information from the sun about the environment (including seasonality) and how to respond appropriately.
Constantly eating foods that aren’t in accordance with our environment confuses our biology and impairs the body’s ability to adapt. I still think there are some benefits to consuming “exotic” foods but the majority of what you eat should be local and seasonal.
Organic Food and Beyond
Now that we have covered individual genetic variation as well as local and seasonal eating, the last major consideration is food quality. Food must be grown in its natural environment in order to produce and provide us with all of the necessary nutrients for us to function optimally.
There is still so much complexity in food that we don’t understand, but we know for sure that foods high in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are beneficial to our health. Foods obtain their nutrients from their natural environment: soil, water, sunlight, air etc. therefore the quality of food is directly linked to the health of the environment in which it’s grown.
This is also true of animal products, they are a product of the environment they were raised in including what they ate and drank, how much time they spent outside, and several other factors.
We also now know that various pesticides and chemical toxins from our environment can accumulate in our food supply and have a profoundly negative impact on the plants and animals that are directly exposed as well as the consumers of them. This is why organic food is often recommended because it has usually been exposed to less toxic chemicals than conventionally grown food.
This is a great start but we must keep in mind that organic food doesn’t necessarily mean it was grown in an optimal environment. You can grow organic hydroponic lettuce indoors that is “toxin-free” but it has never even been exposed to natural sunlight, air, or soil, potentially leading to a decrease in beneficial micronutrients, phytochemicals and overall food quality.
In essence the goal is to source food that is not just organically grown and free of toxins but grown in its natural environment to provide the necessary nutrients we require.
Biodynamic (Regenerative) Farming
Biodynamic farming (a type of regenerative agriculture) is a step beyond organic farming. In addition to farming without the use of toxic chemicals and GMO’s, methods are used to create a self-sustaining ecosystem that works with nature to restore and improve the health of the planet.
Regenerative farming methods not only produce the highest quality food (besides wild-harvested/hunted food) but they are absolutely essential in today’s world to reverse the damage we have done to our soils and provide sustainable food production.
A typical regenerative farm includes a variety of both plants and animals coexisting together mimicking nature. Factory farming and mono-cropping practices are far from natural and result in poor quality yield and destruction of the planet. Biodynamic and regenerative agriculture is the way of the future if we want to bring health to our people and planet (there is no separation!).
The Biodynamic Local Seasonal Diet – The Best Diet for Humans!
I am being the hypocritical “health expert” here proposing that there is indeed one diet that is optimal for all humans that I call the Biodynamic Local Seasonal Diet or Bio-LSD for short.
I wouldn’t call it a “diet” as much as general guidelines to follow when exploring what the optimal diet is for you.
Don’t forget that how you feel is the #1 metric to follow when determining what is an appropriate diet for you. You are the only person who knows what’s best for your body, don’t let anybody (including myself) tell you otherwise.
Here’s How to Implement the Biodynamic-Local Seasonal Diet:
1. Determine your metabolic type
Take a look at your family tree or genetic testing data and find out your genetic history. If your genes are predominantly from a northern latitude then there’s a good chance you will do well with a polar-type high fat and protein diet. If you have genes from close to the equator you are probably best off eating a higher carbohydrate plant-based diet as an equatorial type. If you are somewhere in between or aren’t sure then start with a mixed diet.
When in doubt trace back your mother’s ancestry as mitochondria are passed on maternally! I would encourage everyone to try all 3 types at some point to learn more about your body and see how you feel.
2. Eat unprocessed whole REAL food
This sounds like common sense but you would be surprised at how unnatural the “food” is that we eat after all of the processing is said and done. Have you ever looked at the ingredients list on a certain food and been unable to pronounce half of the ingredients? Yeah don’t eat that…
Eat a variety of plant, fungi and animal products that have not been heavily processed with artificial ingredients added to them. Eat foods in their natural forms just as nature intended them to be.
3. Eat organic or better!
Food labeled “organic” usually means that the majority of the ingredients have been grown without the use of artificial pesticides which is a great start but it doesn’t mean the food was grown in it’s optimal environment.
Biodynamic farming or regenerative agriculture is a step above organic because it focuses on creating a healthy ecosystem according to the principles of nature.
Wild harvested food is almost always the best option, but since the majority of us are not hunter-gatherers, this is difficult to achieve. Growing your own food is an excellent option as is finding a local biodynamic/regenerative farm.
4. Eat locally and seasonally
This can also be very challenging but try your best to eat what is growing in your environment during that time period.
In most places this means higher carbohydrate root vegetables (and potentially grains if prepared properly) from harvest season in the fall, high animal protein/fat consumption in the winter when plants aren’t growing, plenty of leafy vegetables in the spring, and a variety of fruits and vegetables in the summer!
Throughout the year it’s not unusual to be both a carnivore and a vegan depending on the season. It’s okay to enjoy some foods that don’t grow in your local environment but don’t let those comprise the majority of your diet.
5. Don’t eat (sometimes)
Another commonality to all ancestral populations is that there were periods of low food availability. Without fridges, grocery stores, and uber eats, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were forced into periods of fasting.
It is now well validated that intermittent periods of fasting and time-restricted feeding (eating in a smaller window of the day) are extremely powerful practices to improve health and extend both your healthspan AND lifespan.
Thanks for reading! Be sure to check out our previous post about Time Restricted Eating to synchronize what you eat, with when you eat for optimal health!
– Dr. Andrew Chelladurai, ND
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