**NOTE: This is a loooooong post, because it’s a big birthday. I’m no longer a thirty-something!**
I’m one of those counterculture folks who has tried many different ways of eating over the years, for a variety of reasons.
I came to life in small-town Pennyslvania in 1972, so I was born into the Standard American Diet (SAD). My parents were raised in this “regular” way of eating — lots of grains, sugars, fat and meat.
My parents were hippies, though, and after we left small-town Americana, we embraced more hippie foods. Wheat germ, homemade yogurt and lentils with brown rice were regular features of our kitchen. For a while we were quite poor, and then we ate what we could afford, which included hamburgers from chub beef — those fat tubes of plastic-covered rotting cow waste that many poor families know well.
Then at 16, inspired by a high school classmate (my ex-wife Sarah), I became a vegetarian. Meat is murder, and all that. I’ve been veg ever since — sometimes vegan, sometimes ovo-lacto. In my mid-thirties, I spent about 18 months eating totally raw. I always choose organic, local, fresh.
All of my dietary changes have been good in one respect — they’ve led to better health overall. When I went raw, I lost 60 pounds and gained a sense of self-control. But there was no guiding principle backing my dietary ideas. I had some philosophies, sure, about the morality of food and agriculture, about not killing other sentient creatures, about farming practices that are in harmony with nature. All of those are important to include, but they don’t always lead to health, especially if your eating is driven by the insulin yo-yo of constant starches and sugars.
I had built up a stock of “conventional wisdom” about nutrition from the media: Fat is bad, saturated fat is the worst, you should eat low-fat grains and processed vegetable oils. But I didn’t know very much about WHY those things were supposedly true.
And I didn’t know what else to do to stop gaining weight. I can tell I’m not alone in this: The U.S. is increasingly a country of fat, sick, miserable people. The Standard American Diet truly is SAD, because it’s clearly not working to produce good health. Instead, we have more morbid obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer than ever before. Not to mention ADHD, depression, bipolar, autism spectrum — all things affected by diet.
In 2012, after living abroad for a few years, I returned to the U.S. because of medical issues in the family. I started researching food and nutrition to help with cancer. What I found, when I looked at the evidence, is that the conventional wisdom — that you should eat carbs and polyunsaturated fats instead of more traditional foods — is nothing but a heavy glycemic load of crap.In order to question, analyze and evalute the various claims about food, I used science. What evidence is there? What other scenarios could explain that evidence? Who’s paying for the evidence? What are their motivations? What are they leaving out? What does their data really show? What’s the probability that what they’re saying is true?
In other words, I had to use scientific principles to evaluate the current scientific evidence. As a former journalist, I know how the mainstream media will unquestioningly parrot the prevailing establishment’s ideas, and I know the establishment promotes profit above all else. So I decided to look at the studies myself, like many other folks I found at various health blogs and nutrition sites. Does the research say what we’ve been told it says? Does the evidence about the study and its funders make it more or less probable that the results and their analysis are being skewed?
Science is the key. I don’t mean the established system of university departments, private companies’ labs, government research centers, federal regulators and peer-reviewed journals — those institutions are generally corrupt and run by money, which in America means they’re owned and run by big corporations for the interests and profit of big corporations.
(Is it surprising that when Wesson and Proctor & Gamble needed to sell corn oil in the 1960s, “scientific studies” were produced saying how bad butter was, and how much better corn oil was for you, and those studies were then trumpeted by all the corporate media outlets? Too bad it wasn’t true. That basic pattern is the boringly repetitious story of American food choices.)
No, when I say “science,” I mean a way of knowing — the idea that we ask questions and then try to find repeatable evidence to support one potential answer over another.
There’s no magic to acquiring knowledge, just work. But I am heartened by the idea that, even though it IS a lot of work, my health is worth it.
After all, I’m now 40. At nearly the halfway point of my life. I’ve already decided I’m only living until 81, because that seems long enough (it also aligns with my personal number symbology, but that’s a topic for another post). I want to be a responsible sharing partner with the other creatures on the planet, and living too long is unsustainable and greedily uses resources.
Looking ahead, I know some of what’s coming in the final years. We all do, because we’ve done it before: Inability to feed yourself, inability to control bodily functions, inability to convert how you process incoming stimuli into successful human communication, etc. Babies go “goo-goo-gaa-gaa” and older folks have dementia.
But before those years happen (if they must happen), I want each year of life to be the best so far. Starting now, in my 40th year. This will be the best year of my life. And every year after. The best so far.
To do that, I need to keep my body as healthy as possible, or it won’t be able to keep up with my increasingly awesome life. And that means using science to find the very best ingredients to build my body.
My goal gives me boundless motivation. I want an awesome 40 years of living. If I have to eat reindeer poop that’s been crystallized on a special mushroom that grows from granite cliffs in Norway blended into my raw green smoothie, then I will.
The good news is that there is no reindeer poop that’s been crystallized on a special mushroom that grows from granite cliffs in Norway. I don’t have to blend that into my raw green smoothie.
Instead, the very best human fuel is fresh, local, organic produce. That’s what we need to be eating. According to the U.S. government — and its standards are the bare minimum required to keep you just alive enough to get terrible degenerative diseases that make tons of profit for the medical industrial complex, but even according to the government’s standards — produce should be half your plate.
And when we look at the evidence, the nutrients that keep us healthy work when they are together in a whole food better than as isolated compounds — in fact, in most cases, isolating certain parts of food through harsh industrial processes is much, much worse for you than eating the whole food. In some cases, processing isolated nutrients (like soy protein) makes them toxic to us, because they’ve been chemically altered at the molecular level, so they’re not actually food anymore. Most of what’s sold in grocery stores isn’t anything our body recognizes as food. It’s a food-like product.
On the other hand, when we look at these whole, fresh food compounds — phytonutrients, isoflavones, micronutrients and others — we find that they slow cancer growth, or they fight diabetes, or they work even earlier, reducing free radicals in your body and stopping disease before it even thinks about becoming disease.
If you add whole food probiotics and live enzymes throughout the day (as in fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha), these whole fresh food compounds all work together and are shown to slow or stop diabetes, coronary heart disease, cardiovascular problems, mental health issues and cancer.
When we look at the diseases the establishment tells us are just a part of getting old, it turns out these degenerative illnesses aren’t just winning “naturally” because of age but also because of a lifetime of malnutrition — eating processed starches, fats and proteins.
So for my 40th birthday, I’m giving myself the gift of health, the gift of tradition, the gift of compassionate, science-based healthful eating. I call it “The As-Possible Diet.”By returning to traditional foods — foods from before the agricultural industrial complex started making everything in a laboratory from chemically isolated pharmaceutical nutrients — and eating the way traditional peoples have eaten for thousands of years without all these degenerative diseases in such high numbers, every year of my life CAN be the best year ever.
And why WOULDN’T I do whatever I can to follow the evidence? We’re talking about eating — the most important action we all do every day, taking in physical objects and transforming them into our flesh. Why wouldn’t I eat as well as possible? As fresh as possible. As raw as possible. As organic as possible. As local as possible. For me, because I choose not to kill other sentient creatures for food, it’s also as vegan as possible.
You’ll notice the “as possible” repetition. That’s on purpose, and it’s important. Just because I can’t get everything, for example, raw AND organic AND local — I shouldn’t just throw my hands in the air and head for the snack aisle. Instead, just make it as healthy “as possible” — with, for me, a few rules.
No corporate food-like products, at all. These toxic chemicals are killing thousands of Americans every day with heart disease and diabetes and cancer, and the companies who make these products use the profits to fund research that misleads people about diet and health. Many of these companies are also in the health care business, so bad nutrition is a good thing; it just creates customers for later. No corporate fake food.
No grains. Seriously, these little packages of poisonous starches have been debilitating us for far too long. I want my body burning the fuel it’s naturally supposed to: Fat, not sugar and starch. Saturated fat is important. Eat it. Stay away from grains.
No industrially processed fats, carbs or proteins. These are the most important nutrients we take in every day. They have to be top quality and whole, as nature gives them to us, or lightly processed with gentle methods, preferably by me.
People like to say that science improves nature — “Better Living Through Chemistry!” — but the direct evidence we have is that is does not. After 200 years of constant industrial “improvements,” our planet is teetering on the brink of total disaster. Vast floating plastic islands in our oceans, nuclear poisons spreading across our planet, drought, wasted farmlands, bad crops, flooding. We have nearly ruined Earth to the point that it won’t support life, or at least not human life.
Previous to these last 200 years, humans had mostly been living in tandem with nature (although we started to throw the balance out of whack about 10,000 years ago when we became agriculturalists in the Neolithic era).
Nature does provide us foods that are whole, raw and healthy, but many that are not as healthy in their raw state. I try to mix the raw and the lightly cooked, because while raw food has many micronutrients and enzymes that are killed by heat, there are also anti-nutrients — potent compounds that protect the plant from being eaten — in raw nuts, seeds, legumes and many raw vegetables.
On the other hand, using science-based eating means being aware of cooking. High-temperature cooking without water (which means frying, sauteeing, baking, grilling and roasting) in most foods creates acrylamide, a known carcinogen. If the food has protein and sugar, heating above 248 F will produce this cancer-causing chemical. Most of the human exposure to acrylamide comes from smoking cigarettes.
But roasting coffee beans creates so much acrylamide that a single cup of joe can have as much acrylamide as one cigarette. So can a small serving of tortilla chips. A bowl of breakfast cereal can have twice as much. A small serving of potato chips can have as much acrylamide as 5 cigarettes.
The safe way to cook things is in the presence of water. Water stops the chemical reaction. So use steam. Use water AND oil to stir-fry. And cook at a lower temperature. Keep it below 248F and there’s NO acrylamide.
We don’t know what a “safe” dose of acrylamide is. There is absolutely zero information about how high the risk is from chronic, daily exposure to small amounts of it. Given that acrylamide interacts with DNA in cells and actually CAUSES cancer, I’m not going to eat ANY of it unless I absolutely have to. Same goes for organic food. The corporate industrial food system says pesticide levels in foods are safe. But many of these chemicals cause cancer, so I will always choose NOT to eat them as much as possible, thanks anyway.
Sometimes “as possible” means using a traditional preparation method, like for beans, where they are soaked for days and allowed to germinate, then are fermented and cooked (in water!). This removes the anti-nutrients (legumes and nuts generally have high levels of phytic acid and lectins, neither of which you want to eat) and can make some nutrients more available.
“As possible” also means being aware of the benefits of some dairy products and eggs. If the animals are well-cared-for and raised humanely, if they’re fed organic pasture and NOT grains, if they’re raised without chemicals and poisons added, some of these foods give us valuable nutrients we can’t easily get elsewhere.
Vegans generally disagree with this on moral grounds, and that’s fine. I share the concern about using animals for any reason without their consent. That’s a personal decision each individual has to make, and it’s why I say “as possible.”
Some folks probably wonder about taste. Will it taste good? After all, when you’ve spent a lifetime getting your tastebuds used to certain types of foods, you often crave THOSE foods.
But I have spent nearly 40 years eating stuff that tasted good. Fulfilling my senses, rather than my following my intellect or intuition. Chasing after sensory pleasures has never been very successful for me. I tried it with food, drugs, sex. The problem is, sensory stimulation is temporary. The more you chase it, the more you want it, the more you can’t really have it. Just when you’ve got it, it slips away. Now you need more. And more and more.
This change in diet, then, also comes with another gift to myself, a stocking stuffer: I’m done eating just for sensory pleasure. My body, my mental health, my excellent life yet to come, all the many “Best Years Ever” waiting for me, all of these things are more important, more satisfying and more constant than whether or not some specific food stimulates my tastebuds in a certain way. I know what debilitating disease looks like, and I don’t want to spend much time with it.
How about, instead of asking if this food tastes good, why don’t I decide that however a good, healthy life tastes, I’ll call THAT delicious! I’m in control of my body and my mind. I get to decide how to react to all the incoming stimuli in my world. I’ll CHOOSE what I think is delicious, and I’ll make sure it’s also healthful.
(The good news is that after you stop all the processed poisons that make up the Standard American Diet [SAD], real food DOES taste super delicious. My mouth waters thinking about my green juice smoothie in the morning. A few days ago, I made egg salad with local organic free-range pasture-fed eggs, with a homemade mayonnaise using organic olive and raw coconut oils, and it was MUCH MORE DELICIOUS than any corporate egg-salad-fake-food-product I ever ate.)
You’ll notice this post doesn’t have lots of research citations or scary factoids (other than the stuff about acrylamide). Go Google it all if you’re interested. I’ll annotate some of my favorite sites as guide posts at the bottom, but this process has been about me finding a solid basis for a plan of action. Science is that basis. The evidence is going to change with time, and my diet will change in response.
Some people use the uncertainty of human knowledge as an argument against science-based eating. “But Sioen, these scientists are always changing their minds! One day, you hear that lettuce is good for you, the next day everybody says don’t eat lettuce or you’ll die! It’s all nonsense.”
Actually, the only nonsense is the idea that anyone knows anything for CERTAIN. Certainty doesn’t exist, but many people live under the illusion that they know for sure. Just like many people believe the illusion that things can remain as they are. No matter how nice the present moment is, permanence is a fantasy.
Change is a constant, and evidence changes. There’s nothing scary or weird about it — this IS the normal, regular, natural order. If you want to be living in harmony with nature, with the Earth, with the universe, then you’ll embrace change, because that’s what nature is.
So, no. I don’t see uncertainty as a problem. The fact that we constantly get better information which changes our actions is refreshing and inspiring. Being attuned to change keeps me agile in spirit and eager to learn. If in the next few years, we start to get good sets of data showing that you CAN cure all diseases by eating reindeer poop that’s been crystallized on a special mushroom that grows from granite cliffs in Norway blended into a raw green smoothie, well then I guess I’ll start doing research about Norwegian reindeer so I can learn which breed produces the poop with the most beneficial crystals and which cliffs contain the right microorganisms to facilitate the cellular activity of the mushroom. Having that kind of flexibility is strength.
Since I started my “As-Possible” diet, I’ve lost 25 pounds and feel better physically than ever before. My mental health has evened out. For 20 years, I’d had bipolar-like cycles that followed the moon. Now instead of constant swings, with out-of-control ups and angrily depressive downs, I generally have a constant, manageable up.
I am now productive, cheerful, outgoing, in a way I thought wasn’t possible. I used to think my introversion and mood swings were hard-wired into my brain’s basic chemistry. That may be true, but it also turns out that diet hugely affects it. As it does every part of our life. We are physical bodies, and we build our body every day, with everything we put in our mouths. Now I’m going to start doing that as intelligently as possible, using a compassionate, evidence-based approach.
(P.S. You’ll notice I didn’t really mention the “Paleo Diet” or the “Primal Blueprint,” although many of my food choices match theirs. The difference is, I want to use science as the basis for my diet, not just a philosophy. And frankly, “What Would ‘Grok’ Eat?” has to be the cheesiest, silliest question I’ve ever heard that has no bearing on my life. I am NOT a Paleolithic man. I live now, here, in this environment with these food choices and a huge set of political and social issues that “Grok” never had to consider, like the effects of factory farming or global trade.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with Mark Sisson or Loren Cordain. I think the scientific idea — that over thousands of generations, our genes have evolved alongside the foods we eat such that our food choices are more or less limited if we want optimal health — is mostly sound. And both of them rely on science to bolster their philosophies. But I just want the science, not the philosophy; I’ll use my own complicated, interwoven worldview and morality to make the final choices. Besides, none of the Paleo folks seem interested in discussing the morality of killing other sentient creatures, as though our health is of such primacy that eating meat is worth whatever the cost. To me, compassion toward all creatures and our planet is a crucial part of good health.
For all those reasons, and because this post isn’t really about the details of my diet, but rather my journey toward it, I decided not to mention specific diets. You’ll see them in the links.)
**Please note that a link is not an endorsement, either of everything on the page or of other things on the site. These are places to look for information, not definitive arbiters of truth about food. My research has spanned many years and involved many sources, not all of which are listed here. Just Google it!**