What Is The Perfect Diet?

I never really bothered much with the whole, "What is the meaning of life?" thing. Despite its grand conjured images of wise toga-clad men discussing metaphysics, such a question always seemed largely irrelevant to me. Why did life need one concrete "meaning," since living it was thrillingly and satisfactorily fulfilling in its own right?

So what question does keep me up at night?

What is the perfect diet?

This may seem like diet #obsession, but when you think about it, what you eat determines how your body runs, grows, and repairs. It determines your inclination towards states of disease and health, as well as your likelihood of stumbling around in a fog, versus experiencing true resilience. I'd be lying if I said I didn’t spend restless nights at 2 am wandering in various diet protocol forums, searching for the light. Furthermore, the most glorious moments of my physical being have been in the completely fasted state, AKA: the state of no food. (Oh hey intermittent fasting!) So in my head, it stands to reason that discovering the "ideal" diet could lend itself to a state of perpetual bliss, in theory.

BUT THE PERFECT DIET IS OBVIOUS, RIGHT?

On the one hand, you'd think since we're all human, that there would be a single "human" diet that would be ideal. You'd think it would just be, well, obvious. And to many it seemingly is: Eat your fruits and vegetables. Avoid fat and sugar. Drink lots of water. Done.

Such concepts, however, true or not, are arguably thanks to politically-charged, culturally-ingrained ideas (often of potential mythic status) rather than concrete foundations. Fruits can be super high in sugar. Veggies can contain toxic nutrients. Fat isn't necessarily bad, except when it is. (Oh hey trans fats!) Polyunsaturated fats are either good (Omega 3!) or bad (Omega 6!), unless you're of the opinion that's they're actually all bad (oh hey Ray Peat!) Are whole grains heart healthy and life supporting... or the devil incarnate in bread? Is fish the ultimate protein, or actually a carrier for environmental toxins?

In fact, for every single food, you could likely find a culture or protocol prescribing it for health, and another banning it as problematic. Oh my!

CENTENARIANS

Perhaps to find the perfect diet, we should look to the populations with the most centenarians, since presumably these guys are doing something right. According to National Geographic Explorer Dan Buttoner's The Blue Zones, the people of 5 particular places provide pristine pictures of longevity, with disease and deterioration largely absence. Here are those five populations, with their corresponding traditional diets. (I emphasize traditional, since many populations are becoming more and more westernized in their eating habits, which may play a heavy handed role in the future of their health.)

Okinawa, Japan

 Unlike the refined rice found in the rest of Japan, the long-lived inhabitants of the Okinawan archipelago feast largely on sweet potatoes, with small amounts of legumes, as well as occasional fish and pork.

Sardinia, Italy

The Italian islanders of Sardinia eat a diet rich in goat's cheese (~15 pounds per year!), goat's milk, nuts, Triticum durum wheat flat bread (low in gluten), tomatoes, fava beans, chickpeas, and thistle tea, along with 3-4 glasses wine (often featuring Grenache grapes).

Loma Linda, California

While not a literal island, the 7th day Adventists of Loma Linda arguably live on an island in spirit. They consume a Biblically-based, vegetarian (and occasionally pescetarian) diet of vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and legumes, and drink only water. Their dietary choices come from Genesis 1:29: "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you;…" The pescetarians purportedly live longer than the vegetarians.

Nicoya, Costa Rica

The people of the Nicoya Peninsula dine on beans, corn and squash, as well as yams, bananas, papayas, and a fruit called the peach palms.

Ikaria, Greece

The Greeks living on Ikaria in the Aegean Sea feature a plant based diet of wild greens, beans, potatoes, goat's milk, honey, legumes, some fruit, and small amounts of fish. Beverages include herbal tea, coffee, and wine. At lunch, beans, legumes and potatoes, along with fresh garden vegetables comprise the meal, prepared with liberal quantities of olive oil.

While perhaps we can grasp at some trends from these diets (sweet potatoes, legumes, fish, wine), it's not like we can just take the similarities to concoct the "perfect" diet, since doing so would create an entirely new diet not expressed by any of these cultures. This would also leave a lot of questions unanswered: meat or no meat? Dairy or no dairy? Alcohol or no alcohol? And I gotta admit, these diets feature a whole lot of foods typically not welcomed in the Paleo-sphere. We're talking grains, legumes, and dairy, and a definite lack of chicken and steak.

That said, I believe the takeaway from these populations is what the perfect diet does not contain (which is notably similar to a Paleo approach): high amounts of processed foods brimming with toxins and gluten, refined grains, and sugars. And on the lifestyle side of things, island-like mentalities of community, relationships, and lots of vitamin D probably helps!

LOW CARB VS. HIGH CARB (featuring zero carb and Ray Peat!)

The whole low carb vs. high carb debate is probably the root cause of my #perfectdiet anxiety. Because despite adamant arguments by each group against the contrary, it's very hard to deny that there are people who (apparently) thrive on super low carb, high fat diets, as well as those who thrive on super high carb, low fat diets. I really wish low carbers would stop attacking high carbers, and high carbers would stop attacking low carbers, and instead we could just sit down and talk about why both seemingly can work... and from there, perhaps which is best?

When I initially went low carb (and even SUPER low carb), it seriously rocked my world. I was convinced that the low carb diet was clearly the end-all perfect diet, that carbs were the devil, and that high carb vegetarians and sugar-sipping marathon runners were clearly delusional and approaching an inevitable downfall. That said, I'm a perfectionist, and despite my success, I'd worry that perhaps I was wrong after all. So I'd wander in debate forums and read all the conflicting arguments. I'd experiment with carb intake (often with a smidge of fear, which likely didn't help matters), or try things like fruit fasts to "test the waters of the other side."

I'm particularly perplexed by the various testimonials of both carnivorous zero-carb, and keto-inspried Facebook groups and forums, as well as the (at face value) polar opposite world of Ray Peat. The low carb groups promise the disease-fighting, anti-inflammatory, fat-burning energy life of avoiding carbs at all costs. On the other hand, Ray Peat and followers advocate a high sugar diet for ultimate mitochondrial, adrenal, and hormonal support. The former demonizes sugar, which just so happens to be a major foundation of the later. The later demonizes polyunsaturated (omega 3 and 6) fats, a major constituent of the former. The former also embraces vegetables as a foundation of the diet, while the later minimizes them as basically toxic.

I think the whole low carb vs. high carb thing comes down to a very important concept: the body can function adequately on either glucose or fat as a primary substrate. As long as both aren't eaten simultaneously in extreme amounts, this can likely be done in an anti-inflammatory fashion, which is key. With a steady supply of glucose, and minimal amount of fat, for example, the body will simply run from carb to carb. Which I suppose isn't a problem if you're down to refill carbs constantly. If you're running on carbs and not simultaneously ingesting excess fat (or excess energy), you're also unlikely to gain much fat. (That said, if you're overweight and following such a diet, your body may resist burning its body fat stores, and doing so may require a lot of exercise, a lot of hunger, or both).

On the other hand, you can also run primarily in fat, which will happen if you're not taking in lots of sugar. In this scenario, you'll more easily transition between dietary and body fat, and likely can go longer between meals, and burn body fat without hunger, while at a calorie deficit.

The point is, as long as either sugar or fat is provided in adequately substantial amounts, and not both, then a person can likely thrive on either a high fat or a low carb diet, as long as the appropriate building blocks for nutrition are provided, of course. (Protein, vitamins, essential fatty acids for cells, etc.). The problem occurs when both high fat and high sugar are combined. In such a case, the body favors sugar burning, and stores the incoming fat at all costs (and is also unwilling to burn it, given sugar's presence.) Oh hey our modern diet!

For low carb vs high carb, I believe it likely comes down to issues like insulin regulation and energy generation in the mitochondria. Some people may have terrible insulin regulation, and a high carb diet (even a low fat one) could pave a hunger-filled path to diabetes, marked by road signs of blood sugar swings. On the other hand, a person with thyroid or adrenal issues, may struggle with low carb, and run themselves into a burned-out state.

In fact, my own (semi) recent switch to a slightly higher carb Paleo diet (I eat sooooo much fruit now, oh my gosh), was partly due to, despite my obsessive research on the subject, a nagging fear that perhaps "they" were right, and I "need" more carbs for my adrenals. I'm actually still on the fence about this. It's been a year of substantially higher carb, and I still don't know how I feel. On the one hand, I feel a tad more zen and maybe sleep better. On the other hand, I feel like my adrenals have gone someone... silent. Whereas before I was like #dopamine #life #stress #energy, now I'm more one note. I'm not so sure I like it. My heart rarely races anymore. Things that used to make me jump or start, now happen without a batting an eye. I also seemingly struggle with candida flares (or something) from the carbs. I shall now stop myself before going to far on this tangent....

In any case, I doubt the low carb vs. high carb debate will ever die. At this present moment, I believe low carb is definitely best for weight loss and the insulin resistant, but perhaps a more moderate and or higher are approach (from whole foods, of course!) may be ideal when you've reached the appropriate body weight (and if you don't struggle from gut dysbiosis {sigh}).

GENETICS

Another reason we cannot find a single, cohesive diet solution, likely comes down to genetics. While there may have been a "perfect diet" in the proverbial or literal Eden (depending on your religious inclinations), insurmountable years of environmental adaptations have undoubtedly resulted in various human bodies adapt to better handle different fuel substrates. Up and down-regulation of certain genes easily affects a person's preference for, and reaction to, certain foods.

For example, the amylase enzyme is required to break down starches (found in things like rice and potatoes) into simple sugars useable by the body. If you've got more copies of the amylase genes, you'll digest and process starch better. Populations heavily reliant on starches, such as European Americans and the Japanese, tend to feature more copies of the starch gene, compared to those with less starch intake.

Genetic effects on omega 3 processing is another biggie. Generally accepted as a super nutritious, vital fat, omega 3s are found in fatty fish and some plant foods. The form of omega 3 found in plants, however, is called ALA, and must be transformed into the useable form in the body, of EPA and DHA. Variants in the FADS1 gene may influence the body's ability to make this conversion. This means that while some people may be just dandy getting their omega 3a from plants, others may majorly struggle to do so. And if you're incapable of getting omega 3 from plants, it's unlikely you'll thrive on an entirely plant-based diet. Like really.

Or consider dairy. Some tout it as bone-building, calcium-rocking liquid fuel, while others note it as an inflammatory, insulin-spiking and fat- promoting indulgence. When it comes to genetics, those who lack the ability to produce lactase to break down the lactose sugar, will likely suffer. Similarly, the casein protein found in dairy may or may not instigate inflammation or gluten-like reaction via molecular mimicry. (More on the immune system in a moment!)

Other miscellaneous genes can potentially influence whether you thrive on a high or low protein diet, high or low fat diet, as well as who knows what else.

So what does this say about "the perfect diet?" Is there still a perfect diet, and it just depends if we're genetically adapted to it? Or is there no perfect diet, and only a diet best suited to one's genes?

THE ADAPTIVE IMMUNE SYSTEM

On the more sinister side of the genetic equation, the evolving nature of the adaptive immune system has resulted in bodies which may or may not register various proteins as harmful.

The immune system itself is a network of cells and processes in the body which protect the host (AKA: you!) against invading pathogens, viruses, bacteria, and other species. It's always working in your defense. In fact, most of the "symptoms" of being sick, are actually byproducts of the immune system at work: runny noses and coughs to expel invaders, fevers to kill bacteria with heat, aches as a result of inflammation which serves to stop the infection and heal the area, etc.

Now the immune system has two main types: innate and adaptive. The innate system is sort of like a black-and-white auto response. When it senses an invader, it rallies the troops, deals with the infection, then leaves the scene. End of story. It's like the general police responding to whatever call rolls in.

The adaptive immune system, on the other hand, is more complex: it has a memory. It learns. It's why vaccines work. The adaptive immune system is composed of specialized cells which respond to specific invaders, often which evaded the innate immune system. This immune system remembers these invaders, and protects the host from them in the future. It's like the FBI or CIA going after specific terrorists.

So how does this relate to food?

The adaptive immune system can decide that certain proteins found in food sources are invaders. Or it can decide that certain proteins which look extremely similar to those in food, are invaders. Then bad stuff happens. We can get a situation where, say, protein found in chicken or nuts or a celery may be awesome for one person, and detrimental to another. Adaptive immunity is the reason for many food allergies and intolerances.

Consider "oral allergy syndrome." This is where environmental plant pollens (such as grass, trees, etc.) are similar to proteins found in various plants and vegetables. So if you're highly allergic to a type of plant pollen, you may react with allergy symptoms to certain fruits and vegetables. I, for example, am highly allergic to grass (which I credit to growing up in the South while consuming an array of leaky-gut instigating foods which likely allowed grass pollens to leak into my system). I also react, appropriately enough, to produce with proteins similar to grass pollens: oranges, lettuce, and celery.

On the more sinister side, adaptive immunity can also cause the body to begin attacking itself, due to ingestion of certain food. Gluten, for example, is a dangerous protein in the body, and it just so happens to resemble a lot of cells in the body. So when you eat gluten, your body can be like "ATTACK THYSELF." Curious as to why gluten is "SO" bad, and not other plant proteins? It's likely because not only is gluten found naturally in wheat, it is also found in isolated form as a food additive in most processed products. With more constant exposure, comes more likelihood that the body will begin reacting.

The takeaway? It's pretty hard to have any one "ideal" diet, when any given food could possibly spark an immune reaction in an individual.

THE GUT MICROBIOME

And then, of course, we've also got the gut microbiome influencing the body's relation to diet. We are born with a certain gut microbiome population when we are thrust through our mother's birth canal. (If you were born by C-section, you got the short end of the stick). Your resident bacteria from birth are pretty important, and ideally stable. In addition to these little buggers, you've also got the help of friendly soil-based buggers (if yore consuming organic, unwashed fruits and veggies) as well as those found in fermented foods. Basically, there's a lot of potential types of bacteria in your gut, about which we know so very little. Good bacteria help our guts generate energy from food, regulate the GI system, and ward off pathogenic species.

There's also a lot of potential for things to go awry, bacteria wise. Things like antibiotics do a number on our gut microbiome: when we take some medicine to knock out a cold (which may or may not even be viral in nature), the antibiotics easily wipe out our good gut bacteria in the process. Many people also suffer from an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the small intestine, a condition known as SIBO, which I personally struggle with, and have written about at length in the past. Issues with the gut microbiome can lead to problems such as GI distress, food allergies, inflammation, etc.

When it comes to diet, certain diets tend to yield certain bacterial species. Diets higher in animal product tend to encourage one sort (such as Alistipes, Bilophila and Bacteroides), while more fibrous plant-based diets tend to encourage another (such as Roseburia, Eubacterium rectale and Ruminococcus broom). Likewise, the microbial breakdown of carnivorous versus herbivore animals tends to be similarly different. The various microbes correlating to diet allow the host organism to adequately extract energy from the dominant and consistent food source (carbohydrate fermentation versus protein fermentation). Interesting, a recent study found that changes in the gut microbiome can happen shockingly fast, in as little as 24 hours! (Seeing as how I fixate on the state of my gut microbiome, I find this massively refreshing).

So when it comes to finding the "perfect diet," the gut microbiome may be key. Without the perfect (or at least good) microbiome, it's unlikely you will thrive on the perfect (or good) diet. That said, since the microbiome can change according to diet, perhaps we should look at it more as the perfect diet would encourage the perfect gut microbiome.

FINDING YOUR PERFECT DIET

Maybe we can't pinpoint an ideal diet. Maybe that's why sticking to whole foods which work for you is key: whatever digests well, keeps you energized and happy, and does not instigate inflammation, pain, bloating, or the like. Nutrients and energy must be provided, without toxic side effects.

To concoct YOUR ideal diet, I'm thinking you might decide on low carb/high fat, or high carb/low fat. Or moderate amounts of both, as long as constant calorie overconsumption is avoided (which tends to lead to problems.) Forgoing inflammatory, disease-spiking processed foods, as well as personal food intolerances and allergies, is also key.

As for present protocols which I feel embrace the "perfect" diet, I do like Paleo's present evolution, as its foundational figures (Robb Wolf, Chris Kresser, Mark Sisson, etc.) begin to embrace more foods based on personal sensitivities (dairy is sometimes ok, maybe legumes and properly prepared rice, etc.), though its commercialization ​resulting in Paleo packaged junk food  "goodies" is far from ideal. I also appreciate the work of Paul Jaminet and Shou-Ching Jaminet's The Perfect Health Diet, as well as that of the Weston A Price Foundation. All of these approaches tend to welcome whole foods featuring meat, fruits, veggies, and various degrees of legumes, grass-fed, organic dairy, and properly prepared grains. (Though I'm still hesitant with that last bit.) As I've said before, ensuring adequate nutrition while not consuming toxic and inflammatory foods may be the ultimate key.

On a more philosophical note, if one person lives to 100 eating steak, and another lives to 100 eating vegetables, who's to say which is better? The same could also be said for someone who lives to 100 eating McDonalds and gluten. (Though I believe such people are harder to find, and you could also argue the morality of a poor diet's genetic influence on one's offspring - but that is a rabbit hole for another day!) Furthermore, perhaps calorie restriction is enough to meditate damage from "bad foods." But now I'm on even more tangents...

Just as there's not one "perfect" picture, or "perfect" house, or "perfect job," maybe there's not a "perfect" diet. That doesn't mean, of course, that there aren't awesome pictures and awesome houses and awesome jobs. So maybe it's much more freeing to look for the many awesome diets to find one you adore, rather than the single perfect diet which may or may not exist. #Goals

Of course, I'm still gonna keep looking. Old habits die hard! 

How about you? What do YOU think is the perfect diet?

P.S. After all this, I realized I left out an obvious, foundational issue to explore: the physical makeup of our digestive ​tract system. Next time! (Except really. I feel like that's an entire post in its own right!)

REFERENCES

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2193298/http://missinglink.ucsf.edu/lm/immunology_module/prologue/objectives/obj02.html

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v505/n7484/full/nature12820.html

http://medicalxpress.com/news/2017-01-snapshot-inuit-gut-microbiome-similarities.html

http://genetics.thetech.org/original_news/news62

https://www.hyperbiotics.com/blogs/recent-articles/89735302-your-diet-changes-your-microbiome-fast

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2894525/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2894525/

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/11/398325030/eating-to-break-100-longevity-diet-tips-from-the-blue-zones

http://www.okicent.org/docs/anyas_cr_diet_2007_1114_434s.pdf

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