Choosing Your Best Fuel: Beginners Guide to What's Out There
One of our goals at Mission Heirloom is to provide a platform for dietary exploration. Each of us has our own individual biochemistry and physiology—therefore we each have our own individual dietary needs. The reason why we keep our food free of grains, gluten, soy, and environmental toxins is to make sure that all of our food is adaptable to different dietary requirements.
The best way to learn which foods work best for you is to engage with your diet each and every day and to be willing to make changes if necessary. Paying attention is key. So-called “elimination diets” are a great method for identifying potential intolerances and irritants. In this style of diet, all potentially irritating and inflammatory foods are removed from the diet to allow the body to re-set. After a set period of time, foods are gradually reintroduced to discover which ones can be tolerated and which ones should stay out of the diet—for good. While “elimination” describes the action of removing and testing foods, we like to call this method an exploration and discovery diet. After all, you will be doing a lot of discovery along the way!
It’s important to remember, though, that what works for your friend, sibling, or parent might not work for you. The smallest changes in our environment and genetic code can alter our guts considerably. Each of us is like a different type of car that needs a specific type of fuel to operate at its best—some of us require diesel, others run on electricity, and still more are hybrids.
We’ve identified four ways to start to optimize your health, no matter the fuel required.
The Foundations: Exploring Diets
There are countless diets and sources of dietary advice available to the public these days. It can be very very confusing to sort through all of the different advice. But don’t worry, we’re here to help! We’re not here to promote one diet over the other. In this article, we are looking to lay out the groundwork of current diet trends with no endorsement other than a place to start. Exploring diets for inspiration has been an important key to our mission. We don’t believe in one absolute answer to the problem, only you know what makes your body responds best, and chances are, it’s different than ours.
This much we know: Over the last century and half, we’ve witnessed a dramatic shift in our world’s food system. Modernized countries have ceased to base their foodways on real, whole foods, instead diving head-over-heels into the realm of processed foods. This change, we believe, lead to a degeneration in our overall health. In the last several decades, there has been a surge in research to determine how to feel better, look better, and perform better. This research has bred a broad array of nutrition gurus who package their own personal dietary successes into a plan geared for everyone. We tend to be weary of diets that offer these blanket statements about health—they all too often promise a quick fix that will work for anyone with enough willpower. But history has shown that most of these diet “fads” only work for specific individuals. We think it is great that there are many people who have found diets that work for their body, but we don’t think that it makes sense to prescribe them for everyone.
So if these blanket statement diets aren’t the best solution, what is?
Learning from our ancestors: The Weston A. Price Foundation
The best clues we have to healthy eating are found by looking at what humans were eating before the rise of industrially processed foods. There have been isolated studies on groups of people living on relatively traditional diets in places like Crete (see below regarding the Mediterranean diet), but one of the most detailed studies available comes courtesy of Weston A. Price, a dentist working at the turn of the 20th century.
Price spent over ten years studying indigenous groups of people living all over the world that had yet to be exposed to modern foods. They were eating the foods that their ancestors and ancestors’ ancestors had eaten. He found that the healthiest of these populations all ate very different diets, but that each of them included some form of animal protein and an emphasis on foods that contained fat-soluble vitamins. His research remained relatively underground until Sally Fallon and Mary Enig started the nonprofit Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) in 1999. Their aim was to educate consumers about Price’s findings and to promote ways in which we can implement them today. While the foundation acknowledges the shortcomings inherent to Price’s research, they continue to emphasize the root of his beliefs: humans shouldn’t be eating all of the processed junk that we eat today. The foundation recommends a diet rich in traditional fats, pastured meat, organic produce, raw dairy, fermented dairy and vegetables, and soaked and sprouted whole grains and legumes.
There are other interpretations of ancestral eating that don’t necessarily match the WAPF, but they share common characteristics. Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, advocates for eating food that only your grandmother or great-grandmother would recognize as food. He is a fierce critic of food processing and modern USDA-based dietary advice. In other words, Pollan, as well as the WAPF and other ancestral-focused advisors, state that we operate at our best when we eat real, whole foods just like our ancestors. After all, these real, whole foods make up the diet to which our human bodies are adapted.
Modern variations: Paleo, Primal, and more
The Paleo and Primal diets are based on the ancestral model, but they are often more restrictive than the diets recommended by organizations like the WAPF.
The Paleo Diet as we know it today has gone through several evolutions of its own. It was originally conceived as a fairly strict interpretation of ancient hunter-gatherer diets: It included lean meats, vegetables and a little fruit, but shunned all “agricultural foods” like grains, legumes, and dairy, as well as saturated fats and fat-filled organ meats. Over time, the diet has relaxed a bit, and now includes an emphasis on animal fats and other nutrient-dense foods like offal.
The Primal Blueprint was originally considered an offshoot of Paleo, and allows for dairy and indulgences like wine and chocolate. Primal also calls for functional exercise (running, weight lifting, walking, etc), sleep, and a healthy work-life balance. Today, Paleo and Primal diets look very similar. Similarly, The Bulletproof Diet follows the Paleo blueprint, but is more relaxed about indulgences. Bulletproof devotees tend to emphasize performance and optimization over general wellness. Dave Asprey, the founder of Bulletproof, has done some great research into molds and mycotoxins that is not necessarily considered in other diets.
Health practitioners like Chris Kresser stress the idea that everyone has an individual biochemistry and therefore different dietary needs.
His book, Your Personal Paleo Code, aims to help people adjust to an ancestral style of eating with as few restrictions as possible. He suggests starting with a strict Paleo diet, and then gradually reintroducing potentially problematic foods like dairy, grains and pseudocereals, legumes, nightshades, eggs, alcohol, natural sweeteners, caffeine, and chocolate. Like the WAPF, Kresser writes that grains and legumes need to be properly prepared (i.e. sprouted, soaked, and/or fermented) before eating, but unlike the WAPF, he doesn’t think that they need to be included in a healthy diet. Per Kresser, grains and legumes are not as nutrient-dense as meat and vegetables, they do not contain any nutrients not found in other foods, and should be excluded from the diet if they are in any way troublesome to the gut.
The one thing that all modern ancestral diets have in common is a belief that humans have evolved to be omnivores who function best on a diet made up of mainly meat and vegetables. Ancestral diets emphasize nutrient-dense foods and therefore tend to shy away from grains and legumes even if they include other agricultural foods like coffee and dairy. They prefer saturated and monounsaturated fats over refined and/or polyunsaturated oils. (If you want to learn more about fats, these books by Mary Enig are great primers on the subject.) Ancestral diets also forbid processed and refined foods, and they prefer organic produce and pastured meat.
Therapeutic protocols: GAPS and its relatives, AIP, and Keto
Another branch of ancestral diets are the therapeutic protocols. Therapeutic protocols are restrictive diets that aim to heal the gut and arrest health conditions by eliminating all foods that are irritants to the digestive and/or immune system. In general, in most cases these protocols are to be followed temporarily; a less-restrictive diet is gradually reintroduced as the patient heals.
The GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet is likely the most restrictive protocol of the bunch. The diet was developed by Natasha Campbell-McBride, and it aims to heal mental illness and immune deficiencies by detoxifying and rebalancing the gut. There are two stages to the GAPS diet: the highly restrictive introduction diet and the less-restrictive full GAPS diet. The introduction diet follows 6 mini-stages. It begins with a diet that consists of pureed soups and lacto-fermented liquids and then gradually reintroduces solid food over the course of several weeks. After the introduction stage is over, the patient follows a Paleo-like diet that forbids grains, starchy and mucilaginous vegetables, non-fermented dairy, and processed foods. After two years on the GAPS diet, patients can begin to explore non-GAPS foods if they are tolerable.
SCD (Specific Carbohydrate Diet) is similar in principle to GAPS, but it places a strong emphasis on the types of carbohydrates being consumed. The SCD is followed by many sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, and colitis. The diet allows for only monosaccharide (simple) carbohydrates since they are the easiest to digest. Carbohydrates with more complex structures are said to contribute to bacterial overgrowth if they aren’t fully digested. Allowed carbohydrates include those found in fruits, honey, some vegetables, and in yogurt. SCD relies heavily on homemade yogurt (fermented for 24 hours) to repopulate the gut with good bacteria.
In contrast to SCD, low-FODMAP diets restrict simple carbohydrates, as well as other simple sugars. (These restricted carbohydrates include all Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols, giving the diet its name.) Low-FODMAP diets are also intended to treat symptoms of IBS. Examples of restricted foods include excess fructose found in sweet fruits, alliums, wheat, lactose, legumes, and concentrated sweeteners.
Another style of therapeutic protocol is called the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol (AIP). It is a version of the Paleo diet that also excludes inflammatory foods like nightshades, seeds, nuts, eggs, dairy, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications like Tylenol. Bloggers like Mickey Trescott and Sarah Ballantyne have published great resource books and cookbooks about managing disease through AIP. Doctor Anne Angelone is also a great resource. This protocol is intended for anyone suffering from an autoimmune disease like celiac, multiple sclerosis, ALS, or thyroid conditions like Hashimoto’s.
The ketogenic diet was originally developed as a treatment for epilepsy, but is now used to treat cancer and insulin imbalances as well as for weight loss (which we don’t recommend). The (very) low-carb and high-fat diet aims to induce nutritional ketosis, which is a metabolic state in which you burn fats instead of sugar. Here are a number of good resources you’d like to learn more about Keto diets: Colin Champ, Dawn Lemanne, Dominic D’Agostino, Ellen Davis, Jimmy Moore, Miriam Kalamian, and Rachel Albert.
As you may have noticed, there is quite a bit of debate around starches and their inclusion in a healthy diet. There hasn’t been enough scientific research on the subject yet, but we do know that our good gut bacteria do need certain starches to eat for food. Therefore, there is a potential consequence for following a super low starch diet, and that is that you may seriously reduce the population of good bacteria in the gut.
On the other hand... Plant-based and Mediterranean diets
Often in opposition to the ancestral dietary model are the Mediterranean and plant- based diets that call for meals rich in unsaturated fats, grains, legumes, vegetables, and (maybe) a little meat.
The Mediterranean Diet is based on a model of eating found on the island of Crete. (It is not consistent with all diets of Mediterranean peoples.) The principal components of the Mediterranean diet are olive oil, legumes, unrefined grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy, fish, and wine. It does not include much meat, but does not specifically eschew meat consumption. The success of Mediterranean diets has been associated with high consumption of unrefined olive oil, which is full of polyphenol antioxidants. Likewise, the high consumption of nutrient-dense wild vegetables, snails, and small oily fish by the people of Crete likely contributed to the success of their diet. Because of the range in availability of truly Mediterranean foods in the U.S., replication stateside is not necessarily consistent with the traditional version of the diet. Therefore it is difficult to judge the diet’s efficacy.
Vegetarian and vegan both rely heavily on legumes, beans, vegetables, and fermented goods. Vegan diets eliminate all animal products in their diet. Folks that choose veganism lay on a sort of lay on spectrum; some vegans choose a diet without meat, dairy, or eggs and others choose more of a life style and will not wear wool or silk clothing.
These diets are often cited for their abilities to reduce heart disease, but studies done on these diets are often based on far more restrictive diets than people generally follow. In addition, many studies of plant-based diets include other health improvements like smoking cessation and increased exercise, which confound the results of the diet. In addition, many people choose these diets as a way to live a less resource-intensive life. A sustainable approach with goal of minimizing one’s effect on the environment; after all, meat, dairy, and eggs require a lot of food, water, and materials for shelter.
Blogger and author Denise Minger has done a ton of research into diet history (check out her thorough book, Death By Food Pyramid as well as her detailed analysis of the China Study), and she’s focused much of her recent attention on plant- based diets. Her talk at the Ancestral Health Symposium suggested that the success of vegetarian diet studies hinges on the amount of fat consumed by patients in the study; extremely low fat diets (under 10% of calories) can potentially be beneficial.
While a health-supportive vegetarian or vegan diet is certainly possible in the right individual, many of us simply cannot absorb all of our essential nutrients entirely from plants. For example, all humans need to get the essential vitamin A from our food. However, preformed vitamin A is only found in animal products. Some individuals can synthesize vitamin A from its predecessor carotenoid (found in vegetables like carrots), while others cannot. If you are eating a vegan diet and your body cannot synthesize vitamin A from vegetables, you can end up with a deficiency. Similarly, some people are simply better at digesting starch than others. If you have a hard time digesting starch, you will probably struggle to thrive on a plant-based diet.
Ultimately, smart dietary choices comes down to individual biochemistry. We all thrive on different types of food and different styles of eating. At Mission Heirloom, we believe that the path to good health begins with an open mind and willingness to experiment, test, and play until you’ve landed on your best fuel.
Four ways to optimize your fuel
1. Free yourself from refined grains, sugars, and polyunsaturated cooking oils: No matter who conducts the research or whatever conclusions are drawn, it is clear that the healthiest diets never include refined grains, sugars, and cooking oils. Focus on real food in its whole form, and skip anything that comes from a factory. Period.
2. Focus on adding new exciting ingredients that are full of bioavailable nutrients:
We’ve already talked at length about the importance of eating foods that are jam packed with nutrients, and that these nutrients are actually available for our bodies to absorb. Be sure to include foods like nuts and seeds (if they can be tolerated); small, oily fish; organ meats; and bright, colorful vegetables in your diet as frequently as possible.
3. Seek out fat-soluble vitamins: Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) are all lacking in the standard Western diet, and they are key to improving vitality and health. You can find them in things like high-quality dairy, organ meats, shellfish, marrow, egg yolks, and certain dark leafy vegetables. (All of these sources happen to be nutrient-dense—funny how that works!)
4. Respect your own biochemistry: We’re all different humans, each with our own particular genetic code, immune system and gut biome. This means that a diet that works wonders for one person can wreak havoc on another. If you react poorly to dairy, don’t eat it. If you thrive on animal fats, keep on eating them. But we don’t recommend leaving it up to chance. Talk to a caring, well-informed health practitioner to determine which type of fuel works best for you.