Simply focusing on unrefined food is the key to achieving nutritional health
From a clinicians point of view, it is already clear that differing amounts of the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) affect individuals differently, and while there are best-practice guidelines for various desired outcomes, there is a large degree of individuality between the prescription for individuals. This variability has been termed by practitioners’ biochemical individuality, metabolic typing or other terms.
However, there is, at this point in time, no accepted way to determine the macronutrient ‘tolerance’ of an individual, except in those cases where a specific diet benefits a disease or disorder (such as a ketogenic diet for epilepsy).
Carbohydrate is not essential,1 and yet can be extremely beneficial but the variability in any individual’s benefits from eating greater or lesser amounts of carbohydrate makes its prescription somewhat problematic. Due to its nature as an almost exclusively fuel-providing substrate, it is evident that carbohydrate intake should mostly be determined by two major factors:
- The activity level of the individual (latent activity from habits and nervous and ‘constitutional’ behaviours, work-type, and exercise intensity, frequency and volume)
- The metabolic tolerance to carbohydrate—which is likely to be dependent on genetic predisposition, and to exercise/activity and to dietary and medical history, especially where these factors may contribute to a tendency towards insulin resistance.
The difficult part for anyone is to try to figure out their unique tolerance to the macronutrients. One could begin by counting calories and macronutrients and adjusting these to attempt to find an optimal range of intake, but this is often tedious, ultimately unsustainable, and is for most people unnecessary. On the other hand, a ‘step-wise’ restriction of certain food types (which I outline in The Carbohydrate Appropriate Diet) can be enormously helpful in finding a level of carb intake that meets your metabolic tolerance and activity-based requirements.
But before we even think of getting down to the minutiae of nutrition we can make great strides towards achieving our health and performance goals simply by focussing on three simple words: natural, whole and unprocessed.
People over-complicate nutrition and rush into using diets with extreme restrictions or excessive supplementation, when minor changes, applied with consistency will give the best long-term results. Small and consistent changes are also easier to implement and integrate into your daily routine and can more easily become positive habits that ‘stick’. Conversely doing more than what is necessary to achieve your goal is a wasted effort and can be counterproductive in the long-term—for example, if you unnecessarily restrict a food type that you can in fact eat without ill-effect.
A good way to start is to simply eat a diet that is at least 80% natural, whole, unprocessed food…ad libitum (in other words eat as much as you desire). The emerging evidence supports the health benefits of diets higher in whole, unprocessed foods and lower in ultra-refined foods. While critics might point to a relative paucity of controlled clinical trials on diets that emphasise whole, unprocessed foodstuffs (such as ‘The Paleo Diet’), there is emerging and compelling evidence for the beneficial effects of real-food diets.
Using paleo, as an example (despite it often being derided by dieticians and medical practitioners), has a growing body of evidence which suggests compelling benefits from a compendium of natural, unprocessed foods.
A Paleo meal may provide greater satiety than a standard meal based on ‘best-practice’ dietary guidelines,2 best-practice diabetic meal plan,3 and the Mediterranean Diet.4
Paleo diets reduce cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin and blood pressure.5, 6 A randomised controlled trial featuring nine men and 25 women found that a Paleo diet resulted in lower blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and higher HDL cholesterol than the reference diet over two weeks. No differences were noted for intestinal permeability (‘leaky gut’), inflammation or salivary cortisol (a marker of stress). A randomised cross-over trial featuring ten men and three women demonstrated that Paleo diets have a lower glycaemic index and are lower in total energy compared to a diabetic diet. The Paleo diet resulted in lower HbA1c (a measure of average blood sugar levels), triglycerides, blood pressure, and higher HDL cholesterol.
In a two year randomised controlled trial, postmenopausal women lost more fat at six months and had lower triglycerides at six and 24 months.7 Ten healthy post-menopausal women ate ad libitum (eat as much as you want) on a Paleo diet for five weeks. Average calorie intake was reduced by 25%, and average weight loss was 4.5 kg along with reduced waist and hip circumference, blood pressure, fasting glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides and LDL cholesterol (fat in the liver – a marker for metabolic disorder was also decreased).8
Diets that emphasise REAL, WHOLE food, are also likely to:
- Provide increased amounts of a complex array of both primary and secondary nutrients
- Provide prebiotic, gut-supporting fibres and resistant starches without increasing glycaemic load in a disproportionate manner
- Reduced glycaemic load in total
- Preserve fat quality
- Provide ample amounts of all macro- and micro-nutrients
- Aid auto-regulation of energy intake
The absolute priority for any change in diet should be to focus initially on the quality of food eaten, not just quantities. Many people will find that simply applying a greater focus to eating a diet that is based almost exclusively on natural, unprocessed foods will not need to be any more restrictive or prescriptive.
The take-home message is that to save yourself the stress and hassle of calorie counting, if your goal is simply to be healthy, perform well and be in great shape, then you may get what you desire by simply focusing on the compendium of foods you eat…rather than fastidiously logging food diaries and weighing your foods.
Simplicity rules and that should be the place to start. If you need to fine-tune further that option is always available to you.
1. Westman EC. Is dietary carbohydrate essential for human nutrition? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2002;75(5):951-3.
2. Bligh HF, Godsland IF, Frost G, Hunter KJ, Murray P, MacAulay K, et al. Plant-rich mixed meals based on Palaeolithic diet principles have a dramatic impact on incretin, peptide YY and satiety response, but show little effect on glucose and insulin homeostasis: an acute-effects randomised study. The British journal of nutrition. 2015;113:574-84.
3. Jönsson T, Granfeldt Y, Lindeberg S, Hallberg A-C. Subjective satiety and other experiences of a Paleolithic diet compared to a diabetes diet in patients with type 2 diabetes. Nutrition Journal. 2013;12:105.
4. Jonsson T, Granfeldt Y, Erlanson-Albertsson C, Ahren B, Lindeberg S. A paleolithic diet is more satiating per calorie than a mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischemic heart disease. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2010;7:85.
5. Masharani U, Sherchan P, Schloetter M, Stratford S, Xiao A, Sebastian A, et al. Metabolic and physiologic effects from consuming a hunter-gatherer (Paleolithic)-type diet in type 2 diabetes. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2015.
6. Frassetto LA, Schloetter M, Mietus-Synder M, Morris RC, Jr., Sebastian A. Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2009;63(8):947-55.
7. Mellberg C, Sandberg S, Ryberg M, Eriksson M, Brage S, Larsson C, et al. Long-term effects of a Palaeolithic-type diet in obese postmenopausal women: a 2-year randomized trial. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2014;68(3):350-7.
8. Ryberg M, Sandberg S, Mellberg C, Stegle O, Lindahl B, Larsson C, et al. A Palaeolithic-type diet causes strong tissue-specific effects on ectopic fat deposition in obese postmenopausal women. Journal of Internal Medicine. 2013;274(1):67-76.