For millennia, humans have eaten whatever we could find. We’ve adapted to our environments, leading to diverse traditional diets that vary greatly when it comes to composition; Inuit diets that are mostly animal fat, the high-protein diets of the Maasai, and carbohydrate-based meals for billions of people in Asia. Even though these diets may seem at odds, the people eating them have low rates of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease.
The common thread is a lack of industrial processing. Food items are harvested and prepared for consumption by home cooking, with no additives except for naturally-occurring spices.
In contrast, the Western diet relies heavily on foods that have been shipped to factories, where they are crushed, stripped, reformulated, and reconstituted. They’re broken down and combined with sugar, oils, salt, and other chemicals to make them delicious (and give them a long shelf life).
This matters because cultures that have adopted the Western diet of processed food have seen rising trends of chronic disease compared with those that continue to eat traditional diets. This is, in part, because:
- Processed foods are hyper-palatable, making them easy to start eating and hard to stop
- Processing often removes ingredients (like fiber) that make us feel full
- Most processed foods have added sugar, which can only be metabolized in the liver, contributing to chronic diseases like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Processing “pre-digests” our food, costing our bodies less calories to consume (chewing takes energy!), and making it easier for our bodies to break down and store
- Processed food is often packaged so we can eat it on-the-go, or when we’re completing other tasks (like working at our desks), which can lead to mindless overeating
Widely available and inexpensive, processed food has complicated the topic of eating, especially when it comes to health and wellbeing. We rely on studies, nutrition labels, and marketing for information on our food’s calorie content, composition and nutritional value. While research and education are important, our approach to healthy food doesn’t have to be complicated.
What does a healthy diet look like?
- A healthy diet must provide the right fuel needed for basic human activities. First and foremost, we eat to provide our body with the nutrients it needs to survive. This is the most basic function of eating, and we need to ensure we get enough.
- A healthy diet doesn’t contribute to acute or chronic disease. It’s well-known that poor diets can contribute greatly to chronic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes, cardiac conditions, and more. Equipping your body with the nutrients it needs will help it naturally detox and repair your body, helping combat disease.
- A healthy diet is enjoyable. If the way you’re eating isn’t enjoyable, then it isn’t sustainable. The key to a good diet is to make it a lifestyle that can be followed day-to-day.
- Eat real food. The author Michael Pollan said it best: Eat [real] food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
The answer is simple, but it's definitely not easy. Good luck!