For most of human existence, food was scarce and very seasonal. With so much confusion centered around diet in the modern era we can ask ourselves, “Did our ancestors have it harder or easier than us?” If food was available, no matter what it was, they ate it. They did worry about certain plants being poisonous and relied on their senses to determine if a food was safe (or had the least liked person of the tribe designated to try a food first, just in case death was imminent). Unlike animals, humans can thrive on all types of foods, a trait that has its benefit and inherent risks. In our modern world this ability to eat all the things has led to the mass confusion – “What the heck should I eat?”
Genetics do play a part in what foods people seek out to eat. The different feelings of satiety and hunger that people experience arise from genetic variation . However, that still leaves the question of which foods to seek out since all foods are available. The answer to this question is so nuanced that there is really not an answer. The “perfect diet” depends on genetic variations, stress levels, current health, socioeconomic status and personal philosophy. The aim of this post is to explain the most popular diets and help you determine which one may be the best fit for you at this particular time in your life.
Ketones are a source of energy in the body that can be used by the brain, heart and muscles similarly to glucose. They are produced in the liver and used primarily when the body is in a state of extreme carbohydrate restriction. Burning carbohydrates is quicker and since the body is all about efficiency when it comes to energy, the body will preferentially use carbs for energy when they are available. In the absence of carbs (and excess protein), the body will use fat as a clean burning fuel to provide the energy it needs, especially for the brain which is a huge energy-demand organ. To obtain a state of nutritional ketosis, your macronutrient composition needs to be around 65-75% fat, 15-25% protein and 5-10% carbohydrates. This diet has been used to treat epilepsy in children since around 500BC . Research also shows that his diet may also be helpful in treating other disease states such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease .
We often use the ketogenic diet in our practice with patients who have been chronically undereating and/or overexercising and experiencing weight loss resistance. We also use this when testing shows the patient to be leptin resistant. This diet can benefit anyone in the short term, although precautions should definitely be taken with pregnant and breast feeding mamas. It can be used as a short term tool for blood sugar dysregulation and weight loss or long term for certain people. Contrary to what some may believe, this diet is not just a bunch of meat. Done right, this diet should contain plenty of fiber and anti-inflammatory foods. Dr. Axe has a great article on this on his website. Many people report feeling more energetic and more mentally focused on a ketogenic diet in addition to the weight loss effects. Of course, this diet is not optimal for everyone, but the best way to know is to try it for yourself for 30 days. If your fat digestion is not optimal (mostly due to eating a low fat diet for most of your life), you may need to ease into keto. If you need help implementing the diet, you can work with one of our nutritional therapy practitioners.
Dubbed “The Original Human Diet” this protocol is based on what we believe our ancestors ate in the Paleolithic era . The principal components of this diet are wild sourced animal meats and fish, including organs, and uncultivated plant foods. Grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugars and processed foods are eliminated on this diet. The basis of this diet revolves around the complexity of human evolution . Studies have shown that a paleo diet can improve glycemic control and several cardiovascular risk factors [5,6] and promote weight loss . Focusing on real food in its whole form is a great way to feel satiated and nourished and we see tons of success with patients who adopt this diet. However, we see many people make the mistake of “paleofying” every meal which can lead to more cravings and weight gain. This usually involves using coconut, almond or cassava flour to make muffins, pasta, brownies, etc. These things are ok in moderation and definitely better than their refined counterparts, but relying on these flours daily can definitely counteract the benefits of this diet. We also often see people over eating certain foods (like overdoing eggs) because they feel limited in their food choices. This is often due to the limited view of foods we have been introduced to in our adolescence. The paleo diet can be high or low carb depending on how many tubers, fruits and nutrient dense sweeteners like honey that you choose to incorporate. Working with a trained professional on ways to successfully implement this and any diet is often key.
There is little doubt that vegetables are chock full of nutrition. A recent report by the CDC stated that only 1 in 10 adult Americans are meeting the fruit and vegetable daily recommendation (1.5 to 2 cups per day of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables) . It would be safe to guess that kids are consuming even less. Fruits and vegetables provide fiber, cancer-fighting phytochemicals, low calorie satiation and variety. People who adopt a vegetarian lifestyle typically give up meat and fish but may continue eggs and dairy. Vegans avoid all animal products, including eggs and dairy. There are numerous studies linking vegetarian/vegan diets to improved health outcomes such as reduced cardiovascular markers, obesity and diabetes risk factors [9,10]. However, long term effects of these diets have not been thoroughly studied [11, 12]. A great overall review of vegan and vegetarian diets can be found in this article.
The increase in nutrient dense foods that typically come with the initial adoption of a plant based diet can lead to many positive outcomes. However, long-term, there can be nutrient deficiencies (especially of B12 which only comes from animal food) and protein deficiencies. Anthropological evidence shows that most cultures incorporated some animal food into their diets periodically for long-term health. Animal proteins have more bioavailability than plant proteins which means your body is better able to digest and absorb them. How much protein each person needs is very individual and changes with age, activity level, digestion capabilities and more. I do think it is possible to be perfectly healthy on a plant-based/vegetarian/vegan diet but will take more mindfulness in putting together a complete diet, especially for the long-term. Many dietary recommendations come from a place of nutritional dogma so it’s best to really research and do trial and error to determine which diet works best for you. Short-term adoption of this kind of diet may be just what your body needs to detox from our toxic world, especially if your current diet primarily consists of convenience and processed foods. For a rundown on the real science behind claims made about this diet on certain documentaries, I highly suggest Chris Kresser’s Game Changers Review.
Autoimmune Paleo Diet
Autoimmune disease arises when the body’s immune system becomes dysregulated and starts to attack the body, mistaking it for a foreign invader. Examples include Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, lupus, Celiac disease and Crohn’s disease. These diseases have become more prominent in recent decades and it’s estimated that 23 million Americans are affected. When autoimmune disease is present, dietary changes may help calm the immune system and reduce the severity of symptoms [13,14]. One specific protocol used involves a version of the Paleo diet mentioned above with some added restrictions. On this protocol, in addition to eliminating all grains, legumes and dairy as on a traditional paleo diet, eggs, chocolate, nuts, coffee and nightshades are also eliminated. This protocol can be challenging to follow but we see such great results with it in our office. However, this diet is not meant to be a life-long adaptation. The average amount of time spent on this diet is about 3 months and then foods start to be added back. It is best to work with a practitioner on this diet that can help you navigate appropriate substitutions and monitor how your body is doing. Our team has a wealth of resources for this diet! Some people report low energy on this diet but this is mostly due to elimination of so many foods that they are used to. Adequate calories are necessary on this and any diet so it’s imperative that you plan ahead. Paleo on the Go is an online meal delivery service that offers AIP friendly meals that you can keep in the freezer and just warm up when needed. It doesn’t get easier than that!
The Gut and Psychology Syndrome diet was created by Nastasha Campbell-McBride as a way to treat gut issues that were contributing to neurological conditions such as autism, ADHD, depression and more. This diet was born from the Specific Carbohydrate Diet created by Elaine Gotschall to treat gut disorders such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, diverticulitis, IBS and more. Both diets restrict carbohydrate intake to monosaccharides. These are single carbohydrate molecules found in things such as non-starchy veggies and fruits. Legumes, starches and dairy are di- and poly-saccharides and are eliminated on this diet due to the thought that they are harder to digest and when not digested completely can feed non-beneficial bacteria in the gut leading to further gut issues and inflammation. Both diets have an intro phase that is very restrictive consisting mostly of broths and boiled meats or fish. The GAPS diet places a special emphasis on fermented foods such as raw sauerkraut. The intro diet is only followed for a short time and then more and more foods are slowly introduced. Fermented dairy such as yogurt that has been fermented for 24 hours or more is allowed on both diets when tolerated by the individual.
Both of these diets have been shown to improve intestinal
health significantly, but the Specific Carbohydrate diet has been used more
often in published studies . This
diet seems to be especially effective for those with Crohn’s disease. The key to the diet is following each phase
and adding foods slowly. Many people
find these diets very daunting and we use them sparingly in our office. For those that really need them, usually our
patients with severe IBS and Crohn’s, they can be a game changer.
So, the Perfect Human Diet Is…?
Ideally, every human diet would consist of a variety of pastured meats, eggs, fish and organ meats; a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, some starchy tubers and non-inflammatory fats like olive oil and ghee. The inclusion of raw, full-fat dairy, nutrient dense sweeteners like honey and soaked and sprouted whole grains and legumes can also be part of the wholesome diet for many. However, certain health conditions may benefit from cutting out certain foods at particular times to enact the body’s own innate healing process. How do you know which protocol to choose? Working with a trained nutrition professional can really help wade through the options!
Bauer F, Elbers CC, Adan RA, Loos RJ, Onland-Moret NC, Grobbee DE, et al. Obesity genes identified in genome-wide association studies are associated with adiposity measures and potentially with nutrient-specific food preference. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;90:951–9.
Gasior M, Rogawski MA, Hartman AL. Neuroprotective and disease-modifying effects of the ketogenic diet. Behav Pharmacol. 2006;17(5-6):431–439. doi:10.1097/00008877-200609000-00009
Kuipers, R., Luxwolda, M., Janneke Dijck-Brouwer, D., Eaton, S., Crawford, M., Cordain, L., & Muskiet, F. (2010). Estimated macronutrient and fatty acid intakes from an East African Paleolithic diet. British Journal of Nutrition,104(11), 1666-1687. doi:10.1017/S0007114510002679
Klonoff DC. The beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on type 2 diabetes and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease. J Diabetes Sci Technol. 2009;3(6):1229–1232. Published 2009 Nov 1. doi:10.1177/193229680900300601
de Menezes EVA, Sampaio HAC, Carioca AAF, et al. Influence of Paleolithic diet on anthropometric markers in chronic diseases: systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutr J. 2019;18(1):41. Published 2019 Jul 23. doi:10.1186/s12937-019-0457-z
Barnard, N. D., Levin, S. M. & Yokoyama, Y. A systematic review and meta-analysis of changes in body weight in clinical trials of vegetarian diets. J. Acad. Nutr. Diet.115, 954–969 (2015).
Lee, Y.-M. et al. Effect of a brown rice based vegan diet and conventional diabetic diet on glycemic control of patients with type 2 diabetes: a 12-week randomized clinical trial. PLoS ONE11, e0155918 (2016).
Wing, R. R. & Phelan, S. Long-term weight loss maintenance. Am. J. Clin. Nutr.82, 222S–225S (2005).
Konijeti GG, Kim N, Lewis JD, et al. Efficacy of the Autoimmune Protocol Diet for Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2017;23(11):2054–2060. doi:10.1097/MIB.0000000000001221
Abbott RD, Sadowski A, Alt AG. Efficacy of the Autoimmune Protocol Diet as Part of a Multi-disciplinary, Supported Lifestyle Intervention for Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. Cureus. 2019;11(4):e4556. Published 2019 Apr 27. doi:10.7759/cureus.4556