The Paradox of Human Nutrition

A hundred years ago, had you been able to muster the confidence to ask somebody what you should eat, you would have probably been met with confusion or ridicule. Back then, it was obvious to everyone that you simply ate whatever you could hunt, forage, or farm. Fast forward one hundred years, and there is scarcely a single human alive in the West who doesn't obsess over portion size, and or nutrition facts, and or the dietary fad of the day. These three points comprise what I believe to be the paradox of human nutrition. 

 Photo by MR1805/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by MR1805/iStock / Getty Images

When thinking about the human body, an appreciation for timescales is important.

A hundred years ago, human beings were essentially eating what homo-sapiens had been eating for 200,000 yrs prior. In turn, homo-sapiens had been eating what earlier hominid ancestors had consumed for almost 6 million years before that. With an appreciation of these time-scales, you can perhaps imagine how silly the question "what should I eat?" becomes with each successive leap into the past.

Time-scales are important because the last 6 million years represent the crucible in which human physiology was formed. To be sure, human beings are hunters, foragers, and scavengers. We can clearly survive while eating a wide variety of geographically specific diets. This is important to understand. For millions years, this is what we did, and we not only survived, but clearly, we thrived. 

That fact alone should disabuse you of the notion that the system which is going to inform your dietary choices is going to be "new-age" in origin. I can promise you it won't.

Portion Size

The size of a meal would have been completely irrelevant to our ancestors. It's entirely likely that a subset of human beings - depending on the time of year - ate only one large meal per day - or less - and foraged a bit thereafter. The only factor relating to the size of a meal that would actually make a difference in terms of our survival was whether or not it was too small - meaning too few calories. In reality, we would have made sure our group was fed, and then we would have eaten as much as we could in order to put off for as long as possible the next time hunting was required. 

One implication here is that this sounds an awful lot like binge eating followed by fasting. Although I do believe that fasting can be a useful tool when consciously employed in certain circumstances, I don't for a second believe that it's a panacea, and I don't believe that it should be used by people who - for all intents and purposes - share little to nothing in common with the lifestyle of our early ancestors.

All things considered, there is nothing in particular that anyone can say to you regarding portion size. You have to figure it out for yourself. If you're a healthy body weight, can you eat one large meal a day and do just fine? Probably. Should you eat one meal a day on purpose for an extended period of time? Not likely.

Human beings are not designed to intermittently fast, they’re designed to not die during brief periods of starvation. Not dying = far from optimal.
— Bill Lagakos

If you're an unhealthy body weight, can you eat one meal a day and shed a few pounds? Almost assuredly. Should you use this as a technique for achieving summer body goals? 

Not bloody likely.
— Jerry Seinfeld

Point #1

You cannot judge the health of a meal based on it's size. 

 

Nutrition Facts

The side of a cereal box is littered with data on the nutritional "value" of it's contents. By contrast, purchasing foodstuffs from a butcher is a pure guessing game with regards to fat, protein, and carbohydrate content. Why is it then that people who tend to have no clue of the nutritional content of their food by and large have healthier body compositions than that of their grocery store shopping counterparts?

Why then do we obsess over the data on the side of a box of crackers, and why does this approach to eating healthy fail every single time? Specifically, why does it lead to weight gain and deteriorating health markers? Two reasons. The first is that human beings have been wired by evolution to seek the greatest payoff from the smallest possible investment - laziness. And second, certain human beings suffer from civilization destroying levels of hubris.

By this, I mean there are whole classes of "experts" - scientists, marketers, etc - who for some reason believe that they can outsmart evolution by designing food. By a certain standard, they're right. If people buy their products, then in a way, they are outsmarting evolution, or capitalizing on it, rather - but only in the short term.

In the long term, it's plain to see that this phenomenon of fake food will result in economic catastrophe - most likely via a health care crisis.  

Further hubris resides in the fact that anybody who claims to understand the complexity of human metabolism, while simultaneously claiming to know exactly how the foods they design interact with it, and why those foods are good for you, is lying to you.     

 Recon2: A Virtual Reconstruction of Human Metabolism

Recon2: A Virtual Reconstruction of Human Metabolism

Point #2

Nutrition facts cannot be used to ensure the quality of a given meal. The more you obsess over the data, the less healthy your diet is likely to be. 

 

The Fad Diet of the Day

Vegan, Vegetarian, Pescatarian, Fruitarian, Zone Diet, Weight Watchers Diet, South Beach Diet, Raw Food Diet, Crash Diets, Detox Diets, Alkaline Diet. Here's a little secret for you.

It's basically all nonsense.

Sure, you can find a few people who swear by each of these diets, but at the end of the day, your overall lifestyle in concert with your food is what matters most (light, sleep, exercise, stress management). Furthermore, it's pretty well established that the average person following any one of the preceding protocols will do so for a very short time while still remaining strong and healthy - or perhaps they weren't healthy by any objective standard to begin with.  

{You'll notice that I did not include 'Paleo' or 'Keto' in that list. This is because axioms of biology cannot be considered to be fads or trends.} 

Jordan Peterson: The Carnivore Diet Changed My Life

Paleolithic and Ketogenic are also the only analogs of human eating that are Lindy effect compliant.

If you're talking about simple weight gain and weight loss, then the total amount of calories is really all that matters. If you're talking about improving body composition, then a focus on weight lifting with proper recovery nutrition is critical. Raw sugar is a bit of a separate issue here, as nature's bounty doesn't include the ability to give ourselves full blown diabetes in three hours via the vector of a pound of skittles.

When you eat any amount of candy, your body essentially says, "holy shoot, you just ate 47,574 oranges in 3 minutes, how the heck did you do that!?"

But believe it or not, even this is now subject to debate thanks to the discovery of personalized nutrition. This for me was the weirdest red pill I've had to swallow in the realm of nutrition. If person A and person B both eat a cookie, person A can experience a wild swing in blood sugar while person B may not experience a spike at all. If person A and person B then both eat a banana, person A may experience no spike in blood sugar, while person B's blood sugar spikes considerably. As mentioned by Bill Lagakos in the link above, the microbiome is a big player in individual responses.

This points to the idea that there are tremendous individual differences in the realm of human nutrition, and that each individual must determine what foods enable them to be at their best. 

That being said, our ability to adapt to any given eating pattern still has limits. In a manner of speaking, a woman who is 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 285 lbs has indeed adapted to her diet of chips, skittles, cheesecake, and pizza, but at what cost? 

The Standard American Diet is a gross environmental insult, and at a certain point, there is no recovery strategy powerful enough to bring you back to reality - and this brings me to the final point.  

Point #3

Nobody call tell you exactly what to eat, and for each individual, there is only one way to eat. 

 

And that's the paradox of human nutrition. 

 

Addendum

Caveat:  I still recommend that you eat in a circadian fashion, and intermittent fasting doesn't change this. This means the first meal of the day is the largest, while each subsequent meal is progressively smaller. This is especially true if your primary goal is improving health markers.