Honest summary of nutritional advice out there

For the last 6 months, I’ve been independently researching full-time the modern food system and its effects on our world. One big, obvious effect of food is on human health.

As a keen student, but otherwise unconnected to and unbiased by any food industry or institution, I wanted to share the summary of nutritional advice that I’ve developed[1] for myself, my family and friends. I have already sent this (verbatim with a few minor corrections) to them. Now I’m sharing it with the world, in the hope that it helps even one more person live a healthier life.

Disclaimer #1: I am not a health professional. While I've dug into many scientific studies directly, you can mostly take my thoughts here as a critically examined summary of what the least biased, most credible experts I could find on the subject were saying. Happy to listen to reasoned, fair counterarguments always, of course.

Disclaimer #2: nutritional science is *very* complex. If anybody (even an expert) claims to understand all of human nutrition, they are either ignorant, lying, or most likely, trying to sell you something. Any expert worth their salt will only claim to understand some aspects of nutrition, and then point to other credible experts for other aspects. The good news is that my conclusions on what constitutes "good nutrition" are fairly uncontroversial and aligns pretty well with common wisdom. There are some key differences though, and following much of this in your daily life ("eat your vegetables") is easier said than done.

Without further ado, good nutrition is simply: eat a diverse variety of real, whole foods. By "real", I mean minimally processed things that come from nature, or alternatively, everything your great grandparents ate: fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, meat, fish, dairy. It does not include "maltodextrin", "preservative 512", etc, and it does not include anything that's highly processed and simply designed to mimic food. There's lots of things in a supermarket that look like real food -- sauces, cereals, canned food, ready-to-eat options -- that's nothing like real food when it comes to its contents. Be especially wary of (1) added sugar and (2) added salt (sodium), which are in almost every processed food in very high quantities. This is why preparing your own food and eating from carefully selected healthy restaurants is so important -- because you can choose real ingredients and minimize the stuff that's there simply to keep you addicted rather than healthy.

Note that, having worked closely with people who otherwise live by the whole food doctrine, you can definitely still have too much added sugar and salt even if you're otherwise eating whole foods. I met a woman recently who was on the verge of diabetes despite getting plenty of good quality whole food, most likely because she still had too much added sugar and salt in her diet. Even if you choose whole foods, don't forget about sugar and salt intake.

Beyond what I just said, there is much less medical consensus on what is most nutritious -- animal vs plant based, high protein vs regular protein, white vs red meat, meal times, different types of fat etc -- a lot of this is still up for debate. If I had to shoot for the "most likely to be correct" award, it'd be a diet made up of, in decreasing quantities: green vegetables, other vegetables, fruits, beans, seeds, whole grains, eggs, meat, dairy. Honestly though, if you avoid processed foods, excessive sugar and salt, you're probably capturing 90%+ of the health benefits anyway.

And that’s it! Hope the above helps you live a healthy, happy life. Always open to reasoned feedback in the comments :)

Update (2019-04-10): Most of the feedback to this post has been very positive (thank you) but I wanted to add one thing based on feedback, and it's something I agree with and had simply forgotten to write about: I've heard enough sincere case studies to believe that individual differences do matter in diets. If you're experiencing something over a long period of time (e.g. digestion issues from too much added fibre, adverse reactions to gluten or to a food additive), I believe you should listen to your body and change your diet. While you should be slow to generalise your experience to everybody else, the methods of nutritional science today just aren't equipped to give good health advice about individual differences. An accredited dietician may be of great help here as well – just beware of the large number of unqualified nutritional experts out there.

— Soroush Pour (@soroushjp)

Bonus

  • For vegetarians: Be wary of B12 intake (not found in significant amounts in non-animal products) and ensure you don't rely on processed, unhealthy vegetarian options like chips and fruit bars.
  • "Superfoods" are a questionable concept -- there are particularly nutrient rich foods (e.g. avocados), but ultimately our omnivorous biology needs a diverse diet for good health.
  • Organic foods have not shown to be more nutritious, safer or better for the environment, and I don't personally choose them over non-organic foods. Recommended  reading: Harvard Health, Our World in Data

Notes

[1] I went through hundreds of resources and conversations (not an exaggeration) to develop this, but didn't record them meticulously enough to reference here unfortunately. I do have a big tree of Firefox bookmarks for my food research, and may share this at some point if I think it may help people. Just to give you an idea though, I critically examined sources such as, but not limited to: Harvard Health, recently published Canadian food guidelines, USDA guidelines, dozens of scientific papers, Australian Heart Association, American Heart Association, many popular diets and food envagelists including Robert Atkins, Joel Fuhrman, Peter Attia, T. Colin Campbell, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, and more.

Thanks to Harvey Multani (@HarveyMultani) for reviewing this post, and to my friends and family who gave valuable feedback about the advice.

Soroush Pour

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