This post describes a unified picture of healthy food and healthy food production. Its content evolved over the years with my own understandings and personal practices. It formerly took the form of fixed pages on my web site that I revised from time to time. The component ideas and practices expressed have been developing in the world for a long time, but in obscure corners and not always in full integration with each other.
Today, aided by the incomparable power of the internet to spread heretical information, these varied insights are rapidly spreading, and evidence in their favor is being collected and disseminated in unprecedented ways, the latest of which, the "nequalsmany" survey study, I have watched taking shape live on Twitter over just the past month.
The time has come to publish my own account of these views as a single post. This brings together not only the parts, but a big-picture account that integrates them into a single vision, in which each part appears to reinforce the others.
1. Evolutionary health perspectives
Technological progress has many benefits. Yet some aspects of older styles of life, including patterns of sleeping, eating, and moving, and also aspects of food production, may have been healthier for people and environment alike than typical modern versions. Rediscovering and re-engaging some of these could raise health and well-being today.
The principle of evolution by natural selection revolutionized biology. Evolutionary theory can also help sort out the deeply confused and corrupted modern field of nutrition, though not on its own. There are several lines of evidence: understanding biochemical pathways and interactions, controlled nutrition experiments (not epidemiological studies, which are both commonly performed and mostly useless), and archaeological and anthropological investigations of hunter-gatherer groups.
The illusion in hunter/gatherer mortality statistics
One line of evidence is research on hunter/gatherer populations conducted prior to their taking up modern practices such as eating sugar and grain and sitting around a lot and snacking, some of which was famously conducted by Weston Price. These groups were found to be either entirely free of or far less subject to the “diseases of civilization,” including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, strokes, cognitive degeneration, and chronic joint and tooth decay.
Yet a popular image of hunter/gatherer groups is that their lives were necessarily "nasty, brutish, and short." Quoting statistics on the low average life expectancy among such groups is a favorite maneuver of casual critics. But such numbers conceal more than they reveal because non-dietary factors in pre-modern life collapse the averages so dramatically. These factors include infant and childhood mortality, death of mothers in childbirth, predators, prey fighting back, fights and battles among rival individuals and bands, accidents and resulting infections, and infectious diseases. The overwhelming factor behind improved average life expectancy numbers is the massive alleviation of certain tragedies that were "normal" up until modern times, above all, large numbers of babies dying before the age of one. Changes in such data tell us above all about the effects of modern hygiene and medicine. However, they tell us nothing about what we are investigating: What are the effects of nutrition and lifestyle on health and the development of long-term degenerative conditions?
Evidence suggests that hunter-gatherers who managed to survive the diseases and battles of youth tended to live long, with high awareness, robustness, and capability and little to no sign of the many and varied degenerative diseases afflicting moderns. The simplistic idea that they didn’t develop these diseases only because they died too young to suffer from them does not hold—the ones who lived long didn't develop them either!
To The Primal Blueprint and beyond
Although I had been very interested in healthy eating since my teen years, and spent a number of years as a vegetarian, the book that marked a sharp shift on my path of research and personal experimentation was The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson, which I read in October 2010. This book presents a nice blend of open attitude, systematically presented information, and a balanced and principled approach that goes beyond nutrition to exercise and other lifestyle habits viewed using an evolutionary lens.
Other works soon informed my perspectives through many phases. I transformed my approach to nutrition and exercise step by step based on new information and experiences. I, like quite a few others, have passed through phases of trying primal and paleo approaches, LCHF, and fasting and intermittent fasting. I spent plenty of time at each phase. I have now moved on to a largely zerocarb approach.
Beyond these many food and training changes over these years, I also started using software to alter computer and phone screen color temperature according to the time of day, switched to a standing desk for some types of work, bought a sunrise-simulation alarm clock, and stopped smartphone reading in the sleeping area (audiobooks allowed). I think such measures helped improve sleep quality and reduce eye strain. Finally, I have discovered extremely important insights into agriculture and environmental issues that connect back to such food choices. This results in an integrated picture that is discussed in the balance of this article.
2. The Metabolic Power of Not Eating
One of the more exciting recent additions to my understanding of nutrition comes in a surprising form: the importance of not eating sometimes, or fasting. A recent "puzzle piece" fit for me and many others has been to greatly reduce “eating windows” and more consistently practice intermittent fasting (IF). It turns out that a powerfully positive health-promoting intervention is to just not eat for various periods, for example, 16 hours, 23 hours, or 35 hours, with occasional longer stretches (each person should consult with professionals before doing this, especially if already on a medication that might have to be adjusted).
IF can be done intentionally. However, many practitioners of very low carb and zerocarb diets report spontaneously not being hungry for long periods. In this case, IF becomes partly an outcome of the eating strategy, not just an intentional practice. That said, being consciously open to IF allows one to more easily capture natural fasting opportunities that arise when hunger is absent.
Fasting traditions have been around and recognized as health promoting on many levels for at least thousands of years worldwide. However, a contemporary challenge for fasting for health is that no one is positioned to profit from it—except the person actually doing it. There is no special food to order and no special drug to consume. There is no product to be hyped and promoted.
Already being fat-adapted and in ketosis makes fasting far easier, almost unnoticeable, except for the improved concentration and flexibility. There is a certain freedom from always being locked into having to have that next meal or snack. While adaptation is required—anywhere from days to weeks and beyond—once adapted, myself and many others have reported consistent benefits from nutritional ketosis, fasting ketosis, and their interplay.
I think of fasting as intentionally replicating a "bad-hunting day" from the paleolithic past. Of course, no self-respecting paleo hunting group would have decided to have a bad-hunting day, but they would have had some nevertheless. Our metabolic systems would have adapted to these periodic fasts, would have perhaps even come expect them. Yet today such phases are largely missing. Moderns in search of optimal health may have to take intentional steps to reintroduce them.
In case a bad-hunting phase lead to hunger, one should expect our bodies to send the following message: get out there and hunt, and hunt more effectively than in the past few days. That means: more energy and enhanced concentration and attention. It does not mean getting cold and depressed in the cave, which would be a path to non-survival.
The modern approach to dieting, reducing calories while still eating the same regular meals, just smaller ones, has a set of effects opposite to the positive affects of fasting, as Dr. Jason Fung argues in The Obesity Code (2016). With chronic low-calorie dieting, metabolism sinks, energy and concentration fall, hunger is constant, and one feels colder. This is the opposite experience from fasting (especially after adaptation). However, it is just this “eating less,” as opposed to true fasting, that is the one doomed constant in almost every failing modern “diet” plan out there. A central reason for this difference is now clearly understood from controlled trial and biochemical research, Fung argues: the two conditions have completely different impacts on the key phenomenon of insulin resistance. Fasting improves this.
This section has suggested the importance of not eating sometimes. Next, when we do eat, what should be on the menu? What should humans eat to thrive?
3. The Zookeeper's Dilemma
Imagine you are a zookeeper. A clear and pressing question about each animal is: What do they eat? To maintain healthy animals, the first priority is to try to replicate what they eat in the wild. Feeding carnivorous lions rice cakes and herbivorous zebras fish cakes will lead to sick and eventually dead animals on both sides of the fence.
One of biggest-picture signs that something is not quite right today with human diets was expressed by Dr. Barry Groves. He pointed out that although we observe a great deal of chronic and degenerative illness among modern humans, this is largely unheard of among wild animals. However, it is seen among captive and domesticated animals, specifically, animals that are being fed the wrong food.
So what do humans eat? And are we too being fed the wrong food?
Well, we eat a great many things, but that doesn't really help our inquiry either. So what is the next question?
In caring for animals, one would ask: What do they eat in the wild?
But with very few exceptions, humans today no longer live "in the wild" in any helpful sense, so this information is also not easily forthcoming. Nevertheless, it is possible to investigate what ancestors of modern humans ate when they much more nearly did live "in the wild" during long, evolutionarily formative periods, say, 50,000–100,000 or more years ago.
Answers to another question would also help, and this one can be applied directly to moderns as well: What kinds of foods do we thrive on?
Humans are able to eat a wide range of food and survive doing it, but what would be ideal? This shifts the emphasis to what foods humans do best on indefinitely versus merely what they can manage to stay alive on for some years. This is a subject of extensive medical research. Sadly, much of it is deeply flawed due to over-reliance on study designs that are inherently incapable of demonstrating causation. Such often confounded and poorly designed "studies," however, are far cheaper to fund and then use as the basis for getting another paper published.
One "evolutionary" influence on this field is therefore "publish or perish," rather than "arrive at the truest answers." Another is "follow the money," most of which traces back to pharmaceutical and "food" companies with boxes and bottles of cheap food-like substances to sell.
Balancing a number of different lines of evidence, most of which are represented in the resources listed at the end of this article, I have arrived at the view that humans are basically carnivores that can also survive on plant foods as a fall-back. They can survive on plant foods even for long periods, but cannot do so without suffering degenerative harm. Feeding humans primarily—and especially only—plant foods causes them to become gradually malnourished, to sicken in a variety of ways, and to "fail to thrive."
This is commonly obscured for two reasons. First, the process of degeneration can take years and decades to progress. Second, moderns who move toward vegan diets often report feeling better, so those must be good too, right? Third, a few people seem to do quite well on vegan diets even over quite long periods and these are cited as counter examples (while most of the others are just suffering through).
On examination, however, new vegans are quite often feeling better after moving away from something rather specific—modern diets of processed foods. They are not moving away from an ancestral diet rich in fresh fatty meat and already free of processed foods. With some exceptions, many find their health and mood deteriorating noticeably after a few years of veganism and are forced to quit.
Just because something is better than something else by some measures, such as feeling better or losing weight, this does not necessarily mean it is also ideal or even good. It might just be less bad than something else that came before it. With some exceptions, a typical long-term vegan is both thin and sickly and will soon list up their many and varied health challenges, which they hope in vain that the next concentrated plant supplement might fix.
An excellent introduction to the argument in favor of the foregoing view is available in Dr. Barry Groves classic lecture: "Homo Carnivorus: What We Are Designed to Eat." This and additional key papers and lectures are linked at the conclusion of this article.
An exciting new development is the "neuqalsmany" human carnivore study, organized by Dr. Shawn Baker and a community of zerocarb eaters interested in replacing vague speculation and assertion about the health effects of a carnivorous diet with organized data collection about the health states of real-life practitioners. Tens of thousands of modern humans have eaten meat exclusively, some for many years, many swearing by the dramatic health benefits of the change after first having tried all manner of other protocols that did not work as well for them, or that made their conditions worse. This is the first time that the health conditions of a large number of volunteers on an exclusively carnivorous diet will be systematically assessed over a three-month survey trial, encompassing both old hands and those new to the approach. This is by no means the highest powered form of study design, but it is an essential first step in the research process to generate hypotheses and proofs of concept for higher-powered designs later. This arrives as a first-of-its-kind study in an area where only extremely limited and unsystematic data exist so far.
4. Best for people and environment
If it is true that meat eating is the best human diet for health, another question follows. How could large-scale meat eating possibly work for a modern society? Tiny populations of paleo hunters could do it, but they were working with massive roaming herds, and many of those species went extinct! And isn't meat production already bad for animals and the environment, even without being expanded still further? That they are is a clear impression given in the popular press as "settled science," so "settled" in fact, that no one even bothers to call it settled. Questioning it would be a pure heresy of the worst kind. So let us proceed to do so.
Although the belief that meat production is bad for the environment has become quite popular, the balance of evidence I have seen indicates that this view is severely misguided. To explain this, we must turn to some still different perspectives and sources not directly related to nutrition.
The view that fatty meat is the healthiest primary food for homo sapiens—that we are basically carnivores that also have a nifty fall-back ability to survive on plant foods in a pinch—raises a wider issue. If this were true, how could modern food production possibly shift from serving carbohydrate-centric to animal-fat- and protein-centric eating patterns on any large modern scale? Virtually unquestioned conventional wisdom insists that not only health, but also "the" environment dictate lower, not higher, reliance on animal products.
The truth, as is surprisingly often the case, may be the exact opposite of this. Indeed, even separate from human nutrition issues, properly managed large herd animals might be the only way to halt and reverse the large-scale environmental destruction caused by modern plant agriculture and poor land management. The environmental destruction caused by grain agriculture that helps feed ruminants cannot be blamed on the cattle, which naturally thrive on grass rather than grain. And they can eat grass all by themselves; that's just how they roll.
The key insight is that large heard animals and vast stretches of grassland coevolved over geologic time. They came into existence and thrived as part of a single ecological system. One of the last modern examples of this was the unending sea of bison encountered by the early European explorers of North America (before they systematically exterminated the animals, undermining the cultures that had long subsisted on them).
Decades ago, Allan Savory set out to answer some pressing ecological questions independently of issues of ideal human nutrition. He arrived at the view that the most important and underestimated contemporary global issue is the mass desertification of grasslands. And he argues that there is one and only one way to effectively alter this process. A fundamentally biological problem requires a biological solution, not a chemical or an industrial one. On this basis, we can already suggest that "lab-grown meat" would just further contribute to environmental problems that a vast resurgence of real animals, properly managed, could help solve.
Savory's breakthrough was to discover that desertification has not been caused by “overgrazing,” as is usually thought, but by mis-grazing. Earlier effects of mis-grazing were then reinforced by misguided herd reduction or removal, which made the problem still worse, not better. More animals, properly managed, not fewer, would have been the solution. Today, he and his institute teach methods of using proper management of herd animals to recover desertified land and transform it into far more biologically productive pastures using know-how assembled under the heading “holistic planned grazing.”
Holistic planned grazing, in my view, constitutes an evolutionary approach to land management. It recognizes and builds on the ancient co-evolutionary interplay between grassland flora and large fauna. Large herds kept themselves moving across grasslands—fertilizing and tilling along the way—while staying grouped tightly to defend against predators. When they moved on, the land and flora had plenty of time to recover and regrow. The right know-how on the part of herd managers can replicate these dynamics, without relying on predators to shape herd movements.
As Savory's methods have shown, such properly managed pastures naturally retain rainwater through the grass, soil, and other life that grows there, all in an evolutionary dance with the same types of animals those grasses themselves co-evolved with. Vast surfaces of the earth were once covered with thriving grasslands occupied by roving herds of untold millions of beasts. Holistic management provides a way to recreate habitats that mimic essential elements of this past in an efficient modern way.
Now this would also happen to produce a large potential population of animals thriving in environments quite natural to them. What to do with them? Well, they might also then contribute a major, nutrient-dense, modern food supply. Dr. Michael Eades has recently arrived at a similar view after a thoughtful review of Savory's ideas and critiques of them (2 Jul 2017). His article provides an exceptional description and review of these practices. Moreover, it is politically notable that herding can be more decentralized and distributed than mass grain agriculture, enhancing local self-reliance and independence.
White Oak Pastures in Georgia, USA provides one inspiring example of transformation of a formerly conventional ranch. Using multi-species holistic management, it has not only spectacularly recovered burned-out agricultural land, but has also breathed new life into a town that had been nearly deserted.
Healthy grasslands, herds, and nutrition
The foods most destructive of human health have one thing in common. They are mass agricultural crops. Sugar, wheat, and corn top the list. All of them are subsidized by governments. All of them are promoted by official dietary guidelines. All of them are profitable for “food” companies.
And all of them kill and maim. They just do so insidiously in the form of chronic systemic inflammation, excess weight, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, depression and suicide, and the modern conditions of cognitive degeneration. They are central to creating the modern "healthcare" crises (that is, such crises are not due only due to fundamentally corrupt medical systems). Broad affliction with these chronic conditions provide much of the business for the highly profitable pharmaceutical and "healthcare” industries year after year.
Both anecdotal and increasingly also formal evidence continues to build for beneficial roles of fasting and very low-carb and zerocarb eating in treating, and especially preventing, the entire spectrum of modern chronic ailments. One challenge, however, is that the interests that can gain from such practices—at the baseline, sellers of meat and water—are dispersed. Their influence pales in comparison to the concentrated financial, media, and political resources of big food plus big pharma. Billions go to contemporary "food" conglomerates selling cheap carbohydrates mixed with toxic plant-derived oils. Billions more then go to pharmaceutical companies selling all manner of follow-up drugs, which seek to patch and manage the plethora of chronic damages accumulating from the consumption of this alleged food.
Nevertheless, the truth may be found, as it often is, entirely outside of this existing system. An unexpected larger picture is emerging, one precisely opposite the popular hypothesis that mass agriculturally based vegetarianism is best for both human health and the environment. This is the counter hypothesis that distributed, holistically managed grazing and carnivory are best for both human health and the environment.
The low-carb/high-fat and paleo-oriented nutritionists on the one hand, and the ecological herders on the other, have independently arrived at different parts of a single puzzle solution. The synthesis of these streams of thought and practice has profound implications for both health and environment. The hypothesis that results is that what is best for both human health and the environment is a food system based around a modern planned pastoralism enhanced with holistic management practices that mimic the co-evolutionary conditions of grasslands and herd animals.
Claims of a paleo-carnivore/holistic management synthesis
Humans tend to live best mainly on a blend of fatty acids and amino acids derived from animal products. Animal products are the best sources of energy, structural materials, and highly bio-available micronutrients for humans. In contrast, eating large amounts of carbohydrates, especially processed ones, and artificial industrial foods such as seed oils, produce gradual metabolic derangement, foremost chronic insulin resistance and its many associated degenerative conditions.
The best single source for such nutrients is large herd animals. Seafood is also a good resource, though generally lower in fat (a con, not a pro). Early homo sapiens and some of their cousins may have contributed to the extinctions of many of their own preferred larger, higher-fat species long ago, such as paleo elephants and mammoths, but we still have cattle and buffaloes, which work reasonably well. We also now have property rights (to some degree), which defeat tragedy-of-the-commons overuse issues. Notice the word commons in the phrase "tragedy of the commons." It is there for reason: the tragedy happens when legitimate property rights are too poorly defined and defended.
The best way (maybe the only way, according to Savory) to halt and reverse mass desertification of grasslands and alleviate related water crises is to manage large herds in ways that sufficiently mimic the natural movement patterns of their original evolutionary contexts. This is also the case independently of food production and human health issues.
Humane and holistic ranching practices provide ideal living environments for herd and other animals. Compared to their evolutionary contexts, animals on holistically managed multi-species farms are protected from random and violent death from predators. Their supplies of food and water are reliable and secured. Mass grain and other plant agriculture practices (also used to grow the feed for feed-lot meat production methods) lead to destruction of wildlife habitats and long-term soil deterioration, and also entail far less favorable living conditions for animals raised that way. Large-scale agricultural production itself entails vast devastation of natural ecosystems. It replaces natural multi-species environments with artificial monocultures vulnerable to disease and soil degeneration. Holistically managed multi-species farms can and do reverse these trends.
This has been a tour of an array of interconnected topics, most of which are controversial even when considered alone, and each of which often is considered alone instead of as an integrated picture. I have kept references to a minimum for readability, but have saved my collection of what I consider some of the best resources for the end. This includes papers, blogs, articles, and lectures. These are things I would have loved to know about when I started, which could have saved me years of wading through material and trying out methods and ideas that worked less well than what I only discovered later.
A concluding summary must be far, far shorter than the journey itself. For understanding of food production: biological/ecological problems require biological/ecological solutions. Understand where plants and animals have come from and how they co-evolved, then apply that understanding to modern practices.
For personal use, the principles are: eat meat, drink water, lift heavy, sleep, play, and sprint once in awhile. These are quite reminiscent of Mark Sisson's Primal Blueprint laws, which I first encountered nearly 10 years ago, but are further specified in some cases, particularly the first one. I have found that these same principles are shared by some of the more thorough investigators and uncompromising students of their own health and thriving.
These practices also appear to have profound dimensions beyond mere physical pragmatism. Many practitioners of such principles have reported profound health and well-being improvements, not only in a range of physical conditions, but also dramatic improvement in certain former psychiatric and emotional difficulties. One practitioner in 2009 described the improvement in emotional state after starting an all-meat diet thus: "The noise has stopped and the music has begun."
Many practitioners report a profound sense of freedom from former obsessions with food. All of the decision fatigue associated with whether to eat this or that, when, and how much, vanishes. Former cravings decline and eventually fade. It is no longer possible to imagine how one once ate unhealthy foods that one had considered objects of intense craving in one's earlier days.
Hours formerly spent on food can now be spent on engaging productively with the world and pursuing one's missions. As Shawn Baker put it, “If you look at any other animal on the planet, they aren’t looking at a menu and scratching their head.” As human animals with oversized brains and imaginations, we all have better things to do than spending inordinate amounts of time managing and balancing a long list of plant addictions. Freedom from them is possible. The power of being human can be unleashed from the travails of plant-consumption/plant-addiction management.
Hunters act and act smartly. Human hunters have thrived to an apex level through our wits and ability to work together. The "apex diet" is both the origin of this capability and continues to support it today. Whatever your contributions will be, make them quality, and get to it!
To follow up on the many topics and perspectives in the foregoing synthesis, see my periodically updated list of selected talks, articles, and discussions on the foregoing topics on my Evolutionary Health Resources page.