The Five Pillars of Diet
The diet narrative I learned many moons ago was calories in/calories out.
But with the knowledge that we have now regarding nutrition, it is way more complicated than that…and for good reason.
Food is the human body’s fuel source. Your body uses what you give it for complicated processes that keep you alive and determine how you feel.
They aren’t kidding when they say you are what you eat. So it’s important that you feed yourself well.
But it’s not easy to feed yourself.
With what foods? How much? How often? Don’t forget hydration. And electrolytes. And supplements to fill the holes of your inadequacies. And sleep deprivation that distorts your food cravings. And the thinking mind that either is a guiding light or screws everything up (I still can’t figure out which – I suppose it can be either depending on the day).
Feeding yourself properly is not an easy thing to do.
Through my experience, I have learned to consider the following five things when it comes to how I eat:
- Nutrient density. The body has needs. It requires macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). To determine what to eat, figure out how you can get the most bioavailable nutrients as efficiently as possible. For example, according to Chris Kresser in his e-book 9 Steps to Perfect Health, “one 3.5 oz serving of beef contains more B12, B3, vitamin D, vitamin A, zinc, iron, potassium, phosphorus and EPA/DHA than the same amount of blueberries or kale, which are two of the most nutrient-dense plant foods. In addition, the nutrients in meat are highly bioavilable when compared to foods like cereal grains, nuts and seeds, and legumes. The bioavailability of zinc, for example, is four times higher in meat than it is in grains.” So in this example, beef would be the better choice. The same amount gets you more bioavailable nutrients.
- Macronutrient ratios. Fat, protein, and carbohydrates are macronutrients. Your macronutrient ratio should be optimized for you to feel your best. For instance, many people do well on high-fat and low carbohydrate diets. Some people require more carbohydrates than others. Some people eat too much protein without realizing it, which shoots their insulin up and causes blood sugar problems. Carbohydrates in excess make many people ill and contribute to diabetes and other serious health problems. It is important to consider these ratios and optimize your own.
- Food amount. This is volume control. The paleo diet, for example, doesn’t restrict how much you eat. Since carbohydrates are fair game in any amount on the paleo diet, this can be troublesome. By definition, you can eat endless platters of coconut sugar cookies and almond flour banana bread and still be “paleo.” Same with nuts and leafy greens. You can put 10 cups of kale, spinach, and nut butter in a smoothie. That’s “paleo,” but not great for the body. Without restricting food amount (or eating the right foods so your body does this naturally), it’s easy to overconsume carbohydrates and sugars. This sends your body on a blood sugar roller coaster, disrupts your hunger and satiation signals, and wreaks havoc internally. Plus, without regulating your intake of certain plants, you may be consuming antinutrients and plant toxins in excess, which isn’t good for a compromised gut.
- Food type. This relates to intestinal permeability. If there are no limits or restrictions on food type, evolution says you will likely go ham on carbohydrates since they are insanely rewarding for the brain. And as I mentioned before, when you eat them in excess, the body doesn’t know when to stop. This leads to overeating – of usually nutrient-poor food, since carbohydrates (and most plants) have fewer and less bioavailable nutrients than their fatty and protein-rich counterparts – and the body does not like to be overfed with nutrient-poor, inflammatory foods. Also, if you’re consuming chemicals and additives (things like pesticides on non-organic fruit or low carbohydrate sweeteners like stevia or erythritol), this could increase intestinal permeability and cause disease.
- Sustainability. This is pretty straightforward. Eating is a big deal for most of us. We bond and socialize over meals. They make us happy. They taste good. We look forward to them. So whatever way you choose to eat, will you stick with it? Do you enjoy your meals? Is it good for your body now, tomorrow, next week, and in five years? Will you last? Do you know why you’re eating this way? Do you have a strong why?
Update: With the new information I have been learning, I am adding a sixth pillar…
6. Metabolic health & flexibility. This is how efficiently your body runs on different fuel sources, like glucose vs. ketones. If you are metabolically healthy and flexible, your body knows how to efficiently use different fuel sources without sinister consequences – without feeling ravenous, experiencing crashes, significant blood sugar fluctuations, insulin resistance, or other instabilities. More on this later.
I will now apply these five rules to three diet philosophies – paleo, keto, and carnivore – discuss the flaws I see within each one, and propose a way to merge the best parts of all three. I will discuss the sixth one at the end. If you’re not a huge reader, skip the analysis and head to the end of the carnivore section to review the summary chart.
The paleolithic diet mimics – to some degree – how our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate before we farmed and settled. The diet bans things like grains, legumes, and dairy, but allows for natural sweeteners like agave and coconut palm sugar and as many fruits and vegetables as you want.
What it’s good for:
- It’s a great stepping stone. For someone who wants to transition away from a Western diet and toward whole foods, this is a great place to start. It removes toxic modern foods that contribute to chronic diseases, such as processed sugar, industrial seed oils, and grains. Anyone coming from eating a Western diet rich in processed foods or seed oils would benefit tremendously by adopting a paleo diet.
- It’s hard to screw up. Compared to keto and carnivore, it has the loosest set of guidelines.
- It is not restrictive on food amount. We are not hunter-gatherers. Most of us can find and buy an endless supply of whatever ingredient we want. You can eat three batches of cookies made with almond flour, agave, and chocolate chips for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day until you die and still be paleo.
- It is somewhat restrictive on food type. Plant foods contain phytoalexins (antinutrients and toxins) that can wreak havoc on a troubled gut. Paleo limits some plants (grains and legumes, for example) but allows many others (pretty much any fruit or vegetable). This doesn’t address intestinal permeability.
- It does not require a certain macronutrient ratio. There is no emphasis on fat:protein:carbohydrate ratios. You can eat a diet full of carbohydrates – say squash, sweet potatoes, nut butters, plant flours, sweeteners, and chocolate bars – worsening insulin resistance and blood sugar problems, and still fall under the umbrella of paleo.
- It does not focus on nutrient density. One type of food is not prioritized over the other. A 100% paleo diet can be nutrient-poor.
The ketogenic diet is a high fat (usually 70-80% of calories) and low carbohydrate (usually 5-10% of calories) diet.
- It does require a macronutrient ratio. Fat is prioritized and makes up 70-80% of calories. Carbohydrates are minimized and make up 5-10% of calories. This targets and reverses insulin resistance and metabolic disease by keeping the body in a fat-burning state and regulating blood sugar.
- It is restrictive on food amount. Because macronutrient ratios are prioritized, there are restrictions on food amount. For example, only a certain amount of carbohydrates are allowed. Also, eating tons of fat encourages satiation, and the body naturally eats and craves less food.
But, like paleo…
- It is not restrictive on food type. Since the ketogenic diet focuses on macronutrient ratios, it can include anything as long as your ratios are in balance. This means you can eat a block of cheese and still be in keto. Or sugar alcohols like stevia and erithrytol (which aren’t great for people with sensitive guts). Or chemicals/additives. Or anything really, as long as your ratios are balanced. The keto diet also does not restrict what types of plants you eat. You can eat legumes, grains, leafy greens, or any plant really as long as it’s a small enough amount to keep your ratios right. This doesn’t address intestinal permeability.
- It does not focus on nutrient density. One type of food is not prioritized over the other as long as your macronutrient ratios are balanced.
- It may not be practical in the long-term. A fat-burning state does have tremendous benefits for the body, but staying in ketosis continuously can have its drawbacks. Time-restricted feeding induces a state of temporary ketosis, and therefore may be a more sustainable way to gain the benefits of ketosis periodically without killing yourself to calculate and maintain macronutrients.
The carnivore diet is almost the winner. I say almost, because:
- It is restrictive on food type. You eat animal products only. Which is great, because…
- It does focus on nutrient density. And animal products are the most nutrient-dense and bioavailable foods on the planet (hello, beef liver).
- Bonus: It is a great elimination diet. It eliminates everything but animal foods, so say goodbye to antinutrients and plant toxins that could be wreaking havoc on your gut. This is a good diet for people with diseases that are caused by the consumption of plant foods.
That checks almost all of the boxes. But…
- Unlike keto, it does not require a certain macronutrient ratio. Many people make the mistake and eat lots of meat and not much else when starting out on a carnivore diet. High fat is often required to feel your best on carnivore, and I think most carnivores would agree with me. If you don’t eat lots of fat and are eating lots of meat, your body may still be running on glucose, which can exacerbate insulin resistance and blood sugar problems.
- It may not be practical in the long-term. There is not a lot of research done on the carnivore diet. We also don’t know a lot about the microbiome from a longevity perspective. With my own journey, I’ve found that it’s not so much the plant foods themselves that cause problems, but the overconsumption of them. My gut likes a little diversity, as long as I prioritize fat and animal foods and minimize carbohydrates and plant foods. But with that being said, I am me, and someone else is someone else. Two different lives. Two different guts. Two completely different situations.
- It can be mentally challenging. This is not a big deal, but it could be. I would rather someone eat a small amount (or even moderate amount) of low toxicity plant carbohydrates if that will help them stay consistent and stick with it, instead of getting overwhelmed with cravings, giving up, and binging on nutrient-poor unhealthy carbohydrates again.
If this analysis was dizzying, here is a chart that sums everything up.
The Best of Them All
Remember the five pillars?
- Nutrient density.
- Macronutrient ratios.
- Food amount.
- Food type.
As I see it, here are the best parts of of the five pillars:
Animal-based: Inspired by carnivore, animal foods are prioritized to give us optimal nutrient density that will restore our natural hunger/satiation rhythms and naturally control food amount. (Pillars #1, #3, #4)
Ketogenic: Time-restricted feeding keeps the body in a fat-burning state, maintains optimal macronutrient ratios, and helps the body learn how to use ketones for fuel (and get used to a new fuel source other than glucose). This is great for the brain and healing of any kind. (Pillar #2)
Paleolithic: Small or moderate amounts of minimally toxic paleo plant foods/carbohydrates encourage sustainability, enjoyment, and diversity. More on this in the next blog. (Pillar #5)
= Animal-Based Paleolithic Ketogenic Diet
Wondering why the vegan diet wasn’t on the list to compare? Without animal foods, nutrient density is significantly lacking, so it didn’t make sense to make it a contender in the race.
The Sixth Pillar
If you recall, I said I would discuss the sixth pillar – metabolic health & flexibility – at the end.
An Animal-Based Paleolithic Ketogenic diet, as you’ll see in the next blog, has the ability to reverse many serious health issues if done properly. But do you have to count macronutrients and stay in ketosis forever? I’m not so sure.
When you give the body the right foods and stop giving it toxic foods, it heals. When the body heals, it becomes metabolically healthy. When the body becomes metabolically healthy, it may be able to handle certain foods it once couldn’t (certain fruits or vegetables, for example) or larger amounts of macronutrients such as carbohydrates.
Once your body heals, you may not need to forcefully keep yourself in ketosis continuously by counting macronutrients. If you being to practice time-restricted feeding, you will naturally fall into periods of ketosis and still reap the benefits.
This doesn’t mean you should go off the deep end often, or ever for that matter. And by deep end, I mean stuffing your face with brownies, burritos, pizza, ice cream, or even other “healthy” paleo processed, modern foods.
But you may be able to eat less restrictively over time.
The longer I eat this way, I find that I can have days where I carb up and eat larger amounts of carbohydrates (berries, sweet potatoes, honey, etc.), and don’t feel the spikes and crashes like I used to. My body also doesn’t feel as ravenous as it once did after these periodic refeeds, and I don’t feel like I need to eat hours later.
In fact, my brain gets a wonderful boost. I feel rejuvenated, restored, and I can go right back to eating my fat-filled meals.
Before working on my metabolic health, carbohydrates used to open the flood gates. It could be months before I got back on track. Something as simple as paleo cookies or even sweet potatoes or berries would send me on a blood sugar roller coaster. I would need more and more and more, until weeks later, I looked down at my plate and realized I was eating mostly starchy plants, barely any meat or fat, feeling like garbage, and needing to eat every few hours. I felt doomed, and thought “here I am again, when will this end?”
Once you play with this diet enough, you’ll learn your rhythm and what your body needs.
These days, I find I feel the best eating an Animal-Based diet with Raw Dairy (so technically not paleo, but close), but an Animal-Based Paleolithic Ketogenic diet can be a good reset if you’re looking to reverse some health issues.
Check out the next blog (link below) to learn what foods make up an Animal-Based Paleolithic Ketogenic Diet, and how it’s being used all over the world to cure serious diseases.
Great article Ash! I think what you discuss really is a great synthesis. As someone fighting my own health battles that involve serious gut dysfunction and food intolerances, this is pretty much what I’ve evolved to. I look forward to the day I can be more lenient and flexible and enjoy a few splurges here and there, but for now, what you describe here is what works.