Nutrition is a dogmatic subject, with each diet’s devotees being the victims of tribalist tendencies. At Central Athlete we consider ourselves nutritionally agnostic. While one diet may work well for one for an individual, it doesn’t mean it is appropriate for the next person. The best diet is one that you will be able to comply with for long periods of time, is intentional and evidence-based.
History has also proven this notion true. Homosapiens have demonstrated that they are incredibly adaptive and able to thrive with a multitude of diets - ranging from the Inuit Indians, who consume foods found in the Arctic Ocean, primarily protein and fat from seals, whales, and fish, while consuming only small amounts of carbohydrates in the form of lichens growing in between rocks in the summer months. Conversely, the Hadza tribe in Tanzania, a hunter-gatherer civilization that still exists today, consumes foods they find in the forest, including wild berries, fiber-rich tubers, honey, and wild meat.
Looking at nutrition from an ancestral lens seems to carry some deep lessons from the past. What we realize is that our paleolithic ancestors had lower incidences of Western disease, body fat percentage, and all-cause mortality. For example, the Hadza tend to maintain the same healthy weight, body mass index, and walking speed throughout their entire adult lives. They commonly live into their 60s or 70s, and sometimes 80s, with very little to no cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure or diabetes—conditions that are rapidly growing in prevalence in nearly every corner of the world.
If we look at the nutritional principles that are common to the disease-free nature of hunter-gatherer populations, three things come to light:
The lack of novelty and variety in hunter-gatherer diets may be part of the reason they do not overeat and become obese. Studies show, for example, that the greater the variety of food choices in front of us, the longer it takes to feel full, a phenomenon known as sensory-specific satiety.
While the average American can buy a mango from Burma in the dead of winter, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were limited to what foods they could hunt or gather given different seasons. Recent research indicates that the Hadza gut microbiome actually shifts and adapts, depending on the season and the foods they are consuming. The data indicate the microbiota of many urbanized people is characteristic of a diet limited in plant-derived complex carbohydrates that fuel gut microbiota metabolism and maintain resident bacterial populations. The more we begin to understand our gut microbiome, the more we understand how intrinsically our health is connected to these little guys.
Close to the Ground
It is safe to say that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate diets that were minimally processed and “close to the ground.” If they could chase it or harvest it and it was edible, they would likely have consumed that food. Our ancestors did not have the opportunity to enjoy a bag of Doritos, a pint of ice cream, or even a loaf of bread whenever they desired.
Outside of the myopic nutritional lens, it is worth considering what other aspects of traditional lifestyles, in addition to diet and physical activity, might contribute to the remarkable health of hunter‐gatherers. Close friendships and family bonds, low levels of social and economic inequality, and lots of time spent outdoors are typical in hunter‐gatherer populations and other small‐scale societies. The absence of these in modern societies is associated, in the past 50 years, with chronic social stress and a range of non‐communicable diseases, including metabolic disease and obesity. As we work to understand the evolutionary roots of modern disease, we should strive for a more integrative and holistic understanding of lifestyle and health among hunter‐gatherers today and in our collective past.
This last point is salient because we live in a modern-day, industrial, and technologically advanced world. While eating as close to our ancestors’ diets seems to be prudent, to consistently deprive ourselves of modern-day novelties may be a bit extreme for most. As with anything, having a reductionist mindset regarding our ancestors and diets may limit our ability to comply with a dietary intervention for long periods of time for the average person.
We live in a world where people have a choice. Where they will work, who they will have relationships with, and what they will eat. Our ancestors did not have the same degree of choices. In modern times, there are a few reasons that people typically follow a plant-based lifestyle.
The scope of this article is not meant to dive into the controversial nature of this topic, however, I will leave you with one question. If human beings have evolved to eat and have been eating meat, vegetables, nuts, seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar for millions of years (there is evidence as far back as 2.6 million years of homosapiens ancestors consuming animal-based protein), in the absence of disease, what would be a logical, evidence-based argument that meat is inherently unhealthy?
There is a lot of conflicting information but with any paradigm, recent evidence has shifted our collective understanding of the meat vs no-meat debate. If you care to dig into the subject, we would recommend you explore the following, which considers arguments from both sides:
- Joe Rogan Experience #1175 - Chris Kresser & Dr. Joel Kahn
- The China Study
- The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food
- The Vegetarian Myth
Studies regarding meat consumption and health:
- Dietary cholesterol and cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis - Reviewed studies were heterogeneous and lacked the methodologic rigor to draw any conclusions regarding the effects of dietary cholesterol on CVD risk.
- Saturated Fats and Health: A Reassessment and Proposal for Food-based Recommendations: JACC State-of -the-Art Review - Whole-fat dairy, unprocessed meat, eggs and dark chocolate are SFA-rich foods with a complex matrix that are not associated with increased risk of CVD. The totality of available evidence does not support further limiting the intake of such foods.
- Dietary intake of saturated fatty acids and mortality from cardiovascular disease in Japanese: the Japan Collaborative Cohort Study for Evaluation of Cancer Risk (JACC) Study - Saturated Fatty Acid (SFA) intake was inversely associated with mortality from total stroke, including intraparenchymal hemorrhage and ischemic stroke subtypes, in this Japanese cohort.
- Effects of Total Red Meat Consumption on Glycemic Control and Inflammation: A Systematically Searched Meta-analysis and Meta-regression of Randomized Controlled Trials - Consuming above a commonly recommended intake of 0.5 servings of total red meat per day, or about three 3 oz. servings per week, does not negatively influence markers of glycemic control or inflammation in groups of adults without diagnosed cardiometabolic disease.
Ethical Treatment of Animals
The ethical treatment of animals is a big concern for plant-based individuals, as they do not want to participate in a world where they are responsible for the death of animals. Of course not eating meat is a choice, and one that should be respected, but the reality of humans’ existence is that “big fish eat little fish.” Although this may be a bleak concept to entertain, there is a food chain that has been respected for millions of years.
When you begin to dig into this topic, you do come to the realization that factory farming is one of the worst atrocities human beings have created. The inhumane treatment of animals, confined their entire lives in cages, doped with antibiotics and hormones, and robbed of the simple pleasure of life is inarguably wrong. Every time you buy conventional meat, you are essentially voting for this to continue.
Again, this is beyond the scope of this article, but sustainable farming practices where permaculture and regenerative agriculture are practiced should be visited as an alternative to monoculture and conventional farming practices. For plant-based folks not on board with this, we do need to be honest with how conventional agricultural practices affect the ecosystem. You may be doing more harm than good with the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are used and sprayed on crops. These harmful chemicals can enter the crops that are being grown and when animals and humans eat these crops, they will be exposed to the health risks attributed to the use of these synthetic chemicals. Animals, insects, and soil microbes will die and be negatively affected by large farming equipment. On a side note, over four feet of topsoil has eroded over Texas. Soil degradation will make our lands infertile and inhospitable to growing future crops. This is a threat to future generations and needs to be discussed with plant-based eaters who share the philosophy of conservatism.
Some people do not consume meat because they are picky eaters, do not enjoy the taste of meat, or have had a bad experience with animal-based protein. This is quite hard to argue against if someone has a personal preference against meat but again, following a plant-based lifestyle may make it more difficult (yet possible) to meet nutritional requirements and support a healthy body composition.
The last reason we typically find plant-based diets is among people who choose to do so for religious reasons. In Jainism, vegetarianism is mandatory for everyone; in Hinduism and Buddhism, it is advocated by some influential scriptures and religious authorities. Comparatively, within the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) vegetarian diet is not promoted by mainstream authorities.
The Honest Vegetarian
If you are plant-based, it MAY be right for you. At Central Athlete we want you to embrace that decision but when the argument is made that it is a healthier diet, better for the planet or more humane, these beliefs demonstrate a reductionist line of thinking in a very complex food landscape and agricultural system. In the 21st century, being plant-based is a choice, a diet that would have been nearly impossible to thrive on ten of thousands of years ago. Let’s be honest with that decision and the pros and cons.
If you do decide to be plant-based, there are a few things to understand:
Aim to maximize nutrient density. We love Cronometer for assessing the quality of someone’s diet. Not only will this tool help create awareness, but it will help you sustain this way of eating due to complications that may arise from not meeting nutritional targets for long periods of time such as anemia, B12 deficiency, sarcopenia, fatigue, hormonal abnormalities, hair loss, and thermoregulation issues.
Close to the Ground
A plant-based diet can quickly become a glorified processed-food diet with excess carbohydrates relative to the individual’s energy expenditure, low nutrient quality foods, with antinutrients. Aim for foods that do not have an ingredient list. For example, Pop-Tarts are vegan but have more than 20 ingredients, many of which are hard to pronounce. However, there is no ingredient list on an apple or fresh spinach.
People who eat a plant-based diet have higher protein needs than people who eat animal protein. The lower digestibility of protein in plant foods means that if plants are your only source of protein, you’ll need more protein from them in order to get the same benefit and meet your body’s needs.
Putting it all Together
While we could list all the various foods to choose from and put it together in a meal plan, our friends over at Precision Nutrition have already laid out optimal plant-based protein, carbohydrate, and fat sources. Mix and match protein, carbohydrate, and fat at each meal. Aim to eat vegetables and fruits that are in season and occasionally embrace the simple pleasures of life. Enjoy some things off-menu. We hear meat is pretty tasty.
If you are leaning into becoming plant-based, make sure you understand why you are making this lifestyle choice. Be an honest vegetarian and accept that there are pros and cons to this approach and it is not for everyone. Being plant-based may not necessarily make the world a better place, but what we can agree with, is that as consumers, if we become more conscious about our choices around food, we will deepen our collective understanding that every time we eat a meal, we are voting with our forks. It all starts with each of us taking personal responsibility for a more healthy and vibrant tomorrow.
If you are confused with nutritional dogma and are trying all the diets under the sun, schedule a free strategy session with one of our Central Athlete professional coaches.