For some time I’ve tried to answer the question, “What is the best human diet?” When I say “diet,” I’m not referring to a temporary way of eating that usually starts on Monday or January 1st and quickly fades by the next weekend when you’re back to eating Oreos for breakfast. I’m talking about the other less popular definition, “The kinds of foods a person habitually eats.”
I searched to find the kinds of lifetime habits I needed to create in regards to what I eat. After much research I’ve found that the answer is both complicated and simple. The complicated answer is that the ideal diet is a bit different for each person due to the fact that every body is different and responds in a slightly different way. You may notice that some people seem to eat whatever they want and be skinny, while others just think about chocolate cake and seem to gain weight. This is due to differences in genetic pathways, lifestyle, gut microbiome, environment, stress levels, etc.
Despite the fact that everyone responds to food a bit differently, there is a lot of science, which is always being updated, that can point us in the right direction about what we should eat. The list below are amounts we should strive for every day. You’ll notice that it contains more micronutrients (minerals, vitamins and trace minerals) than macros (carbohydrates, proteins and fats). Each diet recommends a different mix of macros. For example, a diet which is currently popular is the ketogenic diet, which recommends high fat, average amounts of protein and low carbs.
In addition to macros, it’s important to look at micronutrients, such as calcium, iron and sodium. We usually only hear about the macros, but the micros are just as important. There are 40 different micronutrients our bodies need continually and a deficiency could lead to chronic disease and/or a shorter healthspan and lifespan.
Every year I do a physical and blood panel to check my levels. I asked my doctor why vitamin D wasn’t tested and he said that everyone in my northern state is low in vitamin D, despite that fact that vitamin D deficiency is really bad for your body. So some of these things we’re just not paying attention to as we should. Not even those in the medical industry!
Quality, not Quantity
Too often we focus on the broad strokes of what we eat, such as trying to reduce our carb intake. Gyorgy Scrinis, Senior Lecturer in Food Politics and Policy at The University of Melbourne, Australia has called this “the ideology of nutritionism,” which he defines as follows: 1
Nutritionism is the reductive approach of understanding food only in terms of nutrients, food components, or biomarkers—like saturated fats, calories, glycemic index—abstracted out of the context of foods, diets, and bodily processes.
He’s saying we focus too much on quantity and not on quality. I learned this during the 2 years I tracked every single thing I ate. I found it was easy to track marcronutrients using an app like MyFitnessPal. There are many good apps that help you track macros, but no good ones that track micros very well. I imagine it’s because there’s not as much demand for it.
One way we focus too much on quantity, is we assume all macros are the same. Carbs from pizza are not the same as carbs from whole grains. 2 Good carbs are those full of fiber, which is absorbed slowly into our systems and don’t spike our insulin levels. There include whole grains, fruits, vegetable and beans. Bad carbs are processed and the fiber is stripped out so we don’t get the benefit.3
In short, I like how Michael Pollen put it in his documentary, “In Defense of Food,”
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.4
daily dietary needs
So then, what should we eat every day? I’ve compiled a list of macronutrients and micronutrients. As I said at the beginning, every body is different and has different needs, so adjust accordingly and consult your physician.
Adults should get 45% to 65% of their calories from carbohydrates, 20% to 35% from fat, and 10% to 35% from protein.5 The fiber comes from fruits and vegetables.
- Men aged 50 or younger should get 38 grams of fiber a day.
- Women aged 50 or younger should get 25 grams of fiber a day.
- Because we need fewer calories and food as we get older, men over aged 50 should get 30 grams of fiber a day.
- Women over aged 50 should get 21 grams of fiber a day.
Best Bang for the Buck
Now that we know the macros and micros we should get getting daily. What is the best place to get them? In a comprehensive study, researchers looked at the nutrient density of 7 major food groups and 25 subgroups, including 619 foods. 7 Nutrient density are foods that are high in nutrients, but low in calories, so you’re getting the most nutrients per calorie consumed.
They found that the most nutrient-dense foods were (score in parentheses):
- Organ meats (754)
- Shellfish (643)
- Fatty fish (622)
- Lean fish (375)
- Vegetables (352)
- Eggs (212)
- Poultry (168)
- Legumes (156)
- Red meats (147)
- Milk (138)
- Fruits (134)
- Nuts (120)
From the list, it’s apparent that our diet should be focused on meat and fish, fruits and vegetables, nuts and dairy. It’s interesting to note that whole grains, only received a score of 83. If whole grains are down on the list, imagine where processed white bread is? That’s right, at the bottom. The focus should be on a plant-based diet that also contains meat, as Michael Pollan said. Plants and meat each provide different micronutrients. Keep in mind that animal products contain more calories per ounce than fruits and vegetables, which is why Pollan suggests that most of your plate should be vegetables – you need to eat more of them to get all the micronutrients.