This content is part of an article series.
In step #1, we talked about what not to eat. In this article, we’ll talk about what to eat.
Most of the calories we get from food come from protein, carbohydrates and fat. These are referred to as macronutrients. We also get other important nutrients from food, such as vitamins and minerals. These don’t constitute a significant source of calories, so they’re called micronutrients.
For the last 50 years, we’ve been told to follow a diet low in this or that macronutrient. From the 1950s up until the present day the American Heart Association and other similarly misguided and pharmaceutically-financed “consumer organizations” have advocated a low-fat diet. More recently, low-carbohydrate diets are all the rage.
Not all macronutrients are created equal
What many advocates of low-fat or low-carbohydrate diets conveniently ignore is that there are entire groups of people around the world, both past and present, that defy their ideas of what constitutes a healthy diet.
For example, the low-fat crowd will tell you that eating too much fat – especially of the saturated variety – will make you fat and give you a heart attack. Tell that to the traditional Inuit, who get about 90% of calories from fat, and were almost entirely free of obesity and modern degenerative disease. The same is true for the Masai in Africa, who get about 60-70% of calories from fat (almost entirely from meat, milk or blood.) And then there’s the modern French, who have the lowest rate of heart disease of any industrialized country in the world – despite the highest intake of saturated fat.
The low-carb crowd is very much aware of these statistics, which are often used in defense of low-carb diets as the best choice. Tell that to the Kitavans in Melanesia, who get about 70% of calories from carbohydrate and, like the Inuit and Masai, are almost entirely free of obesity, heart disease and other chronic, degenerative diseases that are so common in industrialized societies. We see a similar absence of modern diseases in the Kuna indians in Panama and the Okinawans of Japan, two other healthy indigenous populations that get about 65% of calories from carbohydrate.
These rather inconvenient exceptions to the low-fat and low-carb dogma vigorously promoted by advocates of both approaches show us that humans can in fact thrive on a wide range of macronutrient ratios, ranging from extremely high fat (Inuit, Masai) to very high carb (Kitavans, Kuna & Okinawans). They also hint at the idea that perhaps not all carbohydrates are the same in terms of their effects on human health.
Human fuel: food that nourishes the body
We need to shift away from the idea of macronutrients – as Dr. Kurt Harris of PaleoNu recently suggested – and move towards the idea of nourishment or fuel and understand things like bone broth health benefits.
Gasoline and diesel are both fuel that cars can run on. If you put gasoline in a diesel engine, or vice versa, the engine may run but it won’t run well – or for very long. In a similar way, the human body can run on the entire range of fats, carbohydrates and proteins. But it runs much better on the ones it was designed to run on, and if you put too much of the others in, the body will eventually break down.
With this classification in mind, let’s look primarily at how the different types of fat and carbohydrate (our primary sources of energy) affect us, and which of them we should choose as our preferred “human fuel”.
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Know your fats
LONG-CHAIN SATURATED FAT
We’ll begin with long-chain, saturated fats (LCSFA): myristic, palmitic and stearic acid. These fats are found mostly in the milk and meat of ruminant animals like cattle and sheep. They form the core structural fats in the body, comprising 75-80% of fatty acids in most cells, and they’re the primary storage form of energy for humans. In other words, when the body stores excess energy from food for later use, it stores it primarily as long-chain saturated fat.
Unlike polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) and carbohydrates like glucose and fructose, saturated fats have no known toxicity – even at very high doses – presuming insulin levels are in a normal range. Long-chain saturated fats are more easily burned as energy than PUFA. The process of converting saturated fat into energy the body can use leaves no toxic byproducts. In fact, it leaves nothing but carbon dioxide and water.
I’m sure this will come as a surprise to many of you, since we’ve been collectively brainwashed for 50 years to believe that saturated fat makes us fat and causes heart disease. If you still believe this is true, watch these two videos (1 and 2) and read all of the articles in my special report on cholesterol, fat and heart disease.
Verdict: eat as much as you’d like. The majority of the fats you consume should be LCSFA.
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) are another type of saturated fat. They’re found in coconut and in mother’s milk, and they have unusual properties. They’re metabolized differently than long-chain saturated fats; they don’t require bile acids for digestion and they pass directly to the liver via the portal vein. This makes MCTs a great source of easily digestible energy. They’re so easy to digest, in fact, that they’re used in the liquid hospital formulas fed to patients that have had sections of their intestine removed and aren’t able to digest solid food.
In addition to being a good energy source, MCTs have therapeutic properties. They’re high in lauric acid, a fat found in mother’s milk that has anti-bacterial, anti-viral and antioxidant properties.
Verdict: eat as much as you’d like. Coconut oil is an especially good cooking fat, because it is not vulnerable to the oxidative damage that occurs with high-heat cooking using other fats.
Monounsaturated fat (MFA), or oleic acid, is found primarily in beef, olive oil, avocados, lard and certain nuts like macadamias. Like saturated fats, MFA form the core structural fats of the body and are non-toxic even at high doses. Interestingly, monounsaturated fats seem to be the only fats that typically fat-phobic groups like the AHA and fat-friendly groups like Atkins and other low-carbers can agree are completely healthy.
Verdict: eat as much as you’d like. But be aware that certain foods that are high in monounsaturated fats, like nuts and avocados, can contain significant amounts of the dreaded omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, which we’ll discuss below. Exercise caution.
In addition to their lack of toxicity, eating these fats will:
- Reduce your risk of heart disease by raising your HDL, lowering your triglycerides and reducing levels of small, dense LDL (a type of LDL associated with a higher risk of heart disease). If you don’t believe me, read this.
- Increase muscle mass. Muscle is composed of equal weights of fat and protein.
- Stabilize your energy and mood. Fat provides a steadier supply of energy throughout the day than carbohydrate, which can cause fluctuations in blood sugar.
POLYUNSATURATED FAT: OMEGA-6 & OMEGA-3
Polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) can be subdivided into omega-6 and omega-3. PUFA are fragile and vulnerable to oxidative damage, a process that creates free radicals in the body and raises our risk for everything from heart disease to cancer. As I pointed out in Step #1: Don’t Eat Toxins, both anthropological and modern research suggest that for optimal health we should consume roughly the same amount of omega-6 and omega-3 fat (1:1 ratio), and that our total intake of PUFA should be no more than 4% of calories.
But Americans’ omega-6:omega-3 ratio today ranges from 10:1 to 20:1, with a ratio as high as 25:1 in some individuals! This means some people are eating as much as 25 times the recommended amount of omega-6 fat. And it is this excess consumption of omega-6 PUFA – not cholesterol and saturated fat – that is responsible for the modern epidemics of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune disease and more.
Omega-6 PUFA (linoleic acid, or LA) is found in small or moderate amounts of a wide variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, cereal grains and meat. But it is found in very large amounts in industrial processed and refined oils, like soybean, cottonseed, corn, safflower and sunflower. These oils are ubiquitous in the modern diet, present in everything from salad dressing to chips and crackers to restaurant food. LA is also relatively high in most nuts and in all poultry, especially in dark meat with skin.
Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid. This means it is required for proper function but cannot be produced in the body, and thus must be obtained from the diet. However, the amount of omega-6 that is needed is exceedingly small: less than 0.5 percent of calories when supplied by most animal fats and less than 0.12 percent of calories when supplied by liver. When consumed in excess amounts – as is almost always the case in industrialized countries like the U.S. – omega-6 contributes to all of the diseases mentioned above.
Omega-3 PUFA can be further subdivided into short-chain (alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA) and long-chain (EPA & DHA). ALA is found in plant foods like walnut and flax, whereas EPA & DHA is found in seafood and to a lesser extent the meat and fat of ruminant animals.
While ALA is considered essential, the long-chain EPA & DHA are responsible for the benefits we get from eating omega-3 fats, and they form the denominator of the omega-6:omega-3 ratio. A common misconception is that we can meet our omega-3 needs by taking flax oil or eating plant foods containing ALA. It’s true that the body can convert some ALA to EPA & DHA. But that conversion is extremely inefficient in most people. On average, less than 0.5% of ALA gets converted into the long-chain EPA & DHA, and that number is even worse in people that are chronically ill or have nutrient deficiencies (common in vegans and vegetarians).
Of the two, evidence suggests that DHA plays the more important role.
Verdict: for optimal health, eat no more than 4% of calories (about 9g/d for a 2,000 calorie diet) of polyunsaturated fat, with an equal amount of omega-6 and omega-3. Make sure the omega-3 you eat is long-chain EPA & DHA (from seafood and animal sources) rather than short-chain ALA from plant sources like flax. It is very difficult to limit omega-6 to 4.5g/day. See this article for tips.
There are two types of trans-fats: natural (NTF), and artificial (ATF). The primary natural trans-fat, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is found in small amounts (about 2%) in the meat, fat and dairy fat of ruminant animals. CLA does not have the harmful effects of ATFs, and may have anti-cancer properties and other benefits.
Artificial trans-fats have been linked with a variety of diseases. I think most people are aware of this, so I’m not going to belabor the point. We’ve still got carbs to talk about.
Verdict: avoid artificial trans-fats like the plague. Natural trans-fats like CLA are harmless and probably even beneficial, but as long as you’re eating long-chain saturated fats, you’ll get CLA. You don’t have to go out of your way to find it.
SUMMARY OF FATS
Long-chain saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and medium chain triglycerides should form the bulk of your fat intake. Long-chain omega-3 fats (EPA & DHA) should be consumed regularly, while omega-6 LA should be dramatically reduced. Click on the fat pyramid below for a graphic representation.
Know your carbs
Carbohydrates are broken down into either indigestible fiber, glucose or fructose. Let’s discuss the suitability of each of these as human fuel.
Glucose is a simple sugar (monosaccharide) found mostly in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, starchy tubers and grains. It has three main uses in the body:
- It forms structural molecules call glycoproteins;
- Like fat, it is a source of energy for cells (especially in the brain); and,
- it’s a precursor to compounds that play an important role in the immune system.
Glucose preceded fatty acids as a fuel source for living organisms by a very long time, and it is the building block of foods that have the longest evolutionary history of use by mammals like us. The fact that glucose can be produced in the body from protein is often used as an argument that we don’t need to eat it in the diet. But I agree with Dr. Harris’s interpretation that, rather than viewing this as evidence that that glucose isn’t important, we should view it as evidence that glucose is so metabolically essential that we evolved a mechanism to produce it even in its absence in the diet.
Presuming we are metabolically healthy, the glucose and starch we eat is digested and rapidly cleared by the liver and muscle cells. It is only when the metabolism is damaged – usually by years of eating toxins like refined cereal grains, industrial seed oils and fructose – that excess glucose is not properly cleared and leads to insulin resistance and diabetes.
Verdict: the range of glucose that is tolerated varies widely across populations and individuals. Assuming no metabolic problems and an active lifestyle, glucose may be consumed relatively freely. However, many people today do have some form of metabolic dysfunction, and live a sedentary lifestyle. If you fall into this category, glucose should probably be limited to 400 calories (about 100g) of glucose per day.
Fructose is another simple sugar found primarily in fruits and vegetables. While it has the same chemical formula and caloric content as glucose, it has an entirely different effect on the body.
As I pointed out in Step #1: Don’t Eat Toxins, fructose is toxic at high doses. It damages proteins in a process called fructation, which disrupts metabolic function and causes inflammation and oxidative damage. To prevent this, fructose is shunted directly to the liver for conversion into glucose or innocuous fats. But this process damages the liver over time, leading to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (which one in three Americans now suffer from) and metabolic syndrome.
Another issue is that excess fructose is not well absorbed in the gut, which in turn leads to its rapid fermentation by bacteria in the colon or abnormal overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine. Small-bowel bacterial overgrowth, or SIBO, is now believed to be the major cause of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common functional bowel disorder that is the second-leading cause of people missing work behind only the common cold.
Verdict: 3-4 servings a day of fruit is fine for people without metabolic problems. Those with fatty liver, insulin resistance or other issues should further limit fructose intake, and everyone should avoid high-fructose corn syrup and other concentrated sources like agave syrup.
Fiber is plant matter that is indigestible to humans. But although we can’t digest it, some of the 100 trillion bacteria that live in our gut can. In fact, up to 10% of the body’s caloric needs can be met by the conversion of glucose into short-chain fats like butyrate, propionate and acetate by intestinal bacteria. These short-chain fats are the primary energy source for intestinal cells in the colon, and butyrate in particular has been associated with several benefits. These are outlined in The Perfect Health Diet, by Paul & Shou-Ching Jaminet. Butyrate:
- Prevents obesity.
- Heals the intestine.
- Improves gut barrier integrity.
- Relieves constipation.
- Improves cardiovascular markers.
- Reduces inflammation.
- Stabilizes blood sugar.
The evidence clearly suggests that vegetable fiber is beneficial. However, just as not all fats are created equal, not all fiber is created equal. Grain fiber – which the AHA and other so-called “heart healthy” organizations have been promoting for decades – is toxic for two reasons: it contains toxic proteins like gluten, and it is prone to injure the intestinal wall.
We’ve been bullied into believing that grain fiber prevents heart disease and provides numerous health benefits. But this claim has only been tested in a single clinical trial, and the results were less than spectacular. The Diet and Reinfarction Trial, published in 1989, included 2,033 British men who had suffered a heart attack, and compared a high-fiber group with a control group. The high-fiber group ate whole grains and doubled their grain fiber intake from 9 to 17 grams per day.
How did that work out for them? Not too well. Deaths in the high fiber group were 22% higher over the two year study. 9.9% of the control group died vs. 12.1% of the high fiber group.
There are other reasons to limit all types of fiber.
And while fiber can feed the good bacteria in our gut and increase the production of beneficial short-chain fats like butyrate, it can also feed pathogenic and opportunistic bacteria in the gut.
Verdict: vegetable (but not grain) fiber is beneficial in moderate amounts – about one-half pound of vegetables per day. But think about vegetables and fiber as accompaniments or flavorful condiments to fat and protein, which should form the bulk of calories consumed, rather than the other way around.
SUMMARY OF CARBOHYDRATES
Assuming a healthy metabolism (which isn’t necessarily a safe assumption these days), glucose and starch can be eaten relatively freely, which fructose should be limited to 2-3 servings of fruit per day. Vegetable fiber is beneficial but should also be limited, to about one-half pound of vegetables per day. See the carb pyramid below for a graphic representation.
Know your protein
What about protein? As it turns out, eating the right type of protein is easy if you simply follow Step #1 (don’t eat toxins) and base your diet on the healthy fats I listed above.
Protein is mostly found in animal products, seafood, nuts, legumes and grains. Legumes and grains have toxic compounds that can damage the gut. These toxins can be partially and in some cases completely neutralized by traditional preparation methods like soaking, sprouting and fermenting. But the vast majority of people in modern industrial societies don’t do this and aren’t willing to do it, so I generally recommend that people avoid them altogether.
As I explained above, nuts are often high in omega-6 LA, which we get far too much of as it is. So nuts should not constitute a significant source of protein. Walnuts are especially high. Just 100g of walnuts a day amounts to a whopping 266g of omega-6 per week. Keeping in mind that we want a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, you’d have to eat 34 pounds of salmon a week to achieve a balance. Good luck with that.
Poultry, especially dark meat with the skin on, can also be very high in omega-6 and should also be limited. For example, chicken skin has about 14 times more omega-6 than even grain-finished beef, and 10 times more than grain-finished pork.
That leaves the meat and milk (including butter, cream and cheese) of ruminant animals (beef & lamb), pork, and seafood as the most suitable sources of protein.
We don’t need a pyramid for protein; you can simply follow the fat pyramid and you’ll naturally get the right type and amount of protein.
Better supplementation. Fewer supplements.
Close the nutrient gap to feel and perform your best.
A daily stack of supplements designed to meet your most critical needs.
So when given the choice, what is better to consume?
Non organic eggs advertised as enhanced omega 3’s
Non organic pastured eggs
Organic, simply because of the care and attention the animal receives.
This is the first time for me since years where I read an article Which I feel its talking exactly about my body.
But if I can eat fructose and grains, Which type of carbs I can eat to gain weight, I m very thin because of my IBS and ulcer and stress, and already playing body building but not gaining weght
Chris, could you be a little explicit about how much protein we need daily? Some of us have eating disorders histories, and eating to satiety and leaving it at that just doesn’t work. We can end up over or under doing it.
How does one “count” the protein in kefir? If one drinks 2 cups per day and 6 ounces or so of meat or fish, is that sufficient?
Some of us need a little more guidance. Thanks so much. Love your e-books and podcasts. This is the go-to site for me at this point. (I lost 80 pounds many years ago, but only now am learning how to truly eat and supplement for optimal health, so thanks.
The problem with advocates for a high-carb diet is that they cannot dispute the fact that human body can live without ingesting carbs but not fat and protein, carbs might be “less risky” if you don’t have metabolic issues or at risk for diabetes, or if you engage if high amounts of physical activity which many ancient cultures and Indian tribes did.
I don’t believe there is a such thing for the most part as good and bad carbs, the issue came up because manufacturers were trying to save face by having “whole grain stamps” on their products.
While it may seem that slow acting, complex carbs, are good and refined or white potatoes are bad, research does not prove this, ancestors have eat potatoes for years, and higher carb foods may give you more energy initially rather than have the body spend hours breaking down carbs. In addition our ancestors probably ate fructose whether through fruit or simple sugars such as honey for fat storage and energy storage for longer periods of time or during the wilderness.
I think fiber is over promoted in the media, first it can cause GI problems, and second there is a more greater access to insoluble fiber than soluble fiber in many foods, both may have importance but soluble fiber rich foods are not as common. Lastly, since many fiber rich foods are in “whole grain” products, folks will end up consuming more carbohydrates than they should and fruits and vegetables are better sources of fiber and probably easier on the bowels although certain veggies are not.
Me again… I have some more questions.
Although I eat meat, I’m looking for some vegetarian protein and fat sources. I noticed on your pyramid you have olives so I have included them more in my diet. I eat butter, soaked raw almonds, eat locally made organic tempeh (which is the only soy I eat), soaked chia seeds and coconut. I’m happy to do the soaking, sprouting and fermenting.
You mentioned macadamia nuts, do they need soaking?
Would you agree that the protein/fat ones I have listed are suitable considering your research, Chris?
Do you have any suggestions of the better vegetarian protein and fats sources?
And how would I find out which require soaking, sprouting and fermenting?
Thanks Chris for your information.
I have been looking for something like this and have been doing a lot of research. Which has led to some confusion but I think I’m getting to some conclusions that suit me.
I have been trying to follow a healthy diet within my budget from the research I have found. I have found that wild caught mullet is a reasonably cheap fish that doesn’t absorb the nasty stuff from the sea and kangaroo (I live in Australia) is a cheap game meat. I also eat alot of eggs. If I want to get some organic happy animal meat I like using bones and offal (especially kidney but I plan to branch out to liver etc).
My question is about olive oil. When you mentioned it as a good Monounsaturated Fat does this need to be cold pressed? Can it be heated? And if so is cold pressed still the option? I hear cold pressed olive oil is great for salads. I have also been using hemp oil for cold applications too. I have been replacing my oils with coconut and butter but it would be great to have a oil like olive oil for frying and roasting. What would you suggest?
I just want to say thank you for providing such a wealth of (free) information through your blog and podcast. I love encountering new (to me) and practical information regarding the optimization of the human experience, and somehow the content you provide always seems to lead me toward a more complete understanding of human health. I am currently using some of this info to get my girlfriend’s Dad off of statins, and helping to prevent her mother from beginning them. Keep up the very good work!
Is there another step coming? I have only been able to find the first 2 of your 9 Steps on your website.
Step 3: http://chriskresser.com/9-steps-to-perfect-health-3-eat-real-food
Step 4: http://chriskresser.com/9-steps-to-perfect-health-4-supplement-wisely
Step 5: http://chriskresser.com/9-steps-to-perfect-health-5-heal-your-gut
Step 6: http://chriskresser.com/9-steps-to-perfect-health-6-manage-your-stress
Step 7: http://chriskresser.com/9-steps-to-perfect-health-7-move-like-your-ancestors
Step 8: http://chriskresser.com/9-steps-to-perfect-health-8-sleep-more-deeply
Step 9: http://chriskresser.com/9-steps-to-perfect-health-9-practice-pleasure
Be prepared, though, to re-read all of these in Chris’ book coming out this fall. He’s evolved his thinking and updated his citations on all of these topics in the book.
I don’t understand how you can make blanket nutritional recommendations. Every individual has different nutritional needs and requirements at different points in their lives. Yet this assumes one “diet” is good for all. I’d love to understand why…….?
I am exploring your work. It is a broad and interesting universe. Application is challenging, though, as it is not an exact science. There are too many variables and some of them unknown 🙂
I have a question about fiber. You are saying that half pound vegetables per day supply enough fiber. Does that include the starchy tubers? I assume not. According to the pyramid, the tubers should be less than the other vegetables. That means they should be less than half pound. If the latter is true, then how are we getting enough carbs? half pound veggies plus less than half pound tubers supplies less than 100 gr carbohydrates (in most cases 50 – 60 grams). If we do not indulge in fruit, we end up with less than 1000 gr carbs. Where did my math go wrong? I am trying to figure out a diet that is healing both for the gut and the thyroid and am stuck at the carbs part. Your message is kind of clear. If one does not have problems with carb metabolism, one should not go ketotic (get in ketosis) and eat plenty of carbs. Please help on the carb part. Thanks.
When trying to calculate what is the most healthy diet for modern man to eat, we should be evaluating the nutritional qualities of foods and their beneficial or detrimental effects on our health.
What we shouldn’t do is discount certain foodstuffs for ethical reasons. Sure, once we have a good idea what the ideal diet should be, it is up to individuals to decide if there are ethical reasons not to follow such a diet, but vegetarians for instance should not ignore the science and the evidence just because it does not support their ethical stance.
Yes, factory farming is cruel which is why I myself only eat grass fed beef, locally bred lamb/ham/bacon and free range eggs.
Vegans/vegetarians can make the perfectly valid argument that they don’t eat meat because they think factory farming is cruel or whatever, but when they then try to claim their diet is healthier than those who eat meat it is nothing more than propaganda.
We have canine teeth for a reason, and it’s not to chew on broccoli.