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Health Hack #34 - Eat (Real) Food, Not too Much, Mostly Plants

Eat Food, Not too Much, Mostly Plants

Just after the turn of our current century, Michael Pollan, a New York Times writer, took it upon himself to answer a fairly straightforward question. What constitutes a proper diet? Food science, unlike many other scientific categories, has been mired with debate and change since its inception, and to this day it remains far from settled.

After years of research and data mining that ultimately went on to spawn more than a half dozen books on the subject of food, and culminated in a beautifully articulated 4-part Netflix series called “Cooked” (please watch, if you’ve haven’t yet), Pollan was able to boil his learnings down to one seven word sentence. Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

At a passing glance, this statement makes intuitive sense and provides simple, clear cut instruction. But it’s actually quite weighty, and worth delving into in detail, since each component houses immense wisdom that’s not immediately detectable. The goal for this article is not to muddy the clean water that Pollan has distilled for us, but rather to more deeply illuminate the meaning of each of the 3 pillars that he identified.

Eat Food

If I were given the ability to edit Pollan’s work, I’d have likely suggested the inclusion of one additional word to his statement. Eat Real Food, Not too Much, Mostly Plants. It’s an unnecessary edit for those versed in Pollan’s writings, since he spends much time boiling down what constitutes food and what doesn’t. Food is meant to denote what we would refer to as real food. They’re one in the same. Edible food-like substances, as Pollan aptly coined them, comprise the other end of the spectrum. These are the “foods” that have been engineered to circumvent nature, and process their way into appealing to our taste buds via scientific manipulation. These pseudo-foods should be avoided entirely, as they serve no beneficial purpose to our bodies or our planet.

One of the food pillars that Pollan ascribed in his book, Food Rules, was: Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. This is a very approachable methodology to wading these waters. Is this real food? Well, was it on the dinner table 75 years ago?

Another pillar is that we should strive to avoid the middle aisles of the supermarket. There exist many exceptions (dried herbs and spices, and quality cooking oils, to name a few), but the premise ties into other pillars, such as remaining wary of food labels that carry more than five ingredients and words that we don’t recognize. I don’t know a single human without some variety of chips in their pantry. Nowadays, long after Pollan completed the bulk of his food-related publishing, there are a variety of wiser options in this category. For every new line of Doritos that has popped up over the last decade, there seems to be twenty new minimalist chips, with one real food starting point (corn or sweet potatoes, for example), one real food oil (coconut for example, not canola), some simple, identifiable seasonings (maybe lime), and a touch of salt.

This is an important caveat. Eating exclusively real foods need not carry a militant connotation. Would it be wise to sustain oneself exclusively from the local farmers market? No doubt. But we all need to have a little fun and experience a little variety. The key is wading through the b.s. Labeling and finding those packaged products that are made with real integrity.

Not Too Much

In a very recent article (Time Restricted Eating) we dove into one of the three hacks known to extend life across all species, and brushed the surface on one of the others. Time Restricted Eating was the focus, which, when boiled down, equates to eating within a compressed time window each day. Maybe you decide to exclude or delay breakfast and eat an early dinner, suggesting a daily eating window on 11:00am-7:00pm. This framework would allow for 16 hours of fasting (the benefits of which can be gleaned via reading the article linked to above). Complying with some type of recurring time restricted eating protocol, even if only 12 hours on and 12 hours off (with hopefully 8 of those 12 off hours spent sleeping), will yield longevity benefits.

The other hack which was referenced in the article is caloric restriction. Like TRE, finding strategies to reduce caloric intake is proven to extend lifespan across all species of life. There is a wide spectrum of strategies available here. On the extreme end lies true Intermittent Fasting (which is often confused with Time Restricted Eating), which is marked by periodic fasts that last 24 hours or longer. On the less extreme end, it’s avoiding excess indulgence. As we learned while exploring Mindful Eating (Eating Real Food Mindfully) there is a communication lag between our eating and our satiety signals being triggered to notify us that we’ve had enough. Managing to better control our calorie intake can literally be as simple as eating our food more slowly.

Michael Pollan’s framework touches on an aspect of eating that isn’t super obvious on the surface. That is, if you restrict yourself to eating (real) food, then it’s difficult to eat too much. Pringles are literally engineered to seduce our satiety signals into keeping their guards down, which is why their slogan is so true. Nature, on the other hand, has provided us with a diversified opportunity to nourish ourselves with foods that synchronize with our biological warning signals. In other words, by eating real food, we naturally consume a more appropriate amount of calories.

Mostly Plants

A theme throughout our series of articles is that within the world of food, one must be cautious of dogma and open to ever-changing science. Another theme is that the one aspect of health, wellness, and diet which is shared across virtually all frameworks and diets, is the notion that plants should comprise the majority of one’s plate. Aside from those carnivore diet folks, virtually every camp can agree on this, and the fact that there is consensus here speaks volumes of its importance.

Plants, most notably vegetables, but also fruits, legumes, and grains - provide a wide array of micronutrient availability. Micronutrients, as you’ll recall, are the constituents within foods that comprise of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, etc., and speak more deeply to a foods true value than do its macronutrient makeup, which simply tells us the split between protein, fat, and carbohydrates. They’re truly nature’s gifts, and to ignore them would be akin to suggesting that we can outthink nature’s best intentions.

Of the 3 components of this article, mostly plants requires the least examination, since readers of our blog have been inundated with pro-plant vibes from Day 1. However, there is a deeper layer at play here that Michael Pollan was almost certainly unaware of during the time of his explorations. Nonetheless, his musings are turning out to be quite prophetic.

The third hack for extending lifespan, which will likely find itself the focal point of an article at some point in the future, is a compound called Rapamycin. Devoted readers will likely recognize its mentionings from prior articles. Discovered in soil bacteria on Easter Island in 1972, Rapamycin has created much excitement in the health community, long after its practical use as an immunosuppressant was established. Following the discovery of Rapamycin came the discovery of a human growth pathway that Rapamycin regulates, which is known as mtor. Mtor, in overly-simplistic layman's terms, is responsible for cell growth and proliferation. By activating mtor, we compel growth, regardless of what it is that we’re trying to see expand. When we engage in resistance training, mtor is driving the growth of muscle tissue. In the context of cancer, mtor is responsible for driving the growth of more cancer cells. Mtor has benefits in certain frameworks, but can be very dangerous in others. Rapamycin, as it turns out, inhibits this pathway, essentially helping to turn it off. Doing so has shown to compel noteworthy longevity benefits across all lifeforms, humans included.

Protein consumption, namely the amino acids within protein, works to activate mtor. Rapamycin turns it off, protein consumption turns it back on. Shutting it off, or at least lowering the volume, improves cellular health through methods like autophagy (which we’ll dive more deeply into in a coming article), whereas keeping the faucet on leads to the proliferation of some things good, but also some things quite dangerous, i.e. cancer cells. Pulsing mtor has shown to be the best approach. We’re not going to keep it offline, because we’ll wither away to nothing. We’re also not going to keep the faucet on full blast 24/7, otherwise excess growth will quickly become destructive.

Eating mostly plants fits into this ideal mtor paradigm beautifully. Plants are naturally low in protein. For vegans, who consume exclusively plants, legumes such as peas and beans become a vital source of protein, and they’re actually quite capable of providing sufficient quantities, despite myths suggesting that vegans can't get enough protein from a plant-based diet. For omnivores, those who consume plant and animal products, the majority of protein intake comes from animal foods. Ubiquitous animal proteins like chicken and lean meat are composed predominantly of protein, for example. These animal proteins are quite nutritious, and can be a wonderful part of a balanced diet. But at the end of the day, whether you choose to consume them or not, the best play is to see that plate or bowl covered mostly in plants.

Eat Real Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants…