Regardless of what we’re eating, all of our diets are comprised of three macronutrients: fats, carbohydrates and protein. As you may have guessed, they earned this moniker by being nutrients that are needed in large quantities to sustain life. They serve as the primary energy sources for the body but are also instrumental in countless other bodily functions and processes. While there are several diets out there (using ‘diet’ here in a general sense, referring to the foods one eats, not necessarily a regimen to lose weight), the main distinction between any two – other than the obvious one, the foods themselves – is the macronutrient breakdown, or the ratio between carbs, fats and proteins. This is, and will continue to be, a hotly debated issue amongst those in the health world, but here’s a primer on the two predominant approaches which should help frame the debate.
Standard American Diet
This is the official diet as recommended by the US government via the FDA. For the longest time it was presented in the form of a pyramid, but for reasons unknown we now have a plate. Either way, it’s a visual representation of an ideal diet (at least as they see it) composed of 5 main food groups: vegetables, grains, fruits, protein and dairy.
The recommended macronutrient breakdown looks something like this: carbs – 45-65%, fats – 25-35%, protein – 10-35%. MyPlate recommends substantial servings of grains, vegetables and fruits. It advises protein to come from sources like meat, poultry, eggs, fish, nuts and beans. Dairy is allowed in modest amounts, so long as it’s non- or low-fat. Oils are permitted as a source of healthy fats, so long as they’re of the vegetable and plant variety.
MyPlate is structured around carbohydrate intake and supplemented by moderate amounts of protein and “healthy-fats” (more on this later). It is rooted in the belief that carbohydrates – primarily in the form of grains, fruits and vegetables – are the preferred energy source for humans and should constitute the bulk of our diets. Grains – such as cereal grains, pasta, wheat, and rice – are recommended liberally for their “nutrient density and heart-healthy effects” (this,too). Fats, on the other hand, are allowed only in moderation and are limited to unsaturated varieties, particularly polyunsaturated (sigh, and this) . This is due to the belief (first advanced by Keys and referenced in the above article) that saturated fat plays a causal role in the development of heart disease.
This diet was popularized in the 1970s by Dr. Robert Atkins as a sure-fire way to lose weight. While still popular today, I’ll focus instead on a more recent (at least in terms of popularity) variation of high-fat/low-carb called the Primal diet (aka Caveman, Ancestral,
Paleo, et al., and please note I’ll use these terms interchangeably throughout). It shares many similarities with the Atkins diet, particularly the emphasis on healthy fats, but without the strict aversion to carbs. Instead, it focuses on the nature of food: where it comes from, how it’s made, what’s in it and, most importantly, how suited humans are to eating and metabolizing it. The staples of the diet are healthy fats, such as those found in meat, poultry, fish, eggs, oils and nuts, and unrefined, unprocessed carbs in the form of fruits and vegetables.
The macronutrient recommendations for daily caloric intake are as follows: fats – 50-65%, carbs – 20-35%, protein – 15-20%. These are suggestions and can be modified, but the key thing is the inclusion of liberal amounts of fats and proteins and selectively choosing our carbs. For info on the theory underlying primal diets, click the link for a good synopsis.
An primal diet, and those like it, is based on taking cues from our ancient ancestors to help us best structure our diet and lifestyle choices. There are a number of reasons for this (check the above link), but suffice it to say that these people enjoyed robust health and little to no incidence of many of our most prevalent diseases. The diet is heavy in healthy fats, particularly saturated and monounsaturated, both for their nutrient and energy density and for the vital roles they play in a variety of bodily processes and functions. The carbohydrates recommended offer good sources of vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, and ample stores of glucose for energy. Above all else, it emphasizes reliance on clean, whole, nutrient dense food without the harmful synthetic, artificial, and man-made substances which litter much of our food supply today.
At first glance you might think the main difference between eating a Standard American Diet (SAD) and a primal diet is the macronutrient makeup – high-carb/low-fat, low-carb/high-fat, etc. – and without question that’s an important distinction. As I alluded to earlier, this argument is a favorite pass-time of health-nuts and definitely has relevance, but for lay people who are just looking for a basic understanding I think it’s better to take a step back and focus instead on the broader fundamental issues at play. Namely, the quality of the food: what’s in it, how was it farmed/raised, its toxicity (whether endogenous or exogenous), and our body’s ability to metabolize and digest it. While this is a bit more of a nuanced approach than simply assigning a carb/fat/protein label to a given food, it’s impossible to overstate its significance.
I’m afraid the utility of eating is lost on many people, but its purpose is to give our bodies the energy and nutrients they need (without the toxins they don’t) to function each day. When we do a good job of this we’re typically healthy, but when we don’t we invite illness and disease. Our problem today is that our diets simply have too much of the bad stuff and not enough of the good. And combating this is made more difficult when you consider the official government recommendations, MyPlate, are terribly misguided, advising us to base our diets on grains, avoid fats, and opt for vegetable oils over animal fats and other alternatives; not to mention the failure to address the importance of farming and processing practices on the nutritional value of what winds up on your plate.
All too often what’s winding up on our plates has a laundry list of ingredients that are brand new to human consumption (i.e. probably not good for us) and others that are present in quantities that far exceed what we’re used to. Added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and industrial seed oils are three exceedingly
nefarious examples that have managed to find their way into the vast majority of processed foods and are culpable for many of the ills which plague Americans today. Not coincidentally, the meteoric rise in chronic and degenerative disease has paralleled the ascent of processed food. The allure of an ancestral diet, on the other hand, would be that it focuses on foods (or nutrients in some cases because the specific foods have changed somewhat over time) that we’ve eaten for a long time, that are nutrient-dense, toxin-free, and that correlate with low to no incidence for disease!
The overall point is that the way we look and feel is closely linked with our diet; not so much the quantity as the quality. The way food and diet are portrayed today is naïve and overly simplified, reducing eating to the equivalent of a game of Trivial Pursuit; fill up your plate with pieces representing different foods and once complete, pat yourself on the back for ‘winning’ with a healthy days’ diet. All of this is completely irrespective of any other considerations. So for lack of a better system, it falls on us to educate ourselves about what we’re eating and how it contributes to our health. Some may find it interesting, others mundane, but either way it could save your life so it merits attention.