People frequently ask me why I eat such “weird” things as beef liver, why I insist on finding grass-fed meat instead of grain-fed when possible, why I am so emphatic about eating a certain number of vegetables every day, or especially why I still take supplements despite eating a “crazy perfect” diet. I usually answer by explaining that A) It’s probably not that crazy in relation to what folks used to eat prior to industrialized agriculture, and B) My “crazy perfect” diet sits on a spectrum of optimality just like anyone else’s, and it can always be improved. Believe me, the more I read about optimal diets, the more I realize there are far weirder people out there and diets much closer to “perfect” than mine!
According to a research article by Jayson Calton in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, in order to be sufficient in the 27 essential micronutrients, defined by the USDA’s Recommended Daily Intake (RDI), you would have to eat 27,575 calories per day based on the average deficiencies of three popular American diets, Atkin’s, South Beach, and DASH. That is about ten times the amount of food the average person eats! Even the diets most sufficient in micronutrients, Paleo and Primal, would require 17,000 and 14,100 calories per day respectively (according to Jayson’s interview on Bulletproof Radio).
Now, to be fair, there are six of those micronutrients that are especially difficult to get from food. As the article showed, however, even if you remove those six from the analysis, you would still need 3,475 calories just to be sufficient in the remaining 21 micronutrients. Now that picture looks better – after all, this study was initially referenced for the purpose of justifying supplementation with multivitamins when food isn’t enough – but it clearly still underscores the importance of an optimal diet as a base of nutrition.
It’s also important to note that the levels used in the research are just those needed meet the recommended minimums, which are not necessarily levels you would need to be OPTIMAL. It also doesn’t take into consideration anti-nutrients, toxins or other substances in the food or the environment that detract from your nutrition, and our modern world has many toxins that our ancestors’ world did not.
I like to think of a diet analysis as a simple economics exercise (I was an Economics major, after all). At the most basic, fundamental level, you want to maximize revenue (micronutrients) and minimize cost (anti-nutrients and toxins) of each calorie you consume. By subtracting the two, you’ll find your resulting profit (diet efficiency). Thus in analyzing a food, say cooked spinach, you could say that it provides X% of the micronutrients you need (not specific data, but spinach, like many of the green vegetables, is loaded with good stuff!). But what, then, are the costs? Well, is it organic spinach? If not, you’re probably getting a little pesticide in there, something your body has to spend nutrients to deal with, thus lowering your diet efficiency. What about Diet Coke? There you’ll find about zero micronutrients and a whole lot of anti-nutrients and toxins…that’s a big economy killer, a bit like hiring an employee who sleeps under his or her desk all eight hours of the day and steals money from the cash drawer when you’re not looking.
Now it’s easy to see how this analysis can get complex and overwhelming, especially if you’re a data geek like me who wants to find yet another use for Microsoft Excel or an iPhone app, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to track everything, just think of the spectrum and think of how you can make a better choice. Start with the classic American meal, a burger and fries with a soft drink. How about you upgrade to fruit juice instead of soda? That takes care of some of the toxins in soda and adds some nutrients, but it still leaves a large dose of sugar. How about some tap water then? That gets rid of the sugar, but there are probably chemicals like chlorine and potentially others that rob a little nutrition from you. So you could get that water filtered to take care of that, and some filters are more effective than others. And if you’re needed more vitamin C or other nutrients that you’re now missing from the juice, you could even take a supplement for that (it’s always best to get it from food where you can, but I would rather supplement than be outright deficient).
You can see how each step takes you one notch further out on the spectrum towards a more optimal diet. You could ditch the bun (gluten) and turn that commercial burger into a grass-fed steak! Then you could exchange the starchy, fried potatoes for a baked sweet potato with some grass-fed butter and sea salt instead of regular salt. Or, if you’re goal is more weight-loss oriented, you’d probably do well to exchange that carb-heavy potato for some quality fat like a sliced avocado.
Everyone’s journey is unique, and not all people may be interested in optimizing their diet. That said, I think it’s important that everyone is at least armed with the information of where they roughly lie in a conceptual diet spectrum so that they can make an informed decisions. I had no idea how far the nutrition of modern diets had drifted away from where it once was (whether due to soil depletion, changing of diet habits, or more availability of snack/junk foods). Learning this information motivated me to take what I already thought was a good diet and make it that much better including supplementation to really optimize my health. Where on the spectrum do you lie?