During the last 50 years, quantity has been a much bigger theme than quality when it comes to diet and nutrition. We’ve been told that if we want to lose weight, we need to eat fewer calories and exercise more. We’ve also been told we need to eat less fat by most mainstream health organizations like the American Heart Association. More recently, some researchers and health experts have suggested that it’s not fat that is the problem, but carbohydrates, and that for optimal health we should follow a lowcarbohydrate diet.
These recommendations are based on the mistaken idea that the key factor determining our health is either the overall quantity of food we eat, or the quantity of macronutrients like fat and carbohydrate that the food contains.
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. Yet there are many examples of traditional cultures with relatively high fat intakes, and low incidence of obesity and chronic, inflammatory disease. This is true of the Masai tribe in Africa, who get about 60-70 percent of calories from fat (almost entirely from meat, milk or blood) yet are remarkably lean, fit and healthy. And what about 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 percent of calories from carbohydrate and, like the Masai, are almost entirely free of obesity, heart disease and other chronic, degenerative diseases that are so common in industrialized societies. We’ve observed a similar absence of modern diseases in the Kuna indians in Panama and the traditional Okinawans of Japan, two other healthy indigenous populations that got about 65 percent of calories from carbohydrate.
What about the overall quantity of food we eat? We’ve known for some time that “counting calories”—purposely eating less—is not a very effective weight loss strategy, especially over the long term. More than 85 percent of people who count calories not only eventually gain back the weight they lost, they gain back even more weight. This leads to a vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting that I’m sure many of you are more familiar with than you’d like to be.
Why quality is more important than quantity
The examples above tell us that when it comes to food, quality is more important than quantity. Humans can thrive on a wide range of macronutrient ratios, ranging from low fat to high fat—as long as they are eating real food. And when you’re eating high quality, nutrient-dense food, you are far more likely to eat the right quantity of food to maintain your weight.
But what determines food quality? We’ve already discussed two important factors: refining/processing (the less refined or processed the better) and nutrient density (the more nutrient dense the better).
In this context, we could say that that there are “good carbs” and “bad carbs”, “good fats” and “bad fats”. Good carbs are those that are both unrefined and nutrient-dense, such as fruits, vegetables and starchy plants like potatoes, sweet potatoes, plantains, taro, etc. Bad carbs are highly processed and refined, and nutrient-poor, like most things made with flour and sugar. Good fats are unprocessed, naturally occurring fats like olive oil, coconut, avocado, butter, and even lard and duck fat when it comes from pastureraised animals. Bad fats are highly processed and refined industrial seed oils and trans fats.
In most cases it’s far more important to focus on the quality of fats and carbohydrates that you eat than the absolute quantity of either. Low-fat and low-carb advocates both like to blame the entire category of either fats or carbohydrates for the obesity and modern disease epidemic. But neither science nor common sense supports this.
Does anyone really believe that eating sweet potatoes and whole fruit has the same effect on the body as eating cookies and doughnuts? Good carbs and good fats haven’t made us fat or sick; bad carbs and bad fats have.
There’s another important factor that determines the quality of foods we eat, and that’s how it’s grown, harvested and/or raised. The highest quality produce (fruits and vegetables) is local and organic; the highest quality meat, dairy products, and eggs come from pasture-raised animals; and the highest quality fish is wild-caught.
Let’s examine each of these in more detail.
Organic and local produce: more nutrients, fewer chemicals
Organic plant foods contain, on average, 25 percent higher concentrations of 11 nutrients than their conventional counterparts. In particular, they tend to be higher in important polyphenols and antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E, and quercetin.
Even more relevant in determining nutrient content is where your produce comes from, and in particular, how long it’s been out of the ground before you eat it. Most of the produce sold at large supermarket chains is grown hundreds – if not thousands – of miles away, in places like California, Florida, and Mexico. This is especially true when you’re eating foods that are out of season in your local area (like a banana in mid-winter in New York).
A typical carrot, for example, has traveled 1,838 miles to reach your dinner table. Days— maybe more than a week—have passed since it was picked, packaged and trucked to the store, where it can sit on the shelves even longer. The problem with this is that food starts to change as soon as it’s harvested and its nutrient content begins to deteriorate. Total vitamin C content of red peppers, tomatoes, apricots, peaches and papayas has been shown to be higher when these crops are picked ripe from the plant. This study compared the Vitamin C content of supermarket broccoli in May (in season) and supermarket broccoli in the Fall (shipped from another country). The result? The out-of-season broccoli had only half the vitamin C of the seasonal broccoli.
Without exposure to light (photosynthesis), many vegetables lose their nutrient value. If you buy vegetables from the supermarket that were picked a week ago, transported to the store in a dark truck, and then stored in the middle of a pile in the produce section, and then you put them in your dark refrigerator for several more days before eating them, chances are they’ve lost much of their nutrient value. A study at Penn State University found that spinach lost 47 percent of its folate after 8 days.
This is why buying your produce at local farmer’s markets, or even better, picking it from your backyard garden, are better options than buying conventional produce shipped from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Fruits and vegetables from local farms are usually stored within one or two days of picking, which means their nutrient content will be higher. And as anyone who’s eaten a fresh tomato right off the vine will tell you, local produce tastes so much better than conventional produce it might as well be considered a completely different food.
Another important benefit of organic produce, of course, is that it’s grown without pesticides, herbicides and other harmful chemicals that have been shown to cause health problems – especially in vulnerable populations like children. A study published in the journal Pediatrics concluded that children exposed to organophosphate pesticides at levels typically found in conventional produce and are more likely to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
A panel of scientists convened by President Obama to study the effect of environmental toxins on cancer released a report in 2010 urging Americans to eat organic produce grown without pesticides, fertilizers or other chemicals. The report states that the U.S. government has grossly underestimated the number of cancers caused by environmental toxins. Furthermore, the report especially highlights the risk of toxins in conventionally grown foods to unborn children. Exposure to harmful chemicals during this critical period can set a child up for lifelong endocrine disruption, hormone imbalances, and other problems.
Pasture-raised animal products and wild-caught fish: as nature intended
Several studies have been done comparing the nutrient content of pasture-raised (PR) and grain-fed (confinement animal feeding operations, or CAFO) animal products. PR animal products are superior to CAFO in 2 primary respects: they have a better fatty acid profile, and higher levels of vitamins and other micronutrients.
Grain-fed animals have lower levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats like EPA and DHA. The more grain in an animal’s diet, the lower the omega-3 levels in their meat. For example, grass-fed beef typically has 3 times more omega-3 than grain-fed beef.
In addition to higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fat, pasture-raised animal products also have much higher levels of several vitamins and minerals, including:
- 288 percent more vitamin E
- 54 percent more beta-carotene
- Twice as much riboflavin (B2)
- Three times as much thiamin (B1)
- Four times as much selenium
- 30 percent more calcium
- 5 percent more magnesium
We see a similar difference between eggs from hens raised on pasture, and those raised in confinement. Eggs from pasture-raised hens contain as much as 10 times more omega-3 than eggs from factory hens, and they are significantly higher in B12 and folate. They also have higher levels of fat-soluble antioxidants like vitamin E and a denser concentration of vitamin A.
In the case of fish, farmed fish contain less omega-3 relative to linoleic acid (omega-6). For example, wild salmon contains 10 times more omega-3 than omega-6, whereas farmed salmon has less than 4 times the amount of omega-3 than omega-6. Another study found that consuming standard farmed salmon, raised on diets high in omega-6, raises blood levels of certain inflammatory chemicals linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer. Wild salmon also contains 4 times as much vitamin D as farmed salmon, which is especially important since up to 50 percent of Americans are deficient in this important vitamin.
- Focus more on the quality of foods you eat than the quantity. When you eat highquality foods, the quantity takes care of itself.
- Choose local and organic produce whenever possible.
- Choose pasture-raised animal products and wild-caught fish whenever possible.