Balanced diet

What is a balanced diet?  From an Evfit perspective it is - as Professor Lionel Tiger wrote in the Wall Street Journal on 14 July 2002 - ‘The balanced diet for our species was what we could acquire then, not what the government and doctors tell us to eat now.’  Be wary of the term ‘balanced diet’.  It is a loaded label which can generally be taken as meaning ‘a diet consistent with the preferences, prejudices and (limited) knowledge of the speaker’. The New York Times gives us their clinical description of a balanced diet here: bland, cautious, inoffensive and sensible; comfortably under the established status quo - but quite unrelated to the human genome and devised without any reference to human evolution. In fact it's a peculiar artefact of life in a wealthy corner of 21st century civilization.

Unfortunately, government authorities - such as the UK Food Standards Authority - are bound to "take a balanced view" and so give weight to arguments from food manufacturers that the use of certain additives and manufacturing processes should continue and to pharmaceutical companies who claim their drugs are more effective in treating behavioural disorders. Perhaps this is what a "balanced diet" is: one that is one third good for our physiology, one third good for business and one third good for our consumerist culture which condones damaging food and lifestyle choices as "little treats" which "all children deserve".

Isn't this is a bit too extreme? We need to have balance and moderation in our eating and exercise

Exactly wrong! Our present lives are unnaturally routinized, predictable and bland. They have been made comfortable by exploiting the environment unsustainably and without regard to the externalities imposed by the associated resource use, infrastructure and waste. Before the agricultural revolution ~10,000 years ago, Homo sapiens

•     was uncomfortably hot in summer and cold in winter

•     slept as long – or as briefly – as required

•     ate too much at a feast and went without in lean times

•     ate seasonal foods: fruit only in season, eggs only in spring, some game only when they migrated into their territory

•     swung intermittently between anabolic and catabolic states

•     had to exert themselves to the maximum on occasions and lounged about other times

•     loved and hated, cuddled and fought.

Art DeVany sums it up by saying we are active genotypes who want to live as sedentary phenotypes. Our genotype evolved in an environment where occasional vigorous activity was mandatory – you were active or you starved or you were eaten, you failed to attract the best mate, you were were killed in a fight, you were lost in a forest, you were drowned in a stream. This created strong selection pressure for genes encoding a smart, physically adept individual capable of very high activity levels. We are active genotypes; our genes encode a phenotype that must be active to turn on healthy and adaptive genetic programs.

Diana Hseih looks at it like this: “The proper response is not to say "eat in moderation" or "don't be so fussy" or “it won’t kill you” or "lighten up." Nutrition is a science: the human body is not mere subjective phenomena, capable of being stuffed full of anything without ill effect. As a matter of objective fact, some foods are healthy and others are not. As a matter of objective fact, some foods should be eaten in abundance, others in moderation, others rarely, and others not at all. The proportions may often depend on the individual, but even then, facts are facts. (Continued below [1])

The new sciences of complexity are uncovering how human life is a far-from-equilibrium system poised between order and chaos. In fact, the borderline between chaos and order is nature’s strategy of organization. There are patterns in the movement of wild animals on the savanna and in the variation of the human heartbeat; the vast variety of biodiversity, and their dynamic adaptations to other evolving species, are all part of the pattern of Darwinian evolution and complexity. Humans evolved on the forest edge and lived unbalanced lives, occasionally going to extremes in quite different environments in order to survive. This is why retain an inbuilt attraction to interstitiality.

The adaptive and variable energy demands of our ancestral existence are gone. We live a low energy flux and metabolically unvaried existence in bodies designed for another lifeway. We are hunter-gatherers in fashion sneakers and leisure wear, living a sedentary life and it is killing us in ways our ancestors never experienced.

Most modern fitness prescriptions are static and agricultural/mechanical. These programs model the body as a machine, not as an adaptive organism; they assume the body is designed to maintain some ideal equilibrium in which consistently high levels of physical and mental comfort are to be aimed for: think of the way popular culture values tranquillity, relaxation, sustainability, elimination of stress, predictability, consistency and the like – all these are good, in fact they are essential at times, but they are only one side of the Homo sapiens lifeway. In fact all bodily processes are highly non-linear. Orderly randomness in human activity and diet correspond to the orderly randomness of the dynamic external environment and the dynamic physiological and mental internal environment. Humans' desire for predictability and comfort made evolutionary sense in the Palaeolithic but we have since then extended them out of control with technological advances and our species' vast energy expenditures made possible by the combination of technology and fossil fuels. With the right mixture of intensity and variety of activities, diet, social relationships and experiences, we can exploit the highly non-linear and dynamic adaptive metabolic processes of the human body.

Notes

Dianah Hseih continues thus: "A person can do him self very real damage by eating the wrong kinds of foods. Personally, if I attempted to eat sweets "in moderation," I would suffer for it. I would start feeling run down. I would be constantly hungry. I would have persistent cravings for more sugar. I would regain weight. My fasting blood glucose would rise again, meaning that I'd be on my way to type 2 diabetes. My liver would get fatty again -- or fattier. My HDL levels would decline, and my triglycerides would rise. All of that would be very bad for me, and that's a matter of fact.

"So for me to refrain from eating sweets is right and proper. Frankly, I'm even discovering that the ill effects I feel from eating just one brownie once a month are not worth the pleasures of it on my tongue. Do I flog myself for eating that once-a-month brownie? Of course not. I simply observe those ill effects and remind myself to choose more carefully next month. It's too bad that I'm so sensitive, and I'm well aware that others are more tolerant of sugar than me. But I'm not going to beat my head against a wall: my job as a person is to live in reality in accordance with the facts, whether I like them or not.

"The only real solution to the problem of this new neurosis about food is to banish the duty-based approach to eating in favor of a fact-based approach. A person's dietary choices should be based on his first-handed understanding of the facts. That means understanding the actual science of nutrition -- opposed to the conventional wisdom. (For that, I think, a person simply must read Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories.[Evfit says: read this book not only for its contents, but as a model of how to write about science]) And, in conjunction, a person must track the effects of his diet on his day-to-day well-being to determine what kinds of foods benefit versus harm him. That often requires some substantial work of discovery: it's usually not obvious without some careful and sustained experimentation of one's own. Moreover, to be useful, such experiments should be guided by a person's well-grounded general knowledge of metabolism, nutrition, and the like."

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Page up-dated 9 February 2009