What is the Healthiest Diet?

Before we begin I’d like to present this question: if right now, you could only choose one diet that will stay with you for the rest of your life, would it be the one you’re on right now?

Why is this important now?

Human health is at a crisis. Life expectancy in the US has dropped for the third year in a row. Many disease rates are at all time highs, and continuing to rise while the US is spending more of its GDP on health care every year. The statistics are alarming.

  • 1:2 Cardiovascular Disease
  • 1:2 Cancer
  • 1:4 Stroke
  • 1:10 Diabetes
  • 40% Obesity
  • 1:5 Mental Illness
  • 1:40 Autism
  • 1:10 Alzheimer’s
  • 1:10 Attention Deficit

While it seems like disease is a natural part of life, especially for Americans, human health does not have to be so plagued by disease as it is now. We can live healthier lives without all the unnecessary suffering.

The purpose of this post is to help me and others gain some insight from the confusing mess of information surrounding health and diet. By no means is the information completely accurate, but I can assure you that it is my best effort at this point in time. At the end of the day, whatever you conclude, hopefully you will learn at least a thing or two. With that said, have an open mind and let us try to uncover the relation between human health and diet.

So to begin, how do we start to tackle such a difficult problem? We can begin by identifying the question we should ask, which would be asking the broadest question possible; this is no easy task. I think we can all agree that the big question is (or at least should be)…

How do we be healthy?

That’s it. It may seem rather straightforward, but surprisingly you may realize that your big question is really how do I lose weight, how do I build muscle, how do I get rid of <insert disease>, or even how do I prove him/her wrong? Anyways, now that we have identified the big question we can break it down by specifically asking the question: 

What diet is the most healthy?

Although the key to health is more than just diet, diet is arguably the single most important factor. We will tackle this one question.

Before we continue, let us define the terms healthy and diet. We will define healthy as maximum lifespan with as few diseases as possible and diet as the food we eat everyday.

How?

Now that we have identified the question, we can begin by asking how? How do we figure out what the best diet is that will enable us to be healthy?

Let us list some methods as to how we can approach this question:

1. Conduct studies comparing the major diets

2. Conduct studies on individual foods or types of food we eat, and identify which ones are more healthy or unhealthy

3. Assume that people at some point in the past were healthier, then try to identify what their diets were

4. Observe who the healthiest people are currently, then find out what their diet is

5. Identify leading causes of death and their relation to different diets

The list goes on, but many methods of thinking follow one of these listed.

Bad Methods

Now just for fun we can make a list of bad methods:

1. Assume X is bad, so reduce X

2. Follow trends

3. Listen to someone whose bottomline is not your health

4. Continue something out of habit

Defaulting to a bad method requires no effort, while using a good method requires thinking. Now let’s delve into each method by identifying their underlying assumptions and discussing each one. Then, I will list some examples and state an interpretation or conclusion.

Method 1

Method: Conduct a study comparing all major diets such as vegan, vegetarian, paleo, keto, low-carb, lactoovovegetarian, etc

Assumption: This method assumes that it is possible to identify the healthiest diet by comparing the health consequences of different diets

Thoughts: Although this would give us a definitive answer to the question, a large population study like this does not exist as of now due to the enormous amount of funding and time required. However, there have been studies based off smaller groups of people, showing surprisingly consistent results.

Examples

  1. Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and Mortality in Adventist Health Study 2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4191896/
  2. Taiwanese Vegetarians and Omnivores: Dietary Composition, Prevalence of Diabetes and IFG https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3921224/
  3. Epic Oxford Study
  4. China-Cornell-Oxford Study by T. Colin Campbell

Comparison of Vegetarian With Nonvegetarian Dietary Patterns With Respect to All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality

China-Cornell-Oxford Study

Interpretation: No study done on large populations, but studies on smaller populations are pointing out: diets with lower meat consumption are associated with lower mortality risk or disease.

Method 2

Method: Conduct studies on individual foods or types of food we eat, and identify which ones are associated with higher mortality or disease

Assumption: A diet is determined by every food or type of food that composes it, so by conducting studies on each component we can identify the healthiest diet. 

Thoughts: This method takes a more direct approach by analyzing the individual components of a diet. However, an issue is that human food consumption is extremely diverse and variable. Be aware that these studies tend to have high likelihood of a biased funding source. Ex. Egg board funding egg study.

Examples

  1. Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study of over half a million people https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19307518
  2. Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27479196 (most downloaded article of 2016 in JAMA)
  3. Association of Frequency of Organic Food Consumption With Cancer Risk https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2707948

Interpretation: Based on the meat and plant studies, meat consumption is associated with higher mortality, while plant protein is associated with lower mortality. Also, there may be an association with organic food consumption with lower cancer risk. However, it is important to read the studies on the other individual foods and categories such as fat, sugar, eggs, and oil before determining the healthiest diet.

Method 3

Method: Assume that people at some point in the past were healthier, then try to identify what their diets were

Assumption: This is actually a bad method, but I included it as one of the main methods because of its wide prevalence. The assumption is that people some time ago lived longer and healthier lives. Therefore, we should eat the foods they ate.

Thoughts: This is not a science based method because we cannot get evidence to support its claim. How do we identify the thousands of different foods they ate, and measure the quantities of each food? How do we get reliable data on their diseases and lifespans?

Examples:

  1. Paleo

Conclusion: While there is some value to its principles such as eating no processed foods, this method is inferior to other methods. It relies on speculation rather than evidence-based science.

Method 4

Method: Observe who the healthiest people are currently, then find out what their diet is

Assumption: By identifying and adopting the diets of existing healthiest groups of people, we will receive the same health benefits 

Thoughts: Similar to method 3, this method assumes that there are healthier people. But unlike method 3, we are able to get data because the population exists. 

Examples

  1. Blue Zones Studies by Dan Buettner https://www.bluezones.com/recipes/food-guidelines/
  2. Caloric restriction, the traditional Okinawan diet, and healthy aging: the diet of the world’s longest-lived people and its potential impact on morbidity and life span. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17986602
  3. Centenarians and diet: what they eat in the Western part of Sicily https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3412743/

Conclusion: People living in blue zones and centenarians eat plant based diets.

Method 5

Method: Identify leading causes of death and their relation to different diets

Assumption: Most leading causes of death are associated with poor diet. We can promote healthier and longer lives by addressing those causes with better diet.

Example:

  1. How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Greger 

Interpretation: A plant-based diet effectively reduces all causes of death related to diet.

Discussion

In this presentation we briefly examined 5 different methods to approach the question: what diet is the healthiest?  We asked this question to better answer the larger question: how do we be healthy? We also listed a few examples to illustrate each method and stated an interpretation or conclusion. 

If our methods are logically correct, then each should hint at the same diet—the healthiest diet. We should also include as many methods and examples as possible in our decision to reduce the possibility that the diet is inaccurate. 

Based on the methods approach and the examples I chose in this post, we can conclude that the healthiest diet is…

A whole food, plant-based diet

However, using additional examples beyond the ones used in this post, I want to mention that the diet can be further improved:

Whole food, organic, plant-based diet, with low sugar and fat

Whole food: The less processed the better (not to be misinterpreted with a raw diet), unrefined carbohydrates 

Organic: Eliminate pesticides and other artificial chemicals

Plant-based: Minimize animal products

Low sugar: Minimize simple sugars, fruit is ok

Low fat: no excessive oil and fat

Whatever stage of life or circumstance you are in, remember that this diet is a diet that we should strive for. Our duty should be to do what is best for our bodies even if it means change. Hold this belief in your mind, and you will realize that change is possible, perhaps even fulfilling. Let fear not determine our decisions.

Why?

Let this be our goal so that we may enjoy life to a ripe old age with our friends, our family, our partners, our parents, and everyone around us— no heart disease, no cancer, no disease.

Sources

For health stats refer to “health” in issues: https://ponadr.blog/health/

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