Manifesto for Agnostic Nutrition – Beyond Belief-Based Named Diets.

In days gone by, humans interpreted the things they didn’t understand as mysterious or magical.  

We formed religions and worshipped deities like the sun, earth, fire, thunder, and water that nourished and sustained us.

Over the centuries, empirical data and a deeper scientific understanding have filled in many of our knowledge gaps.  As we have gained more knowledge about the sun, rain, and thunder, we’ve moved on from many of these deities

Although we now understand lots of things in our external world and universe more deeply, so many things that happen inside our bodies are still largely a mystery. 

Rather than worshipping mystical deities to explain natural phenomena, many of us assign special names to, put our faith in or ascribe near-magical or supernatural power to — diets

It’s no wonder we’re so confused when it comes to nutrition! 

Humans are adapted to maximise energy intake to prepare for times of scarcity.  The macronutrient makeup, taste, and colour of our food drive us to eat more to ensure survival.  Over the past fifty years or so, we’ve used modern technologies like chemical fertilisers, large-scale farming technology, artificial flavours, and artificial colourings to enhance these characteristics.

This has not only ensured that we always have plenty of available food, but it has also optimised our food’s palatability, so we keep eating it! 

Big Food has used these tactics to engineer the modern, hyper-palatable, low-satiety foods that make up our food environment to trigger our gorge instincts.  As a result, we eat—and buy — more of them.   

Sadly, while Big Food has worked out how to reverse-engineer our biology for their profit, most of us are still stuck in belief-based diets, with names and subcultures arguing with one another like religious sects. 

This article will show you how you can move beyond belief-based nutrition and named diets and the modern era of nutrition — Nutritional Optimisation — to reverse-engineer your diet to achieve your goals based on your unique context and preferences. 

How Do Beliefs Affect Nutrition?

Whether by luck or design, modern food scientists have perfected the hyper-autumnal food formula that tells our brains it is time to eat more and store fat for winter

Ironically, most enterprises that create these foods also influence nutritional guidelines.  Yet despite this, they put the guilt and burden of responsibility back on the individual to ‘eat less and move more’.  

Is it any wonder most diets fail?  We end up torn between our rational brain screaming we need to eat less to avoid obesity and diabetes and our reptilian brain telling us that winter is coming and we need to eat more to survive!   

This leaves us trapped between hedonism (do what feels good) and asceticism (self-restraint and abstinence from pleasure).  Our rational brain doesn’t stand much chance in an environment optimised to appeal to our instincts that are virtually impossible to ignore, especially over the long term!

Is There One True Diet? 

Thousands of diets promise to be the ‘one true way of eating’.  However, almost everyone is getting fatter and sicker in our modern food environment.  A recent study from Tufts University showed that only 7% of Americans are metabolically healthy.  We seem to be increasingly confused over what we should eat.

Instead of looking at where we came from and what we need from our food, we try to ‘reinvent the wheel’ by outsmarting nature and our biology.  ‘Just eat real food’ doesn’t make anyone any money, but there is no shortage of shakes, powders, juices, supplements, and even ‘fast mimicking diets’ that you can pay for. 

Constant advertising and FOMO (fear of missing out) pushes most of us to jump on board the latest fad diets that supposedly correct the previous one’s problems.  You know, low-fat to high-fat, low-protein to high-protein, and plant-based to carnivore. 

If it’s not working, we need to try harder and be more extreme.  Right? 

Perhaps the extremes and self-deprivation are successful for a while, but they usually fail in the long run.   

Diet SubCULTure

If we’re fortunate enough to find a way of eating that works for us, we decide it’s the only way everyone should eat

We gather in diet subCULTures and online echo chambers, draw battle lines around our beliefs in our chosen dietary dogma and turn our dietary fad into diet law.  

We worship our sanctioned and ‘approved’ foods and vilify the ‘bad’ ones—or anyone who says they’re meant to be eaten.   

In a world most people make multiple decisions about food every day, it’s virtually impossible to be agnostic about food! 

In a world where fewer people attend church, it seems diet has become the new religion and identity. 

Which ‘Bad’ Food Should You Fear This Week?  

Sometimes it appears there is no rhyme or reason to the foods the different dietary communities allow.  

Many groups have what appear to be diametrically opposing rules that appear to be working well for them.  

But as long as you stick to them religiously, you’ll be accepted amongst your chosen diet population.  

Ironically, the following foods often appear either on the approved or unclean list, depending on which subCULTure you happen to find yourself in:

While black-and-white thinking about food may have been useful in the past for sanitary purposes, it’s questionable whether such a dogmatic approach to nutrition serves us well in our modern environment.  This is particularly true when so much of nutrition focuses on the ‘bad’ things in our food that we should avoid rather than simply prioritising the nutrients we require from our food.  

In a world where evolution is widely accepted, it’s incredible how much of our nutritional beliefs are still influenced by religious or ethical relics and superstitions rather than science.

  • In pantheism, the earth and animals are more important than humans.  In nutrition, this thinking leads us to prioritise the earth (sustainability) and animals (veganism) above human health and nutrition.
  • In asceticism, pleasure is bad, and people should exercise discipline and restraint.  Any food that tastes good must be evil. 
  • With hedonism, everything consumed should taste fantastic, and eating primarily for pleasure is widely accepted.  No one agrees on what is healthy, so we should just give up and enjoy our food!
  • In the Garden of Eden Diet, we must eat as we did in the Garden of Eden before the fall.  Eating meat stirs up the passions of the flesh, so we should avoid all animal-based foods to suppress our sexuality.

Belinda and Gary Fettke have done some fantastic work on the religious origins of current mainstream dietary advice that I highly recommend looking into.  Check out my chat with Belinda Fettke here for further discussion on how religious beliefs have influenced our ‘modern’ dietary guidelines. 

The idea that the beliefs of the Seventh Day Adventist Church have had such a massive impact on our modern nutritional beliefs and guidelines might sound like a crazy conspiracy theory.  But as someone who grew up in the SDA church, I can tell you it’s all true!  Many of my relatives work for Sanitarium or the SDA-run hospitals.  This experience has made me passionate about quantifying nutrition to escape belief-based nutrition. 

To be clear, we’re not trying to be anti-religion or promote atheism.  Instead, we recommend separating good nutritional science from financial conflicts of interest and idealistic, ethical, or religious dogma that can hinder clear reasoning in this area and stop us from identifying the most effective solution for your nutritional needs.

The Problem with Magical Thinking in Nutrition 

Like many religious or political movements that start off strong, we often find a way to pervert a particular nutrition approach to the point that it’s deemed ineffective.  

While it might work for the first wave of ‘true believers’, we tend to distort and commercialise it, so any benefit for people coming later is often eliminated.  

Before long, a new subCULTure (or splinter group on Facebook) starts up to correct the wrongs of the last one!

Although many of these diet CULTures preach opposing messages, they still work well enough — or have dedicated disciples preaching loud enough — to grow large followings of true believers.  

But unfortunately, popular diets often implode when people discover how to ‘hack it’ and make it hyper-palatable, energy-dense, and nutrient-poor while still technically following the rules.

But what would happen if we simply prioritised the nutrients in our food?  Let’s take a deeper look at what happens at the dietary extremes first.

The Plant-Based Diet

In a world of nutrient-poor hyper-palatable processed foods, many people agree that more vegetables or fruit is an improvement for many.  

However, as shown in the micronutrient fingerprint chart below for plant-only foods, limiting your food choices to plants alone make it more challenging to obtain adequate omega 3, vitamin B12, choline, selenium and zinc, as well as amino acids.  Additionally, nutrients like vitamin A (as retinol) and iron are less bioavailable from plant-based sources.   

Believing that the simple absence of animal foods is causing a magical effect while simultaneously paying no attention to the harder-to-find nutrients mentioned above is naïve.  It can cause us to overconsume highly processed vegan junk food.

There is currently a strong push to move towards a more ‘plant-based’ diet for ethical and sustainable reasons.  But practically speaking, this can drive us to use more refined products like seed oils and refined grains, which have their own problems. 

These ingredients, and the foods made from them, are sourced from highly subsidised agriculture that is highly profitable for food manufacturers but not so good for our health or waistline. 

Without paying any attention to micro or macronutrients, the highly commercialised version of the modern ‘plant-based diet’ will pretty much leave us with the nutritional profile of an Oreo cookie.  For more on this topic, see Should You EAT Lancet?  

Hedonism

Your senses of taste and smell are highly developed to help you seek the nutrients and energy you need from food. 

Until quite recently, low-protein, hyper-palatable foods that combine fat and carbs were only available for a limited time to help us fatten up for winter.  Hence, ‘if it tastes good, eat it’ served us well when foods were only available to us based on nature’s will!

But today, our food has been engineered for fun and profit to appeal to our reptilian gorge instincts 24 hours out of the day, seven days a week, all year long.  We can’t escape!  For more on how food availability ‘round the clock’ might be keeping us fat, see Escaping Our Infinite Autumn.  

But at the same time, gaining pleasure from food isn’t bad.  Before we learned to engineer hyper-palatable comfort foods from sugar, flour, and vegetable oils, with added flavours and colour, things that tasted and looked good were typically good for us because they contain the nutrients your body needs. 

‘Just eat what tastes good and makes me feel good’ is a dangerous strategy in our modern engineered food environment.  If we remove these Frankenfoods that need artificial colours, flavours, and fortified vitamins to make them taste good, our tastebuds and cravings are a good indicator of what our bodies need right now.  An incredible amount of the human brain is developed to our sense of taste to make sure we receive a dopamine hit from the foods that contain the nutrients we require right now. 

So long as you can intelligently control the foods you are exposed to, listening to your appetite and cravings is a good way to go. 

Carnivore 

More recently — perhaps in rebellion to the aggressive evangelism we know as the vegan subculture — there is a growing tribe of carnivores who swear by a more animal-based diet.  

A carnivore diet seems to work well for many, likely because it eliminates most of the hyper-palatable, nutrient-poor, low-satiety, processed, and inflammatory foods that many people are sensitive to.  It also provides tons of protein, the most critical macronutrient for satiety, not to mention many essential micronutrients. 

But similar to the plant-based diet, an exclusively animal-based diet lacks some critical nutrients.  Although they are more bioavailable at times, they still do not provide us with enough to satisfy our requirements.

While many people in the vibrant online carnivore community say they are doing better than ever with steak, salt, and water, you can still use other nutrient-dense animal foods like dairy, eggs, seafood, and organ meats to fine-tune your micronutrients profile without resorting to eating plants. 

However, the micronutrient fingerprint chart below shows that a meat-only diet contains plenty of bioavailable protein.  However, obtaining adequate amounts of many micronutrients such as vitamin K1, folate, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, and potassium will be harder. 

For more about the carnivore diet and optimising your nutrient intake on it, see:

Ketogenic Diet 

Since we domesticated grains some ten thousand years ago, humans have consumed increasing amounts of refined carbohydrates year-round.  Thus, many find that a lower-carb or ketogenic diet brings them back into seasonal balance or at least moves them from autumn (where both carbs and fat are abundant, leading to overeating and fat gain) to winter.  

As the chart below from our satiety analysis shows, reducing dietary processed carbs can improve satiety and nutrient density, help you lose weight, and stabilise your blood glucose levels.  

However, this way of eating can also be taken too far.  It appears that much of the benefits of a lower-carb diet come from the increase in protein rather than eating ‘fat to satiety’ that many gurus preach. 

Fats are relatively nutrient-poor, and over-consuming them increases your chances of missing out on many essential micronutrients, as shown in the high-fat keto micronutrient fingerprint below. 

When separated from protein, dietary fat does not tend to be as satiating as the other two macronutrients, carbs and protein, when we look at it on a calorie-for-calorie basis.  This leaves us searching for nutrients with an insatiable appetite, and we end up over-eating energy-dense, low-satiety, low-protein foods

Unfortunately, the advice to ‘eat fat to satiety’ will likely drive you to consume more energy than you require!  As shown in the chart below, once we exceed about 40% of our energy from fat, we tend to consume more calories.  For more details, see Fat – Optimal vs Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR).

As mentioned before, many nutritional fads thrive until someone works out how to commercialise and bastardise them.  With modern keto, we had exogenous ketones, which peaked in popularity just before keto started its decline (as shown in the Google Trends chart below).  Although the marketing hype was seductive, they are the dietary equivalent of pouring a bucket of someone else’s sweat over you and claiming that you had a great workout. 

Our bodies produce ketones endogenously — or on their own — when they begin breaking fat down in a caloric deficit. Unfortunately, exogenous ketones — or ketones made by another source aside from bodily function — are simply an expensive way to get energy with very little nutritional value.  See Are Exogenous Ketones Right for You? and Oxidative Priority: The Key to Unlocking Your Fat Stores for more.  

Paleo

Thinking about food that our ancestors would have eaten — or even foods your grandmother would recognise as food — can be a great way to evaluate what we put in our mouths.

But as soon as you have to ask ‘is this paleo?’ about everything you eat and start commercialising ‘paleo comfort food’ concoctions of dates, honey, almond flour, cassava, and coconut oil, you can kiss the benefits goodbye.  

And once you lose the magic component that made it work — the lack of highly palatable combo foods that mix refined carbs and oils — then the trend is over, and people move on to the next bright and shiny magical fad diet.  

So, What Does It Mean to Be Nutrition Agnostic?

To be agnostic means to doubt a conventional mainstream belief or way of thinking.  Thus, eating an agnostic diet means scepticism about the belief or cult-based one-size-fits-all diet approaches.  Your diet doesn’t need a belief system; it just needs to provide the nutrients you need to thrive.   

What Is the Future of Nutrition?

After experiencing and analysing so many belief-based diets and diet fads, I’m a big fan of simply ensuring we get the nutrients we need from food. 

Our analysis has shown that a diet that provides plenty of nutrients without excessive energy is highly satiating and can help you lose weight without focusing on calorie counting.    

When we understand how protein, carbs, and fat impact satiety and blood glucose levels, we can reverse-engineer nutrition to achieve the results we need.  Then, with that foundation in place, we can fine-tune our diet to focus on ensuring we get enough of all the vitamins and minerals we need from our food for even greater satiety and vitality. 

To learn more about this topic, see

And we can do this all without swinging to unsustainable extremes.  It doesn’t matter whether you prefer to eat more plants, meat, or seafood — Nutritional Optimisation works in any context and can be tailored for any goal!  

Rather than adopting the latest fad diet, Nutritional Optimisation guides you to progressively improve how you currently eat so you can reach your goals and escape the downsides of our modern food system.  

Current Food SystemNutritional Optimisation
Hyper-palatable, so you buy and eat moreSatiety to help you feel full
Artificial flavours that cover the poor or absent tasteFlavour from nutrients in real food
The lowest-cost ingredients with high-profit marginsA focus on adequate micronutrients
Driver of obesity and diabetes  Stabilised blood sugar and weight

Summary 

Blindly following the latest fad or named diet can push you to unsustainable extremes and lead you confidently wrong. 

Food scientists have enabled food manufacturers to hack our appetite to make us eat more ultra-processed junk food.  But the good news is that you can reverse-engineer your appetite to give your body what it wants and needs. 

While nutrition is still a young science, we now have enough data to identify foods and meals that will lead you to your goals.  

Isn’t it time you stepped into the future — Nutritional Optimisation — to simply give your body what it needs? 

More

6 thoughts on “Manifesto for Agnostic Nutrition – Beyond Belief-Based Named Diets.”

  1. I guess my main thought is…how does Marty Kendall decide what the optimal nutrient levels are? I’d like it made really clear which organisation or individual has set those nutrient levels. We’re tired of finding out some shady organisation is behind something dodgy!! Tell us more about this ?

  2. Interesting read. You seem to have hit the nail on the head, at least from where I’m viewing it. I’ve never felt comfortable labelling myself as a proponent of any ‘named diet’. ‘Low-carb-ish’ is the best I’ve come up with, when people ask me how I did it. Over time my diet has evolved as I have explored various diets, drifting toward them, and away again as I see the potential problems. I’ve re-learnt to eat for nutrients and accepted that will change with age and environmental conditions. Partly seasonal, partly avoidance of foods experience have shown me, don’t help me, partly trying things I have traditionally not liked, and finding out that tastes do change, over time, or perhaps with the elimination of other foods that hi-jack the taste buds.

  3. this reminds me of a very interesting Audible series called Food: a Cultural Culinary History by Ken Albala. He went into the history of why some cultures or groups within cultures exclude or include certain foods. I think I’ve listened to the whole thing twice.

Comments are closed.