They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes.
But I got to meet mine, and it was AWESOME!
We believe that empowering people with the tools to get the nutrients they require from the food they eat can not only help us be healthier but also save the planet from the dystopian trajectory that we are currently on.
You can watch our chat here.
Robb has also been the most significant influence in my nutritional explorations over the past decade. I see my work as simply putting numbers and systems around his thinking and using multi-criteria analysis to identify optimal foods and meals for different people with different goals.
Once optimal nutrition is quantified, we no longer have to rely on names, trends, fads, or belief systems— nutrition becomes a simple math problem that can be solved – we can skip the endless circular debate and angst. We can identify and agree on a shortlist of foods and meals that contain the nutrients we need to function optimally and thrive.
Ensuring we have a planet that can sustain future generations may not be as sexy as “how to get abs overnight” with the optimal mix of carbs, fat and protein (i.e. MACROnutrients).
But the macro trends (i.e. long term, big picture) in how we obtain our food is a far more important topic, not only because the health of our planet is critical, but acting in the interest of our planet will, in turn, better nourish us (and vice versa).
- Macro Trends and Fads
- How Did We Get Here?
- What Happens if We Run Out of Methane to Make Synthetic Fertilisers?
- What Does ‘Plant-Based’ Mean Anyway?
- What is the most ‘efficient’ way to eat if we care about our planet?
- Regenerative Agriculture
- Micronutrient Leverage and Satiety
- Correlation Between Obesity Rates and Nutrient Content of Our Foods
- The relationship between nutrient density and satiety
- How Nutritional Optimisation Can Save the World (and Your Health)
- Why You Can’t Rely on Supplements
- Read more
Macro Trends and Fads
In Big Fat Keto Lies, I talked a lot about popular trends and fads in nutrition. Robb has been in the trenches of two of the most significant recent movements in nutrition.
But the Paleo Diet fell out of favour around 2014 when everyone started asking, ‘is this paleo?’ and cheating the system with the creation of recipe books filled with ‘paleo comfort foods.’
While technically staying ‘paleo,’ a growing number of people managed to create delectable hyper-palatable fat-and-carb combos (e.g., almond flour mixed with coconut cream) that drove overeating. The “magic” spark of paleo seemed to die out, and most followers left to follow the next bright, shiny new diet fad.
While paleo made a big difference for many people by encouraging them to avoid modern hyper-palatable, processed foods, it didn’t crack the mainstream consciousness, at least not for long.
During our discussion, Robb said he believed that paleo’s most significant contribution was validation of the novel concept that the immune systems of innumerable people were ill-equipped to process multitudinous everyday foods. Many people, especially those with some level of autoimmunity, experience improved immune response by eliminating grains, eggs, dairy, and other foods from their diets (i.e., AIP or autoimmune paleo).
As Paleo started to decline, keto came in like a tsunami, with its simple anti-establishment message that many people readily embraced.
Both Robb and I were in the thick of the keto movement, frequently encouraging people to consider nutrient density, particularly protein, rather than chasing higher ketones as the primary goal.
While keto has had a more profound impact on public consciousness than paleo, the keto trend peaked in January 2019. Now, many (ex)keto gurus (such as Dr Ted Naiman, Andreas Einfeldt of Diet Doctor and Mark Sisson) are advocating for a focus on protein, rather than fat, as the magic macro that makes a lower-carb diet so effective for many.
It seems that chasing higher ketones (regardless of whether they are from fat on your body, the fat in your diet or supplements) was a fruitless distraction (unless perhaps you require high ketones to manage epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, dementia or Parkinson’s).
The Vegan (or ‘Plant-based’) Movement
While many people in the low-carb, paleo and keto scene were bickering over which macro they should avoid (or worship), a new way of eating cropped up, and it’s been growing like a, well, like a plant (or even a well-fertilised weed).
The vegan or ‘plant-based’ movement represents a confluence of religious belief, ethical concerns for the value of life and the health of our planet for future generations, and financial interests, profits, along with the politicisation and polarisation of agriculture and public health.
Unfortunately, the environmental sustainability discussion and how we can feed a planet with ten billion humans is extremely complex. The conclusions you draw reference your belief system and how you measure success and often leave little common ground to explore possible mutually agreeable interventions.
This discussion is really about technology and how we can innovate to solve our current and future challenges. The way I see it, we are at a crossroads where we can either:
- create new tools and technology to engineer our way out of the mess we have created, or
- double down on the technology that created our current ominous trajectory.
How Did We Get Here?
To understand where we are going, we need to understand how we got here. We can’t go back in time, but we must learn from the past to ensure we don’t repeat it.
Humans are ingenious, and our ability to create more efficient ways to get the nutrients and energy we require to thrive is at the heart of this discussion.
Like Dr Ted Naiman, I grew up in a Seventh Day Adventist home where a vegetarian diet was baked into the culture. Many of my relatives still work for the Sanitarium Health Food Company. Exploring the field of nutrition trying to engineer a better diet for my wife Monica (who has Type 1 Diabetes) and my family helped me realise there were viable alternative ways to explain how the human race arrived at where it is today. Listening to Robb explain his evolutionary views over the past decade blew my mind, not just in terms of the food we eat but how we got here.
Some of our earliest technological innovations created stone tools to get more of the nutrients we needed out of the food we scavenged.
This enabled us to grow bigger brains, to the point that we would eventually send rockets to Mars, manufacture self-driving cars, the internet, 5G phones, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.
We discovered how to use fire to cook our food yielding more nutrients and energy.
We made spears to chase prey, becoming hunters of the protein we needed to thrive, as well as gatherers of nutrients from foraged foods.
There are no census numbers from paleo times. Still, it seems the population was relatively stagnant until about ten thousand years ago when we discovered ways to domesticate grains. Until the agricultural revolution, the amount of energy we could extract from the food in our natural environment was limited and capped the population growth rate.
The Agricultural Revolution
Everything changed once we could reliably access energy from grains like wheat and barley. The next 10,000 years saw the human population’s growth rate rising approximately six times faster than during pre “farming” days, from about 0.0015% to 0.01% annually.
But things didn’t stop with the agricultural revolution. Our more recent innovations have put agriculture into hyperdrive.
The Dawn of Synthetic Fertilisers
The next step-change occurred in 1905 when two genius chemists worked out how to create ammonia-based synthetic fertilisers fuelled by methane. Harber and Bosh were awarded Nobel Prizes for their contribution to science in 1918.
Their ingenious technology was initially used to create weapons during WW1 and later repurposed to speed crop maturity by injecting nitrogen, typically the limiting nutrient for the growth of plants, directly into the soil.
As shown in the chart below from Our World in Data, the international population growth rate spiked to 2.1% per year (i.e., 200 times the growth rate during the agricultural revolution and 1400 times the population growth rate of the paleolithic era).
Evolutions in agriculture and food technology have rocketed our population to record numbers. What a cruel irony that the innovations intended to stamp out hunger created the impossible challenge we are now faced with – working out how to feed a population of ten billion or more people in the foreseeable future.
Estimates suggest that nearly half the current global population would not exist except for synthetic nitrogen fertilisers (source).
But it’s a challenging, real-life conundrum with some tough questions attached.
- If you could go back in time, would you stop Harber and Bosch from creating synthetic fertilisers?
- Should we regulate the use of synthetic fertilisers in our food system to reverse the diabesity epidemic they have facilitated?
- Suppose we limit access to synthetic fertilisers creating for nations getting fat on the hyper-processed cheap foods of modern agriculture. How will this impact developing countries that may starve without these foods?
I don’t know the answer, but we should think twice before trusting the technology that created this chaotic travesty and the handlers who most profited from its misuse to rescue us.
The Green Revolution
Beyond the agricultural revolution and synthetic fertilisers, we have continued to innovate to optimise our food system for maximum food availability, minimum cost, and maximum profit. This brought about another step-change in our food production in the 1950s.
As illustrated in the chart below (data from the USDA Economic Research Service and obesity data from the Centres for Disease Control), the amount of food available per person has increased by around 1100 calories per day over the past 50 years!
As detailed in Robb Wolf and Diana Rogers’ Sacred Cow (as well as in a bonus chapter in Robb’s Wired to Eat) after the Vietnam War, things got challenging politically for President Richard Nixon. So he charged Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz with a mandate to optimise the farming system to make food cheaper to help Nixon’s political prospects.
Butz implemented sweeping changes to the US Farm Bill that forced farmers to rely on the intensive, large-scale, mono-crop agricultural system.
That meant using the same plots of land for the same crops over and over rather than allowing them to rest (lay fallow) between harvests.
Without manure from grazing animals (acting as fertilisers and boosting the soil’s microbiome and micronutrient profile), farmers relied heavily on synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and pesticide-resistant patented seeds to make their profit margin quotas and feed their families.
The red line in the chart below (from data from the USDA Economic Research Service) shows how energy production from carbohydrates (primarily from refined grains) has increased since implementing these sweeping changes to our agricultural system.
The other glaring notable in the chart above is the blue line showing that dietary energy available from fat has risen by approximately 600 calories per person per day since 1910.
In 1903 Proctor and Gamble patented the process of making hydrogenated fat from cottonseed, soybean, rapeseeds, and sunflower seeds. Tallow, lard, bacon grease, and butter were quickly supplanted by “Crisco” (i.e. Crysalised Cottonseed Oil), marketed as a cheap, alternative, modern ‘heart healthy’ fat. Added fats from vegetable oil are now ubiquitous in our food system!
Fear mongers warned us to shun saturated fat and cholesterol in favour of margarine and ‘heart healthy’ vegetable oils, yet the amount of fat in our diet continues to climb.
Since the 1960s, industrialised plant-based agriculture has similarly increased dietary carbohydrates, compounding the problem. Fats and carbs are a lethal combination that leads to energy toxicity in our bodies.
Now, rather than alternating between getting our energy from fat in winter and carbs in summer, we are stuck in a perpetual autumn, with a similar amount of fat and carbs available year-round. Our obesity rates have tracked closely with the increased availability of energy, fuelled mainly by methane injected into our food system in the form of synthetic fertilisers.
What Happens if We Run Out of Methane to Make Synthetic Fertilisers?
The ominous question, the elephant in the room, is what happens if methane used to create synthetic fertilisers becomes harder and/or more expensive to extract from coal seams, and we are no longer capable of producing a cornucopia of food as quickly, efficiently, and cheaply?
Some people believe we will run out of easily accessible methane in the foreseeable future. Others see methane as a near-inexhaustible and reliable resource.
I don’t think we know the answer either way, but consider two possible dystopian scenarios:
- We come to a point where we cannot produce cheap energy efficiently, and half the world’s population faces starvation, or
- We continue injecting pure energy into our multi-tentacled monocropping system, pipelining empty calories into humans.
In the face of these challenging scenarios, it’s encouraging that many small communities and developing nations have come to Robb Wolf to explore possible solutions. Progressive leaders of small communities are rejecting the fate of industrialised nations facing economic collapse under the weight of over-burdened healthcare systems. Could an infrastructure promoting public health as a means to economic stability be viable? Can borders be closed to diabesity and other bankrupting chronic illnesses by restricting the import of addicting, hyper-palatable Frankenfoods?
It will be interesting to see what Robb and these communities implement. Perhaps, if their economic, social and nutritional experiments work, other larger, innovative, forward-thinking countries will follow their lead. But it won’t be easy in larger countries like the USA, where agricultural subsidies are firmly entrenched in the US Farm Bill and fiercely guarded by well funded political lobbyists.
What Does ‘Plant-Based’ Mean Anyway?
As shown in the chart below, although we’ve decreased the amount of saturated fat in our diet (in percentage terms) and eschewed animal products, it doesn’t seem to have helped our expanding waistline.
Plant-based fats (predominantly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) have risen to take the place of saturated fat, and the diabesity epidemic rolls on.
The ‘bad foods’ we’re cautioned against eating (e.g., meat and eggs) have held steady. Added sugars have risen and fallen again over the past couple of decades. But added fats and oils from large-scale industrial agriculture have powered on, along with refined flours and cereals.
It’s almost as if this ‘plant-based’ narrative is more about ensuring we keep eating engineered food-like products rather than promoting human health or sustainability. This lush picture (from the EAT Lancet website) is the sort of imagery used to promote a ‘plant-based diet’ enriched by plenty of fresh vegetables.
But in reality, modern plant-based recommendations are vastly different. The latest dietary iteration, the EAT Lancet report, advocates for a significant percentage of our consumption from grains, rice, wheat, and corn along with plant-based ‘unsaturated oils.’
It’s almost as if the companies that profited most during the past half-century of “Big Ag” issued a joint greenwashed message: plant-derived products are better for us and better for the planet than the foods humans evolved eating.
Realigning marketing messages to make the same tired products appear environmentally friendly and sustainable is pure marketing genius given the current climate of increased consumer environmental awareness. Ten companies (Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars, Associated British Foods, and Mondelez) control most of the food we buy (as shown in the image below).
Note the overlapping in the pictured FReSH group of companies behind the EAT Lancet recommendations. In a classic conflict of interest, rather than looking after your health and the health of the planet, these companies are legally obligated to maximise shareholder profit.
What is the most ‘efficient’ way to eat if we care about our planet?
If all you care about is cost, the most efficient way to feed yourself is with refiend sugar, seed oils, and flour.
These products are not only inconceivably cheap to manufacture (because they obtain their energy from synthetic fertilisers made from methane), they are also heavily subsidised. Food manufacturers love to reconstitute these inexpensive ingredients with colours and flavours because the profit margin is extreme!
But other costs also need to be factored in. This topic is a deep rabbit hole that doesn’t convert easily to simple sound bites or Instagram memes. For a thorough treatment of the various factors, I recommended Robb and Diana’s Sacred Cow book and film for a complete treatment of the complexities).
Despite claims to the contrary, mortality does occur in the production of plant-based foods. There is a massive loss of biodiversity, death, and displacement of farm animals, loss of topsoil and nitrogen-giving cover crops, fish and bird kills, contamination of aquifers, watersheds, and waterways by pesticides and fertiliser runoff.
Traditionally raised plants and animals are more expensive to produce than injecting non-renewable fossil fuel-based fertilisers into our crops. But our growing understanding of regenerative agriculture--reuniting plants and animals in a symbiotic relationship can regenerate our ecosystem, renew biodiversity, replace nutrient-rich topsoil, and eventually restore our planet, not to mention our health.
Our modern agricultural system is not farmer-friendly. Input costs (e.g., synthetic fertilisers, patented seeds, and the pesticides needed to manage them) are becoming prohibitively expensive. The sale price of their produce is dropping because there is an abundance of it. And after half a century of intensive industrialised farming practices that degrade topsoil of nutrients, it’s harder and harder for farmers to grow the crops that produce our food.
Regenerative Agriculture is an exciting new area of technology that farmers are using to rebuild their soils to create a vibrant and robust ecosystem that yields foods bursting with the nutrients we need. For a cinematic taste of what this can look like and the challenges involved, I highly recommend you check out The Biggest Little Farm.
You can’t tell people in other countries how they should eat or stop them from benefiting from modern food technology. But you can make changes in how you and your family eat. We recommend investing in the best food quality you can afford. If you’re reading this on your phone or computer, you likely have the disposable income to buy food that is good for you and good for the planet.
You needn’t throw your money away as if donating it to some nebulous charity scam. We want you to be selfish and invest in food that will be good for you (because it contains the nutrients you require to thrive) and regenerate your local environment. As more people do this locally, where they live, we’ll create a planet that our great-grandchildren will proudly call “home.” They won’t have to worry about colonising Mars because we irreparably destroyed Mother Earth.
Micronutrient Leverage and Satiety
Industrial plant-based farming relies on synthetic fertilisers that drastically deplete the nutrients in our soils and hence the foods grown in them. That unaccounted cost is both bad for the natural environment and bad for us because it leaves us craving more food to correct nutritional deficiencies, often resulting in energy toxicity and obesity.
Never heard of micronutrient leverage?
Let me explain.
The chart below (created with data from the USDA Economic Research Service) shows how the potassium in our food system has dramatically decreased over the last 60 years, playing havoc with our natural and significant craving for the mineral.
As with the Protein Leverage Hypothesis, there seems to be a ‘nutrient leverage’ effect at play. When we consume foods that contain more potassium per calorie, satiety increases, and we eat fewer calories overall.
The chart below shows our analysis of how much we tend to eat (in terms of calories as a proportion of the basal metabolic rate) based on the analysis of one hundred thousand days of data from people using Nutrient Optimiser.
The same is true for calcium, which has also decreased in our food system.
When we eat foods that contain more calcium per calorie, we consume fewer calories.
We see similar effects from the decline of sodium in our diet, whether from environmental causes or self-imposed restrictions. Although sodium has been demonised in our food, it actually has the strongest negative correlation with the growing obesity epidemic – as the sodium in our food system has decreased, we have become fatter.
But it’s not just the minerals; we’ve also witnessed a significant decrease in cholesterol which is positively correlated with satiety.
As we eat foods that contain more cholesterol (recently exonerated as a nutrient of concern), we consume fewer calories overall.
Likewise, Vitamin B12 has been on the decline since we transitioned to a more ‘plant-based diet’ (i.e. with more products of industrial agriculture).
It seems we need a LOT more B12 to achieve satiety than is currently being consumed or recommended by the guidelines developed by the US Department of AGRICULTURE.
While we don’t have data on Omega 3 intake, humans intensely crave the nutrient. It’s also another nutrient that cannot be obtained in adequate bioavailable quantities without animal products, or ideally seafood.
Correlation Between Obesity Rates and Nutrient Content of Our Foods
As shown in the table below of the correlation coefficient (R2), the decrease in sodium in our food system has the most significant correlation with the increase in obesity, followed by potassium, cholesterol, phosphorus, vitamin A, calcium, vitamin B12, and then saturated fat.
|sodium (per calorie)||0.972|
|potassium (per calorie)||0.956|
|cholesterol (per calorie)||0.899|
|phosphorus (per calorie)||0.892|
|vitamin A (per calorie)||0.888|
|calcium (per calorie)||0.846|
|vitamin B12 (per calorie)||0.840|
|saturated fat (% of calories)||0.796|
How Much Do You Need to Eat to Get Enough of the Essential Nutrients?
The table below shows the maximum and current levels of essential nutrients that have changed significantly over the past 50 yars, along with the amount of increased intake required to achieve Dietary Reference Intakes. Unless you’re aggressively seeking the nutrients you need (i.e. maximising the nutrient density of the food you eat), you must consume a LOT more energy to obtain enough nutrients to prevent diseases of deficiency.
The relationship between nutrient density and satiety
Our analysis demonstrates that all essential nutrients play a role in our satiety. When we don’t get enough, our body upregulates our appetite to eat more until we get the nutrients we need to survive.
The chart below shows the relationship between satiety and nutrient density (to inspect this chart in more detail, you can check it out in Tableau here). In the top right, you can see that the most nutrient-dense foods are non-starchy veggies which are great for most people to add to their diet.
But you can only eat so much spinach, watercress, and asparagus before you explode. If we remove the veggies, we see that crab, lobster, crayfish, and oysters are also in the top right with maximum satiety and nutrient density.
Again, most of us can’t afford to live on these foods all the time. So you can move down towards the bottom left to everyday animal products like beef and chicken, which are more cost-effective sources of bioavailable protein.
The critical thing to note is that the foods in the bottom left are plant-based (i.e., food-like products made from grains and oils) and rank lowest in satiety. To illustrate, the chart below zooms in on only the grain-based products.
Plant-based foods may be cheap to produce, but they are costly in the long run, making us overfed and undernourished, and eventually, chronically ill and a burden on our struggling health system and economies.
The good news is that (as shown in the chart below from people using Nutrient Optimiser), when we focus on getting more of the nutrients we need from the food we eat, we tend to eat significantly less. By pursuing a higher-quality nutrient-dense diet, you’ll consume fewer calories and use less earth’s natural resources and optimise your health and vitality!
How Nutritional Optimisation Can Save the World (and Your Health)
So, back to Robb and our big hairy bodacious goal of tapping into Nutritional Optimisation to save the world.
We can’t simply go back to paleo times and forgo all the technology created since then. But we can tame the beast and use technology to intelligently engineer our way forward.
We no longer have an energy crisis; we have a nutrient crisis.
Our modern food system is devoid of the nutrients you need to be the best version of yourself—you, 2.0!
But the good news is, you don’t have to sacrifice your health to save the planet (as many of the plant-based vegan crowd believe). You can choose to invest in your wellness with great-tasting foods that continuously bathe your body in nutrients grown in a way that regenerates Mother Earth. Step away from a dystopian future that will pillage the planet and collapse world economies as governments struggle with the diabesity epidemic — the original bloatware — and its hidden costs.
You can commit to new technology that identifies the foods and meals you need to thrive and cut through the marketing hype and misinformation from the people who profit from your poor nutrition and ill health.
To demonstrate, the micronutrient fingerprint below is from Karen, who recently topped the leaderboard in our Nutritional Optimisation Masterclass with a very well-formulated vegetarian diet.
But the exciting thing is that neck and neck with Karen, we had Sidi, from Africa, who also created an incredibly nutrient-dense diet rich with seafood, organ meats, and homemade head cheese from the whole sheep she bought from her local butcher.
We don’t care what you eat, but your body does. You simply need enough of ALL the essential nutrients.
We’re diet agnostic; it doesn’t matter whether you get your nutrients from animals, plants, or a combination of both!
Why You Can’t Rely on Supplements
When confronted with information about the declining nutrient content of our soils and the foods grown in them, many people reach for the supplement bottle.
If you have been diagnosed with a clinical nutrient deficiency, there may be a role for supplementation. Otherwise, relying on supplements is far from optimal.
Your body works overtime to excrete the large doses of vitamins and minerals from pills and powders. At best, you will have expensive, brightly coloured pee. At worst, you will find yourself on the toilet with diarrhea.
You can also throw off your nutrient ratios with large doses of isolated nutrients so the other essential nutrients in your food won’t be absorbed for use by your body. In contrast, the nutrients in whole foods come in the forms, ratios, and bioavailability that empower your body to thrive.
Because they are small, you may be able to get all the vitamins you need for the day in a pill. But minerals are bulkier. Getting the required amount of minerals like sodium, potassium, and magnesium in powders is not easy. If you start chugging tablespoonfuls of mineral powders, your gut will respond by quickly flushing them into the toilet (along with all the other nutrients from your food).
Amino acids are even bigger and heavier, so you would have to add a ton of protein powders to your supplement regime. But powders are highly processed and don’t provide the same satiety level as whole foods.
Protein powder concoctions fortified with chemicals to meet the minimum nutrient intakes have been around for a while. But these processed food supplement stacks are not used by serious athletes or bodybuilders interested in looking and performing optimally.
As much as we are willing to hand over cash for a magic pill, there is no shortcut to optimal metabolic health. You need the food that provides most of your calories to supply the nutrients your body requires to thrive.
We’ve seen many people save hundreds of dollars a month when they learned they could get all the nutrients they need from their food. We recommend you save your money on supplements and invest in foods that taste great and that you love eating every day.
- Why regenerative agriculture will save the planet and your health
- Should you EAT Lancet?
- Do we need meat from animals?
- Are all proteins created equal?
- Is a Vegan Diet Healthy? Why chasing nutrients might be more important.
- Can Nutrient Density Save the World? | Robb Wolf (podcast)
- Regenerative Agriculture Q&A | Diana Rodgers
- Wired to Eat by Robb Wolf (review)
- What lies beyond the nutritional apocalypse?