Manifesto for Agnostic Nutrition
In days gone by, humans saw things that they didn’t understand as mysterious or magical.
We formed religions and worshipped deities (like the sun, earth, fire, thunder and rain) that gave us nourishment and sustained us.
Today, we have moved on from many of these deities as we gained more knowledge about the sun, rain, thunder, fire etc. Empirical data and a deeper scientific understanding have filled in many of our knowledge gaps.
But, while we have gained a deeper understanding of the external world and universe, many things that happen inside our body are still a mystery. Rather than worshipping mystical deities in an attempt to explain natural phenomena, many of us give special names to, put our faith in and ascribe near-magical or supernatural power to diets.
It’s no wonder we are so confused. We are adapted to maximise energy intake in times of scarcity. However, over the past fifty years or so we have used modern technology (e.g. chemical fertilisers, large scale farming technology, artificial flavour and colouring) to optimise our food environment to ensure that we always have plenty of energy at our fingertips.
Big Food has engineered our food system and environmental m to trigger our gorge instincts with hyperpalatable and low satiety foods so we eat (and buy) more of them.
Whether it is by good luck or design, food scientists have perfected the formula for hyper-autumnal foods that tell our brains that it is time to eat more to store fat for winter. But then they put the guilt and burden of responsibility back on the individual to ‘eat less and move more’.
Is it any wonder that most diets fail? We end up torn between our rational brain telling us we need to eat less to avoid obesity and diabetes while our reptilian brain is telling us that winter is coming and we need to eat to survive!
Our rational brain doesn’t stand much of a chance when our environment is optimised to appeal directly to our instincts that are virtually impossible to ignore, especially over the long-term.
Although thousands of diets promise to be the one true way of eating, pretty much everyone everywhere is getting fatter and sicker by the day.
We seem to be more confused than ever about what we should eat. We jump from one fad to another, with each new fad being an overcorrection to the problems in the previous fad. Perhaps we have some success with the extremes and self-deprivation for a while, but we usually fail in the long run.
But, if we are fortunate enough to find a way of eating that works, there’s a tendency to decide it’s the only correct and way for everyone. We gather in diet subCULTures and draw battle lines around our beliefs in our chosen dietary dogma.
We worship our sanctioned and “approved foods” and vilify the “bad foods”.
There is often no rhyme or reason to the foods allowed, with different groups having what appear to be diametrically opposing rules that actually work, as long as you stick religiously to them.
Ironically, the following foods often appear either on the approved or unclean list, depending on which subCULTure you happen to find yourself in:
- saturated fat,
- cholesterol, and
While black and white thinking about food may have been useful for sanitary purposes in the past, it is questionable whether such a dogmatic approach to nutrition serves us well in our modern environment.
In a world where evolution is widely accepted, it’s incredible how much of our nutritional beliefs are influenced by religious or ethical relics and superstition rather than science.
- Pantheism…. Earth and animals are more important than humans. We need to put the earth (sustainability) and animals (veganism) above human health and nutrition.
- Asceticism… pleasure is bad, and I should exercise discipline and restraint.
- Hedonism… everything I eat should taste amazing! I eat primarily for pleasure. No one agrees on what is healthy, so I might as well give up trying and enjoy my food!
- Garden of Eden Diet… we need to eat as we did in the Garden of Eden before the fall, and eating meat stirs up the passions of the flesh. Hence, we should avoid all animal-based food to suppress our sexuality.
Is it any wonder that more and more people are struggling to fall pregnant and resorting to IVF technology when our diet is intentionally designed to diminish our carnal desires?
Belinda and Gary Fettke have done some fantastic work on the religious origins of our current mainstream dietary advice that I highly recommend.
To be clear, we’re not trying to be anti-religion or promote atheism, but rather separate good nutritional science from idealistic, ethical or religious dogma and financial conflicts of interest that can hinder clear thinking in this area and hence stop us identifying the most useful solution.
The problem with magical thinking in nutrition
Just like many religious or political movements that start well, we often find a way to pervert a useful approach to the point that it stops working.
While it might work for the first wave of ‘true believers’, we tend to distort it and commercialise it, so the benefit for the people who come later is often eliminated.
Before long, we are starting a new subCULTure (or splinter group on Facebook) to correct the wrongs of the last one!
Although many of these diet CULTures preach opposing messages, they still work well enough to grow large followings of true believers.
But unfortunately, popular diets often implode when people discover how to “hack it” to make it hyperpalatable, energy-dense and nutrient-poor (all the while still technically following the rules).
- Plant-based diets
In a world of nutrient-poor hyperpalatable processed foods, most people will agree that more vegetables or fruit is going to be an improvement for many.
However, there are many nutrients that are both more bioavailable and plentiful in animal-based foods (e.g. omega 3, vitamin B12, choline, selenium etc.).
Believing it’s simply the absence of animal foods that is causing the magical effect (combined with inadequate attention to the harder to find nutrients) can lead to overconsumption of highly processed vegan junk food.
There is currently a strong push by many on ethical and sustainability grounds towards a more “plant-based diet”. But in practice, this can drive the use of more refined products sourced from highly subsidised agriculture (i.e. seed oils and refined grains) that are highly profitable for food manufacturers (see Should You EAT Lancet? for more details).
Without attention to nutrients, this highly commercialised version of the modern “plant-based diet” will pretty much leave us with the nutritional profile of an Oreo Cookie (see Should You EAT Lancet? for more details)!
Your sense of taste and smell are highly developed to help you seek out the nutrients and energy you need from food. At least until recently, hyperpalatable foods that were a mixture of fat+carbs were only available for a limited time to help us fatten up for winter. “If it tastes good, eat it” has served us well for a very long time.
But today, our food has been engineered for fun and profit to appeal to these reptilian gorge instincts 24/ 7/365 (see Escaping our infinite autumn).
More recently, perhaps partly as a response to the aggressive evangelising by the vegan subCULTure, there is a growing tribe of carnivores who are finding benefit from a more animal-based diet.
A carnivore diet seems to work well for many, likely because it eliminates hyperpalatable, nutrient-poor, low satiety, processed and inflammatory foods that many people are sensitive to and it also provides tons of protein.
But, similar to the plant-based diet, there are nutrients that (although at times more bioavailable) are not as plentiful in an exclusively animal-based diet.
While many people in the vibrant online carnivore community say they are doing better than ever with steak and water, there is still opportunity to fine-tune your micronutrients profile using dairy, eggs, seafood and organ meats without resorting to eating plants (see Dr Shawn Baker’s Carnivore Diet: a review).
- Ketogenic diet
Since we domesticated grains ten thousand years ago, humans are consuming increasing amounts of refined carbohydrate all year round, and many find they benefit from a lower-carb or ketogenic diet to return some seasonal balance.
As shown in the chart below from our satiety analysis (see Systematising satiety for more details), reducing the processed carbs in your diet can have a beneficial effect on satiety and nutrient density, help you lose weight and improve your blood glucose levels.
However, we can also take this too far. Excessive amounts of refined fat will increase your risk of missing out on a large number of essential micronutrients.
Dietary fat, when separated from protein, does not tend to be as satiating on a calorie for calorie basis. This leaves us hungrier, and we end up overeating energy-dense low-satiety low protein foods.
Unfortunately, the advice to ‘eat fat to satiety’ is likely to drive you to consume more energy than you need!
Then there are exogenous ketones, which are the dietary equivalent to pouring a bucket of someone else’s sweat over you and claiming that you had a great workout (see Are exogenous ketones right for you?). Exogenous ketones are also one of the most expensive ways you can get energy with practically zero nutritional value.
Thinking in terms of food that our ancestors would have eaten (or even foods that your grandmother would recognise as food) can be a great way to evaluate what we put in our mouth.
But as soon as you have to ask ‘is this paleo’ about everything you eat and start commercialising ‘paleo comfort foods’ by mixing dates, honey, almond flour and coconut oil, you can kiss the benefits goodbye.
And once you lose the magic ingredient that made it work (i.e. the lack of highly refined grains and oils) the trend is over, people move on to the next bright and shiny magical fad diet.
You might as well save your money and hit Maccas for your junk food fix (see Energy density, food hyper-palatability and reverse engineering optimal foraging theory).
I’m a big fan of making sure you get the nutrients you need from food. A diet that has plenty of nutrients without excessive amounts of energy tends to be highly satiating and can help you lose weight without needing to focus on calorie counting (see Nutrient Density 101).
However, this can also be a problem if you are already lean and active.
Endurance athletes, bulking bodybuilders and growing children need to focus on lower satiety and more energy-dense foods that can give them the energy they require to thrive (see Energy-dense food for athletes).
How we can design our diet using the best science available
We can use what we do know about nutrition to design our food to give us what we need based on our current situation and goals.
Rather than focusing on what you should not eat (i.e. so-called “bad foods”), we can use what we do know to help you prioritise the foods you need to thrive.
Once you give your body what it needs, all the other less-optimal foods become much less attractive (or even addictive).
We are creatures of habit that eat the same things most of the time. We believe most people would benefit if they could find a shortlist of foods and a repertoire of go-to meals that worked for them most of the time.
If you could focus on these foods and meals 80% of the time for the rest of your life, you’d do pretty well without needing to track your food all the time or exert unsustainable levels of self-control. This is not a fad diet, but a sustainable way of living that is focused on giving your body what it needs, rather than on guilt and deprivation.
Context is critical when it comes to identifying and designing the right foods to help you achieve your goals! Your diet should be optimised to suit your situation and your goals!
If you are a couch potato, following the energy dense diet of a hard-charging athlete will not make you into an athlete. It will just make you fatter.
Similarly, if you are a lean hard-charging athlete, a therapeutic ketogenic diet (designed for children with epilepsy) or a super nutrient-dense low energy density diet may not work so well for you. You need more energy to support your explosive efforts!
Your diet needs to be personalised to your current situation and goals! Where are you now? Where do you want to be in six months from now?
We have developed the Nutrient Optimiser to enable people to focus on getting enough nutrients from food and personalise their way of eating based on their biometric data, reinforced by a habit-based strategy to make sure it sticks.
Rather than focusing on restriction, calorie counting and deprivation, we believe you should focus on what will be good for you. You will have a much better chance of escaping the fad diet/binge cycle by addressing your needs rather than mindlessly complying to the Ten Commandments of the latest diet cult.
To help you personalise your diet to align with your current situation and goals, we have set up a number of different approaches (e.g. weight loss, lean bulking, diabetes, nutrient-dense maintenance etc.) to cater to the personalised goals of different people. From here we can fine-tune based on your conditions, diet, deficiencies and preferences (e.g. vegan, carnivore, low carb, keto etc.)
What do we know?
The Nutrient Optimiser revolves around the theory that we need adequate nutrients without an excessive amount of energy. Rather than adopting the latest fad diet, our analysis of a range of datasets can help us fine-tune and improve your current diet to enable you to reach your goals.
|Current food system engineered for:||Nutrient Optimiser engineers food for:|
|hyperpalatable, so you buy and eat more||satiety to help you feel full|
|artificial flavours to cover the poor taste||flavour from nutrients in real food|
|focus on the lowest cost ingredients||focus on adequate micronutrients|
|drives obesity and diabetes||stabilises blood sugar & healthy weight|
While focusing on your nutrient deficiencies will be a good starting point for most people, there are also specific nutrients that are typically deficient for people with particular conditions (see https://nutrientoptimiser.com/common-conditions/ for details).
With more than 25,000 days of detailed food logging, we have been able to gain a deeper understanding of how a number of quantitative parameters such as macronutrients, micronutrients and energy density influence our eating patterns.
As shown in the chart below, protein tends to drive satiety. When we get more of our energy from protein, we tend to eat significantly less food!
The recommended daily intake of protein (to prevent deficiency) is 12% of calories and average protein intake is around 16%. Unfortunately, those minimal protein levels align with the lowest satiety and greatest chance of overeating.
But rather than jumping from one extreme to another (i.e. 10% protein to 60% protein), it’s ideal if you can make small sustainable changes to ‘nudge’ yourself in the direction you want to go.
If you were able to maintain such a high level of protein, you’d still probably end up hungry because it would force a massive 60% drop in energy intake from where you are now! We just want you to ensure you continue your journey with small incremental changes each week.
The more energy we get from non-fibre carbs and fat, the more we tend to eat. In nature, foods that consist of mainly fat+carbs are fairly rare and prized to help us build fat to prepare for winter.
If you want to reduce the amount you eat without having to worry so much about tracking your food, then prioritising foods that contain less energy from carbs and fat will help. Conversely, if you want to eat more to grow or fuel your amount of activity, then more energy from carbs and/or fat will be beneficial.
The keto adage of ‘eat fat to satiety’ is seductive, but it doesn’t work for weight loss, particularly when you get more than about 60% or so of your energy from fat.
If you have diabetes or pre-diabetes, then a focus on less insulinogenic foods (e.g. low carb or keto) can be helpful to enable you to stabilise your blood sugars and insulin demand (see Harnessing the power of the food insulin index for more details).
Foods with a lower energy density significantly decrease the amount of food we eat. More nutrient-dense foods also tend to be less energy-dense. We can manipulate your energy density to help you achieve your goal, whether it be weight loss, bulking or getting in enough calories to support high-intensity activity.
While there are 34 essential nutrients and a wide range of other beneficial non-essential nutrients, we have identified the essential nutrients that will be most helpful to make you satisfied with the food you eat and switch off your appetite. A couple of key ones are noted below.
Potassium tends to be harder to find in our current food system, so prioritising foods that contain more potassium tends to have the biggest effect on your appetite (only second to protein).
Sodium is plentiful in junk food, but it can be hard to find enough once you start eating less processed foods. So, while you may not need to go out of your way to supplement, there is no harm in adding ‘salt to taste’.
Increasing the phosphorus in your diet will have a significant effect on satiety. The official recommended daily intake seems to be well under the amount to improve satiety.
The Nutrient Optimiser algorithm considers all of these factors together to identify the foods and meals that will best suit you based on your current situation and your goals.
Blindly following the latest fad or named diet can get you into trouble. While nutrition is still a young science, we have enough data to enable us to determine which foods to prioritise and which foods to avoid to optimise our nutrition and help us achieve our goal.