Cheese and crackers are laid out on the table along with a box of assorted biscuits. The youngest child reaches for a chocolate cookie and her mom grabs her hand.
No, you need to eat some crackers first!
The little girl sulks for a bit before begrudgingly munching on a plain white cracker. Internally I go like this:
What this mother means to tell her daughter, of course, is that she needs to eat the real food before the dessert. She needs to eat something substantive, nutritious and wholesome before the junk food.
But, well meaning as she is, her assumptions about nutrition are absolutely wrong. This brief interaction actually illustrates what’s wrong with most people’s understanding of nutrition, and explains at least in part why so many people are tired, sick, fat and depressed.
Not that this should come as any surprise. The public has been lied to about nutrition for years. Government agencies responsible for public education around food are responsible for spreading bad science and deeply harmful misinformation about the way food affects human physiology.
These institutions that should be the trustworthy authorities in our society have been more swayed by the financial interests of the food industry than by anyone who actually knows anything about nutrition. You can read this New York Times article for just the tip of the iceberg.
Nutrition is also a deep and complex field. People do whole degrees on nutrition – sometimes multiple degrees. There’s disagreement among experts, hundreds of different diets to follow, and more scientific data than you could realistically read in a lifetime.
That being said, it is possible to have a substantive enough understanding of nutrition to stay healthy, energetic, live longer and massively improve one’s quality of life.
And this can be done without confusion, without spending hours reading scientific literature, and without following fad diets or subscribing to nutritional dogma.
Personally I became interested in nutrition during the time I was heavily into lifting weights. I learned through research what is true and false, and through trial and error I learned what works best in practice and what doesn’t.
Although body composition does not always correlate with health, in the past I’ve been able to reach good levels of muscularity while staying lean and that’s in many ways thanks to my understanding of nutrition.
(Even if you don’t want to be as muscular or lean as I am in that photo, most likely you do want to trend in that direction.)
When I looked like that my meals were usually something like this:
These days I am less muscular but stay pretty lean. I eat less calories, less protein and higher quantities of vegetables.
What benefits does this bring?
I can tell you that I basically don’t get sick (maybe a minor cold once every few years) despite travelling extensively in dirty and unhygienic places. I have high levels of energy and consistent mental clarity. I don’t have digestive problems, “upset stomach”, heartburn, none of it.
I fast comfortably for 16+ hours each day without much craving for food. I don’t crave sugar or even really enjoy eating it. And despite being genetically prone to very bad acne (I was prescribed Accutane as a teenager) my skin is generally pretty good.
That said, since you can’t actually see the inside of my body and I don’t have any blood work to show you, on some level you’ll just have to take my word for it. I’m a healthy guy.
The 80/20 Rule Applied to Nutrition
The 80/20 rule states that 80% of meaningful results come from a vital 20% of causes.
It’s as also known as the Pareto principle. This was discovered by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto when he observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the landowners. He then noticed that 80% of the peas in his garden came from 20% of the pods.
This pattern can be found everywhere. For example, most people wear 20% of their clothes 80% of the time. In sports, 20% of athletes win 80% of the awards.
The 80/20 rule can also be applied to nutrition. I believe you can get 80% (or more) of the benefits of good nutrition simply by understanding and implementing the most vital 20% of information.
These benefits include more energy, longer life, a greater sense of wellbeing, better digestion, less inflammation, clearer skin, better sleep quality, less fat and more muscle, improved cognitive performance and memory, fewer sick days per year and MORE.
Nutrition is everything you put in your body and it’s one of the most significant factors for determining overall quality of life.
If you’ve never eaten a very healthy diet for an extended period of time, you probably don’t even know how good it’s possible to feel.
Here’s how to 80/20 nutrition.
1) Think in terms of macronutrients, not food groups
All food consists of some combination of three macronutrients. These are protein, fat and carbohydrates. Some foods contain only one of these, some two, and some all three.
For example, beef is fat and protein. Bread is carbohydrates and a small amount of protein. Butter is just fat. An apple is just carbs.
While we are taught to think in terms of “food groups”, from a nutritional standpoint this doesn’t actually make much sense.
Food groups are arbitrary when it comes to the nutritional contents of the food, and they are heavily influenced by the political and financial interests of the food and farming industries. You can read more about that here.
Macronutrients, on the other hand, describe the contents of food at a molecular level.
Forget about food groups and think in terms of macronutrients instead.
The best way to internalize macronutrient ratios is to read the labels on your food. When you buy food at the grocery store just flip the package over and you’ll see the macronutrient information right there on the label. If the food doesn’t come in a package, you can find the macronutrient breakdown with a quick Google search.
It takes a little learning, but soon you start to see the underlying patterns of what food is really made of. After a while you’ll be able to “type” food pretty easily just by looking at it.
In general you want an even balance of macronutrients in your diet, erring on the side of higher fat and lower carb.
Almost everyone eats far too many carbs and not nearly enough (healthy) fat.
In general more carbs means more fat gain, feeling hungry more often, and more energy spikes and crashes. More fat means feeling hungry less often, more stable energy levels, and higher sex drive.
Something like a 40%/30%/30% split of fat/protein/carbs is good for most people. The more physically active you are, the more carbs you can eat. If you want to gain muscle mass, eat more protein.
But whether you’re looking for better health, better body composition or both, you *probably* want to trend in the direction of less carbs, more healthy fat and a moderate amount of protein.
Over time you develop an intuitive understand of macronutrient ratios and how different foods affect your physiology. At a basic level this is all you need to know about macronutrients.
2) Understand food processing on a spectrum
All food is processed to a greater or lesser degree, and it’s useful to think about this on a spectrum.
On one end of the spectrum there is the most natural state of a food. This is what you would find in nature – an apple picked off the tree, for example.
On the other end there is an apple that has gone through various stages of alteration by humans and machines. This might be something like store-bought apple sauce.
In general the more processed a food is, the worse it is for your health.
The more processed a food is, the more likely it is to:
- Have little nutritional value
- Contain refined sugars
- Contain unhealthy fats
- Contain other additives and preservatives you probably don’t want to be eating
Processed foods are also likely to cause inflammation, and generally mess you up in all sorts of ways from the inside out.
Here’s another example of the food processing spectrum. Since we mostly can’t eat raw meat, the least processed a piece beef could be is cut from a freshly killed animal and then cooked over a fire. While this isn’t realistic for most people, it can still be useful to think in these terms.
The most processed version of that beef would be something like a microwave steak dinner or a hot dog.
You want to be eating as close to the least processed version of a food as possible. This generally means eating whole foods that are similar or the same as what’s found in nature.
Another good heuristic for determining the level of processing is the number of ingredients on the label. The more ingredients in a food, the more processed it tends to be.
In general less ingredients = less processed = more healthy. And organic does tend to be better, if you don’t mind paying extra.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. Humans need a variety of them to stay healthy but if you want to 80/20 your nutrition you don’t need to know any more than that.
Managing micronutrients is easy: just eat enough vegetables. How much is enough? A LOT.
I would recommend either green juicing or eating a combination of salad and cooked vegetables.
Eat vegetables, especially green ones, cooked or raw, solid or liquid, in large quantities. That takes care of your micronutrients.
4) Healthy vs. Unhealthy Fats
Although fat was long demonized in the mainstream, we now know with certainty that certain kinds of fat are actually very healthy. Consuming these healthy fats is essential for maintaining brain function, hormone production and many other aspects of human health.
Good fats you should eat:
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Avocados and avocado oil (you can buy bottled avocado oil and this stuff is great)
- Butter (healthy in moderation and definitely much better than margarine or other spreads made from vegetable oil)
- Fat from nuts
- Fat from eggs
Bad fats you shouldn’t eat:
- Canola oil
- Soybean oil
- Other vegetable and seed oils (corn oil, sunflower oil, grapeseed oil). Basically anything that looks like this:
- Margarine (made from vegetable oil)
Don’t be fooled by the name – vegetable oils are NOT healthy. For more information see here: https://authoritynutrition.com/6-reasons-why-vegetable-oils-are-toxic/
How does this work in practice?
I cook with coconut oil and occasionally butter. I use raw olive oil and avocado oil and pour them on salads or directly on cooked food. I eat eggs, avocados and nuts in salads or on their own.
I avoid the bad fats as much as possible. This is easy if you cook your own food and definitely do-able even if you don’t.
When it comes to fat, eat plenty of the good fats and try to avoid the bad as much as possible. That’s all you really need to know.
5) Avoid sugar
Sugar is toxic. It is poison. And it is everywhere.
It is addictive in similar ways to a drug like cocaine and induces reward and craving loops that are hard to resist (source).
The hard drug analogy might seem hyperbolic but it is not so far-fetched. People who quit sugar “cold turkey” often report severe withdrawal symptoms like headaches, anxiety, irritability, aches and pains and more.
In this Joe Rogan podcast with Dr. Rhonda Patrick they discuss at length the harmful effects of sugar on the human organism.
The bottom line is that refined sugar is the WORST thing you can eat. When you eat sugar you are pulled into a cycle of always wanting more of what’s worst for you.
It is much, much better to just avoid it altogether.
If you currently eat a lot of sugar, cut down slowly over time. You can reset your taste buds and the cravings will gradually go away. In one study this was shown to be effective in as little as two weeks.
Unfortunately it’s hard to avoid sugar because it’s everywhere.
All pre-packaged juice (even the supposedly healthy ones) are just sugar. Flavour shots at Starbucks are 100+ calories of sugar.
Most non-natural peanut butter has sugar, molasses or icing sugar as its second or third ingredient. No bullshit, read the label. Breakfast cereal is just refined carbohydrates – more sugar.
Granola bars are another food that often claims to be healthy, but in reality is very processed and contains a lot of sugar. Many protein bars are the same way.
Rather than trusting the marketing on the box, look at the label (macronutrients) and imagine the food on the processed spectrum.
Sugar damages your body in pretty much every conceivable way. Don’t eat it!
You can get 80% (or more) of the benefits of good nutrition by understanding and implementing the most vital 20% of information.
Follow these 5 principles to 80/20 your nutrition:
1) Think in terms of macronutrients, not food groups. Food groups are nutritionally arbitrary but macronutrients describe the contents of food at a molecular level. Read the labels on food to develop an intuitive feel for managing macronutrients. In general: eating less carbs is probably good.
2) Think about food processing on a spectrum from less processed to more. Whole foods in their natural state (fresh produce, cut of meat with nothing added) are on one end and heavily processed foods (microwave meals, pudding etc.) are on the other. The more processed a food is, the worse it is for your health.
3) Eat large quantities of vegetables and your micronutrients are taken care of. I recommend green juicing or salad.
4) Good fats: Olive oil, coconut oil, butter, fats from whole foods (avocado, nuts, eggs) Bad fats: All vegetable oils and products made using vegetable oils. Eat plenty of good fats and avoid bad ones.
5) Avoid sugar as much as possible. Refined carbohydrates are the same as sugar. Sugar poisons you in almost every conceivable way so work to eventually cut it out completely.
If you can internalize and follow these principles the *majority* of the time then you basically have your nutrition sorted. You will certainly be ten times healthier than the average person and you will likely experience a wide range of benefits in your life at present and far into the future.
Nutrition affects your body composition, energy levels, immune system, digestion, mental health, cognitive function, inflammation, how you feel subjectively and how you feel about yourself. The degree to which eating habits affect quality of life cannot be overstated.
Again – if you’ve never eaten extremely healthy for an extended period of time you probably don’t even know how good you could feel.
I hope that’s helpful. If you have any questions feel free to post them in the comments. Good luck!