Those before and after pictures? Amazing. The stunningly attractive Dr. Jane E. Torso (B.Chiro.) and many other celebrities are promoting the Hummingbird Diet via social media, books, and their websites. Sign up for the Platinum Premium Package and you’ll get discounted nectar pills made from lotus flowers hand-squeezed by Tibetan Monks at dawn’s first light, when the nectar has magical properties bestowed by the sun that will also cure cancer, impotency, and halitosis. Hurry, offer ends at midnight!
Nope, the Hummingbird Diet isn’t actually real, but it’s no more or less absurd than many other diet/nutritional regimens being sold to people who are desperate to do anything they can to feel and look better.
Why are magic pills and gimmick diets such big sellers in the US? In our opinion:
- Because we’re sicker and more unhealthy than any other developed nation. (No, that’s not just true because we have a higher percentage of poor people and a broken healthcare system, it’s true across all age/income demographics.)
- We don’t tend to have the foundational knowledge or resources to make good dietary choices.
The combination of these two factors makes us easy prey for unscrupulous salespeople and snake oil manufacturers.
A Society That Makes It Very Difficult to Make Good Decisions
Do individuals have a responsibility to make good health/dietary choices? Sure. But as with any choices we make, our dietary choices are limited by a maze of factors:
- what our peer group does/thinks;
- how we were brought up or even what our mothers ate while we were in the womb;
- what foods are most affordable and easy to come by;
- how stressed we feel, which makes us more susceptible to be addicted to junk foods that are designed to be addictive;
- how much spare time we have to prepare food;
The reason so many Americans are so unhealthy and eat so poorly isn’t because everyone here just happens to make bad personal decisions. More so, the factors influencing our individual choices/decisions combine to make it very easy and cheap to be unhealthy, while making it very difficult and expensive to be healthy – at least in the short term.
What if the inverse were true? What if our grocery stores only had whole unprocessed foods (that didn’t contain trace amounts of dozens of synthetic pesticides)? Grass-fed and pasture-raised animal products that reflected the actual non-subsidized price of animal protein? What if there weren’t rows of candy to tantalize children in the checkout line? What if there was no sugar water for sale (soda or fruit juice)? And what if we actually had the time, energy, money, and knowledge to regularly make good home-cooked meals instead of outsourcing that function to Ronald McBurger? Instead of the majority of the population being overweight or obese and developing uniquely “western” diseases (95% of which are due to environmental causes, not genetics), what if disease, chronic illness, and obesity were rare – the exception rather than the norm?
Demystifying A Healthy Diet
The good news is that it’s not terribly complicated to understand what foods to eat to optimize your health. Ever since our ancestors started cooking food about 2 million years ago, our diets have been comprised of some combination of the following “ingredients”:
- animal proteins containing fats that were healthy for human consumption, unlike CAFO-raised, grain-finished ruminants, wherein the fat content changes so as to become unhealthy for human consumption;
- whole fruits and vegetables, eaten cooked or raw;
- whole cooked grains, sometimes ground and/or fermented into whole grain products;
- fermented foods/beverages;
- nuts, seeds, and herbs;
Despite what you might have heard, the macronutrient (aka fat/protein/carb) content of hunter-gatherer diets throughout history and even into present-day varies rather drastically. For instance, the Inuit and Yupik people in the Arctic are perfectly healthy eating a diet that consists of 95% meat and 5% fruits and veggies (grains don’t grow well in ice, nor do apple trees).
On the other side of the earth, San people living in the Kalahari Desert of Africa are perfectly healthy eating a diet that’s only about 10% animal protein, with the rest of their macronutrients coming from seeds, nuts, fruits, and veggies (the opposite of the Inuit/Yupik).
The Maasai, a pastoralist culture I was fortunate enough to experience firsthand as a child in Kenya and Tanzania, eat a diet consisting almost entirely of three things: cow meat, cow blood, and cow milk (with whatever seasonal fruit they happen to find while herding their cattle).
Yes, we humans are pretty adaptable critters, as are the microbes that digest our food for us.
If We Can Be Healthy Eating Virtually Any Macronutrient Ratio, Why Are We So Sick and Overweight Today?
Great question! It seems like every month, a new finding comes out in nutrition science that challenges or overthrows existing orthodoxy. The most recent mind-blower: scientists have conclusively determined that whether you’re sitting at a desk all day in New York City or hunting antelope on foot in the Kalahari, you’re burning the same number of calories per day.
Yes, you read that correctly. Somehow, our bodies adjust their caloric burn rates to offset the calories you expend exercising so that you’ll only burn about 2,600 calories/day if you’re a male and 1,900 calories/day if you’re a female – regardless of how much you exercise. These revolutionary findings do NOT mean that exercise does not confer a wide range of health benefits, only that exercise does not effect how many calories you’ll burn per day. Time to rewrite some textbooks!
So if we can potentially be healthy regardless of how we adjust our macronutrient percentages (high fat/low fat, high protein/low protein, high carb/low carb) and we can’t effectively burn more calories via exercise (e.g. our skinnier hunter-gatherer peers burn the same amount of calories we do), what the heck is causing our current health epidemic?
I’m no scientist and I won’t pretend to have a 100% certain answer for a question this complex. However, it seems pretty clear from what we do know that the answer is on our plates and in our digestive systems.
What all healthy people living in agricultural societies (that’s you and I) have in common today is a diet consisting of a wide diversity of nutrient-rich whole foods with lots of probiotics (containing beneficial microorganisms) and prebiotics (high fiber foods that feed/promote your resident beneficial microorganisms). This is the opposite of what the average American is eating, which primarily consists of highly processed, sugar-laden foods and unhealthy animal fats caused by us creating unhealthy animals. Essentially, the western diet is inducing a slow, painful, expensive suicide–and we’re spreading this diet to countries around the world.
Also, as we know today, our gut flora–which western diets keep in a permanent state of dysbiosis–is absolutely critical to how we feel, how we think, our ability to fight off pathogens, the frequency and severity of a wide range of illnesses and diseases, and our ability to maintain a healthy body weight. A rather revealing statistic that Stanford microbiologists, Dr. Erica & Dr. Justin Sonnenburg share:
- the average American, despite being on a fairly high carbohydrate diet, is only eating 10-15 grams of fiber per day
- government guidelines recommend at least 30-35 gm fiber per day
- many hunter-gatherers eat as much as 100+ gm fiber per day
This doesn’t mean you should start chowing down on Metamucil. You need a diversity of fiber sourced from different types of whole fruits/veggies and whole grains. White rice, white bread, orange juice… not only are these foods starving your gut flora of critical fiber, they’re also starving you of essential nutrients and triggering a physiological response that wreaks havoc on your body’s blood sugar levels and actually makes you ravenous for more junk food.
So, eat unprocessed foods, but with one caveat… Further complicating matters, if you try to get the diversity and quantity of fiber you need from conventional, non-organic foods, you’re likely to introduce your GI microbes to a big load of dozens of pesticides, which we now know cause dysbiosis in both humans and animals (among other problems). Dangit!
Juice and Juicing
What does all of this have to do with juice and juicing? Everything.
- Juice is a processed food. Juicing takes a whole food and removes all the fiber and all the nutrients found in the fibrous skin of the fruit/veggie. You’re left with a vitamin-rich sugar water, but since you don’t ingest the corresponding fiber, you starve your gut flora, cause an insulin spike, and end up increasing your appetite. You can read more about how that works here.
- Juicing wastes food and increases your caloric intake. You might be able to easily drink the juice of five apples, but do you think you could eat five apples at once? Probably not. That’s because fiber not only feeds your gut flora and provides you with additional vitamins and minerals, it also helps you feel full/satiated. As a result, you’ll consume far less food (and be healthier) by eating whole fruits/veggies rather than simply drinking the juice extracted from fruits/veggies.
Is actual fruit juice better than sugared or artificially sweetened soda? Certainly. But if you can choose between: a) bad, b) better, c) good, go with option c. What about fermented beverages like high quality beer, wine, kombucha, or sparkling/fermented elderflower syrup? Those are good in moderation too, since they’re a probiotic, but don’t drink them like water throughout the day. Three final tips:
- Drink water (ideally not contaminated with atrazine, lead, etc) and stop drinking juice – instead, eat your whole fruits/veggies, hopefully homegrown or certified organic. Here’s why.
- If you have to drink your fruits/veggies for medical reasons, simply put the whole fruits/veggies in the blender, rather than juicing them. That way you get the whole food, including all the fiber and nutrients.
- If you’re juicing as part of a plan to “detox or cleanse your colon,” perhaps ask yourself why you’re ingesting things that your kidneys and liver aren’t equipped to handle on their own, and consider maintaining a good diet instead of spending 1-2 days per month on the toilet in detoxifying agony.
Also, don’t listen to the fad diet salesman, regardless of their celebrity status. Keep it simple. Make whole healthy foods part of your overall healthy lifestyle. Just understand the basic philosophy of what to eat based on what people have been eating for millennia, and stick with it. The Hummingbird Diet might make someone dough, but stop letting it make you sick and overweight.