January 20, 2014
We’ve all been there.
A giddy chat with your neighbor who dropped fifteen pounds by nixing starches and sugar.
A lithe, shadow-of-his-former-self coworker who’s raving about the plant-based diet he’s been on since June.
An email from your olive-oil-evangelizing sister who swears she feels ten years younger after switching to a Mediterranean diet.
Internet buzz around the fat-busting potential of whole grains—right next to more buzz about wheat’s nefarious role in obesity.
Dozens of diet books claiming they’re the last one you’ll ever need—and each one preaching something wildly, irreconcilably different from the next.
Is it any wonder so many people give up learning about this diet stuff almost as soon as they begin?
My own story was the same.
Cutting Through Confusion: There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Diet—And Here’s Proof
After spending a decade sliding from vegetarianism to veganism to raw veganism, I witnessed a fair bit of “miraculous” success within the plant-based community—though the journey left my own body tooth-decayed, deficient, and voluntarily swaddled in ski jackets in weather below 70 degrees. When I finally forayed beyond the plant kingdom to save my own health (and regain some semblance of body heat), I was greeted with more of the same: glowing successes on paleo mixed with folks unable to shed a pound; starch-based diets boosting health for some while stranding others on a blood-sugar roller coaster; experts wagging a finger at fat, grains, carbs, sugar, fructose, dairy, animal protein, and any other villain du jour in attempt to explain our modern health woes.
None of it made sense. How could people embark on such wildly different diets and achieve similar success (or similar failure, for that matter)? How could one person feel better cutting out meat and another feel fabulous eating it with every meal? Why couldn’t the experts even agree on what we should be putting in our mouths?
Answering those questions has fueled my own research adventures over the years, both to satisfy my curiosity and to save my sanity. Maybe you’re in the same boat. And if that’s the case, I’d like to help navigate this crazy ship to shore.
Believe it or not, there’s a reason confusion reigns supreme. And it’s not because we still need to figure out the precise number of daily blueberries and spinach leaves it’d take to reach immortality. Rather, it’s because the Dietary Holy Grail—that creature so many authors, health gurus, and nutritional self-experimenters are vying to capture, the single diet that will give all of us rockin’ bodies and a centenarian lifespan—is a mythical beast. A unicorn, of sorts, prancing through our imaginations but not through reality.
As great as it would be to find a “human species diet” perfect for everyone on the planet, it’s a futile quest. And here’s why.
A Legacy of Diversity
If anything defines our two-million-year-long diet history, it’s adaptability. The power to make food out of whatever our environment spits out at us (or rather, whatever we manage to wrestle from its grasp). We’ve infiltrated every corner of the globe, trekked through the most inhospitable of climes, devised hacks for turning any life form into something edible, and—for the most part—lived to tell about it. That’s pretty awesome. Go us!
But more than just surviving, we’ve also managed to thrive on a wide spectrum of diets. And one of the most fascinating portals into that reality comes from the work of Weston Price, an early-1900s dentist who scoured the globe in search of isolated populations still eating their traditional cuisines, untouched by Western foods and ways.
Though his focus was often tooth-centric—seeking out communities free from the dental decay ravaging Americans, and trying to find out what made the healthiest-mouthed folks immune—his findings reached far beyond the realm of dentistry. In an expedition that’d be all but impossible to repeat today, Price encountered humans at their absolute prime: free from chronic disease, straight-toothed without braces, cavity-free without floss and Crest, strong, sturdy, happy, healthy.
And it wasn’t just genetic luck of the draw, either. Price also observed that as soon as those isolated populations switched over to “nutrition of commerce”—refined flours, sugars, vegetable oils, jams, canned goods—their health tanked just like the rest of the Western world. Through generations of trial and error, each community had found a combination of foods to build the healthiest bodies possible.
Intrigued? Here’s a snapshot of what some of the healthiest communities ate as mainstays, summarized from Price’s book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.
The Swiss of the Loetschental Valley:
- Fresh, hand-milled rye bread
- Raw cheese, butter, and milk from cows eating fast-growing alpine grass (which supercharged the dairy with vitamins)
- Local vegetables, both fresh and preserved
The Native Americans of the Rocky Mountains:
- The organs and bones of wild game, particularly moose and caribou (muscle meat was typically fed to the dogs rather than used as human food)
- Bark, tree buds, and other vegetation, particularly in the summertime
The Gaelics in the Outer and Inner Hebrides:
- Oats at every meal, mostly in the form of oat porridge and oatcakes
- Local seafood including fish, lobsters, crabs, oysters, and clams; cod liver was particularly revered
- Fresh vegetables in the summer; stored vegetables in the winter
The tribes in Eastern and Central Africa:
- Starchy foods like sweet potatoes, beans, corn, and millet
- Fish, shellfish, and water plants
- Wild game, or domesticated goats and cattle used for meat and dairy
- Insects like ants and locusts—used in pies, puddings, or dried and ground into flour
The Eskimos of Alaska:
- Sea animals—particularly the organ meats, oils, and skin
- Fish and fish eggs
- Caribou and other land mammals
- Vegetation collected in the summer and saved for the winter—including cranberries, kelp, water grasses, bulbs, ground nuts, and flower blossoms preserved in seal oil
So there you have it.
No one counted carbs or fat. No macronutrient ratio was a universal sweet spot. The rye-eating Swiss hardly shied away from gluten; nor did the Aborigines get the memo that they were tragically deficient in Healthy Whole Grains. The Gaelics’ oats-with-every-meal habit flew in the face of paleo diet wisdom, while the Eskimo’s meaty menu should have doomed them to disease, according to plant-based diet proponents. Cholesterol-rich organ meats and shellfish were prized rather than feared. Successful diets ranged from high-starch to starch-devoid; from meat-based to meat-scarce; from high-grain to no-grain.
In other words, those traditional diets ran the gamut. Yet in every instance, they produced remarkably, enviously healthy groups of humans. Go figure!
So what can we take away from that? Along with bolstering the idea that many different diets can support health, those traditional cuisines all had a few things in common—pockets of overlap we’d best pay attention to. In each case, those health-promoting traditional diets:
- Contained a rich source of fat-soluble vitamins (particularly vitamins K2, A, and D)—whether from organ meats, high quality dairy, fish eggs, other seafood, or insects.
- Were free from vegetable oils, white sugar, white flour, and canned foods.
- Placed muscle meats pretty low on the totem pole—valuing instead an animal’s organs, skin, bones, and cartilage.
- Contained a mix of both plant and animal foods, with no diet being entirely carnivorous or entirely vegan.
Of course, while Price’s findings show humans can thrive on an impressive range of diets, we’re still left with a glaring question. How come folks today respond in wildly different ways to the same foods and diets? Is it all in our heads?
You’re a Special Snowflake
It turns out your parents were right after all: you’re special. Not in a sticking-crayons-up-your-nose way, but in an “individual variation” way. Although we humans all share some obvious features—two lungs, a digestive tract, an innate desire to argue on the internet—we actually have some important differences once we zoom in a bit further. And those differences become critical when we look at how our diet interacts with our genes.
Did you know you start digesting your food before you even swallow it? True story. Your saliva is teeming with proteins that kick off the digestive process—including amylase, an enzyme that breaks down starch into sugar. It’s coded by a gene called AMY1.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The more AMY1 copies you carry, the more amylase you pump out in your saliva. In fact, depending on your genes, the amylase in your mouth can range from barely detectable to a whopping 50 percent of your saliva’s total protein.
And for each person’s ability to handle starchy foods, that spells mega variation. Studies show that when low-amylase producers consume starch, their blood sugar surges far higher—and stays hiked for much longer—than high-amylase producers eating the exact same thing. In other words, the more AMY1 copies you’ve inherited (and the more of this enzyme you produce as a result), the better your starch-metabolizing capabilities will be.
And where you land on the amylase spectrum isn’t just luck of the draw. Folks from traditionally starch-centric populations, like the Japanese or the Hazda of Tanzania, tend to carry more copies of AMY1 than folks from starch-scant populations, like Siberian pastoralists or hunter-gatherers from the Congo rainforest. The reason? Selective pressure. Producing more amylase was a boon for populations relying on starchy foods—so over time, survival-of-the-fittest style, more AMY1 copies came to dominate their gene pools. In populations where starch was a dietary rarity, AMY1 copies tended to stay low. The diet of your ancestors, then, plays a big role in what’s best for you today.
For the modern health enthusiast, this is big news. While high amylase producers might fare well on a starch-based cuisine, low amylase producers eating the same diet would probably catapult headfirst into a heap of blood sugar swings and swollen fat cells. Keep that in mind next time you see your slim friend downing a bag of Ritz crackers while you seem to gain weight just sniffing the box.
APOE is a fascinating little gene that codes apolipoprotein E (or ApoE for short), a protein involved in lipid metabolism and cholesterol transport. Depending on what you inherited from your parents, you’ll carry a combination of any two ApoE variants: ApoE2, ApoE3, or ApoE4.
Recently, that last one—ApoE4—has been grabbing the research spotlight due to some of its quirks. And not in a cute, Zooey Deschanel sort of way. Along with having a much higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease, ApoE4 carriers tend to react to high-saturated-fat diets with a rise (sometimes scary-high) in LDL cholesterol. Alas, we still need a great deal more research to fully understand the interaction between diet and ApoE status. But in the meantime, ApoE4 is a big clue why some people see their LDL spike after adopting a paleo or low-carbohydrate diet, even when their friends might boast a lovely lipid profile eating steak galore.
Vitamin A Conversion
Ever wonder why some people seem to rapidly self-destruct on vegetarian and vegan diets, while others ride off into the sunset with nary a complaint? Part of the reason involves vitamin A conversion—or lack thereof, as the case may be.
Contrary to popular belief, plant foods like carrots don’t contain any vitamin A. They contain precursors, particularly beta-carotene, that your body has to transform into a usable form of the vitamin. Animal foods are the only sources of vitamin A in its “preformed” state.
The problem? While some folks can convert enough vitamin A from plant foods to meet their needs, others are genetically doomed to fail at the job. Two common mutations on the BCM01 gene—which helps govern the beta-carotene-to-vitamin-A conversion process—make it nearly impossible to get enough vitamin A from the plant kingdom alone. And if those mutation-carrying folks decide to go veggie, slashing vitamin A intake and relying on beta-carotene instead, the results aren’t pretty. Infertility, plummeting immune function, skin problems, vision problems, hair loss, bone loss, brittle nails, and increased susceptibility to infection can all follow on the heels of vitamin A deficiency. (And not surprisingly, those are all common complaints among those who’ve “failed” on vegan or vegetarian diets.)
Wrapping it Up
The next time you see someone pushing the one-size-fits-all diet idea, feel free to admire their chutzpah—while swiftly running for the hills. As seductive as simple solutions and blanket prescriptions can be, that Dietary Holy Grail quest will always be fruitless. Don’t fall under its spell.
Though it might seem frustrating, our diversity is actually pretty empowering. Honoring each other’s differences can help dissolve the tribalism so prevalent in the health world—that tendency to feel threatened when someone does well on a diet other than our own, to peg those outside of our favored community as enemies instead of looking for common ground. By understanding how we each differ, we can start working hand-in-hand rather than head-to-head. Success isn’t a finite resource, especially where diet is concerned.
Author Denise Minger has just written the book “Death By Food Pyramid”. I would highly recommend this book if anything in this article struck a chord with you. Leave your questions, comments and feedback below, and be sure to click here to grab the book now.
49 thoughts on “Exactly How To Figure Out What Diet Is Right for YOU.”
Hi Ben, Great article as always.
A lot of technichal information but I tried to keep up.
Just a little note I made when reading the study.. I don’t know if someone else saw it, but I think there’s a secret also in people eating the food they have in their region. Definetly not searching for imported food from somewhere. And generally those eating mainly fish and aquatic stuff (lol) eat only that, and those having access to other animals are eating ONLY those;
Same thing with cereals and veggies.
I _Now_ Truly believe that we should eat only what’s naturally grown/exists in our region/country.
I would say also eat things in their season but the study mentionned that the were conserving summer veggies for winter.
What do you think? :-D
I just received my 23 and Me data reports. I have heard you mention ways to get more info from the data in recent podcasts by paying a fee and submitting your 23 and Me data to another company. What is the name of the company? It was not DNA Fit. It was another one? Which one do you use now?
I realize this post is old. It is also pertinent and highly interesting. I absolutely love Minger’s work. I am a bit flummoxed here though because my genetic report doesn’t list AMY1. Is it possible for somebody to have no amylase at all? Is the absence of AMY1 on report indicating that the gene is not present? If so, how would a person get along who has no amylase? Especially, after and not so short lifetime of eating carbohydrates, naturally, like most people? If the absence of AMY1 on the report is the result of not testing for it in the first place, why would it have been omitted? And how would one find out how many copies of AMY1 one has if the dna testing labs don’t test for it? If it’s not possible to find out, why would that tidbit be included in the post here? Thank you for all your great work, both of you. Best Regards.
I would suggest booking at consult with me at <a href="https://greenfieldfitnesssystems.com/ben” target=”_blank”>www.greenfieldfitnesssystems.com/ben and we can go through all these questions and I'll help with your genetic report interpretation. Choose 20 or 60 minutes and we'll get you scheduled.
I have the genoset for BCOM1, where I have 70% reduction in beta carotene to retinol conversion. Could explain why so many people on my Mom's side need glasses, my immune system repression, and why I felt so crummy on a vegetarian diet while in high school for about a year. After finally getting my hands on buffalo liver (where I get it had run out for a half year) my body is doing much better in regards to blurred vision, energy, and even my peripheral nerve pain has decreased! I eat about a quarter pound a week, and it's LOADED with bioavailable vitamin A (retinol).
I am learning about nutrition in particular, and concurrently am studying epigenetics and nutrigenomics as well. It's fascinating and practical material!
I have the genoset for BCOM1, where I have 70% reduction in beta carotene to retinol conversion. Could explain so many people on my Mom's side needing glasses, and my immune system repression. After finally getting my hands on buffalo liver (where I get it had run out for a few months) my body is doing much better. I eat about a quarter pound a week, and it's LOADED with bioavailable vitamin A (retinol).
I also have APOE 2/3, which is rarer than the common 3/3. I am excited to see you integrate genetic information, as I have been doing personal research on genetics for the last half year or so. I am also researching nutrition, and find more and more how a diet for one may be totally wrong for someone else, so I resonate with this article.
Just an FYI, 23andme does NOT test for any of the AMY1 SNPs (salivary amylase which breaks down starch). They do test for AMY2 (pancreatic amylase which breaks down starch), but I haven’t been able to find any studies that look at AMY2 and serum glucose response.
Thanks for the clarification.
I've done the 23andMe testing and wanted to count my AMY1A copies but can't figure out how. I can't find the gene when I search for it browsing raw data. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
I'm getting Dr. Tim Jackson on podcast soon to discuss this in more detail, but check GeneticGenie.org for now.
Thanks for your reply Ben, I've done GeneticGenie and just doing MTHFRsupport now. I'm interested in the article because I've been eating Hight fat (60-70%) and high calorie for a year now and gone from 12% to 5% body fat. The problem is I'm trying to put on weight and after using your 6-12 wk mass gain TrainingPeaks plan and increasing Carbs to around 50% I still couldn't put on weight. I listen to all your podcasts so now checking for methylation issues. I have a heterozygous MTHFR C677T mutation so just bought some Optimised Folate and Liposomal Glutathione. Not sure it will help with weight gain though!
Great article as always. I have my MTHFR report but how can i interpret all the data in the report ? Is there a website that explains it ?
I would start with this: https://seekinghealth.org/?s=mthfr
Hi Ben, was about to order testing from 23andMe, but there is a note on it saying they can not interpret the results for you at this time until the FDA assess and approve the service etc. What would I have to do if I do order it and get the results back?
Once you get your 23andme.com results, you can download the raw data and run it through Sterling’s App at MTHFRsupport.com or Genetic Genie’s Methylation Analysis and Detox Profile. These sites allow you to upload your raw data before they spit out a report to show you all your unique SNPs. You can then research the ones you’re positive for to find out what they mean and what you can do about them.
Do you have a reference for the intake of oat being large in the Hebrides? According to this: http://www.westonaprice.org/traditional-diets/the… I get the impression that the oat consumption was not as large as you indicate.
You can read Price's original writeup on the Gaelics in chapter 4 of his book:
He notes that oat porridge and oat cakes were, for many residents, "eaten in some form regularly with each meal." Hope that helps!
Read the book. Best book on nutrition out there. Not prescriptive, balanced, educational and a great, humourous read. This is a book to share.
Glad to see ApoE mentioned by Denise. I’m 3/4, and started to see big LDL increases after a year or so of eating Paleo. I was prescribed a statin, but knowing my ApoE status, I was pretty sure the elevated numbers were being driven by my diet and not overproduction in the liver. So before I went down the rabbit hole of medication, I decided to do an experiment to try and answer the very question posed here. I’m now two-thirds of the way through my second of five phases (The Potato Hack, which though not a sustainable diet per se, is meant to be an extreme version of low-fat vegan, just to see if it pushes the LDL numbers down in an equally extreme fashion.) After each diet period of three weeks, I’m getting an NMR so see how the diet fared. If anyone’s interested, it’s at fivediets.com.
I think you did a high fat low carbs paleo diet, which is not a paleo diet, unless you are a eskimo. You should try better a paleo diet with slim meat, or from, grassfeed fre-rangeg cattle, and fruit. As recommended by Loren Cordain in his Paleo diet. Fruits are healthier than potatoes. Find out about their toxins and their high glycemic index.
I did. The five diets were more to test varying macronutrient ratios than to stay true to the parameters of a named diet. I should have more accurately called it the "10/65/25 Diet" (C/F/P), but I wanted an easier reference point and at least approximate a generally accepted framework to guide food selection. Likewise, the Potato Diet as I mentioned is completely unsustainable, but it served as a model to test an extremely low-fat, high-carb (89/1/10) diet.
As a side note, lets not forget that the Paleo diet in 2014 has dozens of incarnations. And with due respect to Cordain's canonized version, I think that's a good thing. Because as this post makes clear, it's about finding what works for you, hence a diet that's going to be specific to you. In the end, I'm looking to be really happy with the Chris Diet.
Thanks for another great post. I did the 23andMe test and found out I am ApoE 3/4 now I am trying to figure out a good diet. Everything I read says go low fat (20%) but I am trying to figure out if that is really best. I had been eating 50% fat mostly from olive oil, coconut oil, milk and nuts and my blood test showed low triglycerides, low LDL and high HDL which I thought was pretty good but now I am wondering if I should be switching to a lower fat diet.
Any guidance beyond the book about how to eat for a 50yr. female marathon(100+) runner with Apoe 3/4 would be great.
Oddly enough we're going to be covering that in an upcoming podcast – stay tuned!
Was there a podcast that covered this Ben? Would love to hear it?
I have some more info/resources in this podcast: https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/podcast/biohacki…
Awesome post! Thank you for all of your amazing content. I find this really intriguing and it tends to make a little more sense. I agree with somatotyping and it seems to be the only thing that has jived with me thus far in everything that I have studied. This is a great addition to that knowledge and something for people to consider.
Being of European influence and a meso, sugar and carbs are far from being my friend. Anything I eat not only shows up on my butt the next day, but also my blood. I've chalked it up to being a meso, but this seems to shed some more insight on the matter. I take a high quality enzyme religiously and test my blood through something called nutritional blood analysis, but I'm still not quite where I want to be.
By doing this, I am able to see yeast, fungus, sugar crystals etc.and I am tailoring my diet (and helping others to do the same) based on what I find. I'm still in the adjusting phase for myself:) I have read your macro breakdown recommendations article and found it very helpful. Would you recommend to continue to follow that? Or is there a way to further test enzymes etc to find the "perfect" breakdown?
As the article alludes to, macronutrient ratio is going to be highly dependent on the diet of your ancestors…and if your case being of European descent, something close the Perfect Health Diet is likely ideal for you…
Very cool. Thank you. And that was what your macro break down article was based on, correct?
So approx 65% fat, 20% protein (building muscle phase), %15 carbs
20 percent carbs, 65 percent fat, and 15 percent protein by calories. By weight, it is 65 percent plants and 35 percent animal foods.
You (if I remember correctly), have been pretty anti-gluten in the past, not just based on your own experience but because of its effect on increasing gut permeability and other fun stuff. Has your outlook on that changed? Did the Swiss culture you mention pre-soak and sprout their grains?
I don't think that was reported on by Weston… but the grains the Swiss were using back then (and there) are nothing like what we have available to us today. Today's gluten =l evil.
I read a book many years ago, Eat Right For Your Blood Type which made a lot of sense about how our blood type was determined from our ancestry and what they ate and hence why some foods are medicinal while others being toxic and some foods being just foods. I found that system to be a good guide line but not an exact science. BEN, what are your thoughts on how blood type works into what Denise's book and findings shares? Going to get her book now. As always, thanks for all the good information. cheers!
In my opinion, blood typing is far less reliable than DNA testing and tracking methylation, etc. For example, you can get 23andme results from http://goo.gl/4NAN6, download the raw data and run it through Sterling’s App at MTHFRsupport.com or Genetic Genie’s Methylation Analysis and Detox Profile. These sites allow you to upload your raw data before they spit out a report to show you all your unique SNPs. You can then research the ones you’re positive for to find out what they mean and what you can do about them.
Interesting article. I find the whole APOE thing confusing though. I’m APOE3/4 and Alzheimer’s is the one problem which runs in my family. Though, being of Scandinavian decent wouldn’t my ancestor’s diet’s have been rather high in animal products and saturated fats?
23andme appears to not test for the AMY1 gene. How else would one go about finding this out?
Maya, see my response to Markus…
Really enjoyed the article. There are so many things involved in weight control, health, and performance. You didn’t even get into the gut flora on this one. All of this is even more reason to have your DNA analyzed.
I have the same question as Lynda. The article does a good job of illustrating the fact that one size does NOT fit all but doesn’t really give me any better understanding as to what is best for ME. How do I figure that out?
John, Lynda and Eldorado – first read Denise’s book. It has many of the answers. Next, get your DNA tested using a company like 23andme so you can get a decent idea of your genetic heritage. Next, base your macronutrient ratios off a diet that reflects your ancestors and is comprised of real, recognizable foods. That is a simple and elegant way to do it!
Ha what if you’re really mixed like me? My grandparents are all from different parts of the world: One Chinese grandparent, one Spanish (from Spain), one African, one Scottish.
Then you would ideally track blood sugar and labs and shift diet accordingly if you truly wanted to customize. It's quite a process but once you figure it out, well worth it. I'd be happy to help you via a personal one-on-one consult. Just go to https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/coaching. and then choose a 20 or 60 minute consult, whichever you'd prefer. I can schedule ASAP after you get that.
I'm with Lynda. How do we begin to figure out the right balance for US? Without having to experiment on different diets 6 months at a time. I wonder about this since my wife is of European background and I'm Latin-American. Neither of us may be getting exactly what we need to be optimal.
Great post! I'm starting to think the same.
If you look at the overlap of most successful diets, a good place to start is just avoiding modern food: processed food and refined sugars and grains.
Is there a way for me to find out where I land on the amylase spectrum via some sort of blood or saliva test?