The Normie Diet
A normal person’s guide to seed oils, sugar, and greens.
One of the most common New Year’s rituals is the resolution to go on a diet, which makes sense given how data on obesity look (and evidently this ritual hasn't been very effective):
I’m not a diet guru or fitness expert. I’m a PhD candidate studying the relationship between stress and addiction, but I did cut my scientific teeth on literature about nutrition and its (often surprising) influence on the mind. I’ve spent a lot of time applying what I’ve learned in different ways – running the dietary gamut from vegetarian, to vegan, to paleo, to keto. But in the process, it felt like I lost twenty of my precious-few IQ points trying to keep on top of it all. (Or maybe it was just hypoglycemia.) Now, I’m normal.
Most importantly, I’m not afraid of what I eat. You shouldn’t be afraid of your food, either, especially if you’re trying to make a New Year’s resolution last. Ultimately, it’s all about balance. Focusing on adding instead of removing makes the problem of being healthy more tractable.
Seed oils get a lot of disrespect. And it’s not unjustified. You should probably eat them less. But if you’re treating a French fry like someone’s waving a scorpion in front of your face because it was fried in vegetable oil instead of beef tallow, something is wrong. A lot of people fall into this camp:
At a minimum, the data on seed oils are unclear. The literature is complicated; none of it is as cut and dried as anyone wants you to think it is. Look at this (non-exhaustive) chart and tell me this stuff is simple:
Aside from the hilarious claim that seed oils are the cause of sunburns (see below), as far as I can tell, seed oils are bad because they lead to oxidative stress and are inflammatory (much like omega-6 fatty acids in excess).
But that’s not the end of the world, because you can counteract that inflammation by consuming omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fatty fish or fish and krill oil supplements and eating more antioxidants. Just make sure it’s fresh, heavy-metal free as can be, and you’ll give yourself more wiggle room to eat what you want. Voila, you reduce the slice of your dietary pie dedicated to omega-6s, and you’re liberated from feeling like you’re being gang stalked by polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Anyway, the issue with focusing on seed oils per se is that you’re missing the forest for the trees. It’s a larger problem of whole foods being replaced by processed quasi-foods, which are way more appealing by design. They’re supernormal stimuli for our tongues and noses.
That sugar is bad for you isn’t news. And it’s not news that the hate for fats, leading to low-fat – meaning high-sugar foods – was pushed by the sugar industry. The bitter truth about sugar is that it’s processed similarly to alcohol, and at an epidemiological level, it’s highly related to elevations in incidents of metabolic disorder.
But again, some in the online Ray Peat-o-sphere tout benefits of sugar consumption as if it weren’t associated with a load of negative outcomes.
There’s a massive body of literature surrounding the etiology of diabetes. Another reminder here: I study the brain in the context of stress and addiction, not medicine. But it’s pretty clear that insulin resistance is related to the development of diabetes and obesity, both of which are bad and should be avoided. (People nowadays are often confused on the obesity point, including a professor of mine at UCLA who researches dieting, and insist that obesity isn’t causally related to bad health outcomes, only correlated with them. Wild. Confused.)
To get into the weeds for a moment, the process works like this: Your cells need fuel, which is typically through sugars. So you eat something, and now you have sugars (glucose) in your blood. Most of your cells can’t bring that in without insulin, which acts like a key on the “glucose door” of your cells, allowing glucose in to be used to create usable energy. However, insulin won’t always work this way. In the case of insulin resistance – something that can occur from constantly elevated glucose levels in the blood – cells stop responding to normal insulin levels. In response, the pancreas (the organ that makes insulin) makes more insulin. And the cycle continues; more insulin leads to more insulin resistance, and more glucose builds up in the blood. Rinse, repeat. This process leads to high levels of triglycerides in the blood, which is an indicator of insulin resistance, and has a slew of health effects described with the nondescript name “Metabolic Syndrome,” including stroke, heart attack, and type 2 diabetes.
That said, if you’re exercising, you’re enhancing your body’s insulin sensitivity, effectively making it so that you’re able to enjoy eating without the negative health impacts. (“Earn your carbs.”) And actually, spiking insulin after exercise increases muscle protein synthesis, so you’re doing your gains a favor. I won’t go into exercise programs or anything of that sort here because there is a nauseating amount of information everywhere online. That gives some freedom to a guilt-free trip to some ice cream while it’s still available.
Wrapping sugar up, another issue with sugar consumption is that it’s inflammatory. Inflammation is related to a fair few different health issues (and is often downstream of other issues), ranging from the development of stroke to cancer or even depression and anxiety. This is actually an active area in addiction research, too, with some evidence that addiction and cell damage as a result of meth has something to do with inflammation. Bonkers.
At home in your body
You’ve almost certainly heard of the gut microbiome. If you have, it’s in the context of how important it is for health and maybe even mental health. Outside of specific strains of microbes that live in our guts that help with neurotransmitter production (like dopamine, GABA, and serotonin), the health of our gut microbiome is directly related to our health.
I learned about this fascinating phenomenon from Rhonda Patrick, who is brilliant at communicating complicated health-related literature to the non-academic. Basically, the gut is composed of sensitive intestinal cells that need particular fuel to be healthy (such as short-chain fatty acids like sodium butyrate). If that cell population doesn’t get what it needs, it degrades and releases inflammatory cytokines, the same kind that have been shown to have a causal role in symptoms of depression and anxiety. These short-chain fatty acids are fed by insoluble fibers that can be ingested in various common vegetables and leafy greens. It’s not so hard. Inflammation keeps coming back up over and over again…
If you can rein this in – minimally have a decently large salad or a green smoothie every other day at the least – then you’ll make it so that you’re not compounding what’s likely extant inflammatory activity each time you decide to have a cheat meal or something. Again, add instead of taking away, and you’ll give yourself more freedom to feel better and be healthier.
Don’t overcomplicate it
People lean on diet because it’s something within their control. That’s the appeal of food fixation: there’s a lot of writing about what it does for you, good or bad, and you can play God to an extent. The power to change fate is in your hands, right?
The health-conscious feel they can play doctor for themselves and those they care for. And it’s true: you can make a real difference. But there are diminishing returns. There are limits to the benefits of understanding diet and exercise, and that asymptotic return on investment from changes comes rather quickly. I think dietary zealots see benefits because merely attending to anything in your diet brings about good changes. Intuitively we know what’s good: less processed food, more vegetables, less sugar, and so on.
A lot of our health, unfortunately comes down to genes, but we can work within that framework. Though there is a lot of complexity to the science behind nutrition, the practice of eating well is simple. One of my diet-related favorite stories is about a teacher who ate nothing but McDonald's for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but he picked healthy options and limited his calorie intake, so he ended up losing sixty pounds. If your calories in are less than calories out you’ll get weight loss. The rest is about ensuring you’re healthy and happy along the way. And that doesn’t have to involve removal of the bad as much as addition of the good.
It’s not that attending to just seed oils will save you. It’s about paying attention to how your food makes you feel, not so much just as you’re eating it but in the minutes and hours, and days following. You don’t need to be an obsessive to see benefit. You just need to be normal.