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Action Item #1: Eliminate SAD Foods

The fundamental key to success with any lifestyle modification is removal, elimination, and avoidance of the agents of opposition to your desired lifestyle. If you’re trying to read more books and stop watching reality television, you’re going to want to cancel your scheduled recordings of Jersey Shore. If you’re trying not to drink alcohol [7] for a month, you’ll want to get rid of the beer, booze, and wine in your house. Heck, if you’re going vegan, you’ll want to toss all the animal products from your fridge, pantry, and freezer. And if you’re going Primal, whether if it’s for a 21-Day Challenge [8] or just to get healthier in general, you need to eliminate the Standard American Diet foods that promise to thwart you at every twist and turn. It’s a pretty simple concept to understand, right?

It can be tough to put into practice, though, since these foods are staples for many. Some are even health darlings of Conventional Wisdom [9]. Others are obviously junk, but junk often tastes good and lures you in to its sweet, salty, crispy embrace. Best to get rid of it altogether.

So, how do we do it? What are the foods we’re eliminating and why are we getting rid of them? You want the specific foods within the various categories to eliminate, and I’ve got ’em for you:

Beverages

Why:

Most drinks are just sugar [10] water masquerading as health beverages. They represent a massive, highly-dense source of insulin-spiking [11] sugar without the vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber that normally come with the sugar found in nature (fruits and vegetables). Plus, sweet drinks don’t satiate as much as solid food, leading to overeating and weight gain [12] without you even knowing it or feeling “full.” Anyone who’s ever had a large Coke disappear throughout their meal without its gradually developing absence impacting their ability to finish the meal knows this.

Common beverages to avoid:

Further Reading:

The Definitive Guide to Sugar [13]

Dear Mark: Sugar as Immune Suppresant [14]

The Dope on Energy Drinks [15]

Baking Ingredients

Why:

When you pulverize a grain to make flour, you are creating an acellular carbohydrate. How this differs from a cellular carbohydrate is primarily its digestibility and the rate by which our bodies absorb its carbohydrate load. Whereas with a cellular carbohydrate, as found in fruits and tubers, we must break down the cellular walls to access the glucose, with an acellular carbohydrate that work has already been done. This sudden bolus of dense carbohydrate overwhelms our digestive tract, promoting an inflammatory gut flora and an impaired metabolism [16]. That issue, plus all the other downsides that come along with grains (which I’ll be discussing later), make baking ingredients some of the first things you should be discarding. Besides, just what are you going to be baking?

Common baking ingredients to avoid:

Further reading:

Dear Mark: Are Roasted Nuts and Nut-Based Baked Good Healthy? [17]

Top 8 Most Common Reactions to Your Grain-Free Diet (and How to Respond) [18]

How to Quit Grains [19]

Condiments and Salad Dressings

Why:

Most condiments and salad dressings are simply another way to make bad food taste good by heaping sugar and/or bad fat all over it. If you get a low-fat dressing or condiment, it’s undoubtedly loaded with sugar to make up for the missing fat. If you get a store-bought full-fat dressing or condiment, it’s undoubtedly loaded with rancid omega-6 PUFAs that contribute to systemic inflammation. You can’t win, so it’s best to just get rid of the stuff altogether.

Common condiments to avoid:

Further reading:

10 Delicious DIY Salad Dressings [20]

Homemade Condiment Creations [21]

WTF?… Where’s the Fat? [22]

Dairy Products

Why:

Not all dairy is off-limits, and, for those who tolerate it, certain types of dairy can actually be an incredibly healthy component of a Primal eater’s arsenal. But many others are intolerant of lactose and/or casein without even knowing it, and removing dairy from a diet previously rich in it can often reveal hidden intolerances. And I wouldn’t advise anyone to make a habit of using low-fat and non-fat dairy products, which are missing the vital fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamin K2 [23], that make dairy such a nutrient-dense food. Going low- or no-fat also eliminates the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a healthy, natural trans-fat that’s been linked to good health [24]. Most studies [25] have found that only full-fat dairy is associated with improved health outcomes, not low-fat or non-fat dairy.

Common dairy to avoid:

Further reading:

The Definitive Guide to Dairy [26]

Yogurt Mania [27]

Dairy and Its Effect on Insulin Secretion (and What It Means for Your Waistline) [28]

Bad Fats and Oils

Why:

Both trans-fats and added omega-6 PUFA-rich oils are unhealthy. Trans-fats from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils cause fat gain [29], particularly in the dangerous abdominal area, even when calories are held constant. Omega-6 fatty acids are necessary in the diet, but only in small amounts. Ideally, the dietary ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be around 2:1 [30], which is the evolutionary norm. The SAD tends to promote a ratio closer to 20:1, leading to increased systemic inflammation. Another danger lies in the inherent instability of PUFAs; when exposed to heat [31] (like in a deep fryer or on a skillet), omega-6 PUFAs quickly oxidize [32], making them even unhealthier and more inflammatory.

Common bad fats and oils to avoid:

Further reading:

The Definitive Guide to Oils [33]

Dear Mark: Trans Fat [34]

Dear Mark: PUFAs [35]

Fast Food

Why:

Fast food is the perfect encapsulation of the Standard American Diet at its most alluring and unhealthy: omega-6 PUFAs, lots of carbs, sugary sauces, crispy salty deep fried (in the aforementioned oxidized PUFAs) breading on everything, low quality meat, high calories, low nutrient density. It’s the SAD wrapped up into a delicious, disgusting package.

Common fast food items to avoid:

Further reading:

10 Ways to Forage in a Fast Food Nation [36]

Top 10 Fast Foods in Disguise [37]

The Primal Blueprint Guide to Dining Out [38]

Fish

Why:

When compared to wild-caught fish, farmed fish tends to fall short in several important categories. For one, farmed fish are lower in omega-3s and higher in omega-6s, especially predatory fish like salmon whose natural diet is harder to emulate in aquaculture. At least in the case of salmon, farmed is higher in contaminants than wild, including PCBs and dioxins. Plus, fish farming as it’s currently practiced in many areas harms the environment (PDF [39]), causing run off into and pollution of adjacent bodies of water. That said, some wild caught fish high up on the food chain are too high in mercury for regular consumption, especially for pregnant women and children.

Common fish to avoid:

Further reading:

Farmed Seafood: What’s Safe and Nutritious [40]

Salmon: Factory Farm vs Wild [41]

Grocery Store Seafood: What to Eat and What to Avoid [42]

Grains and Legumes

Why:

Grains and legumes contain significant amounts of antinutrients, including phytic acid and lectins, which impair digestion, reduce mineral absorption, and damage the intestinal lining. They’re also high in carbohydrates and, if you’re talking about grain or legume flours or flour products, those acellular carbohydrates which are particularly damaging. Overall, grains and legumes are simply unnecessary. They don’t offer anything you can’t get elsewhere.

Common grains to avoid:

Common legumes to avoid:

Further reading:

Why Grains Are Unhealthy [43]

The Definitive Guide to Grains [44]

The Lowdown on Lectins [45]

Meat

Why:

Though animals are often the centerpiece of the Primal Blueprint eating plan, not all meat is created equal. Processed meats and meat products, imbued with preservatives and sweeteners and binders, are not nearly as beneficial as fresh animal flesh, bones, and offal [46]. Nitrates, which aren’t dangerous in and of themselves (and even appear naturally in vegetables), can form potentially unhealthy, carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines [47] when subjected to heat, especially without the presence of antioxidants [48] (which nitrate-containing plants have plenty of).¬†Limited amounts of high-quality cured meats can be a welcome addition, but fresh meats should comprise the bulk of your meat intake. Factory farmed meat intake should also be limited, as access and finances allow, while grass-fed/pastured animal products should be strongly favored for their beneficial nutrient content and fatty acid composition.

Common meat to avoid:

Further reading:

Meat Musings: Are Cold Cuts Primal? [49]

Sodium Nitrite: Another Reason to Avoid Processed Meats [50]

The Differences Between Grass-Fed Beef and Grain-Fed Beef [51]

Processed Foods

Why:

In several ways, processed food takes too little effort to eat when compared with whole food. It’s instantly available, which means you can rip open a bag of something resembling food and mindlessly eat it while watching TV, whereas whole food must be prepared by hand. It’s also way too easy to digest. One recent study [52] compared the energy expended by the body after eating whole food to the energy expended after eating processed food; energy expenditure required to simply break down and digest the whole food was twice that of the processed food. Processed food is also usually made with the usual suspects (PUFAs, sugar, grains) we try to avoid.

Common processed foods to avoid:

Further reading:

Processed Soy and Meat Alternatives [53]

Top 10 Junk Foods in Disguise [54]

Soft Serve McNuggets and Hot Doctopus: Together at Last [55]

Sweets

Why:

Sugar can impair insulin sensitivity and worsen blood lipids [56]. PUFA oils can induce oxidative stress [57] and worsen insulin sensitivity [58]. Refined grains spike insulin to astronomical heights. Each item alone is cause to worry, but when you pack them all together – like in a donut – you produce a truly problematic food that compounds all those issues.

Common sweets to avoid:

Further reading:

Dear Mark: How to Politely Pass on Dessert [59]

What Happens to Your Body When… You Carb Binge? [60]

The Definitive Guide to Insulin, Blood Sugar, and Type 2 Diabetes (and You’ll Understand It!) [61]

Well, folks, what do you think? When you lay it all out like that, it can look a little daunting. That’s an¬†awful lot of foods, including pretty much everything many people have grown up eating. And yes, it might be difficult at first, but it gets better. It gets easier. Heck, once you have everything dialed in and you’re humming along on all the amazing whole foods you can eat [62], you probably won’t even miss all that other stuff.

Let me know if you have any questions and stay tuned next week for Action Items 2-5! Grok on! [63]