Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
5 Mar

Dear Mark: Do Perfect Foods Exist?

Today’s Dear Mark post touches on a concept that many of us have pondered: the perfect food. That is, does such a thing even exist? What with phytates, lectins, easily-absorbed fat-soluble vitamins, allergenic proteins, and all the rest, it sometimes seems like every good food has a crippling downside. If you read too many health and nutrition blogs that delve into these relatively arcane topics (my own not necessarily excluded!), it often feels like you can’t eat anything at all without risking some horrible illness, deficiency, or excess.

The following is an excerpt from a longer email in which a reader expressed concern over the apparent scarcity of “perfect foods.”:

Dear Mark,

I’m getting very frustrated. I don’t know if it’s a case of over researching things, but I’m beginning to feel that there are very few perfect foods. That there is something bad in everything. Beef, pork, and fish have creatine. Nuts, grains, seeds, and legumes have phytates. What are we supposed to do, just live on veggies, chicken, and eggs? How is it that Grok got enough magnesium, not too much phytates, etc, etc?


No food is perfect. You are correct. But you are incorrect to despair over this unavoidable, inescapable reality. For one, you have to eat something. You can’t live on sunlight and water (although both are vital to health). Two, just because a food contains something “bad” doesn’t mean the food itself is “bad.” To show this, I thought it’d be fun to put together a list of the “downsides” of undoubtedly Primal foods that most of us probably consume on a regular basis. Within many of these Primal darlings lurks a dark side, a “negative” nutritive trait that threatens to topple its favored status… but are you going to stop eating these foods just because they aren’t “perfect”?

Liver – Awesome superfood nature’s-vitamin status aside, it has a “problem.” It’s high in retinol, which is the animal form of vitamin A and the most easily-absorbed. Too little dietary retinol is bad for testosterone production, vision, bone metabolism, and gene transcription, but too much dietary retinol can lead to hypervitaminosis A, especially with insufficient vitamin D. Explorers who ate polar bear liver, which contains upwards of 15,000 IUs retinol per gram (an insanely high concentration), have been sickened and even killed from hypervitaminosis A (PDF).

Red meatProtein, loads of healthy fats, plenty of zinc, what’s not to love? Well, for those with hemachromatosis – excessive iron absorption – the iron content of red meat can be problematic.

Eggs – Eggs are great. They are bite-sized, easily-transportable, delicious repositories of everything you need to build a fully grown chicken, but they also contain potentially gut-irritating proteins (mostly in the egg white) that can exacerbate autoimmune conditions. Lysozyme appears to be the most problematic of these egg proteins, and it’s found in large amounts in the white.

Butter – Good old butter. You’ve yet to fail anyone. Except for that guy with an intense casein intolerance.

Ghee – That means ghee is all clear, right? All of the good fat, none of the offensive proteins. Maybe not. An older study from 1987 found that ghee had a significant amount of oxidized cholesterol, presumably due to the clarification process (which involves heat). That sounds bad. So ghee’s bad, right? Maybe not (again). It turns out that the ghee from the 1987 study was “heated in an electric oven in a stainless steel mug at 120 degrees C for 50 hours.” So, while some ghee has “bad” qualities, some does not, and it all depends on how the ghee was produced.

Shellfish – Delicious, nutritious, briny, mineral-replete though they may be, shellfish can be highly allergenic in certain people. Also, because you’re eating the entire animal, including that animal’s last meal, often raw, there is an elevated risk of getting sick. Norwalk virus (not serious), vibro (pretty serious), and various shellfish toxins are all potential complications. I love raw oysters, mind you. I’m just putting this out there.

Brazil nuts – I recently mentioned these as a great source of selenium. And they are. But they’re also pretty high in phytic acid and radium.

Spinach – I love spinach, always have. It’s a great source of magnesium, calcium, manganese, vitamin K… and oxalates. Yes, oxalates – those tiny organic crystals that compose the most common type of kidney stone – are found in spinach (as well as other leafy greens). 100 grams of spinach contain 750 mg of oxalates. And though dietary oxalate has never been conclusively or strongly linked to the development of kidney stones, the theoretical risk remains.

Dark chocolate – It’s evidently a big favorite among my readers, and it has tons of benefits, but it’s also high in phytic acid, and some sources may be high in cadmium and/or mycotoxins (like aflatoxin).

Bacon – I don’t think listing the benefits is necessary here, so I won’t. How about the negatives? Pork fed on corn and soy (which even organic pigs usually eat) display high levels of omega-6 fats in their tissues, while pork fed on coconuts display almost none. If you’re eating bacon (almost all fat) from pigs fed mostly corn and soy, you’re likely consuming a fair bit of omega-6 (same goes for any high-fat pork product, really, as well as poultry). Oh, and don’t burn that bacon, or subject it to high heat for very long unless you love eating carcinogenic nitrosamines with your eggs!

Cruciferous vegetables – I just posted an article extolling the virtues of sulfur-rich cruciferous veggies, but they can also act as goitrogenic inhibitors of thyroid function. Goitrogens interfere with iodine uptake by the thyroid, so excessive intake of cabbage, cauliflower, and other cruciferous vegetables might necessitate a bit more iodine in the diet.

My point, after all this, is not to keep you from eating these foods. It’s to show that there are no perfect foods and that there’s nothing wrong with that. Every food, even the “good” ones, has something that someone can legitimately complain about. Does that mean you can’t eat these foods, or even that you should always keep the vitamin A content of grass-fed beef liver or the possibility that your square of dark chocolate could contain cadmium in the back of your mind? No; it would drive you insane and cause unnecessary stress.

I simply wanted to show the inherent silliness of worrying about “perfect foods.” Every food has something “wrong” with it. As I’ve always said, it’s not just about the constituent parts that compose a food. The individual components don’t always tell the whole story. Whole foods do tell that story, though. You simply have to eat them to figure it out.

That’s it for today, but what about you, dear reader? Do you worry about the dearth of “perfect foods”? Do you think any foods actually are perfect, after all? Leave your thoughts in the comment section. Thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. About the oxalate in spinach and other leafy greens. I believe that it was Dr. Carey Reams who stated that oxalate in raw greens is not harmful, but once the greens are cooked, the oxalate turns to oxalic acid crystals, and therein lies the problem for the kidneys…cooked greens is like eating little shards of glass. So, enjoy them RAW.

    Edie Masters wrote on March 8th, 2012
  2. A half cup of raw spinach has about 160 mg of oxalate (this is from the University of Wyoming. They have a lab that tests foods for oxalate content and have tested about 10000 items). That oxalate has already bound up the calcium as calcium oxalate and rendered about 75% or more the calcium unvailable to the body. Steamed is even worse, but thats due to volume (1/2 cup cooked is about 2-21/2 cups raw)

    There was a study (Oxalic acid in foods and its behavior and Fate in the diet) that concluded “If to a diet of meat, peas, carrots and sweet potatoes, relatively low in calcium but permitting good though not maximum growth and bone formation, spinach is added to the extent of about 8% to supply 60% of the calcium, a high percentage of deaths occurs among rats fed between the age of 21 and 90 days. Reproduction is impossible. The bones are extremely low in calcium, tooth structure is disorganized and dentine poorly calcified. Spinach not only supplies no available calcium but renders unavailable considerable of that of the other foods. Considerable oxalate appears in the urine, much more in the feces. Turnip greens, mustard greens, kale and collards, greens with negligible oxalates, under similar conditions produce excellent animals that deposit four times as much calcium per unit body weight as those receiving spinach”.

    If you have a leaky gut or a history of kidney issues, any food high in oxalates, raw or cooked, isnt a good thing.

    Karla wrote on March 8th, 2012
  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you are making healthy choices 90% of the time, that’s good enough. Variety will mean you get lots of different nutrients your body is craving. I choose organic where possible, and eat locally and in season to get the most out of the food I buy!

    Sarah @ The Healthy Diva wrote on March 9th, 2012
  4. So tell me: What is wrong with avocado! I could live of guacamole. :)

    Ulla Lauridsen wrote on March 9th, 2012
  5. How about eating in the season then the foods are available for maybe 3 or 6 months of the year , would very much doubt that oxalic acid for instance would be a problem with a six month break , or eggs only during spring time .
    This would be how our distant ancestors would have eaten be them cavemen or nomads .
    What are your thoughts .

    Ray wrote on March 10th, 2012
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    alucia wrote on March 13th, 2012
  7. Hey Mark. Great post. Thanks for all the helpful insight. In the category of nuts, will germinating them (soak & drying, and/or sprouting) neutralize the phytic acid and other toxins, as the process does with enzyme inhibitors?

    Tara wrote on March 13th, 2012
  8. My nutritionist scolded me for following the Primal Diet… WHY?!?!

    The Over Primal Monkey wrote on March 15th, 2012
  9. I’ve been researching anti-nutrients a little bit, and while grains have phylates, etc, things like spinach have oxalates, which is an anti-nutrient. This article talks a little bit about oxalates, but doesn’t mention that it’s an anti-nutient. The anti-nutrient argument against grain-eating goes out the window when many primal foods have anti-nutrients and one is allowed to eat them according to the Primal Blueprint. Am I wrong? If I am, how?

    Bryan wrote on April 21st, 2012
  10. One food that I believe was missed that I consider a “perfect” food.
    The APPLE…………..

    tim wrote on September 13th, 2012
  11. Forget the concept of the perfect food, can you tell us, if we only had one food to eat which food would keep us alive the for the longest period of time?

    shannon damore wrote on January 16th, 2013

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