How Important is Food Variety?

I eat a pretty monotonous diet. I’m not averse to new foods or cuisines, and I’ll try just about anything, but my regular, day-to-day food is consistent and reliable. Check out a week in my life if you don’t believe me. Breakfast is either coffee, Primal Fuel, and/or an omelet. Lunch is usually a Big Ass Salad. Dinner consists of a meat/fish, something green, and a glass of wine. Occasionally, I’ll throw in some sweet potatoes, macadamia nuts, or berries, and if I eat out or have guests over I’ll mix things up, but that’s essentially it. I like the food I like, it keeps me satisfied and fueled, and it’s nutritionally complete. It’s also one less thing to worry about in an increasingly busy life.

I think most people have go-to meals, especially in the Primal community, where cooking the bulk of one’s meals oneself to avoid Neolithic poisons is the norm. You get comfortable with a certain range of dishes, you buy the same stuff at the market, you perfect your technique, and you’ve had success with these dishes in the past… so why change? It’s also not very realistic to whip up new dishes every single day, dishes that require this amount of some random spice or obscure vegetable that you’d never use for anything else. Cooking big complex meals is fun for a change, but it’s not realistic for everyday eating. This is true all across the world and, I imagine, across history. People have always had staples that they stick to, especially if they cook most of their own food – as mankind has done for most of its history.

But “monotony” is kind of a bad word. To many, it means boring, unfulfilling, onerous, and miserable. We in the Primal community often mention the “monotony of Chronic Cardio” as a detraction, so I’m not exempt. We like dynamic movement that passes through all three planes and uses multiple joints. We often speak of “fractals” and randomness, like choosing to walk across an uneven landscape or skipping meals just because. So, on the face of it, food variety seems like a natural extension of the Primal lifestyle.

And for the most part, I support food variety. There are clear benefits to eating a wider variety of foods:

  • Access to a wider variety of micronutrients and phytochemicals. Think of all the various antioxidants associated with the greens, reds, yellows, purples, and oranges in fruits and vegetables. Think of how vitamin and mineral content differs between foods.
  • Dilution of food toxins. Food toxins usually operate in a dose-dependent manner, so keeping a variety would help keep the doses low and spread thin.
  • Food enjoyment. Eating the same three things is a sure path to food boredom. Eating should come with a serving of sensory enjoyment.

Let’s take a deeper look at that food boredom thing. People like novelty, and food boredom is a horrible, horrible thing that certainly leads to bad food choices. I mean, who’s more likely to crumple and go for the vegetable oil sugar fritters (also known as donuts) – the guy who eats the same Big Ass Salad every single day or the guy who can’t stop talking about the latest Senegalese/Burmese/Ukrainian joint he hit for dinner last night? You might guess the salad-eater, since he couldn’t possibly enjoy eating the same thing over and over again, because, well, it just seems so boring and variety is the spice of life! The guy with berbere under his fingernails is surely immune to the allure of a novel industrial food-like substance, given his cosmopolitan appetites.

Let’s use a little logic here. Salad guy is an adult with the ability to procure or prepare the food of his choice. If he so wished, he too could be the guy who insists on ordering “Thai spicy.” Instead, he eats that same salad every single day. He chooses to eat that same salad every day. To me, that suggests not food boredom, but food contentment. Big difference. Boredom’s bad, contentment is great. The adventurous guy seems a bit bored, to be honest. Maybe not bored, but perhaps boredom is lapping at his heels and he’s doing all he can to keep it at bay.

Contentment and boredom appear similar to an observer, but they’re really not. Boredom is a projection, not a description. Because a daily salad would bore the onlooker, he or she assumes the salad eater is bored. To the salad guy, the daily salad is a beautiful, satiating thing. It’s like that “boring couple” we all know. They’re boring homebodies, but they’re probably content. Besides, who knows what kind of sexual escapades are going on?

Food contentment is really another word for habituation, which can actually be quantitatively measured in humans via salivary response to food. Yep, it’s not just dogs who subconsciously drool at the sight of food. Humans do it, too. So, by measuring the salivary response, we can gauge whether someone is habituated to a particular food. And obese and overweight people do not habituate to food as quickly as normal weight individuals. In one study, when presented with lemon-flavored candies, both normal weight people and successful weight loss retainers (former overweight/obese who lost and maintained) showed quick habituation, i.e. they stopped salivating after a few candies. Obese people did not show habituation. Their salivation did not cease or slow down. Their bodies craved that lollipop every time it was offered. You might think that it’s a genetic thing, that folks with the “non-habituation gene” are more likely to get fat, but the fact that the former obese all showed quick habituation makes that unlikely. It’s more likely that obesity changes our ability to habituate.

There’s another option, of course. It could be that a failure to habituate to food helps cause obesity, that if a food remains novel, we eat more of it. So, it’s not that obesity leads to non-habituation, but the other way around. If so, we’d need to understand how food habituation breaks down and why. Perhaps this recent study of food habituation in obese and normal weight women can help: both obese and non-obese women aged 20-50 years were broken up into two groups. One group received macaroni and cheese once a day for five days straight. The other group received macaroni and cheese one day a week for five weeks. Same amount of mac and cheese, different schedule. The five-days-straight group showed long-term habituation to the mac and cheese. They craved and ate less of it by the end of the trial. The second group ate more mac and cheese and showed very little habituation. Mac and cheese remained a novel food to the second group, while it was standard fare for the first group, even though both groups had access to the same amount of mac and cheese. The only thing that changed was meal frequency. You might say that the second group ate a more varied diet, while the first group ate a more monotonous diet.

Keeping frequency constant but changing the food also seems to affect habituation. Another study found that limiting snacks to a single variety increased the satiety derived from snacking, as opposed to participants who were allowed to snack on a variety of foods. Both groups received the same amount of snacks, but the no-variety group could choose only a single snack to receive for the duration of the study, while the variety group could get a different snack every time.

There’s also epidemiological evidence that food variety is associated with being overweight. One study looked at long term weight loss maintainers, or former obese folks who were able to successfully keep the weight off for years, and found that the most successful maintainers ate a diet very low in food variety when compared to folks who had just recently lost weight.

Does all that suggest eating a wide variety of Primal-approved foods will inevitably lead to obesity?

No. Consider that we are an odd bunch, and study groups do not accurately reflect us. We are, for the most part, eating, moving, and living uniquely. We’re not on this study’s control diet of refined grains and hot dogs or that study’s experimental diet of whole grains and low-fat dairy. They might provide interesting clues into general human metabolism, but that’s about it. We don’t eat crap in a box. Our idea of food variety isn’t having Pringles, Doritos, Bugles, and Kettle Chips in the pantry. When you limit choices to real food, variety doesn’t matter so much. One study found that overall food variety correlated positively with body fatness in urban Hong Kong Chinese adults, but that correlation reversed itself when limited to “meat and grain” variety. Adding “snack variety” to the mix flipped it to a positive correlation. So, eating a wide variety of snack food was associated with increased body fat, while a wide variety of real food (sure, whole grains aren’t ideal, but as studies have repeatedly shown, they’re better than refined, processed snacks and grain-derived snacks) was associated with lower body fat.

Snacks, mac and cheese? These do not a Primal eating plan comprise.

The question remains, then: should a diet be highly variable?

It depends on your definition of variety. Primal variety means eating organ meat, shellfish, muscle meat, and using the bones. It means rotating between kale, chard, and spinach. It means paying attention to colorful vegetation (use that color vision), like blueberries, cherries, Okinawan sweet potatoes, and carrots. It does not mean getting Chinese take out today and deep dish pizza tomorrow.

It needn’t be super exciting and variable. All that stuff up above is to show that there is nothing wrong with liking the food you like, and, as I showed a few weeks ago, you can satisfy your nutritional and hedonistic requirements with just ten foods. There’s nothing wrong with being the salad guy, or the meat-and-sweet-potatoes type. Variety for the sake of variety is mostly useless, nutritionally, and taken to the extreme might even lead to poor choices and weight gain. Just enjoy your food and eat plenty of plants and animals. As long as you make sure what you eat comes from the Earth, not from a lab or a food production facility, whether you enjoy a variety or a monotone meal plan is immaterial.

The key is that you enjoy it.

What about you, dear readers? Is variety important to you, or do you happily maintain a regular and consistent meal plan?

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

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