Most of us aren’t hunters. Most of us can’t take days off from work to gather some edible bulbs and silently stalk a wild beast whose pursuit might not even end in a kill and meal. No, we are modern humans who go to work, who wield income rather than spears, who mosey on down to the grocery store when we need food. We have the luxury – and some might say burden – of choosing what we’ll eat and when we’ll eat it. But strangely enough, there was a sort of freedom in the way we obtained food in years gone past, wasn’t there? When we filled our bellies solely by what we could catch, grow, and gather, there wasn’t a whole lot of junk food sneaking onto our plates. No Twinkies, no double gallon jugs of soybean oil, no golden arches looming over you.
And so now we’re tasked with making healthy choices, whereas before healthy choices were all that existed. It’s great to have the freedom to choose, but we should try to make the right choices.
How do we do it? We make the healthiest choices across the spectrum of foods as dictated by circumstance, access, and finances. Let’s see how they rank, with 1 being “healthiest.” Start with the foods with the first spot and buy those when and if you can.
Red Meat (Beef, Lamb, Pork)
Red meat, along with seafood (and derivative fats), will likely provide the lion’s share of your calories. It’s probably best that you get the best stuff possible.
1. Grass-fed/grass-finished/pastured (pork) – Before organic and before local comes grass-fed and finished. While I try to buy beef from local providers – and usually end up doing just that – I’m most concerned that the beef I eat comes from animals raised strictly on grass. Even a few weeks of grain feeding can alter the nutritional content and fatty acid composition of the resultant meat, so grass-fed and finished is the absolute best. These needn’t be certified organic, but I’ve found that many grass-finished ranchers are organic in everything but name. You won’t find grass-fed pork, because pigs aren’t ruminants, but you can find pastured pork who are allowed to forage and often receive farm waste (milk, whey, fruits, vegetables). Note that “pastured” beef isn’t necessarily grass-fed and finished. Bones, organ meat, and tougher cuts like chuck and stew are less expensive – and arguably more nutritious – ways to incorporate truly grass-finished animals into your diet.
2. Organic – According to the USDA, organic beef must come from cows who were born and raised on organic pasture, must never receive antibiotics, must never receive growth-promoting hormones, must have unrestricted outdoor access, and must be fed only organic grasses and grains. So, yeah, grains. Note that there’s no mention of the breakdown between grains and grasses; it could be 80% grains and 20% grass and still qualify as organic. So, while organic is clearly preferable to conventional meat, it’s unlikely to be superior to grass-fed and finished meat without the organic label.
3. CAFO – Most meat you’ll come across in supermarkets and restaurants will be from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, where animals are treated like mere products and maximum productivity is prized above all – even if it means pumping the animals (and their meat) full of antibiotics, hormones, and pesticide-laden feed. The meat doesn’t taste as good, it’s less nutritious, and, at least in the case of pork, it’s extremely high in omega-6 fats.
Poultry and Eggs
For when you’re not eating ruminants. Dollar for dollar, truly pastured eggs might just be the best use of your money.
1. Pastured – A pastured chicken isn’t just free range, given a patch of dirt upon which to scratch and peck; a pastured chicken is given access to pasture, to grassland teeming with a smorgasbord of delicious insects, nutritious plants, and edible seeds. The best pastured poultry gets most of its calories from the pasture, with a few handfuls of chicken feed to round things out back at the henhouse. Since poultry (and every animal we eat) doesn’t create nutrients out of thin air, its nutritional content is determined by the nutritional content of its diet. A pastured chicken (or duck, or turkey, or any bird) tastes like a different animal altogether, probably because it’s living like its primary ancestor – the jungle fowl (PDF) – and its fatty acid composition bears that out (far less omega-6 than battery-raised birds). Same goes for eggs from the same birds.
2. Organic – Organic poultry gets outdoor access and organic feed. It receives no antibiotics, no drugs, and no hormones (although that’s true for all chickens, at least in the US). It does not get access to pasture, to bugs, or to edible grasses unless otherwise specified. It’s better than conventional poultry, but it’s eating corn and soy (albeit non-GMO, organic) just the same.
3. Free range – Doesn’t mean very much. It has access to the outside, but it’s just a dirt patch. All the food (which is just soy and corn, of course) is inside, so that’s where it’ll spend most of its time. At least it gets to walk around some, rather than being crammed in a cage.
4. CAFO – Avoid if you can, unless you like eating beakless, stationary, big-breasted birds with soybean and corn oil for fat.
Seafood and the omega-3 fats, sea minerals like iodine, and other micronutrients it provides are essential. Even if you think you “hate seafood,” check out the lists below and I’m sure you’ll be able to find something you can enjoy.
1. Shellfish, farmed/wild; oily fish, wild; coho, farmed, barramundi – Wild-caught sardines, salmon, tuna, anchovies, mackerel, and herring have the highest levels of omega-3 and, except for salmon and tuna, they’re some of the most affordable fish around. Farmed shellfish are raised essentially like wild shellfish, attached to a fixed object and allowed to obtain sustenance from the ocean; they’re also the most nutrient-dense of the edible sea creatures. And although most farmed salmon is nutritionally inferior to wild, farmed coho salmon is actually quite reminiscent of wild coho. Barramundi is fairly high in omega 3s, about the same as coho salmon. In the wild, it’s omnivorous, but it does very well on a mostly herbivorous diet and needs far less fish meal than salmon while still retaining the omega-3s.
2. Canned oily fish and shellfish – Canned sardines, salmon, light tuna, oysters, mussels, and other fish from the first category are budget-friendly ways to eat healthy seafood. Just stick to BPA-free versions, to avoid the endocrine disruption.
3. Domestic catfish, trout, tilapia, crayfish; non-oily wild fish – While trying to farm wholly carnivorous fish is problematic and usually ends up producing an inferior food, replicating the diet of herbivorous fish is easier. In short, everything listed here is fair game, whether wild or farmed, especially if it’s domestic. Neither they nor the non-oily wild fish like cod are particularly high in omega-3s, but they’re all great sources of protein with decent levels of nutrients.
Vegetables and Fruits
Plants – both vegetables and fruits – form the basis of the Primal Blueprint way of eating. They don’t provide the bulk of calories by any means, but they provide volume and micronutrients. It’s important that you eat the most nutritious, less problematic types.
1. Local organic – The cream of the crop. Food from your neck of the woods grown with organic methods that doesn’t have to travel halfway across the country to reach you.
2. Local conventional – Less transit time means a more recent harvest date means more nutrition. Local ranks higher than anything grown remotely, even organic. Besides, many smaller producers like the ones you’ll run into at farmer’s markets use organic methods without the official stamp of approval from the government.
3. Organic remote – Produce grown without massive amounts of pesticides and herbicides applied tend to have higher levels of polyphenols, the plant’s natural methods of protecting against pests and other aggressors. Those same polyphenols are good for us, too.
4. Conventional remote with skin that’s inedible or easy to wash – If you’re going to eat conventional produce, you best try to stick to vegetables whose skins you peel, remove, or easily wash. Avocados, onions, asparagus – these are pretty safe, since you’re either not going to be eating the skin that’s come into contact with chemicals or you’ll be able to wash it effectively. For fruits, bananas, oranges, mangoes, pineapples, and kiwis are good.
5. Conventional remote with edible or hard to wash surfaces – Leafy greens, broccoli, bell peppers, and other vegetables whose surface area is eaten or too large to effectively wash should be eaten with caution or avoided altogether. Fruits with soft, edible skin, like apples, apricots, peaches, plums, pears, grapes, berries, and tomatoes are best avoided.
Vegetable Nutritional Value
1. Nutrient-dense – Beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower, eggplant, garlic, ginger, jicama, kale, chard, romaine, onion, peas, bell peppers, spinach and yellow squash are some of the vegetables with the highest levels of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial components (like soluble fiber) available. Base your meals and your shopping around these vegetables. Choose “heavy” vegetables, which in my entirely unscientific estimation, are more nutritious.
2. Less nutrient-dense – There’s nothing wrong with stuff like cucumbers, butter lettuce, or iceberg lettuce, but I wouldn’t spend a lot of money on them when there’s so many more intriguing and beneficial options available.
Fruit Nutritional Value
1. Good antioxidant levels, low sugar – All berries, cherries, prunes, peaches, apricots.
3. Good antioxidant levels, high sugar – Pineapple, grapes, mangoes, melons, nectarines, oranges, papayas, plums, tangerines.
Although all nuts are highly nutritious, they are calorically dense, and many of them are high in omega-6 fats. When you’re talking about a whole food high in vitamin E and magnesium like an almond or a hazelnut, a little omega-6 isn’t anything to worry about. But when those occasional handfuls of nuts become regular, constant occurrences whose caloric content begins to approximate that of entire meals, the omega-6 fats add up.
1. Low omega-6 content – Macadamia nuts reign supreme on this account.
These are exactly that – supplements with which to address a deficiency. If you’re a hard-charging athlete who trains daily, then you might need some supplementary glucose to function best. If you’re not, though, you may not need these supplements on a regular basis.
1. Tubers and other starchy vegetables – Sweet potatoes of all kinds, potatoes of all kinds, and winter squash like butternut or acorn are all carb-dense and nutrient-dense, making them great sources of both supplemental carbs for athletic purposes and of minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients.
2. Wild rice, quinoa – These pseudo-grains are gluten-free and relatively low in other plant toxins, especially if you soak and ferment them using traditional preparation methods. They’re fine ways to add more glucose to your diet.
If you’re tolerant of it, dairy can be a fantastic source of fat, protein, and nutrition. Stick to grass-fed and finished, or at least pastured, dairy products for the superior nutrition (CLA, vitamin K2).
1. Raw, fermented, full-fat – Think kefir, yogurt, and skyr (although it’s low-fat, it’s traditionally served that way). Raw, fermented, full-fat dairy from a trusted, pastured supplier makes for the most nutritious, best-tasting, least-problematic choice. Fermentation takes care of most of the lactose, thus eliminating a potential agent of intolerance, while providing added probiotic benefits.
2. Raw, full-fat – Think butter, cream, whole milk. Raw dairy is more nutritious, it’s fats less damaged, and the full fat content is necessary for proper absorption and presence of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A and K2. Plus, full-fat dairy contains the most CLA.
3. Organic, non-homogenized, full-fat – Sure, it’s pasteurized, but at least the fat globules haven’t been damaged after undergoing high pressure homogenization treatment. The fat-solubles will be mostly intact.
Well, that should get you started for your next shopping trip. Be sure to revisit Action Item #1, where I detailed what not to buy, plus Action Item #2, where I explained how to shop and what fats and kitchen staples to buy, then let me know if you have any further questions on food choices in the comments. Take care and Grok on!
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 three decades researching and 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 Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.