Before we get started, please don’t worry about my title. I am not going to ask you eat a specific proportion of your body weight in salad every day. This idea may have occurred to you when you read it, or not. In either case, we are not going there today.
It is true that I am a passionate health advocate, but also a kind one and I don’t even own a scale myself. The goal of the HumanaNatura program is a progressive exploration of our own health, not a fixed regimen. I have learned that this exploration is best advanced through new perspective, not rigid formulas, especially when we can see our health (and lives) in an open-ended way, with opportunities for new health and discovery from wherever we are.
With this disclaimer, I would still like you to think about your diet for the next few minutes. I say this whether you are following the HumanaNatura natural health program or have not yet started it. I have been on our natural diet plan for a number of years now. You might think I wouldn’t have much new to learn about this way of eating, but the idea of our “salad-to-weight ratio” is relatively new for me, and I think an important learning for us all. Let me explain the idea and how it may change the way you think about what you eat, as it did for me. It at least will demonstrate that our health is journey, always holding more for us if we are attentive and have a progressive frame of mind.
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The idea of our salad-to-weight ratio occurred to me after reading Eaton & Eaton’s excellent paper, “Evolution, Diet and Health” (see “Human Diet Science” in the HumanaNatura article library for more info). Their analysis begins by looking at the diets of chimpanzees and bonobos, our closest living relatives, with whom we shared a common ancestor about seven million years ago. The authors note that about 95% of their diets are what I will call salad foods (in the words of the authors, “plant foods such as fruits, leaves, gums, and stalks.”).
Eaton & Eaton rightly go on to point out that a lot has happened to humans in the ensuing seven million years – profound changes in our appearance, physiology, cognitive abilities, lifestyle, and natural diet – since we were nearly identical genetic cousins to chimps and bonobos. From an evolutionary standpoint, humans grew from simple gatherers into skillful hunters, and moved from life around trees to one principally out on open range land (and perhaps along the sea for a time). Cognitively, we developed formal language and the ability to mange more complex social relationships. Nutritionally, our dietary consumption of proteins and fats increased substantially and progressively over the seven million years of our true human lineage.
Still, despite these many changes, we kept eating lots of salads (again, my choice of words and defined here as raw fruits and vegetables). Eaton & Eaton conclude, “Paleolithic humans commonly obtained 65% of their food energy from fruits and vegetables.” Significant gathering, and consequently a high salad-to-weight ratio, continued with human populations down almost to the present day. For this reason, it is reasonable to suspect that a high salad-to-weight ratio is still essential for our proper nutrition and health today.
As HumanaNatura community members know, our human nutritional story has taken two sharp turns very recently in historical time, both decidedly for the worse in terms of fostering our natural fitness and health. The first turn was about 10,000 years ago (~0.15% of our human history), when our Paleolithic ancestors began settling down into Neolithic villages focused on farming. There, from an evolutionary perspective, three unnatural food groups were introduced or greatly increased in our diet: cereals and grains, legumes, and starchy plants. Eaton & Eaton suggest this change “may have reduced intake of fruits and vegetables to 20% or less of total energy intake,” down from its long pattern of closer to 65 percent.
This historically recent change is a large and very rapid drop in “salad food” consumption, and represents a dramatic decline in our salad-to-weight ratio. Compare it with the prior drop from 95% to 65% of energy intake from salad foods, a gradual change that occurred over a few million years. With the agrarian revolution, in just a few generations, our energy from salad consumption then went from 65% to 20%. These two rates of change – total change over time of change – are many orders of magnitude different, with our more recent drop in salad consumption something like 100,000 times faster.
The second sharp turn in our diet has of course occurred in the last 100 years or so, a blink in the eye of our history, with the industrial revolution and the increasing industrialization and commercialization of our food supply and life more generally. Eaton & Eaton do not recalibrate the salad percentage in a modern industrial diet, but we all can see what people are eating. No doubt many people are still getting 20% of their energy from raw fruits and vegetables, but many others are not. And one must look hard to find people getting 65% of their energy from salad foods – though when you do find such people, you notice they are often far healthier and more fit than the general population.
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This all brings us back to the idea of our salad-to-weight ratio. Before you surmise that you have to make sure 65% of what you put in your mouth is salad (raw fruits and vegetables), consider two more things. First, natural but non-salad foods like meats and nuts have much higher energy content (calories) than vegetables, and a bit more than fruits. So, kilo for kilo, or pound for pound, we all have to eat a greater volume of salad foods for the same amount of energy than these other foods. Second, if we assume a diet with excessive fruit (from experience, more than about 30% of our energy) introduces too much sugar into our diet for optimal health and fitness, this means raw vegetables need to be a considerable and conspicuous part of our energy intake.
Put another way, this analysis indicates that far more raw vegetables are needed in our diet than most of us are eating today, even for many people on a natural diet. It suggests that we need a high, even a very high salad-to-weight ratio to be optimally healthy. It suggests we should have a salad not “at” every meal, but “for” every meal, with a moderate amount protein on the side. And it suggests that most of our salads should be built from raw vegetables, with some all-fruit salads or with fruit as an accompaniment to large volumes of raw vegetables.
Does this approach seem counter-intuitive? It is certainly counter-cultural. Myself, I must admit that during my years on the HumanaNatura diet plan (with no grains, legumes, or starchy plant foods), I have eaten a lot of salad, but not this much until recently. Like many people pursuing natural or Paleolithic eating, my meals had been weighted more toward meats and nuts, with substantial but not dominating amounts of salad foods. Thinking through our ideal salad-to-weight ratio, however, I began to suspect that I needed to shift my food mix further in the direction of raw vegetables.
So I did an experiment, as health advocates are apt to do (and should do) before they advocate. I upped my own salad-to-weight ratio considerably, more than doubling the amount of raw vegetables I was eating, while leaving my fruit intake about the same and moderately reducing the amount of natural protein foods I was eating (from about 100 to 75 grams a day). I ended up with a diet based almost exclusively on what I will call “salad meals.” These meals of course included adequate protein and enough fruit for energy and to make my diet interesting, but not so much fruit that sweetness was its central theme. On a diet of salad meals, you quickly re-learn to pursue and enjoy crunchy over sweet or meaty – a different aesthetic but one that is very satisfying.
Here’s what I found after several weeks and have maintained for over a year: First, I felt better physically and mentally, experiencing a sense of greater mental clarity and evenness, without being light-headed, and with noticeable improvements in my energy and endurance over the day. I lost a bit of weight, 1-2 kg (3-5 pounds), and noticed an increased leanness in my body (beginning from a point where I was fairly paleo-lean already, as the expression goes). Third, I noticed positive changes in my digestive patterns and overall regularity. After several months of eating this way, I had a blood work-up, which indicated improvements in most categories over my previously healthy baseline.
Overall, my personal experience seems to support theory. For at least one person on natural diet, a high salad-to-weight ratio appears to be a healthier approach than eating naturally but with a lower salad ratio. And I think this should be an encouragement for others to try increasing their salad-to-weight ratio as I did.
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I began our discussion today by assuring you I would not ask you to eat a percentage of your body weight in salad every day, and I will keep my promise. But I would ask you to consider carefully your own salad-to-weight ratio in general terms, and to begin to shift your thinking, first to having salads at every meal and then to having salads for every meal.
If you are not on the HumanaNatura diet plan yet, that is probably the logical next step for you, but be sure to check with your physician first. If you are on the HumanaNatura diet, start by considering the salad-to-weight ratio of your next meal and then your meal plans for the next week. Perhaps you too need to try making adjustments, increasing your intake of raw vegetables and adjusting your fruit and protein intake to reach a more optimal dietary mix. In either case, there is an article in the HumanaNatura library, entitled “Perfect Salad Meals Today,” that can help you think through how to increase your salad-to-weight ratio a practical and reliable way, and make salad eating easy, varied, and satisfying.
No doubt, there is a natural range of food intake that will foster optimal health in humans – nature did not design us with overly delicate constitutions – but I think it is worth experimenting a bit, perhaps beginning by shifting to a diet that is, by food weight, roughly 25% fruits, 25% meats and nuts, and 50% raw vegetables (including lettuces and low-sugar vegetable fruits like tomatoes and cucumbers). If your current diet is more meat-oriented, as was mine, you may find that it is a noticeably different diet, aesthetically, practically, and nutritionally. I personally find a new balance of foods in my kitchen, reduced time preparing meals, and a slightly changed outlook on eating in general.
After moving to a natural diet, optimizing your salad-to-weight ratio may be the best step you can take to unlock your own natural health through your eating habits. Like all natural eating, the result is a diet that quickly fosters new levels of health in our lives and that is a joy in practice, affording us meals that are satisfying and delicious, with an alternative aesthetic that is at once fresh and new, and ancient and deeply revealing.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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