Building versus repairing

There’s so much conflicting information on the Internet as to what promotes health and longevity. It seems to me that some peak performance enthusiasts are creating confusion, because the needs of a person under the age of 40 whose goal is vigorous physical performance is probably quite different from the average person whose goal is to live to be 90 years old in good health. A growing body of evidence suggests that health recommendations should be viewed through the lens of building versus repairing. Diets that are high in protein promote growth. Diets that are low in protein promote repair.

This is a central organizing principle of a recent book by the physician Kris Verburgh called The Longevity Code. Fitness experts like Ben Greenfield have begun to recognize this in recent years, and it is clearly reflected in his most comprehensive blog posts on diet as well as his two most recent books, especially the newest one, Boundless. It is notable that the dietary recommendations for Mr. Greenfield and Dr. Verburgh are quite similar.

One thing is for sure. We know very little about the long-term effects of diets that are extremely high in saturated fat and protein but which contain no refined carbohydrates in little or no carbohydrates at all. Examples include the carnivore, some versions of the Paleo, and the keto diets. There certainly population on the planet who appear to thrive on a diet high in saturated animal fat and protein, but it all depends upon how one defines “thrive.” I don’t dismiss the possibility that there are certain ancestral lineages around the world that differ from the norm. I also do not doubt that there are short term health gains in performance enhancements when adopting such a diet. However, my personal interest is living to be at least 100 in excellent health. So, I am more influenced by research that speaks to this goal than examples of outliers that can be used to make a counterpoint.

That being said, I have never been a proponent of one-size-fits-all diet. I typically recommend a generally recognized as healthy foundational diet as a starting point. Ben Greenfield website is a good starting place to research the options and decide. Then, I would expect my clients to keep close track of everything they were eating and doing for about a month. The things they consume and do in relation to how they feel is still the best method we have to personalize one’s regimens.

When the goal is to live long and in good health, the evidence seems fairly overwhelming. Blue zone and centenarian studies make it quite clear that the diet that leads to extreme longevity is one that is largely but not completely vegan.  I’ve seen a lot of animal fat and protein advocates attempting to twist around this data to suit their agendas, despite the fact that virtually no one who takes this position has the appropriate training, education, or experience to do so in a trustworthy way. According to the highly regarded researcher, Valter Longo, there are five types of evidence that one must review before making a judgment about the benefits of one dietary intervention versus another. He refers to these as the five pillars of longevity. He and others have pointed out how the only dietary interventions that meet all five pillars are the blue zone and centenarian approaches.

For example, high animal protein and/or fat advocates like to point out that blue zone and centenarian diets are not 100% vegan. However, that is a strawman attack. While there are plenty of vegans out there who are misreporting the information to support their own agenda and claim that this research indicates we should be all eating a 100% vegan diet, this is not what any of the actual researchers claim to have found themselves. In fact, all of the populations studied, with the exception of the Loma Linda seventh day Adventists, who are strict vegetarians, all of the blue zone and centenarian populations that were studied consumed varying degrees of animal products. Some ate virtually none and most ate very little.

It is also worth noting that the traditional medical systems of both China and India advocated for a diet that was relatively low in animal fat and protein. The mainstream approach to traditional East Indian medicine actually advocated for strictly vegetarian and even mostly vegan diets.  This advice was based on observations by physicians and other observers over many centuries as to what conditions lead to a long healthy life and what did not. Although ancient people did not have the power of modern science to unravel this mystery, they were as obsessed with it as we are. Arguably, they had to really hone their ability to use their God-given senses to understand the world in the absence of having the more powerful tools we now possess.

This brings me back to the subject line: building versus repairing. Hormones like testosterone and growth hormone are essential to creating the form of the young male body that many people currently consider the ideal for men (as did the ancient Greeks — look at their statues). However, this is a point in life where one is still growing, so eating with the goal of building strong muscles makes the most sense from an evolutionary perspective. As I’ve noted many times over the years, evolution really doesn’t care what happens to us after we have reproduced and brought the next generation to maturity. So, that which makes the young big and strong and fit may not tell us very much about what is ideal after the age of 50. The evidence to date strongly suggests it is categorically different than the lifestyle of a champion athlete or one who aspires in that direction.

The evidence suggests that putting the body into repair mode is the key to extreme longevity with a high quality of life. Things like dietary deprivation, intermittent fasting, and things that caused hormesis are central parts of Dr. V’s longevity staircase. In case, hormesis is probably an unfamiliar term to some. It is defined on Ben Greenfield’s website as:

Hormesis is a healthy stress response within our body that produces a cleansing process. To activate this state, I’ll use saunas, fasting, and extreme hot/cold.