The development of the Core Meal was a long process involving months of anthropological observations of traditional peoples’ eating habits, years of studying modern athletic training diets, and a whole lot of independent scientific research. Why such effort? Diet is a significant risk factor in more than half of the deaths in the world. Unfortunately, laboratory nutrition science is not very helpful because (believe it or not) we cannot conduct diet studies on humans. It’s simply unethical. Luckily, hundreds of thousands of years of refinements in the "natural laboratory" give us a pretty good picture of what human nutrition should look like.
So let’s start at the beginning. Other animals don’t seem to be confused about what to eat. Deer don't consult diet books to decide what to eat. They know instinctively which plants to gnaw on and which to avoid. We seem to have lost that trait, but our ancestors can provide guidance. The closest living relatives of Homo sapiens are shown to be 99.4 percent identical in the functionally-important DNA. That’s pretty close, close enough that we can look at what chimps and bonobos eat, calculate how our bodies are different, and project what we are intended to eat.
Chimps and bonobos eat primarily raw plant parts (fruits along with leaves, buds, flowers, bark, and resin) and a sprinkling of honey and insects. Once in a while they’ll eat a bird or a small mammal. We humans are smaller than these apes in all six major digestive anatomical systems: smaller mouths, weaker jaws, smaller teeth, smaller stomachs, smaller colons, and 2/3-smaller gut. This is pretty interesting, since overall we are bigger than they are. It means that we must be consuming less volume and getting more energy from more nutrient-dense foods. But when we compare teeth, it turns out we have exactly the same “dental formula” as our smiley relatives: the same teeth built for eating the same foods with the same frequencies. How can this be?
THE COOKING APES
The answer is food processing, especially cooking. We turned to things outside our bodies to help us break down our food: fire and tools. Cooking and otherwise processing our foods by mashing and grinding denatures the proteins, breaks up fiber bonds, and increases the caloric density of our food. This was a powerful adaptation for our species, allowing us to ingest an excess energy supply which could expand our brain size and permit the development of agriculture and modern society.
Humans were studying nutrition long before the word science even existed. It takes approximately 12-15,000 years for changes in our diets to make changes in our physiology. We’ve had plenty of periods of time that long in our 2+ million year presence as a genus. As we migrated to different parts of the earth with different foods available, the individuals that thrived were the ones who gathered the best food and processed it most efficiently.
As early as the beginning of the 20th century, researchers observed that increased rates of disease occurred when traditional people abandoned or supplanted their native diet with a more Western one. This was painfully evident to me in the tribes that I lived with. Traditional diets, like organisms, have been tested and perfected over tens of thousands of years. Long before food labs were developed, nutrition choices were tested for rigor and potency in the hard-knocks school of survival. Traditional food combinations persist today, and the wisdom they embody should not be overlooked.
In the past several hundred years things started to change as we began to apply elaborate manufacturing skills to our food. We now isolate, extract, and combine ingredients to make foods very different from anything our bodies had experienced before. In fact, we now create foods more calorically dense than our digestive system can handle. We get all the energy we need without the volume that makes our stomach feel “full.” This won't be a problem once we’ve had time to adapt, but we still have more than 10,000 years to go! Our initial advantage over chimps and bonobos has turned against us. From this delicious abundance has emerged our epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and other problems--and the many 20th century theories and dietary regimes that attempt to solve them.
20th CENTURY NUTRITION
First, calories emerged as the measure to judge right consumption of food products—as long as we kept our energy consumption equal to our energy expenditure, we’d be okay. We’ve now learned that the energy released by a piece of food when incinerated in a burn calorimeter (to measure calories) is very different from when it reacts with acids in our stomachs. The amount of water we drink, the way we combine different foods, and even our moods complicate this equation. Calories are a poorer nutrition measure than we’d thought.
Next nutritionists started breaking down our food into categories to see if the proportions of things would give us any better insight. Excess carbohydrates emerged as a potential problem. We tried Low Carb Diets, only to find that they can lead to health problems and were notoriously hard to maintain over time. Fat was targeted as the new culprit with the publication of the Food Pyramid. But, while there are fats that do clog our arteries (like hydrogenated oils), we discovered that there are also fats that we must have to live (essential fatty acids). Sugar was next exposed as the real fattening agent. So we figured out a way to sneak in sweetness by inventing artificial sweeteners—until they became associated with dangerous diseases like cancer. With fat and carbs tied up in controversy, protein emerged as the do-good food. Body builders and athletes used high protein consumption to grow enormous toned bodies. However, followers of the Atkin’s Diet learned the hard way that increased meat consumption had serious long-term health consequences.
In reaction to all this, raw and vegan diets gained popularity—until some high-profile proponents became sick from nutritional deficiencies. To prevent these illnesses, vitamin and supplement sales shot up. And so began our most recent obsession with isolating and micromanaging each potentially valuable substance from our foods. We now look to esoteric micro-nutrients like Vitamin C and antioxidants, and exotic compounds like Acai and Kombucha for our miracle cure.
Still the epidemic of health problems remains a mystery. Recently nutritionists have begun to recognize that micronutrients do not retain the same nutritional benefits when separated from their whole-food sources. For hundreds of millions of years, plants have competed to provide the best food offerings to attract animals to carry their seeds. It is not surprising that such a long history of nutritional refinement has created superior foods than what we can create with processing and extracting. A counter-movement has emerged, targeting the very act of refining ingredients as the true poison. Consumers are gaining an appropriate weariness of preservatives and foods with unlimited shelf-lives.
As a species we’ve gone from being defined by our kitchens, to fearing them. Is it any surprise that the past few decades of “nutrition advice” has generated real confusion over what to eat and whom to listen to?
Visible in this murky atmosphere of dietary ideas are two major theories that have stood the test of time. One is supported empirically from the fine-tuning of nutrition by professional athletes and their coaches (what I’ll refer to as "Warrior"). The other is based on long-term correlations between diet and disease-reduction (see "Defender," explained below).
Warrior. This model assumes the best nutrition for human bodies maximizes growth, tone, and physical performance. It calls for consuming carefully calculated proportions of foods and is the main subject of serious instruction in athlete nutrition. Married with regimented exercise, it dictates consuming regular, smaller meals five to six times a day. Each is comprised of specific proportions of lean (particularly animal) proteins (like chicken and salmon), complex carbohydrates (whole grains and vegetables), and healthy fats (like almonds and avocados). Simple sugars (fruits) and synthesized proteins (like whey) are used to maximize workout efficiency. Warriors concerned with eliminating unsightly body fat will also exclude processed foods, soda, candy, and alcohol. The Warrior's food stands in contrast to the food of Defenders because high proportions of animal protein increase the risk of “diseases of affluence” (heart disease, cancers, etc.). The effectiveness of this nutrition for athletic performance is unmatched.
Defender. This model assumes that the best human nutrition limits the emergence of disease. It has been the soapbox of countless health pioneers and medical professionals like Jack LaLane, Paul Bragg, and Dr. John McDougall. A century of research culminating with Dr. Colin Campbell’s immense China Study has proven beyond a doubt that this nutrition is the best weapon against the diseases that kill the majority of people in the West (i.e. heart disease, cancers, etc.). The nutrition does not involve careful attention to proportions but rather mandates eating a large variety of only whole, raw or simply-cooked plant-based foods (e.g., fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes) and no animal products: in a word, veganism. The outdated notion that plant foods need to be delicately combined to deliver adequate nutrients has been discredited. Slow and steady muscular development is achievable with plant protein alone, though not as quickly as when eating like a Warrior.
Both Warrior and Defender regimes require a lot of commitment, but their results are consistent and convincing. In my own experience, by eating like a Defender for 10 years I sustained a thin, fit physique while maintaining a rock-solid immune system. After joining the cast of the Discovery Channel’s TV series Last One Standing, I quickly transformed into a muscular athlete within the course of just a few months by eating and exercising like a Warrior. Both philosophies additionally rewarded me with tremendous stability in energy levels and moods: eliminating refined sugars and simple grains reduced taxing insulin fluxes; eliminating hydrogenated oils and heavily processed foods meant not confounding the body’s natural nutritional and metabolic efficiency.
Both Warrior and Defender food programs operate irrespective of genetics and both make your body leaner. One has a higher risk of long-term disease but supports the body’s best athletic performance right now. The other has the lowest risk of long-term disease by supporting the body through slow and steady growth. Both depart from the eating habits of our ape relatives. Defender food most closely matches what we physiologically project as the best human diet, except that it excludes occasional animal product consumption. Warrior food is a much farther cry from the projected human diet nearly reversing the proportions of fibrous plants with animal products and grains.
For now, your choice of best nutrition comes down to your goals and desires. If you seek a career as a professional athlete or need a muscular body for public image, eating like a Warrior may be worth the risks. Otherwise (probably for the majority), the better choice may be to eat like a Defender—less regimented, and aimed at longevity and quality of life.
Both of these philosophies are, of course, diets. In order to receive the benefits, you must regularly avoid most convenience items sold in grocery stores. While this initially requires more creative cooking and eating, I can tell you from my own experience that taste sensations offered to your palate expand. Of the thousands of different varieties of grains, vegetables, fruits, and meats, we regularly consume only a handful. Following Warrior or Defender food programs will lead you to explore this cornucopia of flavors—and your wallet will surely appreciate the impact of spending more time in the produce department.
The study of human nutrition looks back well over 200,000 years and our understanding will continue to evolve. The absence of reliable laboratory studies means nutrition theories are incomplete. Yet evidence supporting Warrior and Defender food programs is significant enough to use them as a foundation for your nutrition choices. Above all, don't create stress from micromanaging your food choices. Lifelong health is determined by long-term habits. It’s important to be happy and consistent.
In developing the Core Meals, we’ve attempted to do most of the work for you. Each Core Meal is built from traditional regional ingredient combinations, so you know you can count on powerful, enduring foods. Core Meals are predominantly raw with cooked components to make up for the differences between our digestive system and that of our ancestors. Core Meals source only organic whole food ingredients and contain no chemicals, preservatives, extracts, flavors, or dyes. Core Meals focus on providing sustained, high-nutrient energy and avoid any flours or sweeteners. Finally, there are two varieties depending on your activity style and daily needs, the Warrior and the Defender. We remain uncompromising in creating a bar that’s real food--remember, real food spoils.
There are many approaches to help you combine nutritional health and happiness. The one suggested by journalist Michael Pollan is “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The approach that I use in my personal life is what might be called Flexitarian. Strive to prepare most of your meals for yourself, and only bring home groceries that fulfill your optimal diet. See challenge and opportunity in learning to make delicious meals quickly from only the healthiest ingredients. When you want to celebrate or dine out with friends and family, indulge in the universe of tastes and dishes our world of kitchens provides. You’ve earned it by Eating Like Your Life Depends On It--because it does!
Corey Rennell, Founder
Nestle, Marion. What to Eat. North Point Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-86575-738-4
Wrangham, Richard. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Basic Books, 2009. ISBN 0465013627
Campbell, T. Colin. The China Study. Benbella Books, 2006. ISBN 1-932100-38-5