Dr. Cate Shanahan: Deep Nutrition and ‘The Human Diet’ – The Role of Epigenetics, What Your Ancestors Ate and Your Activity Levels to Determine Your Dietary Needs

May 31, 2017


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Dr. Cate Shanahan is a board certified family physician and author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food. She’s an expert on epigenetics and has studied culinary traditions and dietary habits of her healthiest patients. She’s applied her learning and experiences in all these scientific fields in the book Deep Nutrition, which we’ll be discussing today and applying to the needs of athletes too.


  • Dr. Cate’s background as an athlete and after, plagued with injury and joint problems, and what she discovered about the role of nutrition in healing?
  • Is Dr. Cate a functional doctor, or does she define herself another way? Plus her thoughts on functional medicine and Western medicine practices.
  • How Dr. Cate got interested in epigenetics and gene expression—and what these things mean.
  • We essentially have the power to change our health and wellbeing via diet; in other words, diet affects gene expression.

Diving into concepts presented in Deep Nutrition

  • We’re not “stuck” with the DNA we’re born with; we can “turn on” or “turn off” certain genes based on what we do.
  • Tied into this is genetic wealth and genetic momentum—i.e. what our ancestors have brought to the table for our wellbeing.
  • So this day in age, the diseases and health issues we’re seeing are largely due to diet not just random chance.
  • Many of us are nutrient starved from the empty calories we eat and that’s what’s making us sick.
  • People will argue that we’re living longer, etc., but just because we’re living longer doesn’t mean we’re healthier—or does it? And furthermore, as you present in the book, are we really living longer?
  • What are the two worst food villains?
    • Vegetable oils—just how bad are these and what kind of health effects do they have? In particular brain health and oxidation.
    • Sugar—avoid refined processed added sugar, and from there generally keep sugar (all kinds even natural) to less than 100g day.
  • Read Dr. Cate’s Good Fats bad Fats article here.
  • Sugar’s role in glycation—what this is and how we can change our diet to fight glycation?
  • Meanwhile, it’s not just the vegetable oils and sugars, there’s a connection between modern over-consumption of vegetable oils/sugars and under-consumption of traditional foods and health issues.
  • Are there flaws with the concepts of the Paleo diet?
  • Dr. Cate introduces The Human Diet, which is based on eating the foods our ancestors did—this isn’t exactly paleo, and it’s not exactly about low carb, so what does it mean?
  • The Human Diet looks to traditional cuisine & foods…
  • “The native diets had ten or more times the fat-soluble vitamins and one-and-a-half to fifty times more minerals than the diets of people in the United States.”
  • The Four Pillars of World Cuisine that we all need in our diets:
    • Meat cooked on the bone
    • Organs and ofal (what Bourdain calls “the nasty bits”)
    • Fresh (raw) plant and animal products
    • Fermented and sprouted foods—better than fresh!
  • Dr. Cate is not anti-carb and allows and recommends (in moderation) sprouted breads, sprouted beans and legumes, yogurts, rice, even corn masa in the Human Diet—we’ve evolved to be able to eat and digest these things!
  • But at the end of the day all carbs even healthy ones essentially turn to sugar, so what’s her take on this considering she’s anti-sugar (refined, processed stuff) but ok with certain carbs?
  • Do you budge at all on eating this perfect nutrient-dense diet, say for the occasional indulgence in a social setting, or in effort to not be too orthorexic and mentally crazy over food? I mean I love everything you say, but I can already see myself wanting to get OCD about only eating perfectly and I know many in our audience are probably like me where we can take health perfection too far.
  • Can healthy eating/living go too far where it’s mentally unhealthy?

Tying in the Human Diet and Deep Nutrition to the needs of athletes:

  • First, how can so many elite endurance athletes get away with a crap diet and still perform well and look awesome? (Is this related to the supermodel who eats twinkies and smokes—as mentioned in the book?)
  • Junk diets destroy collagen and can even put athletes at risk for diabetes.
  • Is the Human Diet safe for athletes?
  • For example, it’s still on the low carb side—basic recommendation in the book are for about 90-130 g carbs over a day (14% of calories), and definitely high on fats. This information MUST be adjusted for an athlete’s activity levels and likely more carbs needed, but be sure to have your carbs post workout and/or with dinner; not at breakfast and not before workouts.
  • But the Human Diet allows for a variety of carbs like sprouted bread or beans, rice, corn masa, fruit, etc., just keeping to moderation.
  • Also is 14% calories from carbs is too low for females, athlete or not?
  • Too high carbs can mess with hormonal function, but can’t also too low carb?
  • Sports nutrition talk and looking at new-age science to make new guidelines
  • Dr. Cate’s take on fat for fuel for athletes, vs “old school” carb loading.
  • Lately there have been more FODMAP intolerances being identified in athletes, especially dairy, so how would you suggest individualizing this?
  • Yay or nay on food allergy tests – why Dr. Cate says they’re incredibly flawed and that elimination diets are your best bet.
  • Some inclusions in the Human Diet you don’t see everywhere these days:
    • Gluten, dairy, corn tortillas… things like real milk not nut milk, and plenty of cheeses and yogurt.
  • On gluten—why gluten may be ok for some, and not for others in particular immune function and when we create antibodies to gluten?
  • What are some fast, simple changes to make to one’s diet according to Dr. Cate:
    • Salad
    • Dairy
    • Organ meats
    • Fermented

Quotes from Deep Nutrition:

  • “Within a given family, the earlier the abandonment of traditional foods for a diet of convenience, the more easily perceptible the decline.”
  • “As much as hospitals and clinics like to talk about wellness and prevention, the truth is, a real discussion about healthy eating cannot take place in a doctor’s office. Tis is why in order to check of the “nutrition-discussion box” they rely on sound-bites, like “eat your colors,” which doesn’t really mean much, or “everything in moderation,” which, in a world where toxins are marketed as health foods, can be harmful advice. Providing real dietary guidance requires far more time with patients than insurance models currently allow. You could fill a book with what needs to be discussed for anyone to adopt a truly healthy diet—which is why, in 2003, I started writing this one.”
  • “One of the most important new concepts of Deep Nutrition is the idea that the foods parents eat can change the way their future children look. recognize two toxic substances present in our food that are incompatible with normal genetic function: sugars and vegetable oils. We’re going to put calorie counting and struggling to find the perfect ratio of carbs to protein to fat on the back burner. These exercises don’t reveal what really matters about your food.”
  • “What if you could re-engineer your genes to your liking? Want to be like Mike? How about Tiger Woods? Halle Berry? George Clooney? Or maybe you want to change your genes so that you can still be you, only better. Maybe you want just a modest upgrade—a sexier body, better health, greater athleticism, and a better attitude.”
  • “Epigenetics helps us understand that the genome is more like a dynamic, living being—growing, learning, and adapting constantly. You may have heard that most disease is due to random mutations, or “bad” genes. But epigenetics tells us otherwise. If you need glasses or get cancer or age faster than you should, you very well may have perfectly normal genes. What’s gone wrong is how they function, what scientists call genetic expression.”
  • “Getting sick isn’t random. We get sick because our genes didn’t get what they were expecting, one too many times. Most importantly, I’ve learned that food can tame unruly genetic behavior far more reliably than biotechnology. By simply replenishing your body with the nourishment that facilitates optimal gene expression, it’s possible to eliminate genetic malfunction and, with it, pretty much all known disease. No matter what kind of genes you were born with, I know that eating right can help reprogram them, immunizing you against cancer, premature aging, and dementia, enabling you to control your metabolism, your moods, your weight—and much, much more.”
  • “The reason that so many of us have health problems today is that we no longer eat in accordance with any culinary tradition. In the worst cases of recurring illnesses and chronic diseases that I see, more often than not, the victim’s parents and grandparents haven’t, either. Tis means that most Americans are carrying around very sick genes.”

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