Why choose Whole Food/Plant- Based eating?
Updated: May 31, 2022
As an ND Research student in the early 2000s, I became a fan of the Mediterranean style diet. It was high in plant-based nutrients, complex carbohydrates and good fats (mostly olive oil) and low in saturated fat and animal proteins. It also had good research behind it for reductions in heart disease, cancer, and other chronic disease. It also seemed to be a more more enjoyable diet than the anti-inflammatory, elimination, or auto-immune diets I was learning about at the time.
The problem with the Mediterranean diet, though, (or at least our understanding of it) is that many people aren't sure what kinds of foods should be emphasized and whether they can maintain or lose weight eating this way. I've had patients who eat poultry or white pasta or even cheese every day of the week tell me they are eating a 'healthy Mediterranean diet', which is not actually true, since all these foods are highly limited in traditional Mediterranean areas. I even had some of this confusion myself.
There is no question that in North America (and most of the developed world) we eat far more protein, saturated fats, refined grains and sugars than we need to. Still, given how divorced we are from the sources of our food, and how much marketing around processed and animal foods flood into our life, it can be difficult to know how to construct a diet that is sustainable and healthy. Over the years, as I've learned about the connection between what we eat, Planetary Health and sustainability, I've also become increasingly convinced that regularly eating animal proteins is not only unhealthy for most of us, but also unsustainable as a planet. Modern animal food production is not kind to the animals that live in that environment, but also contributes to both antibiotic resistance and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, so-called 'organic' meat production, if anything, is even more carbon intensive per pound of meat produced, and of course, quite expensive.
Whole Food/Plant based diets, on the other hand, start with the premise that we don't actually need to eat animal protein at all, and can do quite nicely without it. Protein comes from a combination of legumes or soy, whole grains, and vegetables, and if done with a bit of planning, can provide more than adequate amounts of the building blocks we need to maintain good health throughout our lives. Large population studies in the United States, UK, Europe and China have indicated that risk of many chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease/stroke, diabetes and cancer all increase with the intake of animal proteins, including dairy food.. Another finding of these studies was that people eating plant-based diets had lower body weights, even when the caloric values were similar. When done well, plant-based diets can keep weight down and maintain health without feeling hungry or deprived; the key is slowly increasing fibre intake to allow your digestive system to adapt.
There are ways to do Plant Based diets properly and well, making sure you are getting adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals needed for proper function and maintenance of your brain, bone, and organ health. It does mean giving up some convenience foods such as white pasta, supermarket breads, processed dairy foods as well as meat. That being said, cooked whole grains such as barley, brown rice and quinoa, plus soy, lentils or other legumes are inexpensive, and can be made to reuse for multiple meals. Many patients say they have quite a bit more energy and stable blood sugar with plant based eating, and digestive regularity is never a problem, once the body has adapted to a higher fibre diet.
One critical point to remember with a Whole Food/Plant Based lifestyle is that it doesn't mean giving up all meat or dairy food forever. There is no 'perfect' with this diet, although some patients do find that remaining strictly vegan is just fine for them. The big picture, though, is to learn how to make plant-based meals a daily habit, much like the peoples in the Mediterranean, much of Latin America, Asia and Africa already do.
For more information have a look at these science-based sites: