What constitutes a healthy diet?

What constitutes a healthy diet?
    Let’s get straight to the point: I recommend a plant-based diet. There are many reasons for this. I could go on about comparative anatomy and that we, as primates, have the dullest canine teeth of all, making them inappropriate and useless for meat-eating. However, having had to endure a lecture at university on the dentition of the Pleiocene giraffe, of all things, I will not bore you with such details. Instead I will focus on the benefits that the plant kingdom gives us, and the potential challenges we might face if we choose to base our diet on animal-derived products.
    Don’t get me wrong – I was brought up in a family that believed that the diet should be based upon meat and potatoes, with a few vegetables thrown in. Indeed, as a child, if I wasn’t particularly hungry at any given mealtime, I was always encouraged to ‘eat the meat and leave the rest’. When I chose to eliminate dairy products at the age of 15, as a result of my self-diagnosed dairy allergy, my parents were initially concerned about my protein intake and my bone strength, due to widely accepted dogma. Little did I know at the time that I was doing my bones a massive long-term favour.
    I have no doubt that the debate as to whether humans are omnivorous, carnivorous or frugivorous (fruit and leaf eaters) will run and run. My approach to what to eat for optimal health is based upon the current available science. In the future, who knows what we will discover? What is certain is that we continue to unveil, on an almost daily basis, nutrients in the plant kingdom that have massive benefits not only for maintenance of overall health, but for the prevention, and even reversal, of certain disease states.

    Some alarming statistics

    We are now facing the alarming fact that one in two of us will die from heart disease, which will be the cause of 23.3 million deaths annually worldwide by 2030; one in three of us will succumb to cancer; three million Canadians have chronic respiratory disease; 10 per cent of all those in the USA over the age of 20 have chronic kidney disease; one in 12 has an autoimmune disease, according to the Arizona Center for Advanced Medicine; and diabetes and obesity rates are soaring. Anything that we can do to strengthen our bodies against such disease processes will surely be welcomed. I believe, and science is proving, that the nutrients found in plants have a major part to play here.

    Plant or animal?

    Firstly, I would like to look at the plant-based versus animal-based approach to nutrition from a macronutrient perspective. Macronutrients are the bulk components of our food, and are measured in grams: we’re talking protein, fat and carbohydrate. In the past, it was believed that we could only obtain all the essential amino acids, the building-blocks of our proteins, from animal products. I always remember being told in a school biology class in the 1970s that the best way for us to build our own bodily muscle was to eat something that was identical in structure to our muscles – implying cannibalism. Since the laws of the land at that time prevented such activity (and, thankfully, still do), our second-best option was therefore the muscles of pigs, since biologically they were considered to be the closest ‘edible’ species to ourselves. Whether this was just the teacher’s personal opinion or whether it was grounded in some sort of solid science of the time I do not know.
    Fortunately for us, times have moved on. Far from being considered to be an inferior type of protein, we now know that certain plants contain all the essential amino acids that we need on a daily basis, so all that we need to do is eat the correct type of plant. Wheatgrass juice, sunflower greens, blue-green algae, hemp seeds and sprouted brown rice contain a complete spectrum of amino acids, rendering animal consumption unnecessary for obtaining adequate protein. Previously it was thought that unless we ate a full spectrum of amino acids at every meal, we would run the risk of protein deficiency. 
    This myth was popularised in the early 1970s in the book Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé, who recommended ‘protein combining’ to avoid problems associated with the so-called ‘incomplete proteins’ that the plant kingdom provided. The author later revised these recommendations in 1998, and subsequent research has confirmed the protein-combining theory to be incorrect.
    Following in-depth study of protein metabolism in humans, and summarised in 1994 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in a paper entitled ‘Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition’ (by V.R. Young and and P.L. Pellett), the myth was dispelled once and for all, but still persists in some unenlightened circles: my niece was recently told at running camp that she could be a vegan athlete, but she would have to pay attention to protein combining. We only have to look at the incredible athletic feats of people such as Brendan Brazier, former professional Ironman triathlete, and Scott Jurek, the world’s greatest-ever ultramarathon runner, to realise that a vegan diet is in no way inferior for the development of athletic prowess. 
    Even an otherwise excellent review in 2001 from the Nutrition Committee of the American Heart Association, warning about the dangers of high-protein diets, made the mistake of citing Lappé’s book (St. Jeor S, Howard B, Prewitt E, ‘Dietary Protein and Weight Reduction’, Circulation 2001; 104: 1869-74). Indeed, research now indicates that the greater the consumption of animal protein, the greater the incidence of degenerative disease – notably heart disease and cancer. We know that it is not the protein itself that is the problem; just its source. References to this can be found not only in The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell (BenBella Books, 2005) but also many other medical texts.
    The pathways via which animal protein consumption degrades our health are many and varied. Considering it in relation to heart disease, William Castelli, MD, director of the Framingham Heart Study (the longest-running clinical study in medical history), is quoted as saying of the heart disease epidemic, ‘If Americans adopted a vegetarian diet, the whole thing would disappear.’ From this, I would go further to state that dairy products can be just as detrimental to heart health, since they contain high levels of fat, cholesterol and protein. We know that cholesterol is not the only factor involved in heart disease, and in fact C-reactive protein (CRP) and homocysteine levels are now considered to be much more accurate determinants of cardiac risk. Indeed, those on a vegan diet as opposed to a vegetarian one fare better in parameters for heart health, and many research papers now indicate that vegetarianism is insufficient to protect against the major disease processes, and that it only prolongs life expectancy by a somewhat disappointing five years more than an omnivorous approach. Lacto-ovo vegetarianism is no longer the prescription for health that was once believed.
    The researchers also reported that a high intake of protein from vegetable sources such as tofu, nuts, and beans lowers the risk of heart disease by 30 per cent. Dr Linda E Kelemen, the lead scientist of the study, stated: ‘Not all proteins are equal’ – while vegetable protein can help to keep our hearts healthy, eating animal protein can shorten life expectancy.
    A long-term study conducted by Harvard Medical School over a period in excess of 20 years has more recently indicated that the consumption of red meat increases the risk of death from cancer and heart disease (Pan et al, Archives of Internal Medicine. 2012; 172(7): 555-63). Just by adding an extra portion of unprocessed red meat to your daily diet causes an increased risk of death from any cause by 13 per cent, of fatal cardiovascular disease by 18 per cent and mortality from cancer by 10 per cent, with the figures being higher if that meat is processed. Could it be that we are finally waking up to the realisation that a plant-based diet is not just for tree-hugging freaks, but the only sensible choice for anyone who is seeking a long life free from the shackles of disease?
    Cancer is beginning to overtake heart disease as the most common cause of our demise, and in Canada it now ranks as the number one cause of mortality, having recently knocked heart disease off the top spot. A recent study, entitled ‘Vegerarian diets and the incidence of cancer in a low-risk population’, published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention (2013; 22(2): 286-94 from researchers at Loma Linda University, California (Tantamango-Bartley et al), reported that vegans have lower rates of cancer than both meat-eaters and vegetarians. In this study, vegan women had 34 per cent lower incidence of female-specific cancers such as breast, cervical and ovarian. This was when compared with a group of healthy omnivores who ate substantially less meat than the general population (two servings a week or more), as well as after controlling for non-dietary factors such as smoking, alcohol and familial history of cancer. 
    Numerous other studies comparing cancer rates in those who choose not to eat animal products have reported similar findings. Some studies indicate that vegetarians have similar cancer rates to meat eaters in regard to certain types of cancer. This probably highlights the fact that the vegetarians in these studies consumed dairy products and eggs, although this is purely my personal assumption. As I have stated, vegetarianism is not enough. If we want to give ourselves the greatest degree of protection from degenerative disease, I believe we have to take it further.
    Obesity levels in the developed world are skyrocketing. Comparing vegetarians to meat eaters, a Swedish study published in the June 2005 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and involving 55,459 middle-aged healthy women, concluded that the non-meat-eating women weighed significantly less than the meat eaters, and had a lower BMI (Body Mass Index – a method of determining ideal weight ranges). The study, entitled ‘Risk of overweight and obesity among semi-vegetarian, lactovegetarian and vegan women’ (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2005: 81 (6); 1267-1274) was not a weight-loss study, and 25 per cent of the non-meat-eaters were overweight, but this compared with 40 per cent of the meat-eaters; again, a statistically significant measurement. The researchers found that vegetarians were two-thirds less likely than meat-eaters to be obese.
    In line with obesity, the incidence of diabetes is also reaching epidemic proportions. According to Diabetes UK, the incidence of diabetes has risen from 1.4 million in 1996 to 2.9 million, and is estimated to reach 4.0 million by 2025 in the UK population. Type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle disease that can be prevented and reversed through dietary means and exercise. Its many complications include blindness, and the need for limb amputation as a result of tissue necrosis due to the compromised blood circulation to the extremities that is a feature of the disease. It is also increasingly being associated with dementia (Dominguez et al in Neurologia 2013: S0213-4853 (13) 00: 155-152). Why, I wonder, would a change in diet and lifestyle be considered to be so drastic when there is so much at stake?
    An article published in Diabetes Care, the Journal of the American Diabetic Association (Tonstad et al, ‘Type of vegetarian diet, body weight, and prevalance of type 2 diabetes’, Diabetes Care 2009; 32(5): 791-796), assessed the prevalence of type 2 diabetes in people following different types of vegetarian diets compared with that in non-vegetarians. The study indicated that vegetarian diets may in part counteract the environmental forces leading to obesity and increased rates of type 2 diabetes, but interestingly, only vegan diets were associated with a BMI in the optimal range.
    With such compelling evidence in the medical literature indicating that meat eating, and the consumption of animal products in general, is linked to many (largely preventable) disease processes, is there any evidence that we cannot get all of the nutrients we need from the plant kingdom, thus necessitating the consumption of animal products? The Weston A. Price Foundation would say an emphatic ‘yes’ to this question. I, however, beg to differ. Having read their summary of the nutrients that it is impossible to obtain from the plant kingdom, and performed my own analysis, I find a shortfall in their evidence. I disagree that cholesterol is an essential nutrient; we manufacture it in the liver, unless we happen to have an incredibly rare genetic disorder, or we are under three years old, which I suspect readers of this book will not be. We can obtain vitamin K2, essential for bone health, from natto, a fermented soya product. The important fatty acids necessary for brain development can be found in flax oil and blue-green algae.
    The vitamin B12 debate is potentially problematic. However, many non-vegans have vitamin B12 levels which are sub-optimal. See chapter 5, ‘The nervous system’, for more information on this vital nutrient, and why health experts state that it is the one supplement that everyone, regardless of their current diet, should take.
    I personally conclude that a vegan diet can supply all the nutrients we need in abundance, provided that it is done correctly, together with judicious whole-food supplementation (to counteract the inherent difficulty with the nutrient-depleted soil in which most of our food is grown). There is a vast difference between a ‘junk’ vegan diet, based on processed meat substitutes and other such non-animal-derived nonsense, and one that is based on whole, ripe, fresh, unprocessed, and largely uncooked, produce. That is the diet that I advocate. That is what the bulk of this book is about.

    Just boring salads?

    For those who do not understand the concept of eating food uncooked, it raises many questions. People continue to ask me questions such as, ‘Is bread raw?’ (it isn’t), ‘So you drink soya milk then?’ (no, I don’t), and ‘Don’t you get fed up with only eating boring salads?’ If only they knew. Whilst I would love to invite everyone to dinner to dispel some myths, that’s not really a practical option, so here is a list of the ‘food groups’ of the plant kingdom that offer us the most major nutritional benefits, and around which I recommend that your diet should largely be based.
    • Ripe fresh fruits
    • Vegetables (especially brightly coloured ones)
    • Leafy greens (e.g. spinach, rocket, kale, chard, watercress)
    • ‘Tray’ greens (sunflower, wheatgrass, pea greens)
    • Sprouted small-leaf seeds (e.g. alfalfa, onion, cress, broccoli)
    • Wild greens (e.g. dandelion)
    • Herbs (e.g. parsley, coriander)
    • Sprouted pulses and beans (e.g. lentils, mung beans, chick peas)
    • Sprouted grains (e.g. buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, teff)
    • Seeds (e.g. chia, pumpkin, sunflower)
    • Unroasted, unsalted nuts (e.g. almond, brazil, pistachio)
    • Sea vegetables/seaweeds (e.g. nori, dulse, wakame)
    • Mushrooms
    • Edible flowers
    • Algae
    • Cold-pressed unrefined oils (e.g. olive, flax, hemp)
    • Superfoods
    • Nut and seed butters
    • Spices
    As you can see, there is a lot of variety here, and whilst it may appear to be a far cry from a standard diet that we may have been brought up on, there are plenty of reasons for these recommendations: not just from the standpoint of them not containing elements that cause harm (animal protein, animal fat, etc) but because they contain substances, known to most scientists as phytonutrients (plant nutrients), that do us a whole power of good. Let’s take a look at the list.
    Ripe fruit and fresh vegetables contain a vast array of vitamins and antioxidants. In his book Food IS Medicine, The Scientific Evidence, Dr Brian Clement lists references to hundreds of scientific papers which indicate not only the general health benefits of such phytonutrients in these foods, for conditions ranging from allergies and arthritis to periodontal disease and stroke, but also evidence for the healing effects of nutrient synergies, and nutrient retention and health benefits of raw versus cooked/processed vegetables. It’s not exactly bedtime reading, but I’d say the book is a must for anyone interested in the science behind the nutritional benefits that the plant kingdom offers us.
    Many of the known health benefits of eating brightly coloured plants come from the mineral and antioxidant levels found in these foods. Antioxidant content is specifically relevant, since the oxidative stress theory has now been proven beyond reasonable doubt to be the major cause of ageing and degenerative disease. The basis of this theory is that oxidative damage to cells increases with age, and that a state of chronic oxidative stress exists in all aerobic cells under normal metabolic conditions, as a result of an imbalance between pro-oxidants and antioxidants. 
    The accumulation of oxidative damage leads to a progressive decline in the function of cellular processes. People who have higher blood levels of specific antioxidants have better protection from all causes of death, and the greater the spectrum of antioxidants, the greater the benefits.
    We are finding more and more that we literally do need to ‘eat the rainbow’ to access the 25,000 or so different antioxidants that we so far know about, that are present in plants. I elaborate more on this subject in my CD Oxidative Stress and the Link between Diet and Health, but fundamentally, no one single colour of fruit, vegetable or berry contains all of the antioxidants that we need. We must eat red plants, yellow plants, green plants, orange plants, purple and blue plants, to access all of these amazing benefits. 
    In orange plants alone, over 40 different types of carotenoid antioxidant have been discovered. In green plants, indole carbinols, isothiocyanates and sulforaphane, for example, have been demonstrated to have antioestrogenic properties, to prevent carcinogens from binding to DNA, and to reverse tumour development. That’s just three phytonutrients. Imagine what benefits all 25,000, plus the many others that we are yet to discover, could have in our bodies, where it is stated that each one of our 50 trillion cells takes up to 10,000 oxidative ‘hits’ per day?
    The benefits of plants do not end there. In the protein- and fat-dominant nuts and seeds, for example, we find essential fats that can help us to lower our blood cholesterol, improve the quality of our skin and help our brain perform at its optimal level. The minerals found in seaweeds help us to maintain our bone health and our thyroid health. The simple sugars that abound in fresh fruit enable us to fuel intense exercise. The fibre that is present in all plants brings about normal peristalsis (muscular contraction) of the bowel, eliminating constipation and reducing our risk of bowel cancer and elevated blood cholesterol. And that’s just for starters.
    With all of the known benefits that the plant kingdom gives us, I believe it is time fully to embrace a plant-based diet for our long-term health. After all, we don’t just want to survive in our modern society – we deserve to thrive. I firmly believe that this lifestyle will allow us to do so in magnificent fashion.

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