A PLANT BASED APPROACH
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the 2nd article I wrote about a plant based lifestyle for the Minnesota Distance Running Association’s newsletter RunMinnesota, so the audience was runners.
Let me start by saying I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist. I’m just a health coach wannabe with an avid interest in health and wellness. With that said, this is an opinion piece, similar to my last article for RunMinnesota (Food Matters: A Whole-Food Approach) where I explained the benefits of replacing processed foods in our diets with whole foods. In this article, I want to focus on the second half of a lifestyle that is gaining tremendous momentum, Plant-Based. Notice I didn’t say “diet” as they tend to be restrictive and rarely work long-term. Instead, think of a Whole-Food Plant-Based (WFPB) approach to eating as a lifestyle, like running. It’s a lifestyle that doesn’t involve deprivation, detoxing or counting calories, but is centered on whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plants. It’s also based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes (think beans and lentils). By focusing on these foods, it crowds out or minimizes meat, dairy products, and eggs, as well as highly refined foods like bleached flour, refined sugar, and oil.
Part of the reason why this lifestyle is gaining momentum is due to the health benefits associated with it, which are almost too numerous to mention. A whole-food, plant-based diet has been shown to (1):
· Lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar
· Reverse or prevent heart disease
· Prevent and reverse obesity
· Lower risk of cancer and diabetes
· Slow the progression of certain types of cancer
· Improve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
These chronic illnesses are becoming so common that people think they’re just part of the normal aging process. I’m here to tell you that this doesn’t have to be the case. In reality, these chronic illnesses can be directly linked to the Western diet. A WFPB approach to the foods we eat can improve the overall quality of life – even after these illnesses arise.
Not only does a WFPB lifestyle positively impact or health, but also the health of the planet. Over 56 billion (yes, billion with a “b”) land animals are killed every year for food (2). The environmental impact (namely rainforest deforestation, ocean acidification, water usage, climate change) and the amount of animal cruelty associated with killing that many animals is staggering. And that number doesn’t even include the billions of marine animals killed each year. With the world population expected to increase from 7.4 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050 (3), it’s easy to see that the path we’re on is not sustainable.
Generally, I’m not a fan of placing a label on our eating habits because it typically causes confusion, leads to arguments, and pushes people apart – rather than bringing them together in an effort to solve our current healthcare and environmental crises. However, I really like the term “plant-based” because you can broaden the definition to suit where you’re at on a spectrum. In the strictest sense it means unprocessed foods that don’t come from animals. But rarely are people going to switch to a full-on WFPB lifestyle overnight. As you begin to experiment with WFPB you might start with Meatless Mondays where you exclude meet one day a week. Another approach is discussed in Mark Bittman’s book Vegan Before 6:00. As you can probably guess, it refers to only eating animal products for dinner. As a result, two-thirds of your meals will be plant-based. These are great ways to introduce more plants into your diet and, chances are, once you see the benefits you’ll want to continue down the WFPB spectrum.
Let me take a few minutes to dispel the biggest myth that surrounds a WFPB lifestyle; protein. The first thing people notice about my food choices is that they don’t include meat. Typically, this leads to the question, “But where do you get your protein?” I don’t know if meat eaters are really curious about my protein intake or not, but it does show the power of the messages we are constantly bombarded with – messages paid for by the meat and dairy industries, and supported by the U.S. government. There are lots of possible responses to this question, but here are a few that I use, depending on my audience.
Medical: There’s actually a term for protein deficiency. Do you know what it is? No, because no one ever has to talk about being protein deficient. The next time you’re at your doctor’s office, ask them how many people they’ve ever treated for a protein deficiency. My guess is zero. By the way, the medical term is Kwashiorkor.
Snarky: Where do you get your fiber? Do you know that fiber is only found in plants like beans, fruits, vegetables and grains? Fiber isn’t broken down in the body. Instead, it pushes food through the digestive tract, absorbs water and helps clean the bowels. Those are all good things when it comes to health. Oh yeah, less than 3% of Americans get the minimum recommended amount of daily fiber (4).
Logical: Where do the strongest animals on the planet (think gorillas, elephants, and hippos) get their protein? They’re herbivores and only eat plants. By the way, cows aren’t standing around producing protein, or calcium for that matter. Animals get their protein from the foods they eat. For cows, pigs, and chickens that means plants. I’m just cutting out the middle man, er, animal, and going directly to the source.
Truthful: I eat a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. And I never give my protein needs a second thought – until someone asks.
Scientific: In 1988 the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics updated its position on plant-based proteins stating “Plant protein can meet protein requirements when a variety of plant foods is consumed and energy needs are met. Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids. (5)”
This last statement is interesting because it differs from another food myth; most plant sources lack one or more of the essential amino acids and therefore are not considered complete or high quality proteins. Technically, this statement is correct, if you look at plants individually. But, as mentioned above, if you eat a variety of plants and meet all you caloric needs, you will also meet your protein needs. I can’t help but think that most of these food myths are perpetuated by the meat and dairy industries themselves. It wouldn’t be the first time agricultural interests influenced the nutritional information we receive. As Rip Esselstyn says in his book My Beef with Meat, “The sad truth is that the information we get about health often has more to do with politics and money than with science and fact.”
How can this be? Our government must have our best interests in mind, especially when it comes to health, right? Not necessarily. To understand, one only needs to look at the responsibilities of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This government agency has the duel-purpose of protecting American agricultural interests and advising us about our food choices. That’s a huge conflict of interests, especially when you consider that until they were sued by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), more than half of the USDA’s board of directors was made up of members from the meat and dairy industries.
I know, I know, this is a running magazine. What does this have to do with running? Well, I’m 48 years old and every year I hear about at least one runner, within 10 years on either side of me, dying, unknowingly from heart disease. That’s way too young! According to Alan Gertler, M.D., "Half of the men who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms. The first manifestation of a heart problem oftentimes is sudden death (6)." Those that do survive often undergo heart bypass surgery or have stents inserted into blocked passageways, followed by a lifetime of drug treatment. Unfortunately, the truth is that running doesn’t make us immune to heart disease. We can’t out exercise a bad diet.
I get it. Beliefs around food often rival that of religion and politics – and, for runners, training philosophies. But given the current state of health in the U.S., it’s obviously that the food choices we’re making aren’t working. We can no longer rely on the government to tell us how to eat. It’s time we take matters into our own hands and work to change this situation ourselves. It’s time we become more mindful of our food choices and take responsibility for what we eat. It’s time to become more empowered and recognize that we have control over these choices and that they have a profound impact on our health and the environmental. It’s time, as Gandhi said, “To be the change you want to see in the world.”
With Gandhi’s words ringing in my ears, I’m taking it upon myself to help people that are plant curious, by creating a MDRA WFPB community that supports one another along this journey. Again, I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist, and I definitely don’t have all the answers. However, I am willing to share what I do know and provide support for anyone that’s interested - whether that’s 2 people or 2,000. If you’d like to get involved, head over to https://runmdra.org/. Once there, login and then click on the My Community link. From there you can go to the Nutrition forum where you’ll be able to ask questions, share recipes, find resources to books, websites, apps, etc. If you don’t want to join the forum, please feel free to email me directly at email@example.com and I’ll support you any way I can. If you prefer to do some research on your own, simply google WFPB or check out http://nutritionstudies.org/whole-food-plant-based-diet-guide/ and https://www.forksoverknives.com/whole-food-plant-based-diet/ to get started.
References accessed December 6, 2017:
(1) What is a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet? https://www.forksoverknives.com/what-is-a-whole-food-plant-based-diet/.
(2) The Kill Counter. http://adaptt.org/about/the-kill-counter.html.
(3) World Population Projected to Reach 9.7 Billion by 2050. http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/2015-report.html.
(4) Where Do You Get Your Fiber? https://nutritionfacts.org/2015/09/29/where-do-you-get-your-fiber/.
(5) My Beef with Meat: The Healthiest Argument for Eating a Plant-Strong Diet, Rip Esselstyn
(6) Masked Heart Problems in Men Could Lead to Sudden Death. http://www.uab.edu/news/latest/item/2051-masked-heart-problems-in-men-could-lead-to-sudden-death