Nutrition instruction is not part of my professional practice – I’m a 35-year exercise professional – so my clients always express disbelief when I tell them their eating habits are probably more important to their health than their exercise habits. Yes, you’d think I’d be biased toward the benefits of exercise, but personally I’ll bet on “eating” – but only if it’s a whole food, plant-based eating strategy. Of course quality eating and exercise are the synergistic twin pillars of a healthy lifestyle, so hopefully it’s not an either or situation for any of us.
I’ve been paying close attention to nutrition since the 70’s. With a forty-year perspective I’ve learned nutrition research is notoriously nuanced and often somewhat limited; which can lead to lots of twists, turns and dead ends. Still, the current focus on the health promoting power of plant-based foods is very exciting and, likely here to stay, since the status quo of animal product-heavy standard American diet, often with the addition of supplements, hasn’t really worked out too well at denting the killing power of the modern degenerative “lifestyle” diseases.
The current focus on plant foods isn’t a surprise if you “follow the nutrients”, so to speak, since plants are elite nutrient producing factories. Plants are full of the usual macronutrients*, vitamins/minerals and fiber of course. But likely even more significant to our health are the 10,000+ chemical compounds found only in plants which are termed phytonutrients or phytochemicals. Many say phytochemicals could be considered “super nutrients” due to their ability to help prevent the “lifestyle” diseases like cardiovascular, cancer and diabetes which are our top causes of death and disability. New phytonutrients are still being discovered and we’re learning more everyday about the health advantages of plant-based foods and the synergy of the “super nutrients” they contain.
Plant-based eating is growing in popularity because the health promoting/disease preventing benefits are, to me and many others, a no-brainer. There is also an increased awareness of the negatives many animal products bring to our planet and our bodies. I’m sure it will take a while, but I predict sometime in the future, consumption of many animal-based products will be considered a high-risk activity; much like cigarette smoking is now.
Besides the negatives animal products bring to our environment and bodies, they just aren’t that nutritious when compared to plants. Please look here for a striking comparison of the nutritional power of plants and the relative lack of nutrients in animal products. Joel Fuhrman, MD, developed the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) food scoring system to rank foods based on nutrients per calorie; which is termed nutrient density. The ANDI system has a max score of 1000 (kale & others) to a low of 1 (Coke) and the link above contains only a partial list of some common foods. Looking at the ANDI list, what’s particularly illuminating is how far down (lower ANDI scores) you have to go before you find an animal product – 48th place out of the 72 foods listed. Currently it’s trendy to call certain foods “super foods”. Well, don’t ever be confused about what is or isn’t a “super food” – there they are at the top of the ANDI list – and it’s as if they’re on a different nutritional planet compared to the animal products much farther down the list!
The health promoting power of plants is so compelling that even main-stream 21st century medicine is getting on board. The largest health maintenance organization in the US, Kaiser Permanente, now advises their 18,000+ physicians to recommend a plant-based diet to the 10+ million patients under their care. And, Kaiser has gone a step further and published a plant-based eating guide available to everyone here.
When investigating the issues, respected journalists can come to the same positive conclusions about the benefits of plant-based foods. Michael Pollen, author of excellent books like The Omnivores Dilemma; In Defense of Food; and Food Rules offers a now-famous axiom which neatly sums up current thinking:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
And, if we expand a bit on Michael’s quote, we can come up with a couple of guidelines to live and eat by:
1) EAT MOSTLY PLANTS IF YOU WANT THE BEST CHANCE TO LIVE HEALTHIER, LONGER, THINNER AND BETTER.
2) FOR UNDILUTED BENEFITS, STRIVE TO EAT YOUR PLANT FOODS IN AN INTACT A FORM AS POSSIBLE WITH MIMIMAL INDUSTRIAL INTERVENTIONS AND PROCESSING – MEANING AS CLOSE TO THE WAY THEY CAME OFF THE TREE, VINE OR BUSH OR OUT OF THE GROUND.
Although they don’t always take advantage, I believe in referring my clients to appropriately qualified nutrition professionals. If you live in the Santa Barbara area, I can recommend Chantal Gariepy, RD, CDE. Chantal has been influential to me and is a quality professional resource. She can help you incorporate a whole food, plant-based eating approach into your life. One-on-one professional instruction is the fastest, easiest and best way to improve your plant-based nutrition knowledge and skills.
Next post I’ll write a bit more on why I think a whole food, plant-based eating pattern may be better for your health than exercise. I’ll also cover the people/resources that have been influential to me personally and to the fast-growing whole food, plant-based eating movement in general.
*Macronutrients are Proteins, Carbohydrates, and Fats