Hey everyone, to continue the plant-based trend around here these days, I asked my good friend Ellen Spitz, RDN to write something for the blog. I believe my instructions were along the lines of “Idk write something about being a vegan or something”. With that laughable “guidance”, Ellen generously produced for all of us a post that is simultaneously grounded in science and infused with her characteristic wit and hyperbole. You’ll know what I mean when you get there, and I know you’ll enjoy it 🙂
Full disclosure: I am not a blogger. So before you read the rest of this, here are my favorite plant-based blogs that are far more in depth and articulate than I could ever hope to be. Please check them out at your convenience. Or sign up for awesome daily emails like I do. 🙂
Dr. Michael Greger, MD’s NutritionFacts.org blog
I also highly recommend his app “Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen” and his new book How Not to Die
UC Davis Integrative Medicine blog by Rosane Oliveira, PhD
So, like I said before: plant-based eating is the best thing ever. And that is true for everyone. Maybe you’re thinking, “not me, I need some meat in my diet”. Well I hate to break it to you, but you’re wrong. That is simply not an excuse. Whole plant foods provide all the essential nutrients we need in the healthiest possible package. Meanwhile, animal foods may provide some of the nutrients we need, but often lead to serious health conditions including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases, dementia… and the list goes on. (Not to mention their catastrophic effect on our environment).
It is never too early, or too late to start a plant-based diet. The only exception to this is newborn infants, whose ideal diet is exclusively breast milk (but from a mother who is eating a plant-based diet). But for those of us who are over 3 months of age, a plant-based diet is equivalent to “Extreme Makeover: Health Edition”. Even those who have already been diagnosed with heart disease, diabetes, cancer or other health conditions can use a plant-based diet to reverse their disease.
Additional benefits of a plant-based diet include: (find more here)
- Achieve and maintain a healthy weight
- Prevent and reverse vascular diseases including atherosclerosis, stroke, hypertension, varicose veins, blood clots, high cholesterol
- Prevent and reverse type 2 diabetes
- Prevent certain cancers, including breast, prostate, cervical, colon and kidney cancers
- Reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression and improve overall mood
- Prevent gastrointestinal problems such as reflux, diarrhea/constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, diverticulitis
- Prevent kidney stones and gallstones
- Improve cognition, raise childhood IQ, prevent Alzheimer’s disease
- Prevent and treat allergies, asthma and eczema
- Prevent and treat autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, fibromyalgia/chronic pain and chronic fatigue.
So there are some of the pros. What about the cons? Excellent news: a plant-based diet has no side effects. Essentially, there is no argument against a plant-based diet. Read on…
Some people claim plant-based diets seem “restrictive”. Actually, you are eliminating only about 4 foods (meat, fish, eggs, dairy), while you still have literally HUNDREDS (thousands?) of different plant foods to choose from. Others describe plant-based diets as “extreme”. I would argue that open-heart surgery for a coronary artery bypass, limb amputations from diabetes, paralysis after stroke, or a life on dialysis after kidney failure are all much more extreme than eating plants.
If you are concerned about getting enough nutrients on a plant-based diet, don’t be. And here’s a nutrient-by-nutrient breakdown of why not:
Protein is present in all foods- plant foods too! Actual protein needs, recommended by the World Health Organization (with a wide margin of safety) are only about 5% of your daily calories. A whole food, plant-based diet of whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes is generally around 10-12% protein. Even if you ate only potatoes you would be getting enough protein. Did I blow your mind yet?
Check out the table on this webpage for a good listing of protein content of various plant-based foods: https://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2007nl/apr/protein.htm
Calcium is also present in nearly all plant foods. You can therefore easily achieve calcium needs through plant foods alone. Actual calcium requirements are surprising low, but due to the extreme lobbying efforts of the dairy industry, current recommendations are widely blown out of proportion. No incidence of calcium deficiency actually exists in any person following a normal eating pattern- whether or not they choose to consume dairy. High intakes of calcium and animal protein (from milk and meat) are actually linked to higher incidences of osteoporosis and bone fractures. The lowest rates of osteoporosis in our world today exist in rural Asia and Africa, where people have the lowest intakes of animal protein. Find more about calcium here.
Vitamin D is actually a hormone, not a vitamin. It is produced in the body when your skin is exposed to sunlight. Animal foods that contain vitamin D have been fortified with it. The reason vitamin D does not exist in our food supply is because our source of vitamin D is meant to be the sun. For those with fair skin, 10-20 minutes of midday sun exposure a few days a week will meet your needs. Those with very dark skin may need 1-2 or more hours of sun exposure a few days each week to meet their needs. Vitamin D is stored in body fat for use in the winter months when sun exposure is lower. Another reason to get vitamin D from the sun instead of supplements: sun exposure has a variety of additional health benefits.
Vitamin B12 is the only essential nutrient that is not provided by plants. It is made by bacteria living in our soil. Centuries ago, human populations eating mostly plant foods obtained the vitamin B12 they needed through the soil left on their food. Today, our food supply has been washed so well that we can no longer obtain enough this way. B12 deficiency generally only occurs in those with gastrointestinal diseases or damage. It is extremely rare to develop vitamin B12 deficiency even on a strict plant-based diet, but to prevent any chance of this, you will want to take a vitamin B12 supplement. Recommended intakes for B12 are only 5 mcg per day, but mostly B12 supplements are sold as 500-3000 mcg. At this concentration, you will only need to take it once a week. B12 is stored in your liver for up to 3 years.
Omega-3 fatty acids:
The origin of all omega-3 fats (and omega-6 fats) is plants. Animals cannot make these fats, and therefore they are considered to be essential fats. Fish have become synonymous with omega-3’s in mainstream media, but the “fish as a health food” argument has been shown to be false. The best and healthiest sources are ground flax seed, chia seed, and walnuts. Here is more on why flax seed is awesome and you should eat it everyday.
Lastly, if you think a plant-based diet will be too expensive: sorry, but that’s not true either.
Feeling overwhelmed? Here’s a 3-step guide to starting your own plant-based journey.
By Ellen Spitz, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition
St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands