A good friend of mine recently watched the documentary on Netflix called “ What The Health” (for those that have not watched it, the documentary makes a powerful argument as to why a vegan based diet would be beneficial for your health). After watching the documentary he was motivated to move to a plant based diet. Now, every time he goes to Starbucks to get his caramel frappuccino, he gets coconut milk instead of regular cow’s milk. His kitchen is filled with dairy free cookies and snacks. When he eats at chipotle, he gets a burrito with rice and beans, but no meat. He has changed his diet to what he feels will be best for improving his health.
Now I have friend number two, Ms. Paleo. (for those that do not know the Paleo diet, it is a diet based off of eating as our ancestors did when we were hunters and gathers) She has changed her diet drastically, only eating a diet heavy in vegetables, fruits, meats, and seafood. She gave up her old american diet, went to her local stop and shop, and filled her fridge with foods that are similar to ones that could be found in the paleolithic era. When she eats out, she is a-lot more restrictive than friend A, she won’t eat beans and grains, so chipotle doesn't make the cut. She usually packs her lunch and when she does eat out , she asks for so many changes that the waiter hates her.
ok , so who’s right?
It is important to keep in mind that everyone who is vegan does not eat like friend A, and everyone who is paleo does not eat like friend B. These are just two examples to help put everything into perspective. Let’s start with friend A. Friend A is not your strict vegan. A strict vegan would have a diet full of whole fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and plant based foods. They would not eat processed and refined foods like friend A. Just like friend A, a-lot of people look for the easy way out. They want to eat the same unhealthy foods they are currently eating, but still burn fat or improve health. For example, friend A loves Starbucks, he doesn't want to give up Starbucks (who would?). He thinks he can substitute one part of his caramel frappuccino, without having to sacrifice the whole thing*. It’s kind’ve like eating garbage with dairy, or garbage with almond milk. You're still eating garbage. We love to point the finger at one enemy, such as fat or carbs, and this makes for great marketing schemes, but before having a conversation about macronutrients in your diet, you should look to target the biggest enemy, processed and refined foods. Generally speaking, anything that that has been through a process to drastically change it from its original self, is a hazard to your health. The further the food gets from its origin, the worse it is. With this being said, we are striving to eat real food, whole foods. As for processed and refined foods, we are looking to eliminate or drastically limit our consumption of them in our diet. This is the most important step you can take to improve your health. Way more important than debating plant based and paleo diets.
*I will save the debate of coffee on your health for another article, but just to make this clear, I am not saying that coffee is bad. I am saying that a Starbucks caramel frappuccino and what we put in our coffee to make it taste better is usually bad. Artificial sweaters and other processed and refined ingredients besides coffee are the things that I would think twice about including in my regular diet.
If I am a strict vegan, or a strict paleo eater, and I only eat whole foods, which diet would be better for my health?
This brings me to friend B, let's talk about the strict Paleo diet first. The strict paleo diet does not allow dairy, grains, processed food/sugars, legumes, starches or alcohol. If our early ancestors did not have access to it, strict paleo enthusiasts do not eat it. Things like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, seafood, nuts and seeds are on the list (#huntergathererlife). There are numerous studies to show the positive health benefits associated with a strict paleo diet, but on the flip side, if you look up studies with strict plant based diets (#veganlife) you will also find research linked to positive health outcomes. Check out these two articles posted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The first is titled The Beneficial Effects of a Paleolothic Diet on Type 2 Diabetes and Other Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease and the second Beyond Meatless the Beneficial Effects of Vegan Diets. Two peer reviewed articles. One advocating for meat, the other advocating for meatless. Are you confused yet ? Research does not always answer questions as straightforward as people would like them to. Often times we don’t know all the answers based off of one study, even after numerous studies we still don’t always have a completely clear vision, but for this one, let me help you out. Instead of thinking about what they don't have in common, think about what they do have in common. Both diets are based on eating real food and removing the typical american diet of highly processed and refined foods.
If both paleo and plant based diets have both shown healthy benefits in research, does that mean they are both good for my health?
If you eat a typical American diet and then switch to a whole food based diet (whether that be plant based, paleo, or any other ) you will see some positive short term outcomes. The shift from fake food to real food will shift your body to a much healthier state. The boost in vitamins/minerals and the decrease in toxins will fuel you mentally and physically. However that is not the last piece of the puzzle. Ensuring that you get the right vitamins and minerals and the right amount is key for long term success. For example, A strictly vegan diet is limited in some essential nutrients that your body can gain from eating animal products. Two examples include vitamin B12, and Omega 3 DHA. Meats, fish, and animal products also include an abundance of vitamin D, zinc, iron, and calcium. If you pay close attention to your diet, most vitamins can be obtained from plants, however vitamin B12 is not found in plants*, and omega 3 DHA is only found in fish and sea vegetables (a food not so common in american cuisine). B12 is essential for mental and emotional health, Omega 3 DHA is essential for cardiovascular health, and neural, eye and brain functions, Vitamin D and Calcium are essential for bone health and fractures (especially in older populations), and both Zinc and Iron are essential for normal human function. If you decide to embark on a solely plant based diet, it is important to make sure you are eating foods that are rich in these vitamins and minerals and to potentially supplement where needed.
*Along with fortified foods and drinks, vegetarians who consume yogurt, dairy, and eggs can get some of their vitamin B12 from these sources.
Are meats healthier than plants. Should we eat a diet based on meat?
The argument above is to show you that meats have their value, but it is not an argument against plants. Fruits and Vegetables are an undeniable component to a healthy diet. In fact I would say that non starchy vegetables are probably the most important food that we should focus on getting more of in our diet. Addition to this, I will add that in America, we have poor quality animal products. We treat living creatures like they are just a piece of business. Watch any documentary on how big business’ treat their animals and it is enough to motivate you to never eat meat again. When it comes to this, I would say choose your animal sources wisely. Know the farm you get your meat/eggs from. Maybe even visit them (a little bit of work can go a long way). As for me, I get my meat/eggs from my local farmer’s market. The farm has a bed and breakfast where you can stay and learn more about how they produce their products Stone and Thistle Farm. I think it’s extremely important to support places like this so that they do not whither away. Other possible options include food co-op’s for example: Park Slope Food Coop, CSA’s Find a CSA, other local farm pick- ups for example: Good Food Farmers, and whole foods supermarket. Whole foods give their meat an exclusive rating based on the quality of its source Whole Foods Rating System. As for my fish, I always get wild and something that is not overfished. I also get my fish from either my local farmer’s market or whole foods. The cost may be more expensive, but I would rather eat less meat, at a better quality. Not only is it good for the animals, but it is also beneficial for your health. Sick animals, create sick people. As for dairy, the process is the same. For myself, I do my best to avoid dairy, mainly for allergy reasons.
How does eating animal based food affect health factors such as cardiovascular disease?
Research has shown that vegetarians and vegans are typically less likely to be obese, have lower LDL cholesterol, and have slightly lower blood pressure. All which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD). If you suffer from CVD, increasing the amount of plant based food sources in your diet may prove to be beneficial. When considering moving to a vegetarian or vegan diet, you still must consider the nutrient deficiencies mentioned earlier. Opposed to eliminating animal based food sources, you may want to consider just minimizing them, and increasing your intake of plant based foods.
Addition to this I would consider other lifestyle factors. Some studies suggest that vegetarians and vegans tend to lead a healthier lifestyle compared to their omnivorous counterparts. When thinking about risk factors for cardiovascular disease, it is important to consider more than just animal based foods, but also factors such as consuming large amounts of industrialized food, highly processed/refined food, and food sourced from poor production practices. Outside of the food realm, it is important to also consider stress, lack of activity, and other environmental/lifestyle factors which play a large role in health problems we face today.
The benefits of eating more plant based foods
Plant based foods are full of fiber, folic acid, antioxidants, phytochemicals, magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin E, and iron. They are loaded with the nutrients we need for healthy living. They contain nutrients needed to help with the absorption of vitamins and minerals found in animal products. They also contain protective nutrients that help to fight off disease. Increasing plant based intake can potentially decrease your risk toward certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis. There is no doubt that increasing the amount of plants in your diet will drastically improve your health.
Don't Paleo enthusiasts avoid grains and some other plant based foods?
As I mentioned earlier, the strict paleo diet will avoid grains, legumes, and starches. All plant based foods. So the next logical question would be if we should also avoid these foods. I would say that fruits and vegetables provide a better bang for your buck when it comes to nutrients, but grains, legumes, and starches also have beneficial nutrients that could aid our health. I would look at grains, legumes, and starches as great fillers. I would want to make sure I am getting an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables first, and then I would add my fillers more or less depending on individual lifestyle and body type. An athlete who is highly active, and burns fuel quickly will need more fillers, whereas someone who is fuel efficient and not as active, could use less fillers.
So then why do Paleo eaters avoid grains, legumes, and starches?
We have evolved to be best fit for a hunter gatherer lifestyle. This involves the food we eat, the way we move, and the way we live overall. When technology moves faster than evolution this is when you run into dilemmas. Farming (agricultural/neolithic revolution) did not come into human history until relatively recent times (when compared to the timeline of human history and our ancestors) . Since then we have been eating a lot more farm produced foods such as grains, legumes, dairy and starches. This is a drastic change that our physiology could not keep up with right away. Move us to the 20th century with the industrial revolution and now you have the introduction of mass produced highly processed and refined foods. This has had the greatest negative impact on our health. This all seems to make perfect sense, however one thing that is important to consider is that since the agricultural revolution (over 10,000 yrs ago) humans have continued to evolve and adapt. Let me give an example: Dairy. In Paleolithic times all adult humans were lactose intolerant. They could not digest milk. at some point in history, one human developed the ability to breakdown lactose even past breastfeeding years. This genetic adaptation spread across the world rapidly. Today ⅓ of humans can digest milk into adulthood without any problems. Depending on where humans were on the globe, they all adapted to their environment slightly differently. Considering this, some humans will thrive off of certain foods, while others might not. It is always good to be a conscious eater. See what foods sit well with you, then adapt your diet from there. There is no reason to add the stress of avoiding certain foods, especially if you thrive on them.
*the foods our hunter/gatherer ancestors ate were different than anything we encounter today. Just as we evolved, so did our food. Majority of our foods are domesticated and farmed. The edible plant species alive in the paleolithic era, are no longer with us today.
Most grains seeds and legumes contain a chemical called Phytates*. Phytates bind to some nutrients in the body and make it hard for your body to reap the benefits from them. Phytates won't harm you directly, but they will slow/minimize your rate of absorption of certain nutrients. Considering this, it is important to soak and cook your grains to help minimize the effects of Phytates. Some grains seeds and legumes contain more or less amounts of Phytates than others. For example, hemp seeds contain no Phytates at all. Overall, I would say that Phytates are not a reason to remove grains, seeds, or legumes from your diet. The beneficial nutrients contained inside outweigh the negative in this case.
*I included Phytates in this article because you will often hear about them in discussions with paleo diets.
Lets recap it all
There is no one diet that works best for all humans. One thing we know for sure is that people who move from a diet that is full of highly processed foods, to one that is whole food based, see health benefits associated with it. Reflecting this in your diet, is probably the most important step you can take toward a healthier you.
Below I highlighted some important points from this article to help give you an overview:
Avoid the typical industrialized American diet.
Everyone should consume more fruits and vegetables. They should take up the bulk of your food.
Meat, fish and eggs are good to eat, but I would recommend choosing your animal sources wisely
Grains, legumes, and starches are good to eat. They contain vitamins and minerals and make for great fillers.
Individualize your diet. Find out which foods sit with you best, and remove those that do not.
If you choose to go vegan, be sure to supplement with vitamin B12 or eat/drink foods that are fortified with vitamin B12. You should also consider eating sea vegetables for Omega DHA and supplementing with Omega DHA as well. Do your research on common vitamin and mineral deficiencies and make sure you are getting the recommended daily values in your diet.
If you are vegetarian, along with eating fortified foods/drinks, you can get some B12 from yogurt, dairy, and eggs (depending on your level of vegetarianism). As for Omega DHA and other vitamins and minerals, the same rules apply as vegans.
Become friends with your local farmer's market NYC Farmers Market Locations.
Things not mentioned in this article that are also important to consider:
I would purchase my food from farms that stick to organic and non GMO methods
Variety is good. You want to eat a wide range of colors and foods to ensure that you are getting all of the nutrients you need for a balanced diet.
As for rice pasta and bread, I would look to limit these in my diet. You can still eat them, but I would not make them the staple of my diet.
Learn how to cook. There is no one that will care for your health like yourself.
Cook with whole foods. This includes spices, sauces, dressings, and whatever else you put on your foods. If you don't recognize the ingredient it's probably not good for you. Try mixing your own spices, and making your sauces and dressings at home.
Limit salt, or look for better salt options such as himalayan sea salt
Figure out which oils are best for cooking. Extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and grapeseed oil are my three favorites. Cooking methods, and smoke point will determine which oils are best to use and when.
Do your research to find out the best cooking methods and preparations. Some of my favorites include grilled, baked, boiled, broiled, the slow cooker, lightly pan fried, blended, soaked, pickled, mashed/ground, etc
When it comes to choosing a diet that is best for your health, My first option would not be the paleo diet or vegan diet, nor any new fad diet on the market. I would say the best diet is eating whole foods, cooked at home and individualized to best fit you and your needs.
Good luck on your journey to better health, your future self will thank you :)
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Craig, Winston J. “Health effects of vegan diets” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. vol.89, no.5 (2009):16275-16335 Click Here for Article
Lap, Tai Le and Joan, Sabate. “Beyond Meatless, the Health Effects of Vegan Diets: Findings from the Adventist Cohort” Nutrients. 2014, 6(6): 2131-2147
David C. Klonoff. “The Beneficial Effects of a Paleolithic Diet on Type 2 Diabetes and Other Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease”. Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology. 2009 Nov, 3(6) : 1229-1232