In my last post I talked about three basic approaches to nutrition: Eat only plants, eat only animals, eat both. Simple enough – but how to thrive on the extreme ends of the spectrum? In this post we will look at how to optimize health and longevity on the vegan, plant-based end.
TL;DR: Supplement with vitamin B12 and “eat the rainbow”: Make sure to include a variety of different plants in your meals every day to make sure you eat a lot of fiber, anti-oxidants, essential amino acids, vitamins and slow burning carbs and healthy fats. Does it work? Well, it did not for me. I found it too complicated, not optimal for my digestive system, and in my opinion the science is not settled – neither on the healthfulness of plant-based, nor on the harmfulness of animal-based food. But the diet might still work for you!
Enter Dr. Michael Greger
This is probably the most important author when it comes to the arguments for the healthfulness of a plant-based diet. Greger has built a huge website at http://nutritionfacts.org replete with videos on various interesting topics, also to be found on YouTube along with lectures and interviews. His specialty is discussing studies on nutrition, and the level of detail is astonishing. It is his book “How Not To Die” which convinced me to give the whole food plant based (WFPB) approach a try. There are many other popular vegan authors, but Greger is highly respected among most of them and represents the best and most articulate view on how/why this approach is healthy, which is why I will only talk about his book for this introduction – more about the others in future posts.
The book is divided into two parts: The first lists most chronic diseases – cardiovascular disease, cancer, … – and then basically links them to animal foods through a plethora of studies. The second part discusses how to construct a healthy diet:
- Minimize processed foods
“processed” = something good removed / something bad added
- Eat from a variety of plant “types” (the “daily dozen“) to maximize micro-nutrient intake
You can check out the daily dozen for yourself in more detail. The main insight aside from the well known “fruits, vegetables and whole grains” advice is that in order to optimize nutrition, you need to also eat legumes (beans/lentils/peas), nuts, berries, flax seeds, leafy greens, cruciferous greens … and the list goes on. Supplementing with vitamin B12 is also prescribed.
Did It Work For Me?
In short: No.
I spent many weeks eating almost completely within this framework last year, and I discovered many tasty vegan menus and snacks. I annoyed my family, girlfriend and colleagues with strange dishes and vegetables, all of a sudden eating guacamole or hummus, putting banana slices on whole-wheat bread, eating ten times more vegetables than the others, using almond butter instead of butter, plant milks and soy yogurt instead of dairy, and so forth. I really enjoyed eating those foods and still do so occasionally or partially today.
However, my digestive system was less pleased. Gas and bloating were big issues and ultimately one of two major reasons that over time I got less and less enthusiastic. WFPB advocates claim that this is a typical problem that eventually goes away once you adapt to eating more fiber, but for me that didn’t really turn out to be the case.
The other big reason for abandoning the WFPB was that even though authors like Greger offer a very convincing narrative about the dangers of animal foods and the super-powers of plant-based food, in my opinion the science is not settled at all. Sure, there are many studies that support this view, but there are also many other studies which show the opposite. Vegans will object to that vehemently, arguing that it either isn’t true, or that there are much fewer studies in favor of animal products, or that these are all funded by industry. But having spent a lot of time following these discussions, I do think that there is a lot less certainty about this issue than either side (vegan/carnivore) proclaims. I will discuss specific aspects in future posts.
Can It Work For You?
Absolutely. I don’t think that it’s optimal, and there may be some vegans on YouTube and elsewhere that greatly exaggerate the health benefits of WFPB, but some people clearly thrive on it. Reading How Not To Die certainly will teach you a lot about nutrients, and about what kind of scientific studies are done in the field of nutrition. Giving it a try might introduce you to many options that you hadn’t even considered before. Just keep in mind that the book has an agenda, and that – despite claims to the contrary – it is a biased interpretation of the available science.