CONTROVERSIES CLARIFIED ABUOT PLANT-BASED DIET

In This article

  • Why dairy doesn’t do a body good
  • Building strong bones to last a lifetime
  • Dispelling soy safety rumors
  • Benefits and concerns of a raw diet
  • What we should eat

Nutrition is one of the most controversial and dynamic sciences. Information changes daily, and experts disagree on how to interpret that information. In this article, we break down the most common controversial nutrition issues and provide you with the most up-to-date wisdom on each topic.

The Dairy Dilemma

One of the most brilliant marketing campaigns ever to saturate popular culture came from the dairy industry. From posters and handouts given to school children to star-studded television and magazine ads, we’re officially convinced a healthy diet must include dairy products. Government guidelines recommend two or three servings of dairy products per day. Is it because calcium is best delivered by dairy? Or is it because the lobbying and funding of the dairy industry have tremendous influence?

Dairy is double-edge sword when it comes to nutrition. On one hand, no one can argue that milk, regardless of species of origin, is undoubtedly food. In fact, it’s the only substance we can say with certainty has no other purpose other than to be consumed. When the rise in dairy industry occurred in the early twentieth century, combating childhood malnutrition and undernourishment were prime concerns, and milk was a prominent part of the solution. Not only was it a boon for agriculture, but it fit the nutritional bill for growing young children. So why would there be any question at all about dairy?

Breast milk—be it cow, goat, rat, dog, or human—is more than just a source of calories. Have you considered, for example, why human breast-milk cheese or coffee creamer isn’t common? Do you pause at that idea or does it sound disgusting? Why would we pause at consuming our own species’ milk and yet cow’s milk seems perfectly reasonable? It’s not just marketing and semantics either. Nearly 75 percent of the world population exhibits lactose intolerance and in some parts of the world, it’s as high as 95 percent. This is not an abnormality; lactose intolerance is nature’s assistance in weaning offspring. In fact, the ability to digest lactose into adulthood— lactase persistence—is most common in those of European descent and the abnormal feature of nature.

DEFINITION

Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, the sugar component of milk, due to the body’s failure to produce the enzyme lactase. Gastrointestinal symptoms vary from mild to extreme and can include gas, bloating, cramps, diarrhea, and pain.

We are the only species that consumes another species’ milk and that continues to consume milk of any kind into adulthood. Is this an evolutionary adaptive advantage? Dairy may in fact have overcome malnutrition at a time when food was economically scarce or in certain environments. Lactase persistence is most common in northwest Europe. Here’s one more thing to consider: milk is naturally hormonally active. One of milk’s purposes is to stimulate growth. We know, for example, that the two active proteins in cow’s milk, whey and casein, stimulate a rise in fasting insulin and serum IGF-1; these have emerged as key regulators of cancer-growth pathways.

Currently, some dietitians and physicians encourage lactase enzymes or other medications so patients can push past intolerance symptoms and still consume dairy, often under the umbrella of providing dietary calcium. Plants provide plentiful sources of calcium and don’t cause discomfort when consumed. In population studies, cultures that consume the highest amounts of calcium and dairy products also have the highest incidence of osteoporosis and bone fractures. Conversely, societies that exclude dairy products from their diets experience much lower rates of bone fracture. If what we’re told about drinking milk is true, how could this be possible?

Optimizing Bone Density

Bone health is a complex and multifactorial process. Bone mass accumulates most during the first couple decades of life. The more bone gained during this period, the less risk of osteoporosis you face later in life. Unfortunately, this critical window closes before most young people even hear the word osteoporosis. If you did know to focus on bone-building during your teenage years, what would you actually do? The same things you should do at any age to optimize bone density.

MIXED GREENS

Developing bones require sufficient amounts of many nutrients. Calcium has received the most attention because of its great mass present in the adult skeleton: more than 1,400 grams in males and 1,200 grams in females.

Interestingly, the number-one factor for improving and maintaining bone health isn’t at all food related. The best way to build bone is to perform weight-bearing exercise regularly. Resistance exercise improves bone density more than any dietary factor. Lift weights, walk, jog, jump, or do callisthenic exercises at least three or four times a week to keep your bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments strong and pliable.

Nutritional recommendations include eating adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables, cutting out dairy, maintaining optimal vitamin D levels, and consuming plant-based sources of calcium as well as vitamins K and B12, fluoride, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium, every day.

Vitamin D plays an important role in bone mineralization, working with calcium to break down old bone cells and build up new ones. Milk is fortified with vitamin D; it’s not a natural source of vitamin D. Other nondairy products are commonly fortified with vitamin D. You can be sure you’re getting enough vitamin D with a simple blood test.

If you’re not there (like the majority of the population), try spending 15 to 20 minutes in the sun three times a week. Apply sunscreen only to your face, exposing your arms, legs, and whatever else you can reveal without offending the neighbors. The sun is the best source for vitamin D. Sun-derived vitamin D stays in the body the longest, and you can’t get vitamin D toxicity from the sun. The sun offers other health benefits—it releases feel-good endorphins and regulates your circadian rhythm.

If after a few weeks you’re still testing low, consider supplementing with vitamin D2. You can safely start out with 2,000 IU per day. If you’re deficient, taking 5,000 IU per day until levels normalize is safe. Please check your blood levels before supplementing, and ask your physician to monitor to help you reach your goals.

Other Problems with Dairy

Dairy increases growth hormones in your blood. Insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) helps a baby calf double its birth weight in less than 2 months—more than three times faster than a human infant does. In human adults, IGF-1 causes undesirable growth, and a high level of IGF-1 is a known risk factor for cancer.

Early dairy consumption has been linked to type 1 diabetes, the autoimmune type typically diagnosed in childhood. Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system attacks pancreas cells, permanently destroying the pancreas’s ability to produce insulin. Once this diagnosis is made, the person must take insulin for the rest of his or her life. Type 1 diabetics also are at increased risk for other chronic conditions later, like cardiovascular disease.

Moreover, dairy is abundant in dietary cholesterol and saturated fat. Even skim milk contains cholesterol: 1 cup contains 5 milligrams versus 25 milligrams in whole milk, which also has 5 grams saturated fat. A cup of cheddar cheese (easily found on a large piece of pizza) provides a whopping 139 milligrams cholesterol, 28 grams saturated fat, and 532 calories.

Milk products are inundated with steroids and hormones (both naturally occurring and production induced) that are linked to cancer and other potential health problems. Genetically engineered growth hormones, IGF-1, estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone fill dairy products to the brim. Even organic “no added hormone” dairy products are still potentially hormonally active, perhaps just not at the same levels.

Also in your chemical cocktail may lie antibiotic residues, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, veterinary drugs, fertilizers, synthetic preservatives, and additives. Surprisingly, many studies find little difference between levels of the aforementioned compounds in organic dairy when compared to conventional. So just because you pay more for the organic product doesn’t mean you’re getting a safe, toxin-free product. Microbiological contaminants (think bacteria, viruses, parasites, and mycotoxins) can also find their way into your dairy products and other animal products.

Dairy consumption may cause iron deficiency because it inhibits absorption. (This may explain the recommendation that infants under 1 year of age not drink cow’s milk.)

MIXED GREENS

White blood cells, or pus, are found in dairy products due to the infections the cows regularly acquire during the unnaturally high processing demands.

Ultimately, dairy does more damage than good. If you feel you can’t give up dairy (especially cheese), blame the casein; this protein causes the same feel-good effects as opiate drugs. When consumed, casein converts into casomorphins—nature’s way to ensure an infant will return to the breast for milk. In cheese, the protein (mostly casein) along with the fat and sodium content, is much more concentrated than in milk. Together, you have a powerfully addictive mixture. In fact, there have been studies using naloxone—an opiate-blocking medication used to counteract heroin and morphine overdoses—to cut cravings for cheese and other habituating foods (meat, sugar, and chocolate). Cut out dairy, and your cravings may subside within about 3 weeks.

Soy Confusing

Soy has been a favorite staple of plant-based eaters for decades. Nutritionally, soy packs a powerful punch: more protein than most other legumes, ample fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, and iron. Soy also supplies health-promoting phytonutrients like isoflavones that reduce cholesterol levels and cancer risk.

As a bean, soy can be eaten from the pod when cooked, fermented into miso paste or tempeh, curdled into tofu, or processed into milk or various other products. As an ingredient, processed soy is found in hundreds of products on the market today, including faux meats and baby formulas. It’s available as textured vegetable protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, soy lecithin, soy flour, isolated soy protein, defatted soy flour, and soy protein concentrate.

Controversy rages when it comes to soy. Due to the wealth of nutrients and potential health claims soy has to offer, there has been an intensified explosion of studies. Intensive hype in the media makes it hard to read between the lines and know what to believe. Let’s break down some of the recent concerns.

Soy contains a class of phytonutrients called isoflavones. Isoflavones have a similar chemical structure as estrogen, which is why they are referred to as phytoestrogens. However, they act differently in the body than human estrogen and appear to exert healthful effects. Consuming isoflavones during early childhood and adolescence has been shown to reduce lifetime risk of breast cancer. Furthermore, soy consumption may reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence and improve survival from breast cancer. The American Institute of Cancer Research and American Cancer Society have concluded that consuming soy foods is safe for breast cancer patients and the general population. Beyond breast cancer, soy has been associated with a reduced risk for prostate cancer and hot flashes, as well as improved cardiovascular and skin health. There are also possible positive associations between soy consumption and bone and kidney health.

Another soy concern is its possible interference with thyroid function. Soy has been reported to cause goiters, hypothyroidism, and thyroid cancer. But adequate intake of iodine reverses any goiter-causing effect of soy in a healthy person. Plant sources include iodized salt, sea vegetables, and plants grown in iodine-rich soil. Additionally, population studies have shown a protective effect of soy on thyroid cancer. Although soy foods may interfere with the absorption of hypothyroid medication, soy can still be consumed with medication adjustments. Essentially, soy foods are not only safe for everyone (except, of course, anyone with an allergy), but they are nutrient-dense foods that may provide additional health benefits.

DEFINITION

Phytoestrogens are plant compounds similar to the hormone estrogen and that look and act like estrogen in the body. A goiter is an abnormally enlarged thyroid gland most commonly due to iodine deficiency in the diet, but it can also occur with other thyroid diseases. Iodine is a trace mineral required in the diet to help with metabolism.

The media have propagated concerns about soy’s effect on hormones. You may have heard how soy consumption decreases fertility or gives a male “man-boobs.” But no solid evidence supports these assertions.

Similarly, fears circulated that soy-based infant formulas led to problems with sexual development, brain function, immunity, and future reproduction. No conclusive evidence supports these claims, either. Most experts are confident in recommending soy-based formulas.

To enjoy soy foods as a part of a balanced plant-based diet, do the following:

  • Consume soy from whole-food or minimally processed sources such as soybeans, tofu, tempeh, miso, soybean sprouts, and soy milk.
  • Use soy in moderation—less than 3 servings per day, where a serving is about 7 grams protein and 25 milligrams isoflavones, which ends up being approximately 1 cup soy milk or 1⁄2 cup soybeans, tofu, or tempeh.
  • Minimize use of or avoid processed soy products, like soy protein isolates (found in protein drinks and bars, meat analogues, cereals, meal replacement products, and other processed items).

Raw Resolution

Although a raw diet is nothing new, it’s all the rage nowadays with raw books, products, websites, and even restaurants popping up everywhere. Defining a raw diet depends on who you ask, but a consensus is “an eating style consisting primarily of uncooked, unprocessed foods.” Some raw foodists strive to eat 100 percent of their foods raw, but technically, anything greater than 75 percent is considered a raw diet. Similarly, people who eat 50 to 74 percent of their calories from raw food sources are categorized as “high-raw foodists.”

Indeed, while adding meat to the diet is often given credit for the increased calorie content that fueled the evolution of our big brains, it’s far more likely that cooking should get most of the credit. When glucose is available, it’s the primary fuel for the brain and will be prioritized over fat; it’s not what one would expect if fat alone fueled the growth. From an evolutionary perspective, we have double the glucose transporters in the brain as compared to a chimpanzee and we have much bigger brains. On the other hand, chimpanzees have double the glucose transporters in muscle tissue compared to humans. One might respond that chimpanzees eat fruit; doesn’t fruit have plenty of glucose? Yes, but fruit is seasonal, and as you may recall from last article, underground storage units are fantastic sources of dietary starch, but they must be cooked to deliver the energy density required for humans. It’s likely that cooking drove year-round calorie availability, preserved our brain’s thirst for glucose, and fueled our big-brain explosion.

On a raw plan, foods include fresh, dried, and frozen fruits; fresh and frozen vegetables; raw nuts and seeds; and sprouted vegetables, grains, and legumes. Common preparation techniques in the raw world are soaking, sprouting, juicing, and blending. Subpopulations under the raw umbrella emphasize fruits, sprouts, and fermented and cultured foods.

PLANT PITFALL

Fruitarians are a raw subgroup who eat 75 percent or more of their calories from fruit. High-fruit groups consume 50 to 74 percent of their diet from fruit. There are some nutrient adequacy concerns with a fruit diet that overlap with a cooked, vegan diet (e.g. B12, D, K2, EPA/DHA, etc.) so supplement accordingly. Also be aware that because high fruit consumption can lead to tooth decay from excess sugars, it is important to practice good dental hygiene and floss, brush, and rinse after meals.

Known benefits of following a raw or high-raw diet include improved nutrient intake and minimized consumption of health-damaging foods. Raw, whole foods include all the magical nutrients this book is based on—fiber, phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Additionally, following a raw plan automatically eliminates all the harmful compounds found in animal products and processed foods—dietary cholesterol, animal protein, refined sugars, trans fatty acids, and artificial sweeteners.

Ultimately, a raw-based diet is amazing for your health. In fact, it sounds like the perfect plan. However, some concerns should be considered before you throw away your cookware.

Raw Diets Aren’t Perfect

Some people complain of lack of satiety on various diets, including raw, but those complaints tend to follow all special diets. Recognize that a raw diet does take more prep work. Of course one of the benefits of a whole food, plant-based diet (even one including cooked foods) is that a large volume of food can be eaten without weight gain. This can be a source of failure when someone moves from a more omnivorous diet to fully plant-based since serving sizes are unfamiliar and often must increase. When one moves to raw, this volume requirement goes up even more.

Fruits and vegetables are very low in calories, and you need much more food, which requires more preparation and planning. Sprouted grains and legumes are denser in calories, but it’s not as easy to eat a bowl of these raw as it is when they’re cooked. Some strict raw foodists compensate for the lack of calories by consuming high amounts of fat from sources such as avocados, nuts, seeds, coconut and its oil, as well as other oils. High-sugar items like dried fruits and raw agave are also sometimes consumed excessively.

Raw diets lack the science to back up any of the health claims that serve as their basis, but clearly raw diets overlap with the benefits of a whole food, plant-based diet. Concepts such as raw foods being live and having abundant enzymes are partially flawed arguments.

Yes, raw foods are high in plant enzymes. They are released when the plant’s cell walls are broken down in chewing or blending. Enzyme activity is ripe and most lively the moment the cell walls are broken, immediately after cutting the plants with a blade or your teeth. This activity begins to slow down soon after being exposed to oxygen.

But it does not appear those enzymes can survive our digestive tract long enough to have a healthy impact inside the body. The stomach, where food remains for an average of 40 minutes, is very acidic and denatures, or inactivates, enzymes before the food moves down the intestinal tract for absorption. Furthermore, whether most plant enzymes are helpful to humans is unknown, even if they did survive.

Because certain nutrients are absorbed better when cooked, exclusively raw diets cannot take advantage of these. Carotenoids such as lycopene and lutein are enhanced when heated. Cooking also breaks down some nutrients, like oxalates, that prevent absorption, and it adds variety. Besides, eating soups, stews, and cooked grains is comforting, especially when it’s cold outside.

Using Raw Sensibly

The small amount of research out on raw food diets shows mostly healthy improvements on the subjects. However, the raw food diet is a contrast against a standard disease-promoting diet. More convincing evidence would come from comparing raw diet practitioners to whole-food, plant-based eaters who include some cooked foods.

Eating a majority of your calories from raw foods is ideal. The health benefits of raw foods are indeed limitless. The idea that your diet must be completely raw to derive those health benefits may be an unnecessary step.

No Perfect Diet

When seeking answers on diet, many times it’s the question that fails us. Some might ask “what did we eat?” and look to the past for guidance on a healthful human diet. But human survival has always been predicated on the question of “what can we eat?” In times of survival, our ability to process a wide range of natural materials as food has fueled human migration to every continent and to a wide range of environments, even inhospitable ones. We are the most adaptive species on the planet.

Our quest for optimal health through nutrition has focused on yet another question: “what should we eat?” This question has many answers, and sometimes they may appear as conflicting answers. Some look to the past; however, evolution is simply change over time and does not dictate diet. Our diet may be optimized for a wide range of issues: survival, health, reproduction, longevity, ideology, or even athletic competition. There is no perfect diet. We aren’t “designed” to eat anything in particular. Humans can eat many things, and that is why we have inhabited such a diversity of environments. Finding a few paintings on a cave wall or a primitive tool-scraped bone isn’t the final word on optimal nutrition.

“What should we eat?” opens up the conversation and allows us to consider and build upon centuries of research and to approach it from a modern perspective—a perspective that incorporates all of our accumulated knowledge and technology. At the same time, it’s possible that our current dietary standards, a result of surveying humans during the last century—a time of unparalleled shift to an unhealthy diet of affluence—might have overemphasized some areas of nutrition and ignored others.

On one hand, we are focused on limiting food: not eating too much dessert, not drinking too much alcohol, or eliminating red meat. This is all done in the framework of ubiquitous social norms that involve food at nearly every celebration or interaction. The argument from the omnivorous side always seems to be centered on deficiency in this vitamin or that mineral, but in fact, chronic overnutrition may be a far bigger concern to the population.

The wide range of delicacy and palatability across many nations and cultures is evidence of the wide range of what we might call “a normal human diet.” In fact, we may want to focus some effort on making a whole food, plant-based diet equally familiar, convenient, and enjoyable.

Nutrition is regularly steeped in controversy, making food choices confusing. Misinformation is commonly—and loudly—reported by organizations that reap the benefits of their own half-truths. Be wary of dollar signs and too-good-to-be-true promises. Despite that, if you stay tuned in to reliable science and listen to your own common sense, wise eating habits are attainable.

The Least You Need to Know

  • Dairy may do more harm than good when it comes to your health, possibly contributing to cancer, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.
  • Calcium is abundant in plants and is bone protective when consumed regularly along with a nutrient-dense diet.
  • Soy foods are nutritionally dense foods that may offer health advantages.
  • Following an exclusively raw diet causes some concerns, but the benefits of consuming most of your calories from raw foods are inarguable.
  • There is no such thing as a “perfect diet.”

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