YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT (NOT WHAT YOU DON’T)

In This Article

  • Fascinating facts about fiber
  • Awesome antioxidants and phytonutrients
  • Compounds that are best left off the plate

When used together, two separate yet equally important components—consuming health-promoting nutrients and avoiding disease-advancing foods—create the ideal diet. We’ve said before: you are what you eat, but what you don’t eat is just as important to your well-being.

In this article, you learn more about the supernutrients that pump up your immune system by fighting on the front lines, attacking viruses, bacteria, fungi, and cancer cells every day. You also learn why ingredients, such as refined sugars and oils, do exactly the opposite in your body and put you at risk for illness and excess weight.

What to Eat

Plants come readily equipped with bounties of fibers, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. These supernutrients, abundantly provided by Mother Nature, have been found to fight the overall process of disease. Forget potions and pills … just eat plants!

Fabulous Fiber

The word fiber probably stirs up thoughts of powders, capsules, and prune juice, yet fiber’s fabulous benefits deserve elaboration. While it’s well established that fiber keeps things moving, if you will, fiber plays other health-promoting roles, from preventing cancer to managing weight. What’s more, fiber is exclusively found in plants. None (nil, nothing, zero, zilch) is found in beef, pork, chicken, fish, dairy, eggs, or other animal-derived products.

You’ll remember from what we said before that dietary fiber is categorized as soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber influences positive effects on blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Soluble fibers include the following:

Beta-glucans, found in oats, barley, and mushrooms, act as prebiotics and bind water.
Gums and mucilages, including psyllium, carrageenan, and alginates from seeds and sea vegetables, are used by the food industry to stabilize, thicken, and add texture to foods.
Pectins, found in berries and fruits, help create jellies and jams, due to their gel-forming capabilities.
Resistant starches are found in odd places, such as unripened bananas and cooked-and-cooled cereals and potatoes, as well as in more common legumes, oats and peas.
Insoluble fibers, those well known for contributing to gastrointestinal (GI) health, help by preventing constipation, diverticulosis, and hemorrhoids. Furthermore, fiber reduces your risk of colorectal cancer and possibly even gallstones, kidney stones, varicose veins, and inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease). These insoluble fibers—celluloses, hemicelluloses, and lignins—are found in whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and fruits.

DEFINITION

Prebiotics are fermentable carbohydrates that encourage the growth of friendly bacteria in the microbiome of the GI tract. These bacteria and their by-products inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria and yeasts, reduce cancer-promoting compounds, improve absorption of minerals, and perhaps reduce food intolerances and allergies. Diverticulosis is a condition in which the colon has small outpouchings that may lead to inflammation (diverticulitis). Hemorrhoids are dilated veins in the anus or rectum, typically caused by constipation or strains due to diarrhea or pregnancy.

Keep in mind that proper GI health and normal bowel movements require both soluble and insoluble fiber. The insoluble fiber acts as structural material for the stool, keeping it together as it moves through the colon, and the soluble fiber holds onto some of the water so that it remains soft. Switching to an entirely plant-based diet may cause constipation due to certain fiber-rich foods—or a combination of them—causing a slowdown in the intestinal tract. Grains, cruciferous vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes are all fantastic for GI health, but one or more of these (or the lack thereof) may also cause an issue in some people.

Compounds named “nondigestible oligosaccharides,” such as inulin and fructans (found in fruits, grains, vegetables, and legumes) are multifunctional. Some act as prebiotics, while others improve intestinal health.

Moreover, fiber removes excess sex hormones from the body, especially estrogen, and eliminates heavy metals such as mercury from the GI tract. High amounts of hormones or metals hanging out in your body increase the risk for different types of cancers.

The World Health Organization and American Heart Association recommend consuming at least 25 grams fiber a day. The Institute of Medicine recommends approximately 14 grams fiber per 1,000 calories consumed for all people over the age of 1 year. Unfortunately, the average intake of fiber is approximately 15 grams or less per day! The good news is that, by eating a heavily plant-based diet, you’ll naturally and effortlessly meet—and even exceed—these recommended amounts.

Popping fiber supplements or sprinkling your processed food with fiber powder isn’t the same as getting that fiber from whole-food sources. Eat a variety of beans, lentils, whole grains, vegetables, and fruits every day, and you’ll reap the colossal benefits associated with high fiber intakes.

MIXED GREENS

For every one of the approximately 10 trillion cells that comprise you, there are 10 times that number of foreign microorganisms hitchhiking through your body. These 100 trillion freeloaders living within you play a powerful role in your health. The majority of these microbes—collectively called the microbiome—live in your intestinal tract. In 2008, the Human Microbiome Project was launched to sequence the DNA of our microbiomes and to map out the complex web of their impact on our health. Surely, the implications of this project stretch far beyond the probiotics that line store shelves. The news so far is the fiber found in a plant-based diet fuels health-promoting bacteria, while a diet high in saturated fat and animal products fuels many undesirable microorganisms.

Awesome Antioxidants

You’ve heard the term antioxidants bandied about in medical news, on cereal boxes, and splashed across social media. Still, you may not really know what’s so awesome about them. It all begins with the oxygen we breathe.

Ironically, the oxygen we require to survive also causes aging and diseases to progress. Sounds crazy, right? During respiration (breathing), free radicals are formed. Free radicals are highly unstable molecules that cause oxidation to occur. Think of rust forming on metal or an apple turning brown after you cut it open and it sits out for a while—these are examples of the effects of oxidation. In the body, oxidation sets off a series of reactions that create instability and keep self-perpetuating. If these reactions aren’t stopped, disease ensues.

DEFINITION

Free radicals are high-energy particles with at least one unpaired electron that go wild in the body, ricocheting around trying to match up their unpaired electrons. This causes damage and leads to heart disease, cancers, autoimmune disease, macular degeneration, impaired immunity, and accelerated aging.

Free radicals also are produced during other routine body processes, like producing energy and metabolizing drugs, and by external factors such as cigarette smoke, pollution, radiation, and chemical contamination. Essentially, it’s impossible to avoid exposure to oxidation. When you exercise, you take more breaths, accelerating the formation of free radicals. This increased exposure is no excuse to forego working out (or breathing, for that matter). Enjoy a diet high in antioxidants, and the benefits of exercise far outweigh any potential damage.

This is where the beauty of antioxidants comes in. These special compounds from plants sacrifice an electron, neutralizing free radicals and stopping the process of oxidation in its tracks. Potent antioxidants include carotenoids (precursors to vitamin A), vitamin E, vitamin C, and selenium. Simply eating plenty of foods with these compounds allows you to defend yourself against the consequences of free radicals.

Carotenoids represent a family of hundreds of phytonutrients that can be converted into vitamin A—although only a few are really active. They provide a continuum of color from reds, oranges, and yellows, found in watermelon, peppers, pumpkin, papaya, tomatoes, carrots, and apricots. But they’re also overshadowed by the powerful dark green color present in leafy green vegetables such as kale, spinach, and broccoli. As mentioned in before, certain carotenoids, like lycopene in tomatoes, may be absorbed better when cooked. This is why tomato sauce more effectively reduces the risk of prostate cancer than raw tomatoes themselves.

Vitamin E includes a family of eight antioxidants, but alpha-tocopherol, especially in food form, is the most influential on your health. A powerful force protecting cell membranes, this antioxidant is found in nuts, seeds, leafy green vegetables, and whole grains.

Vitamin C acts as an antioxidant by protecting cells from free radical damage and by helping other antioxidants, especially vitamin E, regenerate and maintain the ability to continue their work. Because vitamin C is water-soluble and is not stored in the body, it needs to be constantly replenished. On a daily basis, consume fruits and vegetables like citrus, guava, strawberries, peppers, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts to boost your vitamin C. But note: vitamin C is rapidly lost with exposure to oxygen.

Selenium is a trace element that plays a key role in opposing free radicals. It acts as a cofactor for the enzyme called glutathione peroxidase, where it works closely with vitamin E. Brazil nuts are excellent sources of selenium and, depending on the soil, sunflower seeds, whole grains, legumes, and some mushrooms may be good sources, too. The RDA is 55 micrograms per day for adults.

What about supplements? Unfortunately, consuming large quantities of these antioxidants as concentrated, isolated supplements turns out not to be beneficial—and are likely harmful, really. Beta-carotene supplements, for example, increase lung cancer risk, and alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) supplements increased the risk of hemorrhagic stroke, prostate cancer, and death in clinical studies.

Phantastic Phytonutrients

Phytonutrients, or phytochemicals, are naturally occurring, biologically active substances found in plants. (The literal translation of the Greek prefix phyto is “plant.”) Although they’re not essential for your survival, like vitamins and minerals, phytonutrients contain potentially miraculous elements that, although meant to protect and nurture the plant they were produced for, offer those same benefits to humans. While providing color, aroma, and texture for the plants, phytonutrients also protect against predators, pests, and outside elements. In your body, their actions range from anti-inflammatory to anticancer agents, protecting you against the outside environment. (And that’s just the thousands of compounds that have been discovered. Who knows how many others haven’t yet come to light?)

Colorful fruits and vegetables are the record holders for all the categories of phytonutrients. The gold-medal winners in the phytonutrient competition are dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts), blue/purple fruits (blueberries, blackberries, plums, and cherries), tomatoes, garlic, onions, citrus, flaxseeds, and soybeans. These foods are bursting with compounds like flavonoids, phenolic acids, hydroxycinnamic acids, stilbenes, lignans, carotenoids, phytosterols, and glucosinolates. Now that’s a mouthful (pun intended)!

MIXED GREENS

Speaking of colors, the pigments in fruits and veggies act as phytonutrients. Chlorophyll, the most abundant pigment in plants, imparts a dark green color and is known for its powerful health-promoting effects. Therapeutically used to detoxify, heal wounds, deodorize internally, and act as an antioxidant, chlorophyll is found in particularly high amounts in spinach, parsley, sea vegetables, and green olives.

Runners-up include tea, herbs, spices, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Whole foods provide enhanced benefits when compared to supplements, since a powerful synergistic effect occurs in the combinations of nutrients.

So what do these special compounds actually do? Phytonutrients keep busy protecting your body. They help prevent cancer by blocking tumor formation, preventing cells from growing out of control, and repairing damage done to DNA. Furthermore, phytonutrients have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions. They boost immunity by fighting bacteria, viruses, and fungi. They even affect cardiovascular health by decreasing damage done to blood vessel walls, increasing blood flow, reducing blood clot formation and platelet stickiness, and decreasing blood cholesterol levels. Phytonutrients may reduce your risk of osteoporosis, macular degeneration, and cataracts.

To reap all the best health-promoting benefits, include a consistent supply of plant foods in your diet. Support your immune system with the limitless amount of powerful fibers, antioxidants, and phytochemicals naturally found in nature.

What to Avoid

Diet is now the number one cause of death and disability in the United States, surpassing smoking, which is now in second place. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cardiovascular disease (CVD) remains the world’s number one killer, accounting for about 31 percent of global deaths (more than 17 million deaths) per year, despite medical and procedural advances. Cancer, the second leading cause of death, accounts for almost 9 million (or one in six) deaths a year around the world. The global prevalence of type 2 diabetes, a major cause of death and disability, has risen from 4.7 percent in 1980 to 8.5 percent in 2014. What do all of these statistics have in common? Most of these deaths are preventable.

Besides piling your plate with beautiful whole-plant foods, the most proactive choice you can make for your health is to push the animal products and processed foods off your plate. Studies continue to show that animal products and processed foods are directly associated with these disease processes. This is due to compounds specifically found in these foods that are antithetical to health.

Saturated Fats, Trans Fats, and Cholesterol

It is well-established in the scientific literature that saturated fat, trans (or hydrogenated) fats, and dietary cholesterol promote chronic disease. Beyond these elements, other sources of overnutrition lurk primarily in animal products, tropical oils, and processed foods. Let’s explore those further here.

Animal Protein versus Plant Protein

In the nineteenth century, the race was on to identify the fuels used in human metabolism. By the end of the century, Wilbur Olin Atwater, the father of American nutrition science, led the nation’s push to analyze the carbohydrate, protein, and fat energy content of over 4,000 different foods. This was prior to the discovery of vitamins and minerals; therefore, the health importance of protein was emphasized. By the mid 1930s, amino acids were identified and proteins were analyzed for their amino acid composition. Essential amino acid content is generally lower in plant proteins than in animal proteins. This difference between plant and animal amino acid content is the source of the misconception that plant-food protein sources are less valuable than animal sources.

Around the same time, unrelated parallel investigations began using calorie restriction to better understand nutritional deficiency. Paradoxically, by examining the effect of rats eating a restricted diet, researchers stumbled upon a surprising result. Rats eating a restricted diet actually lived longer than rats allowed to eat freely. Nearly a century later, dietary restriction remains the only nongenetic method that extends lifespan in nearly every species studied, including yeast, flies, worms, and rodents. It has also been effective in healthspan extension of primates by reducing cardiovascular disease, tumor growth, and glucoregulatory impairment. Generally speaking, a restriction of 30 to 40 percent from a normal healthy diet resulted in an up to 50 percent longer lifespan. Data from recent first human trials suggest dietary restriction will also be beneficial for humans.

Over the last 20 years, research supporting dietary restriction has repeatedly pointed toward protein restriction. In fact, researchers have narrowed down at least some of the positive benefits to the restriction of certain essential amino acids. Despite society’s mission to consume as much protein as possible, it may turn out that many of the health benefits of a plant-based diet are due to the unintentional essential amino acid restriction naturally found in plants. Some of the key amino acids to restrict are highest in chicken, eggs, and fish, the so-called healthy animal- protein choices whose consumption has risen over the last century. There are many questions left to answer, but protein and amino acid restriction seem to place you on the right track to a long, healthy life and a whole food, plant-based diet restricts these automatically.

Insulin-Like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1)

Like us, animals naturally produce hormones to grow, to function, and to reproduce. While the extent to which these hormones influence human health when those animals and their byproducts are consumed has not yet been fully elucidated, we do have data supporting risk. One documented mechanism is the increased production of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Once we reach adulthood, growth is not an all-positive feature and can mean abnormal growth—for example in the rapid proliferation of cancerous cells. High IGF-1 levels in the blood have been associated with several types of cancer, acne, and possibly other chronic diseases. On the other side of that equation, consuming lower levels of protein (particularly animal protein) reduces growth hormone and IGF-1 and is associated with optimized healthspan and longevity.

Heme Iron

Animal products contain the heme form of iron, as opposed to the nonheme iron found in plant foods. As mentioned before, while heme iron may be better absorbed than nonheme, this turns out to be a disadvantage. This potent form of iron acts as a pro-oxidant and increases risk of colorectal cancer, promotes atherosclerosis, and reduces insulin sensitivity.

Chemical Contaminants

When animal flesh is cooked, harmful compounds are produced in the process. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed with high-heat methods of cooking, such as smoking, grilling, and broiling, and have been linked to increased cancer risk. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs), also considered carcinogenic, are formed when flesh is exposed to high heat (e.g. barbecuing, pan frying, and grilling), long cook times, and external charring. Finally, dietary advanced glycation end products (AGEs) contribute to oxidative stress and inflammation, kicking off and progressing the cascades of degenerative diseases. AGEs are found primarily in animal flesh, full-fat dairy products, and highly processed foods. Lower temperatures and shorter cooking times may reduce the formation of these compounds but, better yet (and to also avoid foodborne illness caused by undercooking animal products), stick to whole plants instead.

Other (Not-So) Goodies in Animal Products

A small molecule with a long name, N-glycolylneuraminic Acid (Neu5Gc), is produced by many mammals other than humans and is incorporated into humans via the consumption of meat, organ meats, and dairy products. Unfortunately, Neu5Gc promotes chronic inflammation and increases the risk of tumor formation.

Another inflammation-inducing substance commonly found in animal products is trimethylamine (TMA). The smell of seafood decomposing is primarily due to TMA, but that’s not what really stinks about these inflammatory molecules. In our bodies, TMA becomes the compound trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO). TMAO induces inflammation, atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke, and death.

Carnitine, found mostly in red meat and some energy drinks, and choline, found in poultry, fish, shellfish, red meat, liver, dairy, and eggs, are metabolized by our intestinal bacteria and converted into TMAO. It should be noted that while choline is a required dietary nutrient, we do manufacture some in our bodies and too much may be just as harmful as not enough. Eggs have choline, but like many animal products they contain excessive quantities along with cholesterol, saturated fat, and methionine. Plant sources like pinto beans, broccoli, quinoa, and soy products are far better choices for dietary choline.

In dietary studies, subjects eating foods high in carnitine and choline were treated with a strong dose of antibiotics to decrease intestinal bacteria and showed no spike in TMAO. When the antibiotics were removed and the intestinal bacteria returns, so too does the TMAO. However, when long term vegans were tested with a steak (the things we do for science) they didn’t produce TMAO. Proof that, ultimately, diet does drive the distribution of healthy and unhealthy intestinal bacteria.

Oil

We’re going to chew the fat a little on oil. Oil is not a health food and we are not recommending you cook with it. With that said, fat plays a key role in the diet by providing essential fatty acids and enhancing fat-soluble nutrients, such as carotenoids and vitamins A, D, E, and K. Furthermore, fat adds to the culinary enjoyment of food—what chefs describe as mouthfeel—by mobilizing fat-soluble flavors to the taste buds. The problem with oil and cooking: we use too much. If you reach for the olive oil before the pan has even begun to heat, you’ll likely overdo it. Broadly speaking, squeezing oil from olives, sugar from beets, salt from oceans, and flours from intact grains can all lead to the same issue: overuse of refined foods. Found in animals and plants alike, fat is mostly an energy storage organ, but it is also used in structural membranes and other biologically important molecules.

Most studies linking high-fat diets to chronic disease are based on the intake of fat from animal products and certain processed vegetable oils. Oil is 100 percent fat and contains 120 calories per tablespoon (nearly 2000 calories per cup). Oil is calorie rich and nutrient poor and offers no specific nutritional benefits outside of limited cases where a more harmful fat is displaced (e.g. olive oil instead of butter).

MIXED GREENS

For comparison, 100 grams of olives contain approximately 115 calories, 3 grams of fiber, and 11 grams of fat, and 100 grams of olive oil contain 884 calories, 0 grams of fiber, and 100 grams of fat.

Some oils contain modest amounts of vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids, which are easily attainable from other whole-food sources such as nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives. As a bonus, when you consume whole-food sources, you also get fiber and a multitude of other nutritious deliciousness with fewer calories. (Although counting calories is unnecessary, eating a concentrated source of nutrient-poor calories is a surefire way of gaining weight.)

Remember that no type of oil is essential in the diet, and some are worse than others. Coconut oil, for example, is touted for its health properties yet contains about 83 percent of its total calories from saturated fat! Recent evidence shows that, although coconut oil has a different saturated fatty acid profile, it is still not much better than butter in terms of healthfulness. Even the universally praised olive oil isn’t the superfood it is made out to be. Remember that in many of these studies, the question we need to ask is “compared to what?”

Olive oil has been hyped as a magic bullet to heart health for years, due to its role in the Mediterranean diet. But pouring oil on food is not the salient feature of this diet. Fifty years before olive oil and the Mediterranean diet became a marketing gimmick, nutrition researcher, Ancel Keys, began studying diet trends. Japanese people who immigrated to Hawaii began to experience heart disease at the same rates as seen in lifelong Americans. Their traditional, low-fat, plant-based Japanese diet was replaced by a high-fat Western diet with increased inclusion of animal products. Similarly, he noticed that Finnish farmers had increased rates of heart disease on a diet high in butter and cheese, whereas similar laborers on the Greek island of Crete, eating a mostly plant-based diet high in olive oil, had one of the lowest incidences of heart disease.

The most popular theory Keys extrapolated from this study is that monounsaturated fat-rich olive oil decreases the risk of heart disease. In each case, diets lower in animal products seemed to be protective against heart disease, while diets high in animal products resulted in significant increases in heart disease. Some scientists argued against Keys’s conclusions and suggested that animal protein was a better predictor of heart disease than saturated fat. While it was later demonstrated in metabolic ward studies that saturated fat may be causal with increasing serum cholesterol, choosing plant-based sources of food still addresses both issues. Nonetheless, olive oil has received unfair credit, most likely, since the traditional Cretan Mediterranean diet consisted of fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, beans, whole-grain breads, and fish, in addition to olive oil. The use of olive oil alone didn’t cause better health outcomes. Today, olive oil is still flowing in Greece, but now the Greeks surpass the United States in heart disease.

Historically, processing olives into olive oil is a great way to concentrate energy (calories), and it is also a method to preserve the calorie for use throughout the year. This is a great strategy in times of food scarcity and certainly a good alternative to butter and lard (compared to what?). However, translating this to modern first-world societies, where there are officially more overnourished than undernourished people around the globe and hypercaloric food is ubiquitous, an additional source of concentrated calories will not help us get healthier.

Here are some critical points to extrapolate from the decades of data on the Mediterranean diet:

  • Replacing saturated with monounsaturated fats is better because you’re getting less saturated fat. Health benefits aren’t necessarily due to the intake of the monounsaturated fats themselves.
  • You don’t require monounsaturated fats to stay alive. You only need the essential fats, omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Of olive oil’s total calories, 14 percent come from saturated fat.
  • Olive oil didn’t give Cretans healthier hearts. Olive oil was merely one of many factors involved.
  • Pouring olive oil (or any oil) on top of an unhealthy diet will not make you healthier.

You can get plenty of healthy fats by eating avocados, nuts, seeds, and olives instead of oils. Even leafy green vegetables contain essential fatty acids. When intact, these sources of fat maintain their other health-promoting values (phytonutrients, antioxidants, and fiber) and should be incorporated moderately into a varied, whole-food, plant-based diet.

Sodium

Sodium is an important electrolyte that regulates metabolic processes in the body. But you need only small quantities. The key word here is small—just 1,500 milligrams or less per day. The average 3,466 milligrams that 90 percent of Americans consume daily, according to a CDC report, is excessive. Think you don’t use that much? Consider this: 1 teaspoon of salt contains 2,300 milligrams sodium!

If you eat enough food to stay alive, you’ll automatically consume adequate sodium for health. If you use added salt, or if you consume high-sodium foods, know this: high intakes can lead to or exacerbate hypertension, or high blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure or take medication for your blood pressure, you must maintain a sodium-sensible diet. Processed foods and restaurant dishes tend to be high in sodium. Limit these and cook with as little salt as possible.

HEALTHY HINT

Salt is well hidden in foods, especially when it is in cooked foods. For example, bread and salted potato chips have almost the same amount of sodium packed into them (490 milligrams and 527 milligrams, respectively). While potato chips taste infamously salty, the flavor is almost unnoticeable in bread. If you want something salty, but with minimal sodium, sprinkle a few granules of salt over your food right before you enjoy it, instead of adding it into the whole dish.

Limiting sodium in the diet doesn’t mean eliminating the salty palate. Salt is an amazing enhancement to nature’s flavors, but like oil and sugar, we often go astray with salt while cooking. Consequently, when one cooks with salt it ends up taking much more to achieve the same level of flavor as when it’s added at the table, as demonstrated in the sidebar. If you choose to add sodium to your meals, do it at the table instead of the stove.

One other common mistake is caused by misleading nutrition labels; pay close attention to the serving size. For example, let’s look at soy sauce (some sold as “liquid aminos”). While most soy sauces list the serving size as 1 tablespoon, with approximately 575 mg sodium in “lite” soy sauce and 920 mg sodium in regular soy sauce, another soy sauce may list the serving size as one-half teaspoon. Be careful! That 160 mg of sodium per serving is actually 960 mg per tablespoon— 40 mg more than regular soy sauce.

The most important point to emphasize is that your palate adjusts to how much sodium is consumed. The more salt you eat, the more you crave it. The good news is the less salt you eat, the saltier things taste. Keep in mind that dairy and processed meats are some of the highest-sodium foods. Following a plant-based diet can keep your sodium intake in check.

Sugar

Sugar is in nearly everything processed, from ketchup and salad dressings to protein bars and breakfast cereals. It comes hidden in many different fancy pseudonyms:

Agave                                  High-fructose corn syrup (or corn sugar)
Barley malt                        Invert sugar
Beet sugar                         Lactose
Brown sugar                      Maltose
Cane syrup                        Organic cane sugar
Corn syrup                         Powdered or confectioners’ sugar
Date Sugar                         Raw sugar
Dextrose                            Rice syrup
Fructose                             Sucrose
Fruit juice concentrate    Turbinado sugar
Galactose
And that’s just a sampling!

PLANT PITFALL

Three times as sweet as table sugar, agave nectar has become a hugely popular sweetener touted as health food. Whereas table sugar is purely sucrose, which is broken down to yield half fructose and half glucose, agave can contain up to 90 percent fructose. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS-55) is only 55 percent fructose and is a known as a health hazard. Although agave nectar brings a lower spike in blood sugar, the fructose is metabolized in the liver and may lead to elevated triglycerides, heart disease, insulin resistance, diabetes, and weight gain.

Refined sugar and its derivatives wreak havoc on your health similar to saturated fat, with links to elevated triglycerides, blood glucose, and adrenaline. Refined sugar also promotes cancer growth, poor cholesterol profiles, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity or excess weight, gastrointestinal diseases, premature aging, cardiovascular disease, gout, and acne. And if that weren’t enough, it is associated with depression, anxiety, tooth and gum decay and is powerfully habit forming and physiologically addicting! Like salt, the more you sweeten things, the more sugar you desire.

One of the best things you can do for your health (after giving up animal products) is to limit or eliminate refined sugar. You’ll find plenty of ways to indulge on a plant-based diet that will make you realize you’re not missing anything, and whole-food fruits will become increasingly sweeter with time. Plus, it’s health-promoting to cook and bake with fruits, such as dates, when more sweetness is desired—but more on that later. Refined sugar, refined oil, refined salt, and refined flours aren’t poisonous, but they have become so overused in commercial and home cooking that our entire society has a shifted palate. All are better avoided and replaced with whole-food alternatives.

Artificial Sweeteners

You’re born to seek out sweetness. The taste buds sensitive to sweet flavor are located at the tip of your tongue, ready to acknowledge that sweet sensation at first lick. It’s a survival mechanism. Sweet represents carbohydrates, and the most efficient form of fuel comes from those carbs. You crave sweet, so you’ll seek out prime energy-producing foods first.

Evolutionarily, food has never been as accessible as it is today. In the past four or five decades, food has gone from a rare and appreciated commodity to a ubiquitous inundation of daily living. Most people in developed countries no longer eat to live but, rather, live to eat. With fast-food restaurants and convenience stores on every corner, doughnuts in every break room, and vending machines on every floor, hunting and gathering are unnecessary. Instead, messages about eating bombard your life from numerous angles.

So what’s the best response to these messages? More eating, of course! Instead of worrying about where the next meal will come from, the focus has shifted to how to keep eating fast and processed foods without the health consequences. And that’s how artificial sweeteners were born. They may trick your brain into thinking it’s about to receive fuel, yet no fuel is taken in (unless you’re drinking diet soda with french fries and a large veggie cheeseburger). People are still eating more of other calories.

Additionally, artificial sweeteners’ excessive sweetness—160 to 8,000 times the sweetness of table sugar—perpetuates the cravings for sweet things and in turn diminishes the sweetness of fruits and other foods that are naturally sweet. For this reason, people who use artificial sweeteners may have no better success at controlling their weight and health than those who eat sugar and other natural sweeteners.

Reducing, if not outright avoiding, animal products, tropical oils, and processed foods minimizes their associated health risks. None of these items are necessary in the diet and you are better off without them. Don’t be dismayed if at first your new diet seems a little bland. Remember, your palate is adaptable and in time, you will find whole foods tasting salty, sweet, fatty, and far more satisfying.

Cultivating the ideal nutrition plan is indeed a process. You need to nurture the two complementary components—increasing the wildly nutritious elements and decreasing the harmful have-nots. Each choice on either side is progressive and optimistic and will further your fortitude in the right direction.

The Least You Need to Know

  • Plants provide plenty of fiber to prevent and reverse disease by mopping up toxins and encouraging them to move along.
  • While preventing the constant barrage of illness-enhancing free radicals is impossible, your best protection is frequently consuming antioxidants and phytonutrients from fresh fruits, vegetables, and other plant sources.
  • Refined oil, refined sugar, refined salt, refined flour, and other processed foods cause disease-promoting reactions in the body and hinder nutritional gains from eating whole foods.
  • Acquired appetite takes precedence over natural eating. Your palate is plastic and it will change with consistency and practice.

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