The fact that some people believe in a “plant-based diet” and that that’s even a phrase shows me how confused people really are. Every diet humans have ever eaten on this earth was plant-based. Let’s break down a few things real quick. As always, it’s important to define our terms. Have you ever witnessed or participated in a Facebook discussion that went no where because people did not define their terms? It happens all the time. So what is a plant-based diet? Because I ate potatoes this morning and potatoes are plants…
What the plant-based diet really is:
- low in red meat
- low in saturated fat
- low in dairy
- low in eggs
- low in sugar
- low in vegetable oils
- high in legumes
- high in whole grains
- high in starchy carbohydrates
- high in vegetables
The plant-based diet is actually an effort to limit meat and be as vegan as possible. No positive health benefits of animal foods are discussed in plant-based circles. The reason is twofold: the China study, and sustainability.
I’ve been reading various things about nutrition since 2008. Back then, Michael Pollan was very popular. His stance on a plant-based diet (let’s abbreviate it as PBD for now) was informed by the wastefulness of factory farming, the negative health consequences of processed foods, and the lack of connection to food. I don’t think Pollan was ever against eating meat, he just advised not eating too much of it in this famous quote:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Now, reading through the Omnivore’s Dilemma, I have realized one more reason why people are so often confused. With the plethora of uninformative information on the internet, it’s much easier for our minds to stick to a phrase that clicks in our minds. The intricate details in Pollan’s books don’t filter their way through the average vegan’s consciousness. Instead only the eating plants part does. Perhaps one reason this was appreciated by the plant-based community is that “The China Study” was published just a year before “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”
T. Colin Campbell claims to have conducted the largest epidemiological investigation into meat eating that ever existed, and claimed that meat eating, in China, a nation where meat has a strong place in the diet, increased mortality. Vegans around the world cheered.
I was vegan for an entire year, but I had a difficult time believing that red meat was inherently unhealthy based on my research. Nevertheless, Michael Pollan’s words amplified the PBD, and people immediately forgot that adding plants to meat isn’t wrong, and being vegan isn’t healthier than eating meat in moderation.
We live in a melting pot, in America at least. There is no traditional recipe for colds, flus, migraines, and no traditional food culture. This I believe is one inevitable reason why confusion exists. Pollan says the same thing, adding that this dearth of unifying beliefs increases individuals’ susceptibility to fad diets. Let me explain now why I think the PBD is just a massively confusing idea that should be discarded from your consciousness immediately.
Forget the plant-based diet, a balanced diet is better
As I explained in 2012 in this video, there is one single reason why the China Study fails. Denise Minger’s data analysis seemed to discredit many of the conclusions drawn from the observational study well enough, but I still had lingering questions. Below are the main ones:
- What are the net health effects of eating meat as part of a balanced meal containing plants?
- How is it even possible to statistically adjust for increased patterns of unhealthy behavior in people who eat too much meat?
I’m going to start with the second question. In large observational studies, we may conclude that eating more meat is unhealthy. But with statistics we can kind of take away the effects of smoking and a sedentary lifestyle. These adjusted analyses seem to find no evidence that eating more red meat is unhealthy. I’m not a statistician, so I’m not sure how math can figure this out honestly.
When one smokes, doesn’t move much, and eats more red meat, which in America implies more fast food, and likely more sugar and vegetable oil, how is it possible even to distinguish this type of meat eating from someone who eats meat with herbs, olive oil, salads, and is physically active?
There are synergistic effects of our lifestyle choices on our health. If eating a balanced diet results in “X” improvement to our health, and exercising results in “Y” improvement, a balanced diet and exercise together may result in something beyond just X and Y. Statistics however adds up X and Y, or in our case, subtracts it from the equation to determine what the effect of just eating meat is.
You can eat meat and be plant-based at the same time
Now let me answer the first question. I think most readers would agree that a double-patty cheeseburger from any chain fast food restaurant in America is a highly processed meal low in nutritional value that is not ideal for health.
But how healthy is it to eat a steak cooked with rosemary, with some salad, and baked potatoes? This is a fairly typical meal. We could argue about this all day and night, but the rosemary offers protection against any excess fatty acid oxidation in the meat as its cooked, while turning on anti-inflammatory pathways in the body like Nrf2. If the meat is grass-fed, it likely contains higher amounts of omega-3 and vitamin E. The steak in addition contains B-vitamins, zinc, carnosine, carnitine, and other health-promoting nutrients (I’m only isolating them because that’s how we’ve been taught to think about nutrition). The salad contains folate and stimualtes bitter receptors on your tongue that enhance the secretion of digestive enzymes.
The fast food meal containing red meat is high in refined carbohydrates, low in fiber, low in bitter tastes, contains cheap vegetable oils that are likely oxidized, and high-fructose corn syrup (in the ketchup). The meat is not good quality nor is it grass-fed. The overall effect of this meal is likely very very different from the overall effect of the second meal.
Here are some pictures of meals that I made recently (except for the lunch picture) that were plant and animal based at the same time. Let’s just call it a balanced diet.
Baked Oxtail and Potato
Shallots, garlic, soy sauce, and beef broth (cooked with carrots, onion, and shiitake mushrooms) went into the oxtail. Mustard oil was used to coat the potato wedges as they baked. This meal is certainly much more than just meat-based.
Lunch at an Indian Restaurant
This typical Indian restaurant lunch comes with chicken curry, chickpeas (chana), yoghurt with some veggies in it (raita), and a dessert. Many flavors balance this meal out from an Ayurveda perspective. It’s not anywhere close to being as balanced as a home-cooked meal, but I digress.
Tacos With Salsa, Radishes, Lime, and Onion
Tongue tacos served with tomatillo-haberno salsa. As in Mexico, I served this with raw radish slices. I garnished the tacos with cilantro and white onion (next picture).
Tacos de Lengua (Cow Tongue Tacos)
I sent this photo to a friend who replied “nice pinterest photo.” In case anyone else thinks that, I will just add that this photo was taken with an iphone6. It’s not even that great as parts of it are blurry since the lens can’t focus perfectly. Anyway, these tacos tasted like Mexico and I was proud of myself. The corn tortillas were non-GMO, and everything else was organic. This meal is at least 50% plant-based.
So although PBD advocates learn more towards veganism, and plants constitute perhaps upwards of 70% in their diets, for me, 30-50% is enough (from total calories). Perhaps in the future I will track based on calories and volume how plant-based my diet is, but a ballpark estimate seems good enough for this issue, as I’m not sure what the point of doing that would be anyway.
Adding herbs, spices, and vegetables to meals containing meat raised sustainably and healthfully is plant-based in my opinion. Not only that, the combination of plants and meat creates delicious meals that the vegan cannot emulate. There’s an instinctual drive to come elements in our environment to feed ourselves and our tribe, and I believe this universal predilection is quite health-promoting.
In contrast, cutting the meat out and focusing just on plants is shutting the door to millions of person-years of cultural wisdom (ok person-years is an epidemiological term but it applies here). Yes we are living longer than humans who lived in unsanitary conditions in the past. The diseases that kill us tend to show up after our reproductive years are over, so maybe people think that eating meat increases the likelihood of these diseases. But it’s possible to eat meat healthfully, as meat raised in an open environment eating grass has antioxidants, anti-aging nutrients like carnosine, and is nutrient-dense, and it can be flavored with herbs and spices, and then finally served with more plants. Thus, I am all for combining plants and meats together. I need my turmeric.
As you filter through the swath of information on health, I hope articles like this help you make sense of things and encourage critical thinking. What are your thoughts? How plant-based are you? Comment below and continue seeking balance!