Originally published August 12 2008
Plant-Based Diets: An Overview of Options for Optimal Health
by Mary Laredo
(NaturalNews) The common question surrounding plant-based diets concerns the source of protein. Although food calories also consist of carbohydrates and fats, protein is typically considered the most essential of the three groups. In fact, Americans have long been dogmatic in their regard for the quality and quantity of this nutrient since its discovery in 1839.
Protein is made up of amino acids -– the "building blocks" with which our bodies construct and repair tissue. Among the twenty or so different amino acids are at least eight which are considered essential because they must be obtained from foods.
Animal sources –- especially beef –- are commonly thought to be the most efficient means of obtaining the nutrient since they provide "quality" proteins similar to human flesh and contain all of the essential amino acids. In the recent past it was believed that each daily meal should include complete proteins –- containing all the amino acids, and even though science has since disproved this notion, the misconception persists. This has led to an over consumption of animal protein in most western diets and the mistaken belief that plants are an inferior source of the coveted nutrient.
Protein is responsible for tissue development. Growing infants, among all humans, have the highest requirement of the nutrient. Approximately 6% of the calories in mother's milk come from protein, which adequately meets the infant's needs (1). A wealth of research indicates that more than 10% of calories from protein –- especially when the bulk of it is from animal sources –- leads to many chronic illnesses, including cancer. On average, Americans consume more than this amount, yet a collective fear of not getting enough "quality" protein persists.
Virtually all plant food provides protein, in addition to their other health benefits. In his essential book The China Study, T. Colin Campbell, PhD. discloses undisputed evidence that plant protein is the healthiest source of this nutrient.
With heart disease, cancer and diabetes on the rise many individuals have discovered the health benefits and wisdom of a plant-based diet. As they seek healthier lifestyles however, they may be confused by conflicting information and surprised by the various options to the Standard American Diet.
The Plant-Based Diet Spectrum
Among the many plant-based diets that have helped individuals reverse chronic illness and disease are the macrobiotic; natural foods; fruitarian; raw foods; vegetarian; vegan, raw vegan and low-fat raw vegan diets. This report will not give space to any of the calorie reducing, nutritionally unsound fad diets such as the Atkins and the South Beach.
Knowledge of the various plant-based diets' basic aspects is necessary before deciding which is best for one's health and healing. Further individual research and application is the only way to determine which diet will be most feasibly incorporated into one's lifestyle.
Whole grains, green leafy vegetables and root vegetables –- primarily locally grown –-
are the bases of the macrobiotic diet. Soybean products and other beans are consumed often, if not daily. Among the occasional foods are fruit; seeds and nuts; fermented condiments; sea vegetables, and fish which are typically consumed two or three times per week. Beef, poultry, dairy products, sugar and processed foods are avoided.
Macrobiotic meals are combined with the principals of balance in mind, with consideration of season, climate, gender and the general health of the individual. Natural foods are preferred over refined foods, and light foods are favored over heavy foods that drain the body of energy.
This low-fat, high fiber diet involves careful planning and provides many health benefits, at least in the short term. Opponents suggest that the diet is too restrictive and results in nutritional deficiencies over time. While there are numerous accounts of healing from cancer by following a macrobiotic diet, several long-term practitioners, teachers and authors espousing the lifestyle have ironically succumbed to the disease (2).
A diet that includes fresh fruits, vegetables and other whole foods while eliminating or severely restricting processed foods is considered a natural foods diet. Refined grains; sugar; table salt; carbonated beverages; hydrogenated oils; chemical additives, and food coloring are considered harmful to the body and are generally avoided. Healthier choices include whole grains; honey; herbal teas; olive oil; sea salt and culinary herbs and spices. Wild or ocean-caught fish as well as pasture-fed beef and poultry are preferred over the factory-farmed varieties.
Clearly, a natural foods diet provides superior nourishment than the Standard American Diet and is useful for health maintenance and disease prevention; however, it is not considered a cleansing diet. When optimal health is the goal, or if a life-threatening disease occurs, a more restrictive diet may be necessary to allow the body to cleanse and heal itself.
The original human diet seems likely to have been one consisting solely of fruits, and this concept is the basis of the fruitarian philosophy. Fruitarians maintain a diet of whole raw fruits, including the non-sweet varieties such as cucumbers, tomatoes and avocados, and embrace this diet and lifestyle as the most natural to our existence. Unlike other natural food sources, fruit is harvested without killing the plant and is therefore considered by the fruitarian to be the most sustainable, natural and humane diet.
The purist consumes only raw fruit and believes that the consumption of nuts, seeds and grains are unnatural, although some fruitarians include small amounts of these foods in their diets. A fruitarian diet is extremely cleansing and useful for short-term detoxification; however, existing solely on fruit for the long-term may be difficult and detrimental to health as some practitioners eventually experience severe food cravings and unpleasant symptoms signaling nutritional deficiencies.
Vegetarian and Vegan
Many individuals opt for a vegetarian or vegan diet due to health, concern for animals and the environment, and/or philosophical reasons. A vegetarian diet excludes all animal flesh but does not restrict animal by-products. For instance, a lacto-ovo vegetarian eats dairy and eggs while refraining from meat. A vegan diet on the other hand excludes all animal products, including honey. There are no restrictions from any of the other food groups, nor are their limitations on the method of food preparation. Food may be raw, cooked, whole or processed.
Simply eliminating meat, fish and animal by-products does not necessarily ensure good health; in fact, many vegetarians regularly consume a high-fat, highly processed diet of refined grains, sugar, coffee, alcohol and other empty calorie foods. However, the vegetarian and vegan diet is conducive to good health when it consists of a wide variety of natural foods. According to the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada "appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases".
Vegetarians run the risk of developing a vitamin B-12 deficiency since plant foods don't provide adequate amounts of this essential nutrient. Among its many functions B-12 is responsible for growth in children, a healthy nervous system, and the formation of red blood cells. Prolonged deficiencies may lead to anemia and neurological damage.
Spirulina and sea vegetables are thought to contain B-12, yet studies show that these food sources actually contain a form that is structurally similar to B-12 (a B-12 analog), which is not utilized by the body and may in fact compete with the vitamin for absorption (3).
Vitamin B-12 is made by microorganisms in the soil, (as well as in animal intestines), and research indicates that plants will absorb the vitamin if grown in healthy organic soil containing a concentration of B-12 (4). Nevertheless, to avoid the possible risk of a deficiency, vegetarians and vegans should have their levels checked periodically and supplement with a sublingual form of methylcobalamin, if necessary.
Any diet that excludes cooked animal or plant food is considered a raw foods diet. Cooking food at high temperatures reduces its nutrient value and destroys enzymes that would otherwise aid the body in the digestion and absorption of food. Common practices among raw foodists include warming, drying, and dehydrating food up to approximately 115 degrees Fahrenheit as this low heat will not compromise enzyme activity. Countless studies have revealed that cooking food produces toxic by-products, and once consumed, the body reacts by generating white blood cells to attack the foreign debris.
Raw Vegan Diets
In 1878, Louis Pasteur published his "germ theory of disease" which led to the widespread fear of germs and the popular belief that all foods must be cooked to protect health (1). Diets that once contained very little cooked food and an abundance of fresh, raw fruits and vegetables were switched to a predominance of cooked food. Today the concept of a high raw diet is foreign to most people, although it continues to regain popularity and credibility as its advocates and practitioners increase globally and exponentially.
A raw food diet may contain fish, eggs, unpasteurized milk and other raw animal products; however, a raw vegan shuns all animal flesh and by-products in favor of raw fruits, vegetables, (including seaweeds), sprouts, juices, herbs, nuts, seeds and their unprocessed oils.
Raw vegan preparations often include dehydrated and fermented foods. Fat content can be extremely high on a raw vegan diet when nuts, seeds, avocados and oils comprise the largest percentage of calorie intake.
80-10-10 Raw Diet
The low-fat raw vegan diet known as the 80-10-10 diet is thoroughly explained in the book by the same name, written by Dr. Douglas Graham. The numbers refer to the recommended ratio of carbohydrates, proteins and fats in the diet. Graham, who has followed this lifestyle for nearly thirty years, asserts that a minimum of 80% of total caloric intake should come from carbohydrates, a maximum of 10% from protein and up to 10% from fat. The concept may seem radical and unacceptable to many but it nevertheless takes the raw vegan diet to the next level of health.
With science to back him up Graham makes a convincing case for a diet of whole, fresh, ripe, raw and unprocessed fruit, tender greens, and small amounts of nuts and seeds, as the most natural to our anatomy, physiology and biochemistry. If left to fend for ourselves in nature with our bare hands and without the convenience of stoves, utensils, refrigeration and other modern devices we would seek out and thrive on this dietary model.
Fruit sugar provides energy to cells within a matter of minutes as long as there is a relatively small amount of fat in the diet. Without excess fat to slow it down, the natural sugar travels easily from the digestive tract through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream where it then makes its way to nourish cells.
Fats on the other hand take twelve to twenty-four hours to finally reach the cells. An excess consumption causes the bloodstream to remain congested with fat which in turn slows sugar from reaching the cells. The resultant elevated blood sugar contributes to candida, diabetes and many other illnesses.
Excess dietary fat (more than 10% of total caloric intake), not natural sugar, is the offender as it holds up digestion and adversely affects blood sugar levels. According to Graham, high fat intake "contributes not peripherally, but directly and causally to all the misleadingly named 'blood-sugar metabolic disorders.'
Graham maintains that fruit is the most nutritionally-complete food and should be the basis of a healthy diet. Vegetable fruits (cucumbers, tomatoes, etc.) and tender greens are also cleansing and alkalizing, and are an important component of the 80-10-10 diet as well.
For most people addicted to the Standard American Diet the transition to any one of the healing diets may be difficult. Instead of eliminating foods it may be easier to initially begin adding raw vegetables and fruits to one's daily diet. This may take a period of several days or weeks, but once this has become habit some of the health-damaging foods may be easier to release. The next level might be a natural foods diet before attempting a further restrictive cleansing diet. The strategy is to follow an incremental path to the optimum dietary lifestyle, regardless of how long it takes.
Many chronically ill individuals have made their transitions literally overnight in an effort to end their suffering or save their lives. These individuals endured the symptoms of detoxification until finally arriving at renewed health, and many have subsequently published their remarkable accounts of healing. Among the scores of noteworthy testimonies are The Raw Family: A True Story of Awakening by Victoria, Igor, Sergei and Valya Boutenko, (http://rawfamily.com/index) , A Way Out by Matthew Grace, (http://www.matthewgrace.com) , and Dying to Get Well by Shelly Keck-Borsits (http://www.rawandjuicy.com) .
Transitioning to a plant-based diet for optimum health is a lifestyle adjustment rather than a temporary phase, and determining the best option is an individual investigation that takes time. We tend to eat for reasons having less to do with nutrition and more to do with comfort, emotional attachment and tradition, and it's been said that changing one's diet is more difficult than changing religions. Nevertheless, once the addictive and highly processed foods are eliminated and the restorative powers of healing foods are realized it becomes easier and more desirable to stay the course.
1. Graham, Dr. Douglas N.: The 80-10-10- Diet. Key Largo, FL: FoodnSport Press,
pp. 100; pg. 106; pg. 54, 2006
4.Campbell, PhD., T. Colin and Campbell II,Thomas M.: The China Study. Dallas, Texas: Benbella Books, pg. 232. 2006
About the authorMary Laredo is an artist, educator and gallery curator who lives and works in Detroit, MI. As a breast cancer survivor who shunned conventional treatment, she is writing a book about her experience with natural therapies and nutritional healing. Visit http://marylaredo.blogspot.com
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