Have you ever been in that dreaded first date situation where you’re staring at a menu and know you want a rib-eye medium rare with a baked potato and sour cream, but are afraid of making a gluttonous first impression so you err on the side of social safety and just get a salad? ….Why is it the salad is socially accepted as the healthier choice? Even though that occasional rib eye actually serves a nutritional purpose?! Maybe that pressure we feel to ensure we eat our vegetables; especially in front of an audience, actually isn’t just to save face but stems from some primal instinct to make a nutritionally superior choice? Worldwide, twice as many people live on a plant based or vegetarian diet than a carnivorous meat based diet. If the majority of the world population engages in this diet style, what makes it so popular?
What is it about plants that make them so superior to our health than that of say, a handful of M&Ms? The answer lies within the food itself. Virtually every part of a plant serves a nutritional purpose in the human body. Let’s start with the outside flesh of any plant; its cellular wall is made up of non-digestible carbohydrates commonly known as Fiber. Fiber is essential to our health because it binds to carcinogens and cholesterol and literally keep our digestive tract moving and functioning. In addition to fiber; plants contain virtually every vitamin, mineral; micro, and macronutrient. These Vitamins play pivotal roles in every function of our bodies from breathing, thinking, to being able to hail a cab, to athletic performance. Because plants offer so many of these nutrients, they’re able to meet the nutritional needs of everyone, from a competitive athlete to a senior citizen at Thursday night Bingo. A marathon runner may require different macronutrients than a second grader on the playground, but regardless of protein, fat, and carb requirements; all human being still require Vitamins and Minerals in order to live.
Say you’re a competitive athlete training for a marathon and are consuming 300 grams of carbohydrates a day to fuel your runs. You can get 300 grams of carbohydrates from plants but they also contain B Vitamins. Otherwise known as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, b6, biotin, folic acid. B Vitamins are essential for cell division, growth, nerve repair, and act as coenzymes for metabolic processes. Most importantly B vitamins play a role in cell production and making sure your mitochondria work properly. Your mitochondria are the “powerhouse” of your cell. Invisible to the naked eye, but absolutely essential at making sure our cells convert nutrients into energy for your body to use properly.
As an athlete, marathon runner, crossfitter, or yogi- your cells need repair! Vitamin A does just that. It is responsible for hundreds of functions in the body including cell differentiation, immune function and building of epithelial cells found in the respiratory and GI tract. With the exception of beef liver and eggs, Vitamin A is primarily abundant in plants especially those that are orange.
Another beneficial nutrient found in plants is Magnesium. It’s needed for over 300 enzyme reactions in the body, including the “citric acid cycle” the catabolic process that extracts energy from foods when engaging in physical activity. The best plant sources include leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and even spices.
The vitamin and mineral content in a plant based diet also help with collagen synthesis, hair and nail growth, acne, and skin rejuvenation more so than meat proteins can. Why is that? Anti-oxidants. Think of it like this…. Do you know what the statue of liberty looked like before it was green? It was copper. What happened to it? It oxidized, and turned green. This phenomenon happens inside of us as well. There are floating “free radicals” that can bind to oxygen and negatively impact our cells by advancing them into more harmful substances, like cancer for instance. Now when I throw some names out there, like, let’s say, eggplant, onions, carrots, peppers, and tomatoes…..what do you notice. The COLORS. And it’s not just a cute outfit, these colors actually represent different antioxidants.
PURPLE-Anthocyanins, these help reduce urinary tract infections
WHITE- These sulfur compounds, called allicins, help reduce blood sugar
ORANGE- beta carotene, also helps with arthritis
GREEN – phytochemicals which protect against liver disease and cancers
RED -lycopene and resveratrol help reduce heart disease.
Vitamins offered in plants are essential at ensuring the state of our health as we age. Vitamin K, a fat soluble vitamin found most abundantly in green plants, acts as a coenzyme that modifies proteins to bind with calcium and interact with other compounds to assist with blood clotting, and bone mineralization. Women are especially at risk for bone density loss at later stages in life therefore Vitamin K can help prevent bone loss.
Heart Disease is currently the #1 killer for men and women in the United States over the age of 45 and 55. One of the contributing culprits to heart disease is the current western diet which is high in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates and a lack of fruits and vegetables. Full fat dairy products and red meat are some of the highest sources of saturated fat, and refined carbs lead to stress on our livers and fat storage around our organs. This doesn’t suggest omitting meat and animal products but it certainly suggests the need for increased consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Before heart disease became the #1 killer of Americans , a scientist name K. O’Dea conducted the first study of its kind in 1984 using 10 full blooded aborigines who had been eating a “western” diet composed mainly of fatty meats, refined carbohydrates and soft drinks. Over 7 weeks they were to eat exclusively hunter-gatherer style diets primarily of wild game, nuts, berries, and wild plants. Despite eating virtually the entire carcass (fat and all!) of the wild game, ALL participants displayed a significant weight loss, averaging 18lbs per person! Fasting insulin and fasting glucose levels dropped significantly as well as HDL cholesterol and fasting triglycerides. At the end of the 7 weeks, all biological markers for heart disease and metabolic syndrome had vanished.
So what can we take away from all this evidence? No one diet style fits all, and certainly no one diet is superior to another. The point is, you know you better than anyone else. And despite your personal health goals you are the pilot of your life and this information leaves you better equipped to make the decision of what to eat to be the best you.