What do Mike Tyson, Bill Ford (of THE automotive company), Steve Wynn of Wynn Resorts, Russell Simmons, and former president Bill Clinton all have in common? Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, right? Well, if you guessed they all eat and rally for the benefits of a plant-based diet, you’d be right. (If you didn’t guess that, don’t worry, you don’t lose any points here…)
Surely, you’ve noticed that diets like this are currently all the rave and how celebrities seem to be jumping on the bandwagon left and right. But what is all the buzz really about? Is there anything behind the hype, or is it just a fad diet restricted to the world’s elite? More importantly, what can this type of diet do for our weight loss goals as well as our overall health and well-being?
A Look At “The Meat” Of A Plant-Based Diet
Just like it sounds, the term “plant-based diet” refers to any kind of diet based largely on plant foods (typically of the fresh variety but sometimes processed plant foods are included as well) and includes cutting back hard on animal products.
But there are a broad range of “plant eaters” out there foraging our supermarkets, and all these herbivore characters eat according to different principles, depending on their health goals and/or eating philosophies.
For instance, veganism is a strict version of this type of diet in which zero animal products are allowed, including dairy. Vegetarians, on the other hand, cut out meat but often happily gobble up milk based products, like cheese, and possibly even feast on a regular helping of eggs.
Then you get the occasional “vegetarian” who makes allowances for small amounts of seafood here and there.
I know a woman who claims to be a vegetarian but eats fish and bacon (if that makes any sense). There’s even a term for her unique brand of vegetarianism: Wikipedia defines her as a “semi-vegetarian.”
The point, however, is that a plant-based diet is somewhat vague in actual definition and covers a wide range of different eating practices – there are no real hard fast rules besides the general inclusion of lots of plants and avoidance of meat.
Whatever camp of vegetarianism a person chooses to follow, no one can deny that it takes the typical person a certain level of self-discipline to take it up in any of its various forms. Not only because it means no more fat, juicy steaks but also because it requires is a hard charge against the grain in modern society, and it creates quite an inconvenience when shopping, dining out, or eating at the table of a friend.
So why do Mr. Clinton and all these other social superstars even bother? Is it worth the sacrifices, and are the health benefits remarkable enough to make up for the total life makeover it demands?
Let’s have a peek.
What’s So Good About “Eatin’ Your Veggies?”
The plant-based dieting trend as it exists today stems from a growing pool of experts observing something inherently wrong with the Western diet. Study after study notes a plague-like epidemic of chronic diseases in the western world and points out how the rise of these diseases counter-intuitively corresponded with technological advancement (particularly in agriculture).
Others point out how regions of the world where the Western diet hasn’t yet caught on, a diet largely associated with economic development, don’t suffer the same alarming rates of these diseases. In fact, these diseases (which include obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and many forms of cancer) are often referred to in popular text as “Western diseases.”
T. Colin Campbell, co-author of the groundbreaking (and sometimes controversial) book on the subject, “The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-Term Health,” goes as far as to claim that “cancer is a geographically localized disease.” He maintains that if you look at a world map, the areas of the world with the highest cancer rates clearly correlate with the areas of the world where protein is a large part of the local diet.
Meat based diets, his camp proclaims, are the villain.
A 40 year veteran in nutrition research, Dr. Campbell maintains that a human diet composed of more than 10% meat leads to a huge rise in cancer risk… period. Not only that, he stresses, but a plant based diet even has the power to heal a body long battered by degenerative disease and restore good health.
And while Campbell is certainly the most active, vocal, and influential of the plant-based diet crowd, he’s certainly not the only one.
Another study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association details how Canadian researchers fed subjects with high LDL cholesterol levels (that’s the really, really bad stuff) a diet characterized by plant-based sterols, soy protein, soy milk, soy-based meat substitutes, nuts, and oats.
In the span of 6 months, the subjects saw their LDL levels drop by an average of 13% – a decline that equates to an 11% drop in the risk of a stroke in the next decade.
Another proponent of the diet, Caldwell B. Esselstyn, MD, carried out a twenty year experiment on advanced heart disease patients who were able to not only stop their condition from worsening but completely reverse it in 70% of cases.
And What About Weight Loss?
Another great benefit of the plant-centric diets is that they tend to lead to very significant, very consistent weight loss. One of the main reasons for this nice side effect is that red meats, and especially fried foods, are more caloric-ally dense than are water-based foodstuffs like your run of the mill fruits and veggies.
Replace a larger portion of food on your plate with the plants, and the end result is you eat a lot less calories and you lose weight faster. Simple, really.
In fact, one study specifically related to weight loss monitored African American women, a demographic particularly prone to obesity, comparing subjects who ate a largely plant-based diet with those regularly consuming fried foods and red meat. They found the second group put on far more weight over the 14 year study.
The researchers were quick to point out how both groups tended to eat the same amount of food, but the calories were far higher for the second group. So, it was the high-caloric density of meat and fried food that caused the big weight gains.
Do you see where this is going?
Harnessing Your Inner Herbivore
If the plant-based diet makes sense to you but you’re not sure if you’re disciplined enough to go “cold turkey” on meat, one simple tip for switching over your diet without making it too hard on yourself is to start slowly, with incremental changes.
Try swapping out a few meals a week with vegetarian food choices. Or replace a couple problem products that you use a lot with healthier alternatives, one by one – there are actually some real tasty and convincing meat alternatives out there these days, for example. Another possibility is to pick one or two days a week to “try out” being a vegetarian.
As time goes on, these simple choices can become a regular part of your new, healthier diet, and you’ll gain the momentum for more radical changes.
Work some legumes, like beans, into your diet as well. They’re high in fiber and protein, and they replace some of the calories you’re missing – some dieters find a lag in energy levels when switching to a plant-dominated diet without adding a heavy replacement.
Finally, don’t forget about the human tendency to eat the same portions no matter what sits on our plate. Trick yourself by taking up more room on your plate with fruits and veggies, leaving less room for the dangerous stuff.
For ultimate health, 80% of your diet should be composed of “water-based” foods – by that, I mean fruits and vegetables.
Try it and see how you feel.
A Word On Keeping It Simple
As far as how strict your plant-based diet should be, it’s really a matter of which of the philosophies you follow and how hard-core you are about personal food philosophy.
Is total veganism the only true plant-based diet? Are vegetarians who eat a little fish and perhaps the occasional red meat dish (gasp) going to vegetarian hell?
It’s a personal choice, but here’s my take – you won’t find many diets out there that don’t admit grubbing down on more of those good ole’ fresh fruits and veggies and cutting back on the red meat while lowering your calories won’t do wonders for your health, your looks, and your waistline.
Be aware of these benefits and take them very seriously.
But before you get too drastic with your new diet plan, acknowledge that a successful diet is a balance between personal priorities, quality of life, and health. And it’s completely possible to take up a predominantly plant-based diet without signing over your soul to the veggie garden and completely outlawing cheeseburgers for the rest of your life.
A good diet is maintained through basic guidelines, and an occasional cheat from time to time (once you’ve got it under control) doesn’t make you a bad person or mean you’re a traitor of some vague, esoteric clan. After you’ve established solid eating habits, cheating can even be a good thing sometimes.
Sure, there’s a lot of research out there raising some very interesting questions about meat and the potential damage it can do to our bodies (especially in high quantities), but more research is still needed before any absolutes are determined. Meanwhile, just use some common sense.
Michael Pollan probably puts it best in his book, “In Defense of Food,” when he sums up his own rules for plant-eating as such: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
It doesn’t’ get any simpler than that, and any person out there looking to reap the health and weight loss benefits of a sensible plant-based diet without putting themselves through raw broccoli boot camp would do well to follow his simple philosophy.