Today begins my 6-week Plant-Based Nutrition Certification through eCornell. I’m super excited about it and will have a lot of new information and details to share. Brace yourselves! The first course of three is Nutrition Fundamentals.
Now that we have the basis for Dr. McDougall’s program, let’s get down to some nutrient basics. Foods are made up of four macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and water) and two micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
Carbohydrates are the best source for energy with complex carbohydrates keeping you feeling fuller longer. With the exception of lactose in milk, only plant foods contain carbohydrates. They are relatively low in calories but definitely provide enough energy for even the most active athletes. They also have a large amount of dietary fiber which ease the passage of stool and removes cholesterol and other cancer-promoting chemicals. Carbohydrates will NOT make you fat. Period. Our bodies do not readily convert sugars into fat. Cows do this, humans do not. Excess calories from carbohydrates get burned off as body heat.
Fat is found in both plant and animal foods. The essential fats our body cannot make on its own are readily found in plants. As long as this requirement is met, eating a whole-food, plant-based diet will not be too low in fat. It is the high-fat diets that are the health hazard. Again, those types of diets are linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. I have a previous posting about vegetable oils so please reference that for more details but I would like to add in again that these oils (including olive oil) are not beneficial to our health. They too are linked to cancer and clog up the blood like any other fat. Most fat comes from animal products but some plant foods are high in fat too (seeds, nuts, tofu, avocado, coconut, and olives).
Proteins are readily found in plant foods as well as animal foods. People only need between 5% and 10% of calories consumed to be from protein. Remember, human breast milk, consumed when the body needs to grow the most, is only 5% protein. When the percentage of protein consumed goes above 15%, the liver and kidney are being strained. Animal proteins specifically cause even more damage because they are acidic and the body draws calcium out of the bones to buffer this. Even the carbohydrates containing the lowest percent protein are more than enough for the body. They also contain all the essential amino acids that the body cannot make on its own without mixing and matching certain ones.
Vitamins are made by plants and some types of bacteria so are therefore abundantly found in plant foods. The two that are not are vitamin D which we make with the help of sunlight and vitamin B12 which our bodies make from our own internal bacteria. There is a slight risk of B12 deficiency since it isn’t found in plants at all so a supplement is recommended. Minerals also come directly from plants because minerals are from the earth and plants absorb them through their roots.
Non-nutrients are either found in smaller amounts in plant foods or not at all. Pesticides and herbicides build up in animal tissue as animals eat contaminated plants and so have higher concentrations than the original plant source. Animal food also contains cholesterol that clogs arteries. Plants do not contain any cholesterol. Yes, the body needs some for cell walls and constructing hormones but we can make cholesterol on our own from the food we eat.
Based on this information here is Dr. McDougall’s conclusion: Meats, fish, dairy, and eggs lack the carbohydrates for energy, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They also contain excessive amounts of proteins and fats that are ultimately harmful to the body. Complex carbohydrates (rice, corn, beans, wheat, etc) provide enough energy and protein and other vegetables and fruits add in the variety of vitamins and minerals necessary for good health. These plant foods also do not contain excess amounts of fat. He bases his dietary program around starches, green and yellow vegetables, and fruits because his observations and research provides sufficient data that this is the optimal diet for health. For more details about the McDougall program, go to his website http://www.drmcdougall.com/free.html
I’m taking a break from The China Study to do some posts about Dr. John McDougall’s program for a couple reasons. First, a college friend heard about this program and is going to be trying it (without me poking her even!) and second, he is the one who started me on my whole-foods, plant-based journey.
Dr. McDougall first started making the connection between diet and disease when he was a doctor for a sugar plantation located in Hawaii. This turned out to be a unique situation because there were people from varying Asian nations (China, Japan, the Philippines) and also families spanning three to four generations. He noticed that the first generations were always trim and healthy without any illnesses, aches, or pains. They arrived in Hawaii from their native country and kept their traditional diet of rice, vegetables, and fruit. Their children, generation two, were brought up on this starch-based diet but also surrounded by the Western Diet which worked its way in. They started to get a little larger and started having more health problems. The third and fourth generations became too far removed from their family’s original diet and became just as overweight and sick as any American as they ate animal foods, fats, sugar, and salt. If genetics was the root chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, then descendents of these first generation plantation workers would be perfectly healthy. That however was clearly not the case and lifestyle was the difference.
Taking this information, Dr. McDougall developed a food plan that made promises it could actually keep. People who started making starches the center of their meals with added fruits and vegetables would lose weight, have more energy, solve chronic health problems, get off medications, never feel hungry or bored with food, and save money. I know I want all those things, don’t you?
A couple days ago I was on a conference call with PCRM’s director of nutrition education Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D. and the topic was fueling up with plants for exercise. Here are some notes from Ms. Levin on the topic:
There have been an increase of articles about vegan athletes and though there are theories about why they are so successful at their respective sports, no one quite knows for sure. Ideas include vegan diets being higher in carbohydrates that naturally fuel the intense activity, vegans tend to be more health conscious to begin with, vegan diets promote a healthy heart for increased endurance, and high fiber intake makes digestion better so athletes are lighter on their feet. (In my opinion, it is probably a combination of these factors.)
For the average person exercising two to three times a week, a balanced low-fat vegan diet will not need adjusting. However, if you are extremely active you may need to pay a little closer attention. For light to moderate endurance training, plan on having your carbohydrate intake be 2.75g carbohydrate per pound of body weight. The more intensity you add, the higher the gram per pound will be. Carbohydrates are your fuel! Protein, however, is necessary but not in such high amounts for endurance – only 0.68g of protein per pound of body weight. This number also does not increase with the intensity of the workout. If your workouts exceed 90 minutes in duration, even more attention to food intake is required because that is the time when glycogen levels in the body have been used up. If you are doing training that involves intense workouts multiple times during the day or on consecutive days, you will need to eat carbohydrates within a half hour of finishing the workout and then continue this every two hours for the next six hours. Remember, only carbohydrates will replenish the body’s energy (glycogen) and extra protein will not aid in recovery. It is only needed to repair muscles.
I personally asked about hydration because I exercise and work outside eight hours a day in the hottest parts of Southern California. I also don’t want to drink sports drinks with their added sugars and artificial colors. Ms. Levin noted that a healthy vegan diet will supply the body with the lost electrolytes naturally but for extra help, adding juices and unrefined salts to water will do the trick. Also there are over-the-counter tablets that work well too. I did a quick internet search and it sounds like the best juices to add are lemon, orange, and coconut water.
Another question that came up was protein requirements for strength training. Ms. Levin reminded us that extra protein is not required for strength training but if someone did want to add some anyway there are soy and wheat gluten products available.
I’m 4’11″ and weigh 104 lbs. I have a physically active job and I work out 4 to 6 days a week. I practice martial arts. On a regular basis, I eat whole, healthful foods. I do not look like I have an eating disorder. But I do. It is a real disease, just like alcoholism is.
When I say I compulsively overeat, I don’t just mean I’ll crave pizza or fried foods so I drive and get some. I also don’t mean that when I’m upset, I grab a container of ice cream and start eating out of the container. I think everyone has done this things. Some people do this as a regular part of their diet. The difference, however, is that a binge eater cannot stop eating. The difference is in the brain. I don’t eat a pint of ice cream and call it a night. I move from there to cookies and brownies and jars of peanut butter and bags of nuts and bags of chips and candy bars. I eat until well past the pain. I eat until I’m just shy of vomiting. My stomach is bulging and hurts but I eat so fast I can’t tell. I know that if I eat slowly, I’ll realize that I’m full so I pound down all this junk food until I can’t take it anymore. I’ll wait a little while longer until the pain has subsided and then go at it again. I cannot stop. This isn’t normal nor sane by any means.
This is what I fight every day. Unlike alcoholics or gamblers, compulsive overeaters cannot give up their drug of choice entirely. We still have to eat to survive. I made it the 30 days of being binge free but “fell off the wagon” for a couple days after (I really do dread house-sitting now, surrounded by food I wouldn’t normally be tempted by). I wasn’t working my program, I wasn’t turning to God, and I was trying to eat in “moderation” the foods I know trigger binge episodes. Am I upset? Of course, I hate that I came so far and fell down again. However, I am back on track for three days now and am remembering that those 30 days were a HUGE accomplishment for me no matter what. Also, for the first time, the binges were vegan. High-fat, but still vegan. I’ve done it once, I know I can do it again and longer! I can’t give up on myself otherwise I will be a failure. I’m back to my whole-food, plant based diet and back to a realistic exercise schedule. Go plants!
Carcinogens, substances known to cause cancer, are not limited to long, multi-syllable chemicals. Yet those are the ones that seem to get the most attention. Chapter three in The China Study goes through the details about laboratory research that shows how the beloved nutrient, protein, is actually a carcinogen.
Lab rats were exposed to one of the most toxic carcinogens known, aflatoxin, and the diets were modified with varying levels of the protein casein (protein found in dairy). Rats exposed to aflatoxin that were fed a 5% protein diet did not get cancer where rats exposed to the same level eating a 20% protein diet all got cancer. Their research found that the low-protein diets caused less aflatoxin to enter the cells, reduced enzyme activity responsible for alfatoxin metabolism, and less DNA damaged. The low-protein also decreased the number of pre-tumor cells no matter how much exposure to aflatoxin. What about change an individual rat’s diet from high to low-protein? Cancer rates that initially went up dropped after the diet change. After adding more levels of protein concentration in the diet, the data showed that cancer growth increased when the amount of protein consumed exceeded the necessary protein level for growth. When other protein sources were used at high levels, wheat gluten and soy protein, there was no increase in pre-cancerous cells.
No, lab rats are not the same as humans but there are reasons why this information is critical. First, other carcinogens are tested in the same way and we base how toxic the substance is on animal models. And second, this leads the way for a larger research project that did involve humans and results could be compared for consistencies: The China Study.
Having done a lot of previous research on protein, chapter two of The China Study was nothing new but necessary for those learning about a plant-based diet for the first time. Protein was first discovered in 1839 by Dutch chemist Gerhard Mulder and it was interchangeable with meat. Even though early research did find that less than 50g of protein was needed daily, the thinking was more is always better (a thinking pattern that still exists today and needs to change). The recommended amount became around 120g daily. Protein meant meat and meat was associated with a higher social status. Affluent and civilized men ate meat.
It is true that people do need protein in their diets, no one questions that. The body uses it for such things as enzymes, hormones, and structural tissues. When food is consumed and digested, the stomach breaks down the protein into amino acids so they can be re-assembled into the necessary, new proteins. Of the twenty amino acids, there are eight that humans cannot make on their own. These are known as Essential Amino Acids and must be ingested. (If you really want to know, they are phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, isoleucine, methionine, leucine and lysine.) Animal protein is considered a higher “quality” protein because animal tissue is more like the human tissue than plants are. However, despite what many organizations and the media tries to tell us, plant proteins DO contain ALL eight of these amino acids. You don’t need to mix and match certain foods, like rice and beans, to make a “complete” protein.
Remember that “quality” and efficiency are not equal to healthy. Slow and steady growth and repair from plant proteins are proving to be better for health. Animal foods have excess protein, that also has saturated fat and cholesterol tagging along for the ride, that ends up causing more harm than good (e.g. osteoporosis, cancers, heart disease).
My new whole-food, plant based lifestyle is continuing well. I got my first pickup from my CSA yesterday and it is full of local, organic produce I get to play with, creating fun healthy recipes. Plus I am now a full month binge free! Every day out now is a new personal record and small victory towards recovery. It is a good day today