It is exciting to see America embracing the concept of healthy eating. In a recent documentary called “Game Changers,” the author advocates for a diet termed “plant-based.”
As a healthful eater myself and someone who has experimented with various plans (including veganism), I was interested to find out more. Though not vegan presently, I eat a diet that is at least ½ plants. Yet, what does “plant-based” mean? Read on to find out!
The Big Show
Making the argument, similar to the paleolithic diet, this documentary explores historical data from archeologists, using science to determine that our ancestors (in this case gladiators) ate “mostly plants.”
The documentary then goes on to add expert opinion from athletes and trainers, evaluating why meat alone is not the answer. Some of these athletes go on to express benefits from a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Next, comes the research!
I was excited to see a non-scientist evaluating medical research in this documentary. It is great to know that individuals outside of science are capable of basing their practice on information synthesized via the scientific method. Like most nutrition and fitness research, many concepts are based upon studies evaluating multiple metrics (which means the results may not all be accurate) or have a power (number of patients) lower than needed to reach these metrics (like 3 guys eating burritos). So, with a skeptical eye, let’s dive into plant-based literature.
Deep Dive Into the Medical Impact of a Plant-based Diet
Animal Protein Damages Your Circulation
This portion clearly defines some studies that did evaluate endothelial function in meat-eaters.
Yes, there is some evidence to suggest the impact of meat on the endothelium. I have some issues with this as the researcher evaluates diet high in saturated fat, not particularly animal protein, as a culprit for heart disease. Also, the majority of the other research out there does look at saturated fat (regardless of source) and endothelial damage. So is it animals or the fat to blame?
Beet Juice Improves Performance
Okay, there is some evidence to show beet juice will lead to increased nitric oxide levels, improving performance. This sure cannot hurt anything, next.
Meat Causes Inflammation, Which Impairs Recovery
This thought is a few steps too far. When you exercise, you cause microscopic tears in the muscle. Your body sends inflammatory cells to the muscle, which changes blood flow and stimulates your body to repair the damage with new, stronger tissue. You then get stronger and so, on.
Inflammation is not necessarily bad for recovery. Though yes it can hurt sometimes. After all, no pain no gain!
Gabe Mirkin, the founder of the RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) has retracted his initial concept and believes that movement will improve recovery, along with allowing inflammation to DO ITS JOB! Anti-inflammatory drugs also blunt this response and in the long-term, may impede your recovery.
Therefore, so what if meat causes inflammation after training, inflammation is needed for proper recovery.
Heme or Animal Protein Leads to Heart Disease
Woah! Firstly, our bodies naturally have heme and iron in them. Hemoglobin…duh! So, our blood cells cause inflammation? I think not.
Many of these studies cited are population-based. This means that you take 130,000 people and search for heart disease and meat. Is this causality or correlation? These studies do not account for diabetes, obesity, hypertension, tobacco use or other more relevant risk factors for heart disease. So, is the meat an innocent bystander? I do appreciate the study performed by Dr. Ornish.
This is an older (1998) but randomized trial and properly powered. I will say this though. The diet had many components (vegetarian, low fat), allowed for eggs and dairy for protein, as well as including a stress and exercise regimen.
When you add these aspects, was is completely “plant-based,” or just based upon plants. Which of the many interventions, led to the change? Diet, fat content, stress management or exercise?
Most trials would evaluate one-variable at a time, not a big lump. Studying many interventions at once leads to bias, so the jury is out in my opinion, but the whole package may have worked.
Meat Causes Cancer
Again, such studies are population-based and looking for a single risk, without accounting for others. Cancer is a multi-factorial process involved in your genetics, environment, diet, etc. Meat may be involved in cancer. However, so is sunlight and other vital processes. Moderation is key! Cancer is not simple enough to have one cause in most cases.
Our Ancestors Ate Mostly Plants
Alright, I have heard the ancestral argument posed in any such way to prove the point in question. I have heard arguments that we were designed to eat meat, fat, you name it. We just do not know.
As human we as omnivorous. We have teeth for grinding and chomping and canines (tearing meat). Our digestive tracts are longer than carnivores because we are not carnivores.
Our tracts are longer to absorb nutrients, so yes plants were a part of our ancient diet. We cannot fully digest plants (cellulose) and have many mechanisms to digest meat completely. Therefore, we and our ancestors can digest most foods. We were not designed to eat just one thing, which is why we do not have 4 stomachs like a cow.
The argument that we should get B12 from supplements, due to animal source being toxic is bogus. Supplements contain all kinds of additives, which are worse for us than eating grass-fed meat. B12 from animals is better than taking a pill…and tastier!
Meat Will Make You Less Virile
Again, an example of 3 people. We know nothing of their baseline health, quality of sleep, alcohol use, etc. Show me the evidence. Yes, evidence alludes to obesity leading to less erectile strength, but meat is not proven yet. Especially not with a sample of 3 people.
I do agree that diet does affect testosterone. However so does sleep quality, stress, exercise, etc.
Standardize the other factors, do a real trial and then prove it to me.
Many vegetable sources of protein, in particular, soy contain a compound called phytoestrogens. The data on phytoestrogens is fluctuating. Some studies show that phytoestrogens lower testosterone and some show that they do not. Again, are there confounders, is this causality? The jury is still out on this point.
What About the Environment?
I am not discounting that more energy, water is required, and waste created using the conventional farming technique for meat when compared to vegetables. This is true for most Westernized societies, however, for desert-based cultures, this may not be the case. That said, monocropping (growing just corn for instance), is deleterious to our topsoil and its nutrient density. Most of our farming in America is such monocropping, and our soil is also a component of this environmental issue. So veggies are not innocent in this discussion and the environment is not that simple.
Organic (like for real organic) farmers shuttle their animals from one area to the next, allowing for the chickens to eat the bugs from the manure, the manure to serve as a heating agent during the winter for animals. All of this serving to add nitrogen and preserve the topsoil (SEE the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan).
Rather than shifting toward only mono-cropping wheat, soy and corn, raising animals the way nature intended may be the more environmentally sound option. Go to an environmentally conscious farm, you will see the omnivore inside of the environmental coin.
Don’t Trust Medicine
The tobacco industry, influenced research, endorsed by athletes to promote a healthy benefit for smoking. Yes, then they realized, oh no, it causes cancer…the rest is history. I agree do not blindly trust evidence (SEE Be Skeptical of These 3 Nutrition Sources).
Both sides of the party line use athletes, to market themselves, arguing that plant-based (‘ehem the documentary) or meat is healthy. Conspiracy theories aside, this is exactly why we started this blog, to teach people about scrutinizing the data. Don’t just take any data as gospel. Look at the studies yourself and look carefully. Find out what works for YOU!
Now, with information like this, popular culture has boosted the demand for Franken foods grown in labs like a popularized non-meat burger. Or foods made of processed soy, wheat meal, etc. Eating real food, raised correctly is more environmentally sound, nutrient-dense and lack the additives, emulsifiers known to cause MANY health issues.
To me, this seems to be yet another marketing ploy. Keep your food simple and you will not end up in a wellness mess. Your gut will thank you trust me! (SEE How to Eat Real Food)
The biggest question that I have remaining is, what is the definition of “plant-based.” Every paper cited defines this differently. Vegetarian people define this as being vegetarian, vegans = be vegan and paleolithic people = paleo. Personally, there was a trend in the documentary toward being vegan.
I was vegan for 2 years. It did NOT work for me. I encourage you to try it if you would like. Typically to keep up with my caloric and training demands, I needed to eat many food sources, made from compounds, I needed to exercise my biochemistry background to understand or pronounce. My cholesterol was higher, the waist was bigger, and I had weird muscle aches. I suspect I was deficient in essential amino acid. I did develop mild spooning of my digits which can indicate vitamin deficiency (usually iron). It was then, I scrapped the vegan thing and decided to eat real food.
Yes, I eat and advocate for mostly plants (1/2 to ¾ of the plate). If this is plant-based, then YES! However, as a doctor, scientist, weightlifter, and nutritionist, I cannot drop my pasture-raised chicken breast with sweet potato and carrots, for an impossibly synthetic burger from a fast-food chain. Simply put, eat real food. Eat enough food. Eat locally sourced, responsibly raised food. Listen to your body and it will respond.