This is my new favorite diet label. I mean, if you really need a label for the way you eat. It has everything important in it. The most important part is first, “Whole Food”. This one concept could erase our dietary woes and heal many of the “diseases of modern civilization”. Instead of concentrating so hard on percentages of macronutrients, maybe we should focus our energy on consuming real, actual food the way nature intended. Second, the “Plant-Based” part implies that most of what we would be eating on this plan would be plants. You’re exactly right! If you were to look at a plate and cut the plate into quarters, 3/4 of the plate would be some sort of plant. Then the omnivore part is where your choice of protein fits in. Obviously, if you were to choose a plant-based protein, your plan wouldn’t have “omnivore” at the end of it, but you would still benefit by paying close attention to the “Whole Food” part. My point is, processed foods that have been altered and adulterated in order to be cheap and shelf stable have no business in our diet and we would be healthier by far if these foods are removed from our plate. This “diet”, which isn’t a weight loss diet (although you will probably lose weight), is universal. Anyone can do it, regardless of allergies, location, income level, moral concerns, or health issues.
The first point I want to make is to advocate for whole foods. Not the store, although they do fantastic work promoting the whole foods movement, I mean actual food in its whole, unprocessed state. The argument for organic food, although important, is for another time and I’m not necessarily talking about raw food. I’m simply talking about buying food that looks like what it was when it was growing on the plant or animal. Everything is intact in the same proportions as it was right before harvesting. Nothing has been removed, nothing has been added. It hasn’t had its chemical structure altered or been irradiated to increase its shelf life. For example, macaroni and cheese is not a whole food. Even if it is homemade with raw cheese and whole-grain noodles, the cheese has been processed and so have the noodles. Get it?
Yes, hamburger is processed from a whole cut of meat, if you want to be picky, but high-quality ground meat has everything it is supposed to have and nothing has been added. To illustrate, McDonald’s recently came out with an announcement that their hamburger patties are “Now 100% real beef!” I mean, what were they before? The operative word there is “quality”. There is no such thing as a nugget on a chicken and nuggets on beef are a whole other thing.
If we concentrate on consuming whole food we can forget about percentages of macro-nutrients because everything will be there. Take a person eating a vegan diet. I will bet that the question they get asked most often is “Where do you get your protein?” Well, if they are eating a whole food plant-based diet and not eating a large amount of processed fake “meat” burgers, their protein comes from everything they eat. Plants have adequate amounts of protein to build and maintain a human being if they are consumed whole.
When you start to process food to make it last longer, taste better, or have a more pleasing texture, you start to alter how your body perceives that food. To use sugar for an example, all plants contain sugar in varying amounts. When the sugar is bottled up in the rest of the plant, the body has to contend with fiber, cellulose, vitamins, minerals, and other obstacles, as well as the sugar. Dealing with all of that other stuff slows down the rate at which the plant’s sugar gets used and evens out blood sugar, which decreases the amount of insulin needed and generally makes everything run better. A possible exception may be fruits which have a higher level of fructose than they do fiber.
Let me tell you a story about sugar. Sugar is the end product of stripping a plant down to its bare naked underbelly, getting rid of anything that has any nutrient value, and serving up the pure white granules that are left over. Table sugar does not exist in nature. I grew up in southeastern Wyoming and western Nebraska where the sugarbeet is king. The exact area where I spent most of my childhood is called the Sugar Valley. Sugar beets don’t taste like sugar. I remember picking up a sugar beet that had fallen off of one of the trucks at harvest time when I was a kid. A sugar beet looks basically like a dirty white version of a regular beet, fibrous skin outside and dense inside. I broke it open to get to the inside part that I assumed would be sweet. A whole sugar beet all to myself, what luck! It was disgusting. Like bitter dirt mixed with cornstarch and something metallic. I still remember the taste to this day 35ish years later! It was not even as sweet as a carrot or other root vegetable! In order to get that nasty thing to taste like sugar, it has to go through a long process of physical and chemical alterations that boggles my mind.
Let’s move on to the second concept here, which is the plant-based part. Now we can’t forget the whole food part because corn chips are plant-based (in theory) but they’re not good for you because they are not whole. See what I’m getting at here? When you sit down to dinner and look at your plate, what percentage of the circle is devoted to vegetables? A large portion of the United States and Canada would answer 25% or less (if we don’t count starch). We have lately begun to demand larger portions of meat–or protein, it could be tofu or seitan–making protein the centerpiece of the meal. In order to get the most bang for your nutritional buck let’s change this around a bit and make vegetables the largest portion on your plate with meat on the side. If you do choose animal protein, be conscious of where your meat comes from and how it was raised. See the resources I have listed below to read up on ethical meat and where to find it. Vegetables are nutrient dense and you can eat an enormous amount and still be hard pressed to reach your calorie limit for the day! Vegetables supply fiber which feeds your microbiome, or good bacteria in your gut. In contrast, sugar feeds the bad bacteria in your gut. Fiber also helps to keep you regular and supports the health of your gut lining. If you have tried the Paleo and Keto diets and find that you are constipated, increase your vegetables, especially the greens. Beware of loading up on starches.
In the United States in particular corn, wheat, and potatoes rule the plant-based food kingdom. A standard meal for me growing up would have been meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, and corn on the cob. Another way to say that would be, a meat and two starches. And the meatloaf likely had a mixture of ketchup (massive dose of sugar with an itty bit of fruit for color) and brown sugar on top for added deliciousness. Oh, and flour or oats mixed in to make it stick together. The problem with this is the incredible amount of sugar that is present in a meal that outwardly seems wholesome. Starch is another way to say sugar. There weren’t any packaged foods in this meal (if you don’t count the ketchup), but there were no greens, or cruciferous vegetables, or brightly colored vegetables. I love the saying, “Eat the rainbow.” It gets cooks thinking about the colors of their meal and inadvertently increases the nutritional density as a fun side effect. A better choice for this meal would be meatloaf without the sugary topping or grains mixed in, broccoli or asparagus, and a side salad with avocado or homemade vinegar and olive oil based dressing.
So much pain and worry have been spent on grains lately. Some people claim they are a healthy and necessary part of the human diet. Others think grains are the enemy. These two camps get terribly defensive when questioned about their motives. You would think they were being attacked on a religious level. Come on people, it’s food! Live and let live. From a whole food standpoint, if the grain is in its whole form it gets a green light. This sparks controversy as well because what constitutes a whole grain according to the USDA or the FDA might not be what a holistic nutritionist or a health coach would call a whole grain. I would not consider Fruity Pebbles to be a good source of whole grains, but the government disagrees. There are also arguments that whole grains can be just as bad as processed grains due to anti-nutrients present in the grain’s outer layers. This is a discussion for another time, but it explains why small amounts of white rice are okay in some Paleo circles. If you are going to eat grain, in most cases eating the whole, actual grain in its original form is probably best, but only if you tolerate it. Quinoa is usually pretty well tolerated if soaked or at least rinsed to get rid of the soapy tasting outer coating.
The major objections I hear against adopting a whole foods diet are the expense, time, and effort. Yes, grass-fed beef is more expensive. So you should eat less. Most of us eat too much protein anyway. Splurge on the weekends or on special occasions. Organic vegetables are more expensive. So choose to buy organic from the Dirty Dozen list if you can afford to, and don’t worry about the rest. It is more important to increase your intake of vegetables than to buy them all organic. If time is your concern, you can try prepping, using a food delivery service, or try a gadget like the Instant Pot or the tried and true Crock Pot. Think ahead and have your ingredients ready. Do your chopping ahead of time. Make casseroles on the weekends and freeze them for an unexpected late night during the week. Make extra that can be reinvented for lunch or tomorrow night’s dinner. That’s the cook once, eat twice rule. Above all keep it simple. These tips can also help if you are always tired when you get home and don’t want to spend even more energy making a healthy dinner for everyone. Get your family to help. Make it a fun experience instead of a chore.
A rule of thumb I learned at a holistic food presentation years ago was that every meal should have: a cooked fruit or veg, a raw fruit or veg, a whole grain, a fermented food, and a source of animal protein. I have tweaked that rule a few times over the years to make it work for me, but I still agree with its basic sentiment. Food affects everything. What we choose to eat becomes the building blocks our bodies use to grow, repair, and create every bit of hair, skin, neuron, hormone, toenail, joint fluid, bone, artery, and eyeball that we have. Much of the time we don’t think about this when we’re hunting through the fridge and cupboards looking for something to have for supper. A whole food approach makes sense to me because it seems to be in line with what nature intended. It’s simple—just eat real food. And difficult—but pizza!
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The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan https://www.amazon.com/Omnivores-Dilemma-Natural-History-Meals/dp/0143038583/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1506732885&sr=1-1&keywords=the+omnivore%27s+dilemma
In Defence of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan https://www.amazon.com/Defense-Food-Eaters-Manifesto/dp/0143114964/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1506898640&sr=1-4&keywords=michael+pollan
It Starts With Food by Dallas Hartwig and Melissa Hartwig https://www.amazon.com/Starts-Food-Discover-Whole30-Unexpected/dp/1628600543/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1506733007&sr=1-1&keywords=it+starts+with+food
The documentaries Food Matters and Hungry For Change both by James Colquhoun and Laurentine ten Bosch, and so much more on FMTV.com
Grass-fed beef, organic pasture raised chicken, and heritage pork delivered to your door. https://www.butcherbox.com
Pasture raised and harvested buffalo raised and processed just down the road from me shipped to your door! Wild Idea Buffalo Company. https://wildideabuffalo.com