Paleo, Carnivore, Vegan, Pescatarian, Mediterranean ...
Despite the popularity of these and other diets, over 42% of Americans are obese according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Rates of obesity-related diseases in America—such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension and type 2 diabetes—are at an all-time high.
Further, we're bombarded with information that can be both daunting and confusing. It can be hard to discern what's true.
What seems to be true is that those of us who love a good filet, myself included, should eat more plants.
"There's a plethora of evidence that plant-based nutrition not only helps prevent disease but can potentially reverse certain diseases," said Dr. Carolyn Vollmer, MD, DipABLM, a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physician subspecialized in Lifestyle Medicine, with Corewell Health.
A whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and eliminates or minimizes the consumption of animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs.
Studies show that a WFPB diet can reduce our risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and many cancers. Because it's high in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, it can also help lower cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. It can even increase life span. That's a pretty impressive list!
Corewell Health's clinic, where Vollmer practices, is the nation's first freestanding lifestyle medicine practice.
"We focus on a whole food, plant-based dietary lifestyle that maximizes the intake of plant foods and minimizes the intake of processed and animal derived products," Vollmer said. "It doesn't mean you have to give up animal-based foods entirely."
Plant-based foods are high in complex carbohydrates, which help fuel our bodies and provide energy for endurance activities, like running and cycling.
Many plant-based sources, like beans, lentils, peas, tempeh, tofu, soybeans, seeds, nuts and whole grains, provide ample protein and many are rich in essential amino acids, as well.
A WFPB diet can also reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which can lead to muscle damage and impaired recovery. NFL players and weightlifters following a WFPB diet have experienced reduced inflammation and quicker recovery time.
"A plant-based diet improves blood flow to our joints and soft tissues," explained Vollmer. "It facilitates strength gains and reduces pain, so it can be a better environment for recovery and reducing inflammation."
BUT I LIKE BACON ...
I do, too! But processed meats (like cold cuts, bacon, sausage and hot dogs) are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as carcinogenic to humans.
"They're linked to colorectal cancer, and some to pancreatic and prostate cancer. Colorectal is the number two cancer in America right now. We're seeing it earlier and younger," Vollmer explained. "Red meats are classified as 'probably carcinogenic to humans.'"
Studies show that our bodies process animal-derived proteins differently from plant-based protein. When we introduce the former to our gut, our bodies break it down and convert it into a compound that can increase our risk for heart attack and stroke.
WHAT ABOUT DAIRY?
"One 4-oz. serving of kale has as much calcium as one cup of cow's milk," said Vollmer, "and we absorb calcium better from greens than milk." Since milk and other dairy products tend to be high in saturated fat, you may want to look towards leafy greens, chia seeds and beans as your primary calcium sources.
For milk alternatives, Vollmer suggested choosing an unsweetened plant milk, like soy, cashew, pea or almond. "Listen to your palate first," she said, "but steer clear if there's a long list of ingredients."
When you eat a variety of whole, nutrient-dense plant-based foods, you'll get most of the essential nutrients your body needs, but you may want to take certain supplements, like B12 and vitamin D. Consult a doctor to discuss what's right for you.
A WFPB diet is high in fiber, which can help improve digestion. It might also reduce the amount of processed foods you eat, which are often high in calories, sugar and unhealthy fats.
If you decide to try a WFPD diet, take small, achievable steps to start. Remind yourself that you're making healthy choices for your long-term health. In fact, studies also show a WFPB diet positively impacts our gut health, which plays a vital role in our overall well-being.
"When we fuel our gut with whole plant foods," said Vollmer, "we fuel our bodies and our immune systems for success."
- NIH.com (search "plant-based diet" for articles)
Kirsetin Morello is a Michigan-based author, speaker, writer, travel-lover, wife and grateful mom of three boys. Read more about her at www.KirsetinMorello.com.
This article originally appeared in the Jun/Jul '23 issue of West Michigan Woman.