5 myths of whole-food plant-based diets debunked
As chronic illnesses increasingly affect more Americans’ health, the link between dietary habits and disease prevention is gaining traction in the U.S. health care arsenal.
For Dr. Colin Zhu, DO, an osteopathic family physician who practices lifestyle medicine, the path forward is clear. Dr. Zhu is a bold advocate for teaching healthier eating, exercise and stress management to patients.
“We’re living in an age of chronic disease that is plaguing our nation and contributing to diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart disease, cancer and obesity,” says Dr. Zhu, “and much of that is preventable with proper lifestyle and dietary changes.”
Dr. Zhu’s training has taught him the benefits of a whole-food plant-based diet (WFPB), an eating pattern that encourages the consumption of unrefined plant foods (such as fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds) and discourages meats, dairy products, eggs and processed foods.
As beneficial as a WFPB diet is, it can be a daunting and extreme option for many people. That’s why Dr. Zhu advocates the concept of “crowding out” to his patients.
“I advocate eating more plants but I don’t really subscribe to saying ‘you need to be on a vegan diet or a vegetarian diet’,” says Dr. Zhu, who is author of “Thrive Medicine: How To Cultivate Your Desires and Elevate Your Life”. Instead, he advises patients to “crowd out” the bad food with good food. “I think it works best when you take baby steps, because the more you can see results, the more likely you are to continue eating healthier.”
There are many myths and inaccuracies surrounding WFPB diets, according to Dr. Zhu, but knowing fact from fiction can help you make more informed dietary choices that can have an impact on your health, well-being and longevity.
With that in mind, here are five myths of a WFPB diet debunked.
Myth 1: There is no proof that a WFPB diet is healthier than other diets.
Fact: evidence suggests a WFPB diet can not only prevent but treat coronary artery disease (CAD), the leading cause of death in the United States in both men and women, and other illnesses.
In a 21-year Cleveland Clinic study led by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., MD, advanced CAD was stopped and reversed in patients who complied with a plant-based diet and maintained a total cholesterol of less than 150 mg/dL and an LDL-cholesterol of less than 80 mg/dL. In a 2008 study led by Dean Ornish, MD, and colleagues, a plant-based diet combined with exercise and stress reduction was shown to delay the advancement of prostate cancer in some patients.
“Coronary artery disease is virtually absent in cultures that eat plant-based diets, such as the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico, the Papua highlanders of New Guinea, and the inhabitants of rural China and central Africa,” wrote Dr. Esselstyn in Preventive Cardiology. “Hundreds of thousands of rural Chinese go for years without a single documented myocardial infarction.”
Myth 2: I won’t get enough protein on a WFPB diet.
Fact: Though most Americans rely heavily on animal sources for protein, the truth is that we can meet our daily protein needs from vegetarian sources.
“Historically, Americans have associated protein with muscle-building and strength, and considered animals the prime source of it,” says Dr. Zhu. “But we can get all of our necessary nutrient intake from plants, with the exception of vitamin B-12 and vitamin D. Meanwhile, animal fat is high in saturated fat, trans fat and dietary cholesterol, which are the top 3 risk factors to elevating heart disease, the No. 1 killer in the U.S.”
Myth 3: There is nothing wrong with lean animal protein that is fried or grilled.
Fact: When you expose animal-derived food that is high in fat and protein to high heat through frying or grilling, they form AGEs, or advanced glycation end products, which are toxins that accelerate the aging process causing oxidative stress and inflammation that contributes to cataracts, macular degeneration in the eye, Alzheimer’s disease and damage to the bones, heart, kidney and liver, says Dr. Zhu. “AGEs from this way of cooking can lead to reduced longevity.”
In contrast, carbohydrate-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains, contain relatively few AGEs, even after cooking.
Myth 4: Plant-based diets are high in carbs.
Fact: All carbs are not created equal, says Dr. Zhu. “Mother Nature created things whole. They didn’t just give us carbohydrates, but whole complex [or intact] carbohydrates—which is what our bodies need for energy—as well as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.” Whole, plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, are also high in protein and fiber, which helps slow the digestion of carbs so we don’t experience a sudden spike in blood sugar followed by a crash.
Myth 5: Eating a plant-based diet will leave you hungry all the time.
Fact: “This is not true,” says Dr. Zhu. “When people think of plant food, they think of eating salads for every meal. But on a WFPB diet, calories will be coming from tubers, whole grains and legumes such as peas, lentils and beans.” These foods help load you up with fiber, which is what makes us feel satiated and prevents cravings.
On the other hand, the Standard American Diet—which is typically rich in processed and artificially sweetened foods, salt, red meat and dairy—is high in calories and low in nutrients, says Dr. Zhu. “That’s when you’re going to feel hungry and end up eating a lot more calories to quell those hunger pangs.”