There are many different schools of thought about the best way to eat for optimal health. Some examples of these are paleo, gluten free, low carb, vegetarian, vegan, raw food and whole foods plant-based. This article concentrates on the last one. A whole foods plant-based (WFPB) diet is similar to a vegan diet in that all animal products are excluded. This means no meat, dairy, eggs or fish. Unlike a vegan diet, the WFPB diet further eliminates foods that are highly processed. Emphasis is on whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, rather than on oil, sugar, refined grains, packaged convenience foods and highly processed meat and dairy substitutes. There are many health benefits from eating this way.
Lower Cholesterol and Heart Disease Prevention
One of the most compelling arguments for following a WFPB diet is that it helps reduce cholesterol and prevents or even reverses heart disease . Cholesterol is a waxy substance that is produced mainly by the liver. Some cholesterol is necessary for the production of hormones such as estrogen and testosterone but the amount produced by your body is plenty. Dietary cholesterol is totally unnecessary and contributes to elevated levels in the bloodstream. This excess cholesterol gets deposited on the walls of blood vessels eventually leading to occlusion.
The American Heart Association recommends a total blood cholesterol level of less than 180 mg/dL . One of the main proponents of a whole foods plant-based diet, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, argues in his book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, that a total cholesterol level below 150 mg/dL may completely eliminate the risk of heart disease. This number comes from studies showing that the cholesterol level of people in parts of the world where heart disease is almost nonexistent is consistently under 150 mg/dL . Plant foods do not contain cholesterol. Unnecessary dietary cholesterol is found in any food that came from an animal, including meat, dairy and eggs. Avoiding these foods will help reduce your cholesterol levels and may be enough to eliminate your risk of heart disease. For many people it is necessary to also avoid added oils and high fat foods such as nuts and avocados in order to drop their total cholesterol to below 150 mg/dL. A WFPB diet contains only cholesterol-free foods.
Another benefit of a WFPB diet is that it helps prevent cancer. Cancer starts in your genes. You may have inherited genes that could turn into cancer or your genes may develop a mutation from exposure to a carcinogen, which could turn into cancer. If these genes are activated, cancerous cells are produced and they multiply into tumors. Normally, the body quietly removes cancerous cells and they are never detected. But if they get out of control, tumors are formed .
Following a WFPB diet eliminates some potential carcinogens. For example, there is recent evidence that eating red meat increases your risk of colon cancer . Dairy products contain a protein called casein which has been shown to activate cancer cells . The documentary, Forks Over Knives, describes laboratory tests in which tumor growth increased in mice that were fed casein and then stopped or even decreased when they stopped being fed casein.
In addition to eliminating some potential carcinogens, a WFPB diet provides a wealth of antioxidants. Antioxidants are abundant in fruits and vegetables and they are able to neutralize free radicals. Free radicals occur when an electron is either gained or lost by an atom or molecule in the body. High concentrations of free radicals can damage cells, possibly leading to cancer .
Weight Control and Nutrient Density
A WFPB diet (excluding high fat foods such as nuts and avocados) can help you control your weight. Avoiding refined sugars and oils has the added benefit of avoiding a lot of calories. Legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables are “nutrient dense” foods meaning that they have a lot of nutrients for few calories. Therefore you can eat quite a lot of unprocessed plant-based foods for the same or fewer calories than a small serving of highly processed food. For example, three Oreo cookies (1 serving) contain 160 calories. For this same number of calories you could eat a banana (approximately 100 calories) and a cup of sliced strawberries (approximately 60 calories). The fruit may not be quite as enticing, but it is more likely to make you feel full and contains a lot of beneficial nutrients and fiber while the cookies are full of fat and sugar.
Weight control and the prevention of heart disease and cancer are just a small sampling of the benefits of following a whole foods plant-based diet. Eating unprocessed plant-based foods also helps in the maintenance of normal blood pressure, prevention of Type II diabetes, and managing chronic diseases such as Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, and migraine headaches. Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of the China Study, says, “The treatment effect of a plant-based diet is broad in scope, exceptionally rapid in response and often, lifesaving. It cannot be duplicated by animal based foods, processed foods or drug therapies.”