Let’s face it… there are a lot of crazy ways to eat out there. Atkin’s, South Beach, Vegetarian, Vegan, Paleo, Mediterranean, and the list goes on. Some folks have no plan at all! Sometimes all of the distinctions can be comical. Once during dinner my oldest daughter, who was about 6 at the time, announced that she was now a “Half-Vegetarian”. When we asked what the other half of her diet was she said, “Meat.” Hmmmm. But regardless of how you decide to eat there is a simple principle that you can’t ignore in order to be healthy: YOU HAVE TO EAT PLANTS!
When this topic first came to me it was as a request to write about “Plant based diets”. I think that the intent was for me to write about the pros and cons of being a vegetarian or vegan. As I started to write I realized that there is a greater principle that can be shared here than advocating a specific style of eating. This principle is that while you may choose whether or not you eat meat and still be healthy, you won’t be healthy for very long if you choose not to eat plants. Let me define plants better because I’m feeling weird typing that over and over and it probably makes you feel just as weird reading it! When I say “eat plants” I am of course talking about fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, berries and some grains. The reason I chose the word plants to start out with is because the best way to eat these foods is as close to their plant form as possible. The less processed the plant, the better. For example corn on the cob and High Fructose Corn Syrup are not the same thing. Raw carrots and smushy, over-boiled carrots are not the same thing. Apples are better than apple pie or apple sauce or apple juice and so on.
Plants are a major source of 4 important nutrients: Fiber, Carbohydrates, Vitamins/Minerals and phytochemicals.
Fiber, also known as roughage, is an interesting but essential nutrient since your body doesn’t actually absorb it! Fiber passes through your system but performs some essential functions along the way. It helps to lower the impact of sugars in foods on your metabolism. It “scrubs” the lining of your intestines helping to prevent polyps and reducing the risk of colon disease like ulcerative colitis and colon cancer. It also makes bowel movements easier when you are also properly hydrated. Most overweight Americans would drop weight right away if they started getting enough fiber in their diets. Fruits, vegetables, oats, whole grains and beans prepared as close to their plant form as possible are great sources of fiber in the diet. Sure you could take some fiber supplement but you would miss out on the other great benefits of a plant based diet.
Carbohydrates are important nutrients for the body to function properly. There are, as you have no doubt heard, “good carbs” and “bad carbs”. Carbohydrates occur naturally in plants and when they are in their natural form they typically useful for energy, detoxification, and the production of many important substances in the body. Avoiding carbohydrates altogether also means avoiding fruits and vegetables. Avoiding plants because of the carbohydrates will also cause you to miss out on their irreplaceable role in a healthy diet.
Vitamins and Minerals occur more abundantly in plants than any other food source we have available. The word “Vitamin” was originally formed as a hybrid of the words “Vital” and “Amines”. We have since learned that not all vitamins are amines (a chemical structure) however, the fact remains that they are all vital. Without vitamins we are subject to diseases and disorders that can be range from uncomfortable to disfiguring to deadly. There are significant studies which show that vitamins have protective effects from cancer, diabetes, heart disease and many other chronic inflammatory conditions. Minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, sodium, etc. are similar to vitamins in that they help prevent diseases of deficiency and promote health by supporting many of the essential chemical reactions in our bodies.
Phytochemicals (or phytonutrients) are only found in plants and have amazing health properties. We all know the the word "chemical" but “phyto-" means plant. What do phytochemicals do? Oh they just prevent cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and about a hundred other conditions, that's all. They also treat disease and help us to live longer, healthier and happier lives. These phytochemicals are front line medicine in nature’s pharmacy. You get them from plants and in no other way.
Besides these four nutrients you can also get other nutrients like healthy fats and proteins in plants. One of the reasons we are so sick in our society is that we have moved away from plant based diets in favor of processed and preserved foods where the fiber, vitamins/minerals, and phytochemicals have been all but removed and the carbohydrates have been converted to a dangerous form. Even if you decide to eat meat, most of your nutrition should come from plant sources like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and berries and some whole grains. Save a life (your life)… eat a plant!