Hoping for Health but Missing the Mark?
"There was a party at work, but there was next to nothing I could eat except the Oreos. At least they were vegan!" I hear this sort of reasoning every day in my practice. And I totally understand it. For years, I was a tater-tot vegetarian and thought I was "healthy" because of my eating style. I suffered from asthma, frequent sinus infections, weight gain, and other symptoms that I thought were due to aging. Yet as long as a product did not have any meat such as beef, pork, chicken, or fish on the ingredient list, I thought it was a "healthy" choice. It wasn't. Today, veganism is gaining popularity, and many of my patients think that all they need to do is completely avoid animal products and their health will improve. If it doesn't, they say that being vegan "didn't work" for them. I understand their frustration. As good as it is to avoid eating animal products, it takes more than being vegan to achieve and maintain optimal health.
Some people think the term "fat vegan" is an oxymoron, but it's an unfortunate reality for many people. Allergies, chronic infections, constipation, and other ailments plague them despite their devotion to a vegan diet. There are many laudable aspects of the vegan movement. The efforts to end cruelty to farm animals, stop testing on lab animals, and protect the environment are worthwhile causes that deserve our support. But if we adopt a vegan diet and assume that improved heath will follow, we may end up disappointed. Soft drinks are vegan. French fries are vegan. Green salads dripping with olive oil may be vegan. Packaged energy bars loaded with "natural" fats and "organic" sugar can be vegan. None of these are healthy options.
Refusing to eat meat, dairy, and all animal products (a vegan diet) is only one part of regaining and maintaining health. We must also prioritize plants by adopting a whole-food, plant-based (WFPB) diet. Processed foods are out -- while whole plant foods that come from the farm rather than the factory are in. So we choose a baked potato over tater-tots. We eat brown rice rather than Texas toast. The processed vegan burger slides off our menu to be replaced by whole foods like black beans, sweet potatoes, and Swiss chard. But if our WFPB diet is going to maximize our health, we must also eat our food free from added oil. There is no oil that is "healthy." All fats damage the delicate endothelial cells that line our blood vessels, causing them to become hardened and scarred over with plaques. Further, all oils contain some saturated fat (in varying percentages) which will cause our liver to produce extra cholesterol. And finally, losing the added fat in our diet is key to losing the fat on our waistline. Or as Dr. John McDougall puts it, the fat we eat is the fat we wear.
Jeff Novick, MS, RD, shares a story that demonstrates how our thinking changes when we adopt a WFPB, no-added-oil diet. If you had been at Jeff's dinner, which meal would you have thought was the better choice? Here's Jeff's story:
I was at a recent health conference put on by a traditional group. For dinner there was a choice of fish, chicken or vegan. I asked what was the vegan choice and they said a lasagna dish made with vegan cheese, etc. No sides of veggies (as they were supposed to be in the lasagna). So, I asked what was the chicken dish. They said, grilled chicken, with sides of steamed vegetables and sweet potato. I ordered the chicken dish and traded my piece of chicken with the person next to me for their steamed veggies and sweet potato. The non-vegan choice was the better choice.
When we start focusing on eating whole plant foods with no oil rather than focusing on avoiding animal products, we begin thinking differently about our food options. That's why many physicians who believe in the power of plants to halt and reverse disease prefer not to use the word "vegan." They want their patients to choose meals based on the foods that fuel health, not by avoiding a short list of items. Opting for whole plant foods free from oil rather than only skipping animal products makes the difference between hoping for health and actually achieving it.
If you'd like a more in-depth description of how to achieve optimal health, you can look over my Starch-Smart® System. Then check out my "Gems" page to read stories of patients who've dropped the weight and recovered from disease by adopting a WFPB no-added-oil diet.
For additional information you might like to read:
Jeff Novick, MS, RD, LD, LN Links
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