Human beings have evolved to survive on a vast diversity of diets. From cavemen to modern-day humans, there is no doubt that we can survive on all sorts of food sources, from animals to plants and everything in between. The media bombards us with an abundance of fad diets, which people adopt in an attempt to lose weight. The problem is that many of these diets fail and we are left feeling confused about what is best for our health and longevity.
Long term population studies and meta-analyses now indicate that a diet rich in whole plant foods leads to a longer life span with a lower risk of developing chronic diseases. Piling more whole plant foods onto our plates also achieves sustainable weight loss along with exceptional health.
People choosing a plant-based diet are often ridiculed as mainstream media touts it as an incomplete way of eating. Parents who raise their children who eat this way are sometimes criticized for not ensuring their children receive adequate nutrition. There is also a popular belief among men that eating a plant-based diet will make them skinny and weak or that they will develop “man boobs”. In this article, I hope to dispel these myths and more and remove any reservations you may have about eating a plant-based diet.
1. You can’t build muscle on a plant-based diet
I touched on protein in a previous article in which I highlighted that protein is not a food group as many people would believe. It’s a group of essential and non-essential amino acids that are critical to our health. All of these can be found in whole plant foods.
Many elite athletes and bodybuilders eat an exclusively plant-based diet and have exceptional performance. Eating plants does not pose any barriers to gaining muscle as long as enough calories are eaten. The plant kingdom is full of protein rich foods, including legumes and whole grains, but some plants contain more muscle-building amino acids than others. Most people are surprised to hear that we don’t need to eat as much protein as we are led to believe and it can actually be detrimental to our health.
Protein from meat – whether it’s grass-fed organic beef, free-range chicken or wild-caught fish – is detrimental to our health by putting us at risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Frying and grilling meat generates heterocyclic amines which can lead to inflammation and cancer. So it’s a safe bet to stick to plants.
2. Milk gives us strong bones
We’ve been told since we were little that milk makes strong bones. However, the opposite seems to be true. A Swedish study of one hundred thousand people over 20 years showed a significant increase in bone and hip fracture rates in groups who had a higher milk consumption. A comparison of Buddhist nuns eating a plant-based diet versus women consuming dairy indicated that despite a low level of dietary calcium, the nuns were not deficient. This study indicates that veganism does not have an adverse effect on bone mineral density.
Some might be surprised to hear that calcium is present in many plant foods. Regularly eating a variety of foods such as leafy greens, sesame seeds, dried figs, almonds and lentils will supply the recommended dietary intake.
3. Lectins are bad right?
Yes and no. Lectins are found in various plants including legumes (beans), tomatoes and some whole grains. Eating raw kidney beans can make you severely ill from lectin poisoning. Beans need to be soaked, drained and cooked until tender to remove the compound. In fact, 98% of lectins are removed within 15 minutes of cooking.
They are, however, very good for our gut, suppress tumour growth and reduce body weight. People who eat whole grains and legumes tend to be less likely to develop cancer overall. Lectins may also benefit longevity as many of the longest-lived populations consume legumes on a daily basis.
4. Children need meat to grow
The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has indicated that a vegan diet is appropriate and healthy for all stages of life, including childhood. They have also stated that it may help reduce the risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer.
The best food for babies is breast milk. Plant-based foods can be introduced from 6-8 months while they are still breastfeeding. Children and teenagers can maintain a healthy weight with plant-based nutrition and have fewer problems with acne and allergies.
You put a baby in a crib with an apple and a rabbit. If it eats the rabbit and plays with the apple, I’ll buy you a new car.
5. Carbs make you fat
Carbohydrates in the form of processed sugar (glucose, sucrose and fructose) are particularly bad for our health. Separating sugars from the nutrition and fibre of the original plant source can negatively impact our muscle mass and has been linked with depression and heart disease. It raises our C-reactive protein levels, an indicator of chronic systemic inflammation. Other processed carbohydrates like white flour are also not great for our health. As much of the calories consumed in the Western diet come from processed foods, it’s no wonder so many chronic diseases plague us.
However, all carbs are not created equal. Whole, complex, intact carbohydrates – what our bodies use for energy – are slowly digested and therefore better for maintaining blood sugar levels. Eating carbohydrates from starchy vegetables, whole grains and legumes also leaves us satiated and can reduce snacking between meals. Sugar in the form of whole fruit is excellent and studies have shown that eating up to 20 pieces a day has no adverse effects and can help by dropping LDL cholesterol levels. Also, the process of converting sugar to fat only occurs with excessive consumption and doesn’t contribute greatly to the overall amount of body fat.
6. If I eat tofu I’ll develop man-boobs
Man boobs – or gynecomastia – is the swelling of breast tissue in men due to a hormonal imbalance. Causes include obesity, genetics and some medications. In recent years soy has been given a bad rap as it contains phytoestrogens which are naturally occurring plant compounds. Asian populations, who regularly consumed soy, have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, menopausal symptoms and breast cancer.
To have any feminising effects from consuming soy, men would need to drink over 1000 litres of soy milk or eat 800 pounds of tofu a day! Many men wouldn’t like to hear that the most potent phytoestrogen is found in beer.
So, eat the tofu and ditch the beer.
Challenging the status quo
Plant-based diets challenge the conventional belief that humans need to eat animals and their products to be healthy. What we eat is so personal to us and we don’t like people telling us otherwise. Food is not only a source of sustenance but also of pleasure. It represents our culture, our traditions and our identity.
Plant-based diets not only fuel and nourish us but they enable us to thrive. We can be the healthiest version of ourselves by eating plants without restriction. When we have the courage to dispel these myths and remove the reservations we might have around eating whole plant foods, we might collectively move toward a healthier and happier future.