Have you ever been in that dreaded first date situation where you’re staring at a menu and know you want a rib-eye medium rare with a baked potato and sour cream, but are afraid of making a gluttonous first impression so you err on the side of social safety and just get a salad? ….I know, me either! But surprisingly enough, some people (not just vegetarians) actually do chose the salad! Why is it the salad is socially accepted as the healthier choice? Even though that occasional rib eye actually serves a nutritional purpose?! Maybe that pressure we feel to ensure we eat our vegetables; especially in front of an audience, actually isn’t just to save face but stems from some primal instinct to make a nutritionally superior choice? Worldwide, twice as many people live on a plant based or vegetarian diet than a carnivorous meat based diet. If the majority of the world population engages in this diet style, does that mean it reigns superior? Is a plant based diet truly the best diet?
What is it about plants that make them so superior to our health than that of say, a handful of M&Ms? Well, the answer lies within the food itself. Virtually every part of a plant serves a nutritional purpose in the human body. Let’s start with the outside flesh of any plant; its cellular wall is made up of non-digestible carbohydrates commonly known as Fiber. Fiber is essential to our health because it binds to carcinogens and cholesterol and literally keep our digestive tract moving and functioning. In addition to fiber; plants contain virtually every vitamin, mineral; micro, and macronutrient. Why is that important? These Vitamins play pivotal roles in every function of our bodies from breathing, thinking, to being able to hail a cab, to athletic performance. Because plants offer so many of these nutrients, they’re able to meet the nutritional needs of everyone, from a competitive athlete to a senior citizen at Thursday night Bingo. A marathon runner may require different macronutrients than a second grader on the playground, but regardless of protein, fat, and carb requirements; all human being still require Vitamins and Minerals in order to live!
Now let’s just say you’re a competitive athlete training for a marathon and are consuming 300 grams of carbohydrates a day to fuel your runs. Sure, you can get 300 grams of carbohydrates from plants but what else do they offer that makes them a great dietary choice for a competitive athlete? For starters, B Vitamins. Otherwise known as thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, b6, biotin, folic acid. B Vitamins are essential for cell division, growth, nerve repair, and act as coenzymes for metabolic processes. Most importantly B vitamins play a role in cell production and making sure your mitochondria work properly. You think you work hard? Your mitochondria are the “powerhouse” of your cell. Invisible to the naked eye, but absolutely essential at making sure our cells convert nutrients into energy for your body to use properly.
As an athlete, marathon runner, crossfitter, or yogi- your cells need repair! Vitamin A does just that. It is responsible for hundreds of functions in the body including cell differentiation, immune function and building of epithelial cells found in the respiratory and GI tract. Sounds pretty important for someone looking to improve athletic performance. With the exception of beef liver and eggs, Vitamin A is primarily abundant in plants especially those that are orange. Why is that? No secret complicated explanation here, Vitamin A quite literally is orange! While it’s found in most abundant in orange-colored produce, Beef liver is another phenomenal source. It doesn’t necessarily mean plants are better, but how many of us are having beef pate on a regular basis? I’d rather have my beef as mom’s spaghetti and meatballs.
Another nutrient essential for superior athletic performance is one of the most abundant macro minerals in the body: Magnesium. It’s needed for over 300 enzyme reactions in the body, including the “citric acid cycle” the catabolic process that extracts energy from foods when engaging in physical activity.. In other words, it gets your muscles fuel! Where can you find this substance…. You guessed it…. Plants! Leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and even spices. So plants are the best form of fuel for athletic performance? Not so fast… You know how the saying goes; if it seems too good to be true, it probably is! Although plants have outstanding benefits for muscle repair, energy, and even protein, there are a few limitations; to no fault of their own.
The amino acid Carnitine is involved in transporting fatty acids across the mitochondrial membrane (which was described previously as the “powerhouse” of your cell where fuel is converted into energy). Carnitine also plays a role in stabilizing Acetyl-CoA and coenzyme A levels through the ability to receive or give an acetyl group- which is necessary for the “citric acid cycle” to occur so fat can produce energy called ATP. The best sources of this vital amino acid aren’t in broccoli or carrots, but beef, steak, fish, and chicken. Sure there’s a small amount in asparagus, but I’m guessing if you’re trying to bench press 400 pounds, eating a few pounds of asparagus before you lift that bar bell wouldn’t sit too well in your gut, especially when a few ounces of steak will do the trick. Carnitine also activates Vitamin B12. Guess what plants don’t have….yup, you guessed it; B12. This Vitamin exists exclusively in Animal products. So if you’re a vegan or a vegetarian, you might be making a trip to the pharmacy because humans can’t live without the Vitamin. If you ever plan on exercising, heck even getting out of bed in the morning, you better believe you’ll need B12. That wonderful vitamin is the reason I can type this review- it literally coats and protects your nerve cells. If our nerve cells weren’t protected thanks to B12, we’d all have no control over our movement which would make for a clumsy world to live in.
Although hard to believe, not everyone cares to be a competitive athlete. There are people out there who just want to look their best. Is there anything a plant based diet can do better than one containing meat? Well, we mention Vitamin A for cell differentiation and you know where that matters in addition to muscles and epithelial cells? Skin. Yes, Vitamin A actually plays a role in SKIN cell turn over. Want to look 25 when you’re actually 40- take a look at your next bottle of skin cream. Odds are it contains retinol. Retinol is one of the most effective and popular skin treatments and you know what it is. The vitamin and mineral content in a plant based diet also help with collagen synthesis, hair and nail growth, acne, and skin rejuvenation more so than meat proteins can. Why is that? Anti-oxidants. Meats are virtually completely void of anti-oxidants. Why is that a bad thing? What exactly does an anti-oxidant do? Think of it like this…. Do you know what the statue of liberty looked like before it was green? It was copper. What happened to it? It oxidized, and turned green. This phenomenon happens inside of us as well. There are floating “free radicals” that can bind to oxygen and negatively impact our cells by advancing them into more harmful substances, like cancer for instance. Now when I throw some names out there, like, let’s say, eggplant, onions, carrots, peppers, and tomatoes…..what do you notice. The COLORS. And it’s not just a cute outfit, these colors actually represent different antioxidants.
- Purple- anthocyanins, these help reduce urinary tract infections
- White- these sulfur compounds, called allicins, help reduce blood sugar
- Orange- beta carotene, also helps with arthritis
- Green- phytochemicals which protect against liver disease and cancers
- Red – lycopene and resveratrol, these help reduce heart disease.
These outstanding substances are almost exclusively found in vegetables and fruits. In this particular round of produce vs. meats; produce definitely wins. In addition to cosmetic appearance, the health effects that a plant based diet offers also contribute to a long and healthy life. Antioxidants play an outstanding role in reducing cancers, heart disease, liver disease, and contain all of the previously mentioned vitamins and minerals in greater amounts than meat products. As we age, our bodies change and need these nutrients to keep us healthy. Maybe some of us will still be running marathons through our “golden” years, but for the rest of us, we will need food to be our lay-up.
Not mentioned yet is the mineral Zinc; which is required for collagen and protein synthesis, cell proliferation, and immune function, all of which are essential for tissue regeneration and repair. As we age, this is vital to ensuring our bodies can stay healthy. Fortunately this mineral is abundant in both meat, seafoods, and plants so we aren’t faced with a difficult dietary choice. As we age and skin gets thinner, vitamins offered in plants are essential at ensuring the state of our health as we age. Vitamin K, a fat soluble vitamin found most abundantly in green plants, acts as a coenzyme that modifies proteins to bind with calcium and interact with other compounds to assist with blood clotting, and bone mineralization. Women are especially at risk for bone density loss at later stages in life therefore Vitamin K helps prevent bone loss.
Heart Disease is currently the #1 killer for men and women in the United States over the age of 45 and 55. One of the contributing culprits to heart disease is the current western diet which is high in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates and a lack of fruits and vegetables. Full fat dairy products and red meat are some of the highest sources of saturated fat, and refined carbs lead to stress on our livers and fat storage around our organs. A big no no! But does that mean we should rule meat out just yet?
Before heart disease became the #1 killer of Americans and the paleo diet was sensationalized, a scientist name K. O’Dea conducted the first study of its kind in 1984 using 10 full blooded aborigines who had been eating a “western” diet composed mainly of fatty meats, refined carbohydrates and soft drinks. Over 7 weeks they were to eat exclusively hunter-gatherer style diets primarily of wild game, nuts, berries, and wild plants. Despite eating virtually the entire carcass (fat and all!) of the wild game, ALL participants displayed a significant weight loss, averaging 18lbs per person! Fasting insulin and fasting glucose levels dropped significantly as well as HDL cholesterol and fasting triglycerides. At the end of the 7 weeks, all biological markers for heart disease and metabolic syndrome had vanished.
So what can we take away from all this evidence? No one diet style fits all, and certainly no one diet is superior to another. The point is, you know you better than anyone else. And despite your personal health goals you are the pilot of your life. Hopefully this leaves you better equipped to make the decision of what to eat to be the best you. And of course if you ever need a co-pilot to help you reach your nutrition goals, contact us! We can help 🙂