Is a Plant-Based Diet Best for Us?

Over the last few years, I’ve felt an increasing unrest at something I’ve observed in real food communities and groups…. Mainly the idea that there is one specific diet that is great for everyone, and that each group seems to have found this holy grail of protocols.

The research continually points to personalization and diet variation as keys for overall health, yet in the online world, it often seems like we’re all trying to evangelize our own method as the best. There are two major problems with this:

In general, we all largely agree on about 90% yet we spend 90% of our time debating the 10% we disagree about;
Those of us who have “figured out what worked” have figured out what works for us. That doesn’t mean it will work for everyone but I do think there is value and something to learn in every approach.

In general, experts seem to agree on a few main points like the importance of sleep and the need for a variety of vegetables in our diets. I’m tackling that second point today.

What Is a Plant-Based Diet?
A plant-based diet is just what it sounds like — a diet based mostly in plants. Many vegans and vegetarians have touted the health benefits of a plant-based diet for decades. But other types of diets can also be plant-based when done correctly. And for the most part, all of us can benefit from more plants in our diets from a variety of sources like herbs, greens, and other vegetables.

You may be surprised to learn that I eat a plant-based diet. Though, my definition isn’t a full vegetarian or vegan diet at all! When I say “plant based” I mean that the majority of foods I eat in a given meal come from plants (plants are the basis of my diet) but that I also get protein from a variety of sources including animal sources.

Harvard Health defines a plant-based diet similarly and includes the Mediterranean diet as an example of a diet with a foundation of plant-based foods.

The Mediterranean diet has a foundation of plant-based foods; it also includes fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt a few times a week, with meats and sweets less often.

The Mediterranean diet has been shown in both large population studies and randomized clinical trials to reduce risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, certain cancers (specifically colon, breast, and prostate cancer), depression, and in older adults, a decreased risk of frailty, along with better mental and physical function.

If you’ve been a Wellness Mama reader for a while now you know that I’m a huge fan of “real food” (not processed food!). But a real food diet must include lots of fresh vegetables to be truly healthy. That’s where plant-based eating comes in!

Disagreement in Nutrition Research
There’s a lot of discussion in the healthy living community about which diet is best. You have your vegans on one side, your paleo eaters on the other side, and there are lots of variations in between.

There may be a lot of contention between groups (trust me, I have seen it), but the reality is that there are a lot of thoughtful people on either side who have found research to support their eating style.

So why all the fuss?

As Dr. Mark Hyman says in this blog post, there is a big problem with nutrition research. Studies that examine the effects of diets (like vegan or paleo) don’t necessarily use a control group with a healthy diet. Dr. Hyman explains: “Comparing a vegan diet of chips and Coke, bagels and pasta to a paleo diet of healthy veggies and grass fed meat won’t be very helpful, nor would comparing a paleo diet of feedlot meat, bologna and no fresh veggies to a whole foods, low glycemic vegan diet.”

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens in many cases.

What the Research Really Says
When you take a look at all the nutritional research out there, there is one thing that they almost all agree on. Can you guess?

Lots and lots of fresh produce (especially vegetables)!

I’ve met very few doctors, health experts, or researchers who advise people not to eat veggies. (Though there are now approaches like the Carnivore Diet that shun anything besides meat, but that is a topic for another day!)

Research shows that the healthfulness of the entire diet matters more than how much (or how little) animal products are included. We can see this is true when we take a look at Blue Zones (communities where people live the longest, disease-free lives). Many Blue Zone communities eat meat, but sourced from healthy animals (not feedlots). Their diet also includes lots of fresh vegetables.

In fact, a 2017 study published in Harvard Health found that that reducing animal foods didn’t necessarily lead to a healthier diet or greater heart protection. It was only beneficial if the plant foods that were eaten were healthy (like vegetable and fruits). If the resulting diet is based on less healthy plant foods (like processed grains, juice, and sugary foods), removing animal products did nothing to improve health.

In other words, eating more plants (veggies, herbs, fruits, etc) is the beneficial aspect, not just avoiding meat. Of course, most of us can also agree that feedlots are terrible and that any animal protein should come from humane and ethical sources.

I also think it’s safe to assume that if there was a study comparing a healthy paleo diet (pastured meats, lots of veggies, and enough healthy fats) to a lazy paleo diet (bacon and red meat at every meal, very few vegetables) you would find a similar conclusion: that a diet without a large amount of vegetables can’t be healthy.

Bottom Line: A healthy plant-based diet should be vegetable-based (not just plant-based which could still include many processed foods).

Figuring Out Our Own Best Diets
While research shows that a healthy plant-based diet rich in variety is the best place to start, we are all different and need slightly different nutrients. This is why it’s so important to follow what our bodies are telling us when it comes to food. I know there are many times when I’m just not in the mood for meat and am completely satisfied with a vegetable meal or an entire bowl of cilantro pesto. Other times I can’t seem to get enough meat. These are clues to what our bodies need at any given moment.

Additionally, it’s always good to take an individualized approach to any diet. If you are sensitive to something, don’t eat it just because it’s paleo or vegan or any other criteria. Especially don’t eat it just because you read somewhere online that it is a superfood! Choose foods that are proven healthy and don’t cause you any issues. I personally found Nutrition Genome testing really helpful in practical advice which foods best support my genes. (I explain more in this podcast.)

Some people can’t eat nightshades because they cause inflammation. Others can’t have FODMAPS (a kind of carbohydrate in many healthy foods) due to digestive issues. Find what works for you and your needs (consulting your doctor is a great idea!). I’ve personally found that a short elimination diet and a food log were really helpful tools in listening to my own body.

NOTE: We do have to separate cravings from our body’s feedback about what it really needs. Sometimes our cravings are off because underlying health and they aren’t the best guides. For example, many of us crave sugar not because we truly need it but because we were designed to crave sweet food (breastmilk is incredibly sweet!). We may also crave sugar because of blood sugar issues, candida overgrowth, etc. Or we may crave chocolate because we actually need magnesium.

Epigenetics and a Plant-Based Diet
Following your body is all well and good, but there is another way to personalize our diets. Food has a profound effect on gene expression. According to this Science Daily article, a 2011 Norwegian study found that a diet with more than 1/3 of total calories coming from carbohydrates can “turn on” genes that cause lifestyle diseases like obesity and heart disease and can also cause metabolic inflammation.

There have been countless other studies showing certain kinds of foods can prevent, and even reverse, many chronic diseases (like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer). All of these studies show that food can “turn on” or “turn off” the genes that cause these diseases. That’s why a healthy plant-based diet is beneficial to almost everyone.

But each of us is different with different genes. We have individual nutritional needs too. That’s why a genetic test from Nutrition Genome can be helpful. This kind of epigenetics test can help you pinpoint your genetic weaknesses and learn to eat to improve them.

Can a Healthy Plant-Based Diet Include Meat and Animal Products?
A diet based on healthy plants (specifically, lots of vegetables) has many benefits, but this doesn’t mean we need to exclude meat and other animal products. Animal products should come from healthy animals raised sustainably and not feedlot animals.

In fact, animal products (at least meat) should be a part of a healthy diet since there are some nutrients that can’t be found in plant sources or are much easier to absorb from meat.

Vitamin B12 – This essential vitamin plays a part in brain function, synthesis of red blood cells, neurological function among other things. To get B12 you must eat meat or take a supplement. (Contrary to some belief, spirulina isn’t a source of B12 according to a 1982 study.)
Conjugated Linoleic Acid – CLA is a family of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA). They are primarily produced by bacteria in the stomach of ruminants, like cows, goats, and sheep. CLA is essential for healthy weight, metabolism and blood sugar. It may even help reduce cancer cells in the body. Grass-fed dairy and meat are both good sources of CLA.
Other nutrients can be found in plants but are much more bioavailable coming from animals.

Iron – You can get iron from plants but it is much less easily absorbed. It makes more sense to get iron from meat (grass-fed beef is an especially good source).
Vitamin A – Plants are high in pro-vitamin A (like beta-carotene) which the body can then convert to true vitamin A (retinol). This conversion isn’t very efficient though, especially for those with gut health issues. Liver and eggs are excellent sources of true vitamin A.
Omega-3 fatty acids – You can technically get these from plants, but they come in the form of Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). This has to then be converted to DHA or EPA. This conversion is also very inefficient and highly dependent on other nutrients in body/diet. It makes more sense to get these from oily fish like salmon and anchovies.
Meat and fish are also considered complete proteins, meaning they contain an adequate amount of the nine essential amino acids. Highly respected researchers like Ari Whitten explain that many of us are not getting enough protein, and it can be even more difficult to get enough from only plant sources. (Check out his book Fat Loss Forever to learn more.)

Clearly, meat and other animal products are important for a healthy diet, but what the plant-based diet research shows us is that they don’t need to (and shouldn’t) be the main source of dietary calories. Animal products should be eaten as a side dish rather than the main course as Blue Zones have taught us.

What About Dairy?
Dairy is one of the most hotly debated foods among healthy living advocates. Both vegan and paleo diets eliminate dairy, while primal and keto diets include it. The reason that some healthy living experts eat dairy and others don’t may be because the research is a bit uncertain. Mark Sisson, one of my food idols, explains in this blog post that we just don’t know enough about dairy to say one way or the other whether it’s healthy for everyone.

However, we do know that a lot of people have problems with dairy. For some, it can cause eczema, digestive issues, inflammation, type 2 diabetes and other metabolic issues (because of the high sugar content). Some people can eat dairy without any noticeable issues.

If you’re going to eat dairy, choose raw dairy and stick with high-fat or fermented like butter or yogurt. In my house we eat moderate amounts of raw, aged cheeses and high-fat dairy like butter, heavy cream (raw), and ghee. We don’t drink milk or eat processed dairy foods (like store-bought ice cream).

Can a Healthy Plant-Based Diet Include Grains and Legumes?
Grains and legumes are plant-based foods, so they technically fit into the plant-based diet.

But there are a number of reasons that grains and wheat (even whole grains) can be problematic for some people. They are:

low nutrient/high carb
processed and cultivated in suspicious ways
sprayed with glyphosate
Again, it goes back to personalization. Some people can tolerate certain grains (especially ancient grains like einkorn) or white rice (brown rice is high in phytic acid) without a problem. Others react to even small amounts.

Legumes contain lectins that can also be problematic for some people, but they form the cornerstone of diets for others. One option is to soak beans and legumes before consuming them to increase digestibility.

How I Follow a Healthy Plant-Based Diet (That Can Include Meat)
Based on the research, here are some guidelines I use to follow a healthy plant-based diet (that does include meat and animal products).

Lots of vegetables (and some fruit) – Vegetables and fruit contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and cofactors that are indispensable to the body. A small portion of vegetables at dinner time isn’t going to cut it. Vegetables should make up ½ to ¾ of our plates at every meal. Fruit is also great, but I view it as a treat rather than a whole food group and keep my main focus on vegetables and herbs. If you have a hard time eating vegetables, try sneaking them into a green smoothie.
Low sugar – For a long time fat was the enemy of a healthy diet. Research has debunked the idea that fat is unhealthy and is now showing the real culprit in creating disease — sugar. Personally, I stay away from processed sugar completely and get healthy carbs in moderation from starchy vegetables.
Low to moderate carbohydrates – But it’s not just added sugar that’s a problem. Carbs like bread, rice, and other grain-based foods can be a significant source of sugar. Too much sugar and carbs, in general, can be harmful. A 2015 review published in the Lancet found that lower carb diets were more more helpful than low fat diets. It also found that the highest fat/lowest carb diet was best for weight loss. Note: For some people (like those with low thyroid function), dropping carbs too low for a long time can stress the thyroid. Make sure you get carbs from starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, fruit, winter squash, etc. if this is you.
Real food – Another thing almost all of us can agree on… food should actually be food! Ideally it should not be processed and contain no added chemicals, additives, preservatives, GMOs, pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones. If you’re unsure how to switch to a real food diet, a Whole 30 program is a great place to start. I also give my tips for stocking a real food kitchen here.
Healthy protein – Protein intake should be adequate enough to satisfy the appetite and build or maintain muscle. It’s hard to say exactly how much protein every person needs. The best thing to do is to go by what your body is telling you. When choosing animal protein, choose organic and pasture-raised products and low-mercury fish. Plant protein should be low glycemic like vegetables, nuts, and seeds. I also like this plant-based protein from Organifi to add to smoothies for an extra protein boost.
Plant-Based Diet (That Can Include Meat): Bottom Line
At the end of the day it’s fairly simple to know what to eat to have the healthiest diet:

Healthy proteins (but not as much as we think we need!)
Lots and lots (and lots) of fresh vegetables (and some fruit too!)
Nutrients that your individual biochemistry needs
Minimal sugar and processed carbs
Adequate healthy fats from quality sources
That’s it!

Of course, with the huge range of options in front of us every day (for better or worse), living a healthy lifestyle takes commitment and planning. The good news is that baby steps are usually the best way to make lasting diet and health changes!

For ideas on how to get started (or fire up the motivation to keep going), check out these resources:

Blog post: The Ultimate Guide to Meal Planning (for Families)
Book: The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox
Book: The Whole 30: 30-Day Plan to Total Health & Food Freedom
Book: The Wellness Mama Cookbook (lots of kid-approved recipes with sneaky veggies in here!)
Podcast: Baby Steps for Eating Real Food
Podcast: Longevity, Autoimmunity, & Plant-Based Diets With Nora Gedgaudas