Saturday, October 10, 2015

A whole foods, plant based diet

By Michael

When people stop paying attention to their own thoughts and observations and, instead, believe something they've repeatedly been told, this is a dogma. In this post I want to talk about a particular kind of dogma that I see too many people I care about believe in--the dogma of eating meat and animal products for health.

Anyone who has known Yulia and me before and after going vegan should be able to recognize one very obvious sign of health. We used to get sick regularly, but now we don't get sick at all. The time we stopped getting regular colds almost too nicely coincides with our transition to vegetarianism.

Before I started eating a whole foods, plant based diet I was sick several times a year. I remember soar throats and coughing as a regular thing. I didn't even question it. I assumed I was sick from germs, bacteria, or viruses. "Better continue using that antibacterial soap," I thought. I would slather it on and use antiseptic spray on door handles and other surfaces with absolutely no improvements to my health. Now I can't even remember the last time I coughed. What was once normal has become abnormal (I got a hell of a sinus infection last year after staying awake for two nights in a row while eating animal products. I wrote about it in this post: "Health and Sickness").

When I was eating a standard American diet and constantly getting sick, nobody questioned my diet and lifestyle. Nobody told me that it was abnormal to get the common cold (The term common cold illustrates just how normal our culture considers it). Maybe I would have changed sooner if I was made aware that what was happening was not normal.

On the other hand, now that Yulia and I are stronger, healthier, and happier, people question our diet and lifestyle all the time. A family member once told us, "If you were younger I would never let you eat the way you're eating now." And, of course, we get the obligatory questions, "Where do you get your protein?" and "Where do you get your vitamins?" They're good questions, by the way, and I'm in no way trying to put down the people who ask those questions (I'll give you my answers below). What does confuse me, though, is why people never questioned us when we were constantly sick, but do question us now.

Yulia and I have nothing to sell you. We're not trying to convince you to change for any personal gain other than to help those that we care about. If you're feeling better and healthier, we'll feel better too. As each year goes by, it becomes stranger and stranger to talk with family and friends who are constantly sick. As people who care about you, we want you to feel better. We want you to know that it doesn't have to be this way.

Yulia and I go against conventional wisdom everyday. We sleep with the window open until the night time temperature goes below freezing. We bathe outside every night, year round. We don't use anti bacterial soap. We don't have a flush toilet. We cram ourselves onto overcrowded buses full of sick people, yet never get the virus going around. We drink cold water straight from the spring and drive in cars with the windows down (two no-no's in Ukraine). And we don't eat meat, dairy, or eggs.

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To answer the question--Where do you get your protein?--I will refer you to world record holder strongman, Patrik Baboumian. He made the world record for the log lift and yoke walk. In the video below he carries 555 kilograms (1224 pounds) over 10 meters. That's about the maximum load my pickup truck can carry.

He's probably getting enough protein, right? What does he eat? Plants. Baboumian is a vegan. He's been vegan since 2011 and vegetarian since 2005 (source).

In the video below he talks about where he gets his protein from. He has a long list: lentils, beans, chickpeas, peanuts, peas, soy, wheat, rye, corn, oats, and rice. He combines the legumes and cereals in this list to get a good combination of amino acids.

While Baboumian is right that he gets all his protein from plants, he actually unnecessarily focuses on combining foods to get a "complete protein" (although combining foods does not hurt--obviously). It is impossible to create a whole foods, plant based diet that is deficient in any of the amino acids. This myth is still strong (even among vegans and vegetarians), so allow me to explain.

It all got started in 1971 when Frances Moore Lappe published the book, Diet for a Small Planet. In this book Lappe writes that some plant foods are deficient in essential amino acids, so someone on a vegetarian diet must combine certain foods to get a "complete protein." 

Ten years later the myth of protein completion was labeled a mistake. Who, you may ask, debunked this myth? Some burnt out hippy? A crazy animal liberation activist-terrorist? In fact, the creator of the myth herself calls it out in the tenth anniversary edition of the book:
"In this and later editions, she corrects her earlier mistake and clearly states that all plant foods typically consumed as sources of protein contain all the essential amino acids, and that humans are virtually certain of getting enough protein from plant sources if they consume sufficient calories." (source)
Yulia and I see this myth being propagated by vegans and non-vegans alike. It's not the 1970s anymore. If you encounter this piece of misinformation, make people aware that it was discounted by the myth's original author a long time ago.

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You may have noticed that I used the term, "whole foods, plant based diet," a couple of times now. That's because this is the type of diet Yulia and I most closely follow. It describes how we eat: whole foods (not processed foods) and plants. I do not use the term, vegan diet, because it can mean many different things. One can eat french fries and Oreos on a vegan diet, but we wouldn't eat that way because we don't think it would be healthy.

I first learned about a whole foods, plant based diet when I read the book, The China Study, by Dr. T. Colin Campbell. As its title suggests, it is about a study that took place in China--in fact, the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted--but it's also about other connections between nutrition and diseases.

What I respect most about the author is that he began his career convinced that animal protein is key to health. However, as he did his own research, he found that the opposite was the case. In the beginning of his career he studied malnutrition. He traveled to the Philippines to study liver cancer in children assuming that the highest incidences of the cancer would appear in children who ate little, if any, animal protein. But when he looked at the data, it became clear that the children who ate the most animal protein were the most susceptible. As he puts it:

"The families with the most money ate what we thought were the healthiest diets, the diets most like our own meaty American diets. They consumed more protein than anyone else in the country (high quality animal protein, at that), and yet they were the ones getting liver cancer!" (36 emphasis in original)
In this book, Campbell discusses what he calls the diseases of affluence--namely, heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer's, obesity and diabetes--and how these diseases are relatively unheard of in traditional cultures that eat a whole foods, plant based diet. The contrast between more affluent and less affluent groups is stark. In China, for example, Campbell found that poorer people who could not afford a diet high in meat were less likely to get heart disease, cancer, etc. "But," he says, "these ailments arrive when a traditional culture starts accumulating wealth and starts eating more and more meat, dairy, and refined plant products (like crackers, cookies and soda)." (109)

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You may still have lingering questions about "those vitamins" that you can't get from plant foods. Precisely, there are four nutrients which animal products have that plant foods do not: cholesterol and vitamins A, D, and B12. Cholesterol and vitamins A and D are non essential nutrients, which means that our bodies can synthesize them on their own. Cholesterol is naturally made in the body, vitamin A can be made from beta-carotene, and vitamin D can be made by giving yourself exposure to sunlight (The China Study 231) [Vitamin D can also be found in sun dried mushrooms].

Vitamin B12, on the other hand, comes from microorganisms found in the soil and animal (including human) intestines. Plants grown in soil with high levels of B12 are able to absorb this nutrient (The China Study 232). Unfortunately, since most people in the modern world don't eat food grown in healthy soils, they do not get this nutrient from plants. Even more unfortunately, many food animals today don't get B12 from the food they are fed, so farmers actually have to inject their animals with it. Those animals are then killed and fed to people who think they are getting their B12 from a natural source. Wouldn't it make more sense to just take a supplement yourself?

Here are two of the more thoughtful takes on vitamin B12 and veganism. In the first video, the narrator  makes a good point. If 39% of people have a vitamin B12 deficiency, but far less than that (0.5%) are vegans, then this is not only an issue for vegans. Meat eaters should also consider if they are getting enough. He also questions how many vegetarians and vegans get their blood tested right before they stop eating animals products and then get tested again after several years (which is how long it takes to get a B12 deficiency). His point is that many vegans do a blood test to find out that they are B12 deficient, but never bothered to check their levels before changing their diet. They blame the B12 deficiency on veganism when they may have been B12 deficient all along.

 The second video is a (really) comprehensive analysis of veganism and B12. The narrator talks about things like blood testing, giving supplements to animals, B12 production in our own bodies, and soil health.

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I can't tell you what my vitamin B12 level is. If I do get it, I assume I get it from plants grown in my garden, kombucha, fermented foods, and nutritional yeast. I'm curious to get myself tested and find out for myself. For that matter, I can't tell you what any of my vitamin levels are at. But I am feeling better in many different ways, and I think that counts for something.

In the end, I'm not so interested in digging in my heels on the issue of nutrition. The point of this blog post is not to prove that I am right and everybody else is wrong. I just care that I am giving myself and the people I care about the best information possible. If I learn about something new in nutrition, and it makes sense to me, I'll try it. I don't think how I eat is perfect, but I'm trying to move in that direction. Most recently, for example, I'm working on really cutting down on my intake of salt and oil, which I use a lot of when the weather gets cold. In the end, my body doesn't care if I can win a debate on nutrition. It just cares that I get that nutrition.


  1. After a year of intestinal pains when I was an undergraduate, and a year of doctors prodding and poking me and having no clue what I had, I gave up meat, the pains vanished, and never came back. Someone I know has been on the Atkins diet for years, and is very happy, his blood test show vast improvement compared to earlier, and says he feels healthier than ever. Case in point, each of our bodies may need something different. The key is for each of us to listen to what we each need as individuals.

    But do keep a handle on your B12 levels soon and keep it monitored. You probably know all this, but deficiency can result in permanent nerve damage. Natural sources might give some B12, but most may not be **guaranteed** to reliably give consistently healthy levels all the time, unless they are fortified with B12. Kombucha makes claims to have biologically active B12, but this has not been verified to my most recent review. Meanwhile, Batabata-cha tea has been proven to have biologically active B12.

    1. As I said in the other post, thanks for your always thoughtful comments. It's great to hear that you have been vegetarian for so many years. You always bring something new and interesting to the table. :)

  2. Thanks for your concern. I've never heard of Batabata-cha tea, but I like the name! I will check into my B12 levels soon, and, since B12 deficiency is also common in meat eaters, I suggest they look into this as well.

    What's interesting about your comment is that no one ever suggested I check on my vitamin levels when I was eating microwavable meals and getting sick all the time. As I said in the post, now that I'm feeling much healthier and stronger, people question my health all the time.

    Additionally, I've known people who had been on a vegan diet for weeks or months who "felt" they were deficient in B12 when, in reality, it takes years to become deficient.

    Dr John McDougall writes that "an otherwise healthy strict vegetarian’s risk of developing a disease from B12 deficiency by following a sensible diet is extremely rare—less than one chance in a million." If you're that concerned about B12 deficiency, I recommend you just take a supplement to be sure you're getting it. However, the negative consequences of eating a diet high in animal products are all too common and much more destructive (I'll quote at length here since I think McDougall makes an important point: "Take a moment to compare the possible consequences of your dietary decisions. You could choose to eat lots of B12-rich animal foods and avoid the one-in-a-million chance of developing a reversible anemia and/or even less common, damage to your nervous system. However, this decision puts you at a one-in-two chance of dying prematurely from a heart attack or stroke; a one-in-seven chance of breast cancer or a one-in-six chance of prostate cancer. The same thinking results in obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, constipation, indigestion, and arthritis."

    Be honest. How many people do you know have a legitimate (not an imagined) B12 deficiency? And how many people do you know who have died from or had a stroke, heart attack, cancer, or diabetes? B12 deficiency is real, but it's important to focus on the big killers. The stakes are just too high.

  3. My mother in law suffers from a Vit. B12 deficiency (but from a genetic cause), and the effects are not pretty and they are very obvious due to the disease.

    The adult human liver stores about 5 years of Vit. B12, so one may not notice the affects for a long time even if one is deficient, and even then the symptoms can be attributed other factors as they may be slight and cumulative (side note: two MDs and one RN in my family so I have some medical reference sources).

    Many foods are "fortified" today in the "modern" world (nutritional yeast is fortified for example), so it is indeed unlikely one may be Vit. B12 deficient. And one can get Vit B 12 from many other sources, but those may be in amounts that are less than what the body needs to replace the stores in the liver.

    The question really boils down to if one want to get their Vit B 12 from a fortified source (i.e. from one of 5 multinational companies that make this product) or from natural sources.

    A proven natural source such as Batabata-cha tea is a good choice, in my humble opinion.

    1. I'm sorry to hear about your mother in law. I'm sure that's not easy to deal with for her.

      Vitamin B12 deficiency is real and all the doctors I've used as sources on our blog so far (T Colin Campbell, Michael Greger, and John McDougall) recommend taking a supplement if you don't eat animal products.

      Again, thanks for recommending Batabata-cha tea. What does it taste like?