1. Micro-nutrients over Macro-nutrients
Our society has become incredibly fixated on macronutrients. Despite the fact macronutrients (and micronutrients) are found in plants as well as animal products, more than a half-century of creative marketing by the meat, dairy, egg, and fish industries has produced fears surrounding non-existent deficiencies, namely protein, calcium and essential fatty acids, should you not eat their products. The risks are so low, that illnesses due to the lack of any of these essential nutrients, including protein, have not been reported to occur on any natural human diet (as long as calorie intake is sufficient).
To the contrary. Nothing has jumped out at me more in my research of foods over the past 9 years than the consistently evident link between animal products and cancer. Excess protein is a major contributor to bone loss, kidney stones, and kidney failure. There are literally hundreds of studies I could link... here are just a few of the most recent ones (feel free to email me should you want more):
- Animal protein & pancreatic cancer, 2010 – a study spanning 16 years found a positive association between animal products and pancreatic cancer (despite how much sugar a patient had in their diet): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19850469
- A study published 30 December 2013 analyzed data from 1980 to 2008 to see how often 21 types of cancers occurred in 157 countries concluded this –“Animal products had a particularly strong correlation with various types of cancer because this kind of diet promotes body growth as well as tumor enlargement. Specifically, the kinds of cancer affected by this dietary factor include female breast, uterine, kidney, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate, testicular, thyroid, and multiple myeloma. The amount of time between changes in diet and peak cancer rates is approximately 20 years.” In response, one research doctor, Mark McCarty, says “it’s the most impressive evidence I’ve yet encountered indicting animal products per se as a major cancer risk factor”. http://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/6/1/163
- Meat & colon cancer - The authors say reasons for meat products leading to colorectal cancer are wide-ranging and potential risks include naturally occurring components of meat products such as heme iron and protein as well as generated components such as N-nitroso compounds and heterocyclic mines. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24267037
While it is important to ensure that you consume adequate amounts of each macronutrients, doing so is easily achieved for most people by eating a varied diet with an appropriate overall caloric intake.
Processed foods tend to have more macronutrients at the expense of micronutrients, compared to natural foods. This is because processing food strips the foods of many of the vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals and gives the food a longer shelf life. So cereal grains, breads, candy and sweets, dairy products, much of fast foods and other processed foods give you tons of calories with little micronutrient content. The more a food has had done to it, the less naturally occurring micronutrients it will have.
Protein seems to be the one people get stuck on. The US government's recommendation is 5-11%, based on various factors. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a similar amount. And these recommendations are padded with generous safety margins, to cover people who need more protein than average. WHO makes it clear that around 97% of people need less than their recommendations. To put it into perspective, professional Ironman Athlete Brendan Brazier says he eats about 15% protein when training for short events, and close to 20% protein during periods of heavy training (several hours per day) for long endurance events.
Whether you think your needs are closer to 5% or 11%, every whole food is a "source of protein". Taking figures from the USDA Food and Nutrition Database, the average amount of protein in fruit is 6.7%, nuts and seeds 11%, grains 13%, vegetables 22% and beans 28%. And contrary to popular belief, a lot of them are complete proteins as well. Even if they aren't complete proteins, if you eat a variety you will have a sufficient "amino soup" for which your body can make complete protein from. Your body recycles amino acids for up to 48 hours. So you don't have to eat a complete protein at each meal, you just need to consume whole foods. That's it. It’s one of the easiest nutrients to get. We simply do not need macronutrients (especially protein and fats) in the concentrations meat and animal products provide - the amount in vegetables is already more than you need.
We never talk about protein anymore, because it's absolutely not an issue, even among children. If anything, we talk about the dangers of high-protein diets. Getting enough is simply a matter of getting enough calories.
- Marion Nestle, Ph.D, chair of the Department of Nutrition at New York University
I feel our concerns for overemphasizing the importance of macronutrients, and a misguided theoretical risk of deficiency, have overshadowed our need for micronutrients. Suboptimal micronutient intake has become common. The United States Department of Agriculture states 50% of Americans are deficient in vitamin A, vitamin C, and magnesium, 70% are deficient in calcium (despite their excessive dairy consumption), 80% are deficient in vitamin E and 90% are deficient in potassium. Contrary to popular beliefs, protein, iron, calcium, and all other nutrient needs are easily met on plant-based diets. In vegetarians and vegans iron stores may be lower, but there is no reported increase in incidence of iron deficiency anemia.
Micronutrients are needed in minute quantities (i.e., micrograms to milligrams per day) yet they have tremendous impact on human health and well being. Insufficient dietary intake of these nutrients impair the functions of the brain, the immune system, the reproductive system and energy metabolism.
Vitamin B12 is often a concern for people who eliminate all animal products from their diets. A lack of B12 can bring about neurological problems but you only need about a pea sized amount of it to last you your entire life. It can be found in meat, fortified foods, some nutritional yeasts, nutritional yeast spreads, algae such as spirulina and the skins of root vegetables (if you don’t scrub them till they shine). My B12 has remained stable without supplementation since being vegan for the past few years - my blood work gives no indication of needing to supplement in anything. Interestingly, B12 deficiencies are found in the meat eating population just as much as the non-meat eating population. So supplementation across the board should be a consideration.
Vitamin D is often another concern. This is found in direct sunlight, algae such as chlorella, fish and free range eggs where the chooks have been able to roam around outside in the sun eating bugs. Fish actually get their vitamin D from the algae, so it makes sense to me to skip the "middle-fish" and go straight to the source. I use chlorella and sunlight as my Vit D source. Chlorella contains the highest amount of Vitamin D on the planet apart from sunlight. Vitamin D is fat soluble, meaning you can store it up during the sunny seasons and have it as credit for the Winter months.
Of the micronutrients, antioxidants and phytochemicals get the most of my attention. Phytochemicals help to fight against free radicals and toxins. They are active substances in plants that give them flavor and color and they fight cancer by blocking several steps that lead to cancer development. In 2010, the most comprehensive list (by far!) detailed the total antioxidant content of more than 3,000 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide. On average, plant foods contain 64 times more antioxidants than meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. The maximum antioxidant level of an animal based food was 100 whereas the maximum from a plant based food was 284,711. To choose one of the lower scores of the plant foods such as iceberg lettuce with an antioxidant level of just 17, it still has a higher score than fish which averages 11, salmon at 7, chicken at 6, cows milk/coca cola/yogurt all at 4, and hardboiled eggs at 2. To get the best serving of antioxidants from an animal product, you would have to eat ox liver with an antioxidant value of 71. The average antioxidant level of a plant food is 1,157.
Why would I eat animal products which are continuously proven to cause the growth of cancer and lack micronutrients when I can eat plants which are proven to fight and prevent cancer whist providing all the nutrients I need? Every time a person eats animal products or processed/"dead" foods, they are missing the opportunity to feed themselves the cancer-fighting properties of plants. This is it...this is reality.
Sufficient scientific evidence exists for public health policy to promote a plant-rich diet for health promotion. This does not need to wait for science to provide all the answers as to why and how.
- Authors of Antioxid Redox Signal. 2010 Nov 15;13(10):1575-91. doi: 10.1089/ars.2009.3024.
2. High net-gain foods
After eliminating, for various reasons, animal products from my diet, I still wanted to find out which foods would give me the best nutritional bang for my buck. I knew some foods were more nutritionally dense than others, but it wasn't until I learned about the high net-gain foods that this made more sense.
Here's the basic concept:
- net energy gain = energy remaining once digestive energy has been spent
- high net gain = little digestive energy spent, substantial level of micronutrients gained
It takes energy to digest food. If you’re eating a lot of those processed foods, foods that don’t have the enzymes and aren’t easy to digest, then it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of energy. And of course if you’re spending energy, you no longer have it, so it’s just a really simple concept: gaining energy through conservation, as opposed to consumption, so just conserving the energy you have by making better food choices that give you more nutrients while taking less energy to actually get them.
The foods that have the highest net-gain are:
1) Bright or intensely-colored whole foods (think reds, oranges, dark greens, purples)
2) Whole and unprocessed (the less done to a food, the better)
3) Raw or cooked at low temperature (leaving heat-sensitive vitamins, minerals, and enzymes intact)
- I don't worry about gaining body fat
- There's no need to count calories (because who has time for that!)
- My weight and how I feel is never a mystery and I can control it how I like
- My diet is more alkalising = less illness and fatigue
- Energy is more constant and if I want more, I know how to get it
- Recovery time after exercise has decreased = able to exercise more often
- My skin and eyes are clearer
- The high fibre content means I don't eat as much and don't get any digestive complaints
- My food is more interesting and varied than before.
A New Zealand based health researcher, educator and mentor who I recommend is
Jason Shon Bennett: http://www.jasonshonbennett.com.
Links to my other Food for thought, thought for food articles: