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Plant Based Diet for Better Nutrition & Health

From comments on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 Report:

Dr Pam Popper

Author Pamela Popper PhD, ND: Naturopath, nutritionist, Executive Director of The Wellness Forum.

Dr. Popper serves on the Physician's Steering Committee for PCRM in Washington D.C.. She was invited to comment on the report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010

The following article is an excerpt from her letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius and Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack.

There are many things in the report upon which we are in agreement.

I fully support the advice to consume more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.

I also agree that it is important to develop dietary guidelines that take into consideration the fact that most Americans are overweight, that the incidence of many degenerative diseases is going up, and that the health of our children must become a priority.

It is with these objectives in mind that I offer the following suggestions:

Dietary Guidelines Should Stress the Superiority of Plant-Based Diet

The Wellness Forum Food Guide Pyramid

Although the report recommends eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, it falls short of advising Americans of the superiority of a plant-based diet.

The recommendations should clearly state that a well-structured plant-based diet is superior to other diets for weight loss, and for preventing, stopping the progression of, and even reversing degenerative diseases.

Nutrient needs are easily met on a plant-based diet, and studies have confirmed that this diet can be used as a primary treatment tool, even for very sick people with conditions like coronary artery disease, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.

Calorie Counting, Portion Control Ineffective for Weight Management

It is true that most Americans are eating too many calories, and that in order to lose weight, calorie consumption must be reduced. The report advises Americans to “know their energy needs in order to avoid weight gain.”

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However, calorie counting and portion control are not effective methods for reducing calorie intake. I am a well-trained health care professional and I can only guess at my own calorie needs, and they fluctuate daily.

Even if people try to measure their calorie intake, the level of accuracy needed in order to succeed is almost impossible to achieve.

Fortunately, humans have built-in mechanisms for figuring out exactly how much to eat without calorie or nutrient counting. These are stretch receptors in the stomach that detect when the stomach is filled with food, and nutrient receptors that detect the nutrient density of the foods consumed.

The key to satiety is eating fiber-rich foods that fill the stomach from a volume standpoint, and that have enough calorie density to satisfy the nutrient receptors. Beans, rice and vegetables both fill the stomach, and with 400-500 calories, satisfy the nutrient receptors.

These mechanisms do not work when eating rich, calorie-dense foods. Eating chicken and cheese until satiety is achieved requires the consumption of over 3000 calories.

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Portion control is also ineffective. Research has shown that refined, calorie-dense and processed foods are addictive; they have the same effect on the dopamine receptors in the brain as drugs like heroin or cocaine. Asking anyone, particularly a child, to control their intake of these foods using willpower is a recipe for failure.

The Guidelines Need to Discourage the Consumption of Junk Food

The guidelines allow for daily consumption of junk foods, with encouragement to consume healthier versions of those junk foods.

Whole grain muffins are still muffins, and should not be eaten instead of vegetables and rice. Treats should be reserved for special occasions, like birthday parties and Valentine's Day.

When people simply substitute health food store versions of the junk they eat daily, their grocery bill goes up and their health problems do not resolve.

Americans Suffer from Diseases of Excess, Not Deficiency

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There seems to be a great deal of concern in the report about nutrient deficiencies in the American diet.

However, people who are overweight or who have degenerative diseases are suffering from excess, not deficiency. They are eating too much fat, too much protein, and too many calories.

A well-structured plant-based diet provides all of the nutrients needed for optimal daily function, while resolving issues of excess.

Americans Shouldn't Be Encouraged to Eat More Dairy

The report advises Americans to consume low-fat and fat-free dairy products as a source of “nutrient-dense carbohydrate” and for building bone health.

Studies show that as the consumption of dairy products increases in various countries, the incidence of fractures increases too. Americans consume more dairy products per capita than people in most other countries, yet many studies show that this increased dairy consumption leads to increased fracture risk and calcium excretion.

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The report says that when dietary calcium intake is too low, the body draws calcium from the bones. Calcium is actually released from the bones to neutralize the acidity that results from consuming too much animal protein (which includes dairy products), fat, and processed foods. This is not a result of inadequate calcium intake, but the body's response to metabolic acidosis.

The consumption of cow's milk is linked to an increased risk of juvenile diabetes. In fact, studies have shown that the risk for a child consuming cow's milk of developing type 1 diabetes is higher than the risk of a smoker developing lung cancer.

Cow's milk is also linked to chronic infections, constipation, multiple sclerosis, and prostate cancer. The protein in milk is the causative link.

Consuming low-fat and fat-free cow's milk is even more risky for health since the protein is then more concentrated. The science is quite clear that all cow's milk products are best avoided, but low-fat or no-fat products are worse than full-fat milk products.

Fat Recommendations Too High, Oils Should be Eliminated

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While everyone supports reducing the consumption of saturated fats, replacing that fat with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat will not improve health. Oils are not health-promoting; they are fattening. One tablespoon of any type of oil contains 130 calories and 14 grams of fat.

A normal weight, physically active person can gain 36 pounds in just one year by adding an oil-based salad dressing to the diet just once per day.

3 Tablespoons of olive oil once per day = 3600 extra calories every 10 days; this results in weight gain of 3 pounds per month or 36 pounds in a year!

Research has shown that oils are cancer promoting, and that polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease since they contribute to the development of atherosclerotic plaques just as much as saturated fat.

Protein Needs are Quite Small and Easily Met with Plant-Based Diet

For well over a century, myths about the importance of consuming more protein have prevailed, even though protein needs have been established at about 2.5% of calories for adults.

We can all agree that human breast milk is the best food for infants, and fuels very rapid growth, yet it is comprised of only 6% protein. It is impossible to structure a diet with enough calories that does not include enough protein.

Myths have also been perpetuated about the superiority of animal protein over plant proteins. While it is true that most plant foods (quinoa and soy being exceptions) do not contain all of the essential amino acids, it is also true that a well-structured plant-based diet does provides all of them. The protein content of plants compares well with the protein content of animal foods:

Plant Protein Content Compared with Animal Foods Protein Content

  • Black Beans 26%
  • Oatmeal 14.5%
  • Asparagus 51%
  • Spinach 57%
  • Broccoli 42%
  • Cheddar Cheese 25%
  • Hamburger 37%
  • Skim milk 37%
  • Egg 34%

The myth of needing to consume all of the essential amino acids through complementary protein combining was proven to be incorrect.

Many health care professionals continue to erroneously advise people that they need to consume complementary proteins in to safely be vegetarian. References to this issue should be taken out of the report.

Additional Barriers to Change and Proposed Solutions

The report lists several barriers to change, to which I add the following:

People are not given accurate information about the consequences of their poor diets or the improvements they can expect when they convert to a well-structured plant-based diet.

We must give Americans accurate information so they can make informed choices. Americans are encouraged to make changes in their diet that do not result in weight loss or improved health.

Examples: Substituting oils for saturated fat, lean meat for fattier meats, and eating fruit juice-sweetened cookies made from whole grains.

When these changes do not result in improvement (and they generally do not), people then erroneously conclude that diet doesn't work for losing weight and improving health.

This is not true; they have just not been taught how to structure a diet that affects their weight and health positively.

It is time to tell Americans the truth about the diet they need to adopt in order to lose weight and improve their health, and let them decide whether or not they want to make the necessary changes.

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