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Is a plant-based diet healthy?

Advice by diet authorities globally is that a plant-based diet comprise the greater part of one’s food intake. From maintaining a healthy weight, to protecting against cancer and other diseases, the benefits are widely touted. But is a plant-based diet healthy? Research never stands still, and the diet field is one that constantly pushes boundaries. One of its current “dissidents” is Dr Paul Saladino. A nutritional biochemist, integrative medical doctor, and author of The Carnivore Code, Saladino promotes an almost exclusively animal-based diet. His work is thoroughly researched and very enticing.

This blog might throw a curveball at you regarding what makes up a healthy diet. You’ll likely be a little dubious about the basis for this approach. After all, the world is currently in the grip of a vegan revolution. Bear with me while I try to explain… 

Fangs and claws

Animals have a means of protecting against, or running from, predators. But so too have plants got a mechanism for defending themselves. Phytoalexins are a plant’s “claws/fangs/venom”. These are defence chemicals that can be harmful when consumed. Historically, we’ve assumed that a plant-based diet provides nutrients (phytonutrients) that are beneficial to human health. The belief is that these nutrients act as antioxidants. These are said to beneficially destroy free radicals in the body.

Free radicals are molecules with one or more unpaired electron. This makes them reactive as they look to pair with an electron from elsewhere. Plants are believed to provide free radical “scavengers” (free electrons). These help manage the unstable and damaging electrons. (They attach a free electron to an unpaired one to neutralise it.) In fact, our bodies naturally supply the molecules that provide this service – call it our antioxidant response system – so we don’t necessarily need these to be supplied to us. 

Hormesis 

In light of new research, though, it seems that many of the chemicals we thought were phytonutrients are actually phytoalexins, and they don’t actually donate electrons, but trigger this antioxidant response system instead. This is a process known as hormesis (the concept of introducing an acute stress to the body, for the purposes of making it stronger). While this process is beneficial to the body when necessary, there may be potential side-effects to the consumption of phytoalexins. Outside of using plant nutrients for this purpose, there are other ways in which to stimulate hormesis including exercise, fasting, exposure to cold and heat, being in ketosis, and consumption of caffeine.

Plants: a fall-back food?

Dr Saladino offers compelling evidence to suggest that plants were historically “fall-back” foods, eaten by humans when animal-based foods were unavailable, or scarce. He is clear that animal foods supply all the nutrients the human body needs to be healthy, while plant foods alone cannot do this. He makes the distinction between vegetables and fruits, with fruits being less of an issue due to a low phytoalexin content. Saladino also recommends that all seeds be avoided: since these are the plant’s means of ensuring continuation of the “species”, they will tend to contain high levels of phytoalexins.  

Saladino quotes the work of Dr Weston A Price, a dentist who travelled around the world in the 1930’s studying the health and diets of indigenous people. Price never did find cultures thriving on vegetarian diets. In fact, he often found the opposite – those tribes eating an animal-based diet were stronger and healthier than those subsisting on a predominantly plant-based diet. Price’s book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, is a fascinating read, particularly the research around the direct consequences of the Westernised diet on the health (and, consequently, stature and aesthetics) of native people bartering for foodstuffs with Western traders. 

Are you a carnivore?

Although this no-plant/animal-only approach may, on the face of it, seem extreme (and possibly foolhardy) given that we’ve been advised for so long about the benefits of including more plant foods in the diet, it might be worth experimenting with your own nutritional intake to see if you react to any particular plant foods. You may have health “niggles” that just won’t go away, no matter what you’ve tried in the past. Saladino, who completely resolved asthma and eczema by eliminating plants from his diet, also experienced other health benefits and claims his clients have had similarly positive responses. 

Fibre

This first concern that tends to come up for people when suggesting less plant matter, is the issue of fibre. Mainstream thinking on this suggests it would be hard to overemphasise the importance of it in the diet. Provided to our bodies through the consumption of plants, it can’t be broken down by the digestive system. There are two components to it – soluble and insoluble fibre. The former binds to water, forming a gel, which can help slow down digestion and regulate bowel movements. It is found in nuts, seeds, oat bran, barley, peas, beans, lentils, and some fruits and veg (like cucumbers, and blueberries). Insoluble fibre absorbs water, adding bulk to your stool and helping food pass through the stomach and intestines more rapidly. It’s found in dark green leafy veg (like celery, green beans and carrots), whole grains and wheat bran. 

Nutrients appear to be delivered via fibre, which acts as a kind of transportation vehicle, so whole fibre-rich foods appear to offer maximum benefit. General recommendations for ideal fibre intake is in the region of 25-30g daily. According to Michael Greger, M.D., FACLM, in his 2019 book, How Not to Diet, “That’s a far cry from the hundred grams our bodies were designed to get, based on the diets of modern-day, isolated, hunter-gatherer tribes and an analysis of coprolites, human fossilized feces – people-poo”.

Some of the proposed benefits of adding sufficient fibre to your diet include a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diverticulitis, hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and colon cancer. The promotion of blood sugar control (which impacts on weight), a reduction in the chances of gall and kidney stones, and improved satiation signalling in the brain are all attributed to fibre.

All is not what it seems

Those who promote an almost exclusively animal-based diet are clear that all is not what it seems when it comes to the research proving fibre’s worth. A 2011 study found that a diet high in fibre did not protect against asymptomatic diverticulosis, while the largest study ever to examine the role of high fibre diets in protecting against colon cancer, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1999, could not show a beneficial relationship.

Additional studies have shown that a “diet high in fiber is significantly associated with decreased hormone concentrations and a higher probability of anovulation.” In other words, there is a risk of infertility and low oestrogen levels on a high fibre diet. Constipation can be worsened on a high-fibre diet, and it can bind important minerals including calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc. In short, and according to the afore-mentioned Paul Saladino of The Carnivore Code, “fiber has failed to show any benefit for constipation, diverticulosis, colon cancer prevention, diabetes, and weight loss.”

Let’s remember that we’re all unique, so while some people may do really well on an animal-based diet, others may want to ask the question, “Is a plant-based diet healthy for me?” It’s always worth experimenting with your own diet to determine whether or not any foodstuff is beneficial or problematic for you. Understanding (and applying) your unique fuel needs will lead you onto a path of health, energy and longevity.

Tanya Wyatt, Happy Valley pond

Tanya Wyatt

Tanya has written regularly for various health and fitness magazines such as Men’s Health, Marie-Claire, Cosmopolitan and Shape (she also served on the advisory board for Shape), as well as for local South Africa newspaper publications. In 2004, Tanya wrote two internationally released health and fitness-related books, both  published by New Holland. She recently wrote her third book, currently submitted to publishers for consideration.