Brent Lockridge, CNP
The Benefits of a
Whole Food Plant-based Diet
If you have ever had the pleasure of hearing Whole Food Plant-based (WFPB) advocate, and nutrition expert Dr. Michael Greger speak, you will know that he sums up the benefits of a WFPB diet in one simple rhetorical question: “If all a Whole Food Plant-based diet could do was reverse the number one cause of early death in the United States, should it not be our default diet?” You see over 30 years ago Dr. Dean Ornish demonstrated unequivocally in a randomized control study published in the Lancet that a WFPB diet, along with a small amount of dairy foods, moderate exercise, and meditation, could reverse coronary heart disease, the number one killer in the U.S., and second leading killer in Canada.[i] If a WFPB diet can do this, what else can it do?
Homo Sapiens evolved on a Whole Food Plant Based (WFPB) diet. A diet centered on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, herbs and spices. The evidence for this is well documented in both human evolutionary studies and evidenced by our physiological characteristics. Sure, we can eat animal products, and we can eat highly processed foods. If there is one thing, we as humans are good at, it is survival, regardless of what we put in our bodies. This plays out every day as we witness humans consuming copious amounts of processed foods, drugs, alcohol and far more meat and dairy than we were designed for. Then the next morning get up and do it all over again, and often for many years before the negative effects start to show up. Now that’s resilient. But sooner or later it is payback time, and payback time in our modern world of food products is served up as chronic disease. It may start as something as simple as a few extra pounds, or elevated blood pressure, but for most in the developed world it will play out as much more serious conditions as middle age arrives, conditions like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, debilitating arthritis or cancer, collectively known as diseases of affluence. So just because we can eat it, doesn’t mean that we should.
A WFPB diet is nutritionally dense, and calorically sparse. In order for our bodies to function properly now, and into a ripe old age, it is imperative that we acquire all the nutrients that are essential to life. These nutrients include vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients (these are known as micronutrients), carbohydrates, protein, fats (macronutrients), water and oxygen, and I would add fiber (much more on fiber to come in later articles) to this list. All but water and oxygen are obtained from the food we eat. When we assess the health benefits of food, nutrient density, and in particular micronutrient density, is an imperative. The more vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber we obtain from a food – per calorie consumed, the higher the nutrient density, and therefore more beneficial to us. For example, all oils are high in calories and low in nutrients, therefore they obtain a low nutrient score, on the other hand green leafy vegetables like kale or collard greens are packed with nutrients, but very low in calories, so they score high on the nutrient density scale. Dr. Joel Fuhrman developed the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI score) as a tool to uncover the most healthful foods[ii]. This system simply divides a foods number of nutrients by its number of calories, a low score is a poor food choice, a high score is good food choice. For the record, cola, corn chips, and ice cream received the lowest score, while the top nine foods on the index were all leafy green vegetables. These leafy greens were joined by fruits, whole grains, and legumes as high ANDI scorers. The only WFPB food not near the top are nuts and seeds, though nutritionally dense these foods pack a higher caloric punch (this is why they are recommended in small amounts daily). A pound of nutrient rich greens is about 100 calories, while the same 100 calories is obtained from just over 1 ounce of beef. Do you think anyone can stop at just a single ounce of beef (perhaps 2 bites) and say they are full?
So, it’s no wonder that the nutrient rich, calorie sparse WFPB lifestyle allows individuals to eat as much food as they wish without consuming large amounts of calories, and at the same time receiving the nutrients needed to function optimally.
Most of us should be eating 2000 – 2500 calories a day. With this caloric budget it is essential that we consume nutrient dense foods, so our bodies are provided with what it needs to function properly. When we consume calorie rich, nutrient poor foods we not only rob our body of what we need to thrive, but we also have a good chance of eating too much food, which leads us down a path towards poor health outcomes.
A WFPB diet provides us with a very long list of health promoting, disease fighting benefits, to name a few:
Prevents, arrests, and even reverses chronic conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes
Decreases cancer risk
Lowers cholesterol and blood pressure
Enables healthy weight loss and maintenance
The fact that this way of eating has gotten our species this far should be a testament to its veracity.
Dr. Fuhrman created the ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) to show how popular foods stack up in terms of micronutrient density per calorie. The more nutrient-dense food you consume, the more you will be satisfied with fewer calories. Click below to check the rankings of foods you commonly eat – you might be surprised at their ANDI ranking.
[i] Ornish D, Brown SE, Scherwitz LW, et al. Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? The Lifestyle Heart Trial. Lancet. 1990;336(8708):129-133. doi:10.1016/0140-6736(90)91656-u