The Western Diet is Like Smoking
In less than 10 minutes, you’ll know everything you need to know about healthy eating. Forget all this nutritional gobbledygook:
Bad medical and food science foists this complexity on you, because it views the human body as a simple machine and food as the simple sum of its nutrient parts. In contrast, good science makes things simple for you, because it views the body and food holistically as complex.
1 — The Two Rules
Two of the best contemporary food authors–Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman–have distilled the mass of confusing and contradictory food research into just two rules:
- Minimize processed food (or maximize whole food) — Pollan’s version is “Eat food,” by which he means “Eat real food, not processed food-like substances.” Bittman’s version is “Stop eating junk and hyper-processed food. This eliminates probably 80 percent of the stuff that is being sold as ‘food.’”
- Minimize animal foods (or maximize plant-based foods) — Pollan’s version is “[Eat] mostly plants.” Bittman’s is “Eat more plants than you did yesterday, or last year.”
In other words, eat a whole food, mostly plant-based diet. The less processed food and animal protein you eat, the better it is for your weight and health.
A whole-food, plant-based diet
This simple guidance can be summarized in the following graphic. The horizontal dimension represents the food source (plants or animals). The vertical dimension represents the food’s preparation (whole or processed). The bottom-left quadrant corner is the target: a whole-food, plant-based diet.
Here are a few memorable phrases to help you make these distinctions:
- Whole vs. processed –“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” and “Eat foods made from ingredients that you can picture in their raw state or growing in nature.” (two of Michael Pollan’s food rules)
- Plant vs. animal — Avoid foods “with a mother or a face” (Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn’s advice).
Or, as Pollan puts it, “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”
Healthy food groups
What’s left to eat?!? A lot actually.
There are three healthy food groups, each of which is very large:
- Starches (includes brown rice, whole grains, corn, potatoes, and legumes)
These are the only food concepts you need to know, with two exceptions:
- If you have heart disease or are at special risk of heart disease due to family history or other reason, you also want to avoid oils, nuts, and avocados because of their high fat content.
- If you are allergic to or intolerant of specific foods, such as gluten, lactose, or a particular nut.
Within this framework, you should eat more starch than vegetables and more vegetables than fruit in terms of volume and calories, as shown here:
Different experts favor different proportions of starches vs. vegetables, ranging from 45%/45% to 70%/20% with 10% fruit, though anything within these parameters is fine.
The distinguished experts noted below all agree that a healthy diet consists mostly of whole starches, vegetables, and fruits.
Perhaps the best part of a whole-food, plant-based diet is that you can forget about calories! Simply put: Eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re full.
You don’t need to know the calories of any foods. What kinds of food you eat is much more important than how much you eat. The effectiveness of counting calories is a myth. Nutrition and digestion are much more complicated than a simple calories-in, calories-out model.
2 — The Science
Good science–science that views the human body as a complex adaptive system and takes a holistic, epidemiological approach to studying the links between diet and health–has established two indisputable facts.
Populations that eat a Western diet invariably suffer from high rates of the so-called “diseases of affluence.” Virtually all obesity and type 2 diabetes, 80 percent of the cardiovascular disease, and more than one-third of all cancers can be linked to the Western diet. In fact, four of the top ten killers in America are chronic diseases that are linked to the Western diet.
The arguments in reductionist nutritional science are all about identifying a culprit, a single nutrient in the Western diet that might be responsible for these chronic diseases. Instead, the Western diet is the problem.
In general, populations that eat a remarkably wide range of traditional diets don’t suffer from these chronic diseases. There is no single ideal human diet: We are exquisitely adapted to a wide range of different foods and diets — except for one diet: the relatively new (in evolutionary terms) Western diet that most of us eat.
A third, very hopeful, fact flows from the previous two: People who get off the Western diet see dramatic improvements in their health. The effects of the Western diet can be rolled back, and done so relatively quickly.
The bottom line is you get thinner and healthier when you eat a whole-food, plant-based diet.
A parade of experts
During the last four decades, numerous experts have discovered and reported these facts about the Western diet, advocating instead for mostly whole-food, plant-based diets. They include:
- Nathan Pritikin (@PritikinCenter) — The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise (1979)
- John A. McDougall, M.D. (@johnmcdougallmd) — The McDougal Plan (1983), and The Starch Solution (2012)
- Dean Ornish, M.D. (@DeanOrnishMD) — Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease (1990)
- Joel Fuhrman, M.D. (@DrFuhrman) — Eat to Live (2003)
- T. Colin Campbell, PhD (@TColinCampbellF) — The China Study (2005)
- Neal D. Barnard, M.D. (@DrNealBarnard) — Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes (2006).
- Caldwell B. Esselstyn, M.D. (@DrEsselstyn) — Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease (2007)
The documentary Forks Over Knives is an excellent introduction to their work. Their good, holistic science is in sharp contrast to the mainstream flood of bad, reductionist science and misguided government policy.
Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman have distilled these experts’ findings:
- In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) and Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2009) Michael Pollan (@michaelpollan)
- “(Only) Two Rules for a Good Diet,” New York Times, October 21, 2014 and VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore Your Health … for Good (2013) Mark Bittman (@bittman)
Good science makes it clear: To be thin and healthy, eat a mostly whole-food, plant-based diet.
Don’t expect the food- and medical-industrial complexes to stop promoting their profits over your health, and don’t expect the attention-challenged media to stop reporting sensationalist slivers of truth about magic nutrients and diet fads. If you want to dig into the details of any of these assertions, read some of the books above.
3 — The Objections
Despite the compelling science, you may still have reasons for not eating a whole-food, plant-based diet. These are three common objections:
“I can’t get enough …”
Fill in the blank with some important nutrient. Most people believe that you can’t get enough of something without eating meat, dairy, and eggs. For example:
- Omega–3 & 6
This is simply not true. Good science shows that normal plant-based diets — diets without exotic foods or unusual proportions — have plenty of everything you need to be healthy.
“I couldn’t give up …”
Fill in the blank with your favorite food. I love hamburgers and chocolate chip cookies, and I still eat them occasionally. Now they are conscious treats, which makes them all the more special.
Even if you do fully commit to a whole food, plant-based diet, there are special occasions and times when you need to splurge. Michael Pollan’s final food rule makes this point: “Break the rules once in a while.”
“It’s too hard.”
The Western diet co-evolved with a food system heavy in meat, dairy, and eggs and a convenience-driven modern lifestyle. There’s no question that this makes eating a whole-food, plant-based diet today harder. The Western diet is like smoking, except that the silent killers are obesity, common cancers, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and a wide range of other diseases. So it’s worth the effort!
Here are some tips to make it easier:
- Start small. Healthier eating is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Each meal with better relative portions of whole, plant-based foods is a little victory; each entire meal is a bigger one. You can gradually adopt a more whole food, plant-based diet, as the healthy meals that you eat become more routine.
- Start with the meals you make, buy, or order for yourself. The meals you share with others are more challenging, because influencing the habits of others is much harder.
- Set a meaningful but realistic goal. You don’t have to quit the Western diet entirely or “go vegan.” The more good food and the less bad food you eat, the better.
In Eat Vegan Before 6:00, Mark Bittman outlines a simple but powerful approach to healthier eating: Eat two whole-food, plant-based meals each day.
The China Study showed that low doses of animal proteins (five percent or less of a diet) are not problematic. It’s when animal proteins become a bigger proportion of the diet that they become toxic and cause diseases of affluence. Since five percent is 1/20 and there are 21 meals in a week, another strategy is to eat a whole-food, plant-based diet except for one unrestricted meal each week.
- Cook in batches. Find recipes that you like, and make enough for several meals. This cuts down on the amount of time you spend cooking.
- Be flexible. I regularly eat a whole-food, plant-based diet, but when my family goes on vacation I frequently eat just two good meals a day and enjoy local fare for the third meal (typically dinner).
At the end of the day, healthy eating is like exercise: More is better. How high you set your goal is a personal choice — one that you can change over time or as circumstances require. Moreover, because every time you eat you cast a vote in an ongoing referendum on the food system, the more you eat this way, the easier it will become… eventually!
4 — “What Should We Eat?”
The answer to this simple question also turns out to be simple:
- Eat whole food
- Eat mostly plants
Food is both poison and medicine. You haven’t heard about the toxic effects of the Western diet for many reasons, including a flood of misinformation, food- and medical-industrial complex self-interest, and the economics of book publishing. You haven’t learned it from your own experience, because of the long delay between what you eat and its effect on your body. We know to moderate our alcohol consumption precisely because there is very little delay between drinking alcohol and its effect on our abilities.
Choosing a more whole-food, plant-based diet is the most important health decision you can make. Nothing else matters much, until you eat well. So, pick a program and try it for a month or two to experience it firsthand.