Updated: Apr 9
Calling all smokers past and present! Or anyone who could use tips on lung health.
Eat whole plant foods and if you can't put those smokes down, get even more plants into you.
We're living through an extraordinary time right now and it can cause a lot of anxiety - mostly because of the fear of the unknown. As the Stoics and Andy from Headspace have taught me, we should focus on things that are within our control. It's logical and sound advice, and that's good for preserving our sanity so let's take it.
The great news is there is a lot we can control to protect our lungs as best as possible.
To understand this, let's look at three things at a super summarized high level:
How our bodies work
Plant foods: what they're made up of and how they affect us (spoiler alert: all good things with only positive side effects)
Supplements: why we should steer clear of them
How the Human Body Works
Everything in our bodies is interconnected and functions like clockwork - except all the wheels in our clocks are alive and change depending on what we feed it.
Feed it our natural fuel and live like a superhuman. Feed it garbage and mutate your cells causing discomfort, illness, and sometimes the worst. ('Sometimes' translating to millions of deaths globally due to years of poor eating habits.)
Note: I'm being general here - there are always anomalies, accidents, and other things out of our control. Like those stories you hear of Sally's great grandpa who smoked his whole life yet still thrives at 92 years young. Or the flawless athlete who's been diagnosed with stage four cancer.
I learned a tremendous amount from an amazing course led by T Colin Campbell - godfather of plant-based nutrition - and his team at Nutrition Studies and eCornell. Through this, I was certified in plant-based nutrition and though I've read this makes me an 'expert' in plant-based nutrition, I am nowhere near an expert. (The real experts would agree, ha!) I also got certified in John McDougall's The Starch Solution and keep up on plant-based nutrition through books, lectures, and websites.
There's always so much to learn and new scientific discoveries. Over the last eight years of living in this wonderful plant-based universe, I've been led by the true and honest experts of plant-based nutrition.
And this is what they've taught me:
the human body is made up of trillions of cells;
everything we eat and drink has a chemical reaction within every single cell in our body. We have receptors that act as locks 🔒- one example of a chemical reaction within our bodies is when various nutrients (food, which are the keys 🔑) come into contact with their receptors;
we each have healthy and unhealthy cells and genes. Healthy food is shown to feed our healthy cells and meat, dairy, and highly processed foods have been shown to feed and sometimes proliferate our unhealthy cells;
our bodies are capable of incredible things and can likely digest a shoe (!) yet it's our shared addiction to high-fat animal foods that we eat way too much of that causes our most chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and so much more;
our genes only account for about 10% of our health destinies, meaning 90% of our health is within our control. But [insert-any-major-chronic-disease] runs in your family? As many plant-based docs have stated: the same diets run in families too;
our bodies innately heal. If we educate ourselves, we hold the keys to wellness.
Plant Foods are the Perfect Fuel
Plant foods have vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants (micronutrients) and protein, carbs, and fat (macronutrients) - all of these make up phytonutrients (plant nutrients). But it doesn't stop there - they also have fiber and water.
Together, intact in whole plant foods, these phytonutrients create millions of chemical reactions in our bodies to create health! 🙌
This allows our bodies to function as they should - Dr. Campbell describes it as a symphony - all of its parts playing together in near perfect harmony.
Aside: what's a whole plant?
Whole = all of the things that make up the natural plant food, minus the inedible parts. For instance, eating an entire apple including the skin but not the stem, seeds, and core.
Not whole = an apple fritter. 😁
There are a couple of definitions of processed foods. Technically, if I pop an apple into my blender to make a smoothie, it's processed, but since I included the entire apple (included the skin but not the stem, seeds, and core), I'm still eating or drinking the whole plant. This kind of 'processing' is fine since we're getting the entire plant. (The ideal way to eat the apple is to just eat it. But let's keep this high level.)
The bad kind of processed food can be defined as Michael Greger puts it where something good has been removed from the plant, and/or something bad has been added. For example, olive oil isn't a whole food since the olives have had their fiber and water (and therefore, nutrients) stripped from the original plant. Delicious? Yes. The epitome of health? No. Will I still eat it? Of course, but I've toned down my intake of deep-fried foods and I'm cooking with less oil. #workinprogresspeople
Since we are made from nature, we should ideally eat as many nature-made foods as possible. This allows our bodies to function as they should - and right now, we should all embrace the power of plants and rehabilitate our lungs to be healthy and strong. Especially smokers and past smokers - yours truly included.
The Danger of Supplements
There are well-known studies that have tested two groups of people with lung deficiencies. One group was given beta-carotene supplements and their cancers got worse, sometimes leading to fatal outcomes. The other group was given fruits and veg high in beta-carotene and their health got better - with plants! We've all heard 'let food be thy medicine.' A fridge and pantry full of whole plant foods is our new medicine cabinet.
John McDougall, M.D., another founding father of our modern plant-based era, wrote a great post on this called Just to Be on the Safe Side: Don't Take Vitamins.
"...there is no “bang for the buck” in believing in supplements. They simply don’t work for the problems that currently plague people. Doctors who prescribe supplements are practicing “faith-based medicine.” They must believe, because there is no good evidence supporting their actions—no valid research to guide them and no patient results to reward them."
His blog post is from a decade ago but he still confirms today that it's best not to take vitamins in supplement form.
Dr. McDougall is the most entertaining of OG plant-based doctors because of his amazing energy, his (sometimes hilarious) directness, and what I value the most about this educator: the way he's able to simplify this complex topic of human health.
Here's another excerpt that demonstrates this:
"Vitamins are organic compounds that cannot be synthesized by the human body and therefore must be eaten in order for us to remain healthy and prevent serious illnesses. Plants synthesize 11 of the 13 known vitamins. Vitamin D is actually not a vitamin, but a hormone manufactured by the body with the action of sunlight on the skin, and bacteria make the only non-plant-derived vitamin, which is B12. Plants are also the source for minerals, all of which originate in the ground and enter into living systems through the roots of plants. Plant parts (starches, vegetables, and fruits) are the proper packages for delivering these, and many more, essential nutrients to the body. A harmonious relationship between people and plants translates into good health."
This is another incredible article about the world of supplements which we should all be aware of. This researcher and health writer includes points like:
"...supplements are frequently contaminated..."
"Most supplements on the market are not tested for either efficacy or safety..."
"...when confronted with an overabundance of certain antioxidants, the human body may convert them into prooxidants, which have the potential to activate cancer pathways."
"...research has shown that taking concentrated doses of food-derived or plant-derived nutrients does not confer the same benefits as eating the foods or plants themselves..."
most supplement makers "spend far, far more of their budget on product marketing than on proper research and development..."
supplements aren't necessarily FDA approved: "unlike prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications, nutrition and health supplements are legally categorized as food products. This makes them exempt from many forms of oversight."
supplement and pharmaceutical companies have "merged"
"Over and over again, he and other experts say that eating a range of healthy whole foods is a better, safer, more-effective approach than taking supplements."
And if you'd like to see one short example directly from a scientific journal, read this one that states:
"...smokers have unexpectedly reported increased lung tumor rates after high, long-term, beta-carotene supplementation."
"Unexpected" because we all know we should take our vitamins right? Yes, in the form of real food, not pills made in a lab.
We know beta-carotene is good for us, especially our lung health. But the problem with supplements is that it takes one nutrient and amplifies it so much that our receptors are flooded. With receptors overwhelmed with a single, lab-made nutrient, where are the rest of the nutrients supposed to go and how will your body get them?
The good thing is your body will never stop working to survive. But the bad news is if you continue to eat tons of meat, cheese, and processed food (including supplements), you may never give your body the break it needs to heal.
Isolated concentrated nutrients put into a pill, especially taken for long periods of time creates imbalance. In nature and human health, the perfect quantity - and balance -of nutrients matter.
We don't need to know exactly how much of any nutrient we need. If that were vital to our survival, we wouldn't have survived 400 million years of existence. All we need to know is our natural food - whole plant foods.
We all wish a magic pill could cure our illnesses and make us healthy. If that were true, wouldn't we all be healthy?
The healthiest person in the world can be affected by a serious virus. But that healthy AF person is likely going to come out of it much faster than those with health issues - and more importantly, actually survive it.
Save your money, celebrate the simple, natural power of plants, and give your lungs the vitality boost they (you) deserve:
eat your favorite whole plants that are high in beta-carotene: red and orange (and green) fruits & veg;
save the delicious meat & cheese meals for only very special occasions (treat them as delicacies);
tell your friends and fam! Indeed we are all in this together, and together we'll start new, healthful habits and change the world for the better; ...
Thanks for reading and please share this with those you know could use a good dose of health. ✌️💓
Photo credits from Unsplash:
Broccoli & Cigarettes: Sara Bakhshi
Clockwork: Laura Ockel
Plants: Agence Producteurs Locaux Damien Kühn
Supplements Galore: Angel Sinigersky
Orange Supplement Pill: Michele Blackwell
And Breathe - Victor Garcia