Updated: May 7, 2018
Optimal health comes from the simple formula of exercise plus good diet – moving your body and eating a variety of whole, plant-based foods.
The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, the father of plant-based nutrition, explains the benefits of a plant-based diet. Along with a plethora of scientific evidence, he includes simple guidelines for a diet based on varied and whole (versus processed) plant foods. His breakdown includes the necessities for the human body, carbohydrates, lipids (fats) and proteins: 80% whole plant carbohydrates, 10% whole plant lipids, and 10% whole plant proteins.
How Not To Die by Dr. Michael Greger is another book filled with information essential for anyone who cares about health. Dr. Greger maps out what the human body needs each day for optimal health, comprising of food, water and exercise.
I’ve outlined the dietary specifics below; but let me share two fallacies current today and the reason why I was drawn to plant-based nutrition.
Why Not Just Take Vitamins?
Chemicals that do not come from nature do not create health. This includes vitamins. There are many studies citing the negative effects of vitamin supplements and how instead of mitigating disease they accelerate it.
Vitamins often contain an unhealthy excess of a particular nutrient or chemical. Our bodies have receptors that absorb and organs that process those chemicals, but when our systems become flooded, where does the excess go?
Some are excreted through urine, feces, breath or sweat, but those functions may not eliminate the surplus. And this is where the danger lies. That surplus might cause unwanted and abnormal chemical reactions that damage our cells and generate cellular abnormalities, potentially leading to cancer. Because that’s all disease really is – damaged and mutated cells.
No Magic Bullet
Dr. Campbell argues against reductionism in nutrition, that is, focusing on a single nutrient to perform one specific function, or targeting a single ingredient as the sole detriment to health. Focusing on a single ingredient, nutrient, mineral or vitamin misrepresents how human nutrition works.
Dr. Campbell describes the countless chemical reactions in our bodies as a “symphony” – as he states, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When we ingest food, drinks, drugs, etc., it's not one vitamin or one chemical interacting with one receptor. Rather, like a “symphony,” all elements that make up that food, drink, etc. create numerous reactions in our bodies occurring at all times and all together.
Much more research is still needed on human nutrition. Unfortunately, most funding is allocated to genetics and pharmaceuticals, the trendier and more lucrative topics compared to the study of plant nutrition to our bodies. Nevertheless, there's a tremendous amount of evidence today – including thousands of real human success stories – that offers a compelling reason to consider living plant-based.
The Impetus for Healthy Living
My first exposure to plant-based nutrition was from a documentary Forks Over Knifes. Initially, I was very skeptical. I had been eating the standard western diet my entire life, and if the information from the documentary was accurate, why wasn’t it widespread knowledge and why weren't doctors informing us about this? (I later learned that medical doctors only receive a few hours of nutritional education.)
At the time, a close friend had undergone surgery for brain cancer, and then was recovering from radiation treatment. Another friend was diagnosed with cancer, a rare form this time. It was a terrifying time and I wanted answers. We were only in our 30s. When did it become commonplace to be diagnosed with cancer at such a young age?
All this led me back to the documentary, and this time it was compelling enough for me to delve further, eventually reading Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s, The China Study. This book gave me the validity of scientific evidence I needed to start believing there could be some real benefits to plant-based nutrition.
I also enrolled in a plant-based nutrition course and amassed life-changing and life-saving information, implementing them into my own life. All of this has benefited me tremendously and I hope to benefit the lives of my family and friends – and yours too.
So what specifically should we eat every day for the best health?
Dr. Greger gives us the answer in his book, How Not To Die.
Beans: ¾ cup
Examples: bean dip, chickpeas, hummus, lentils, soybeans, split peas, tempeh, tofu
Berries: ½ cup
Examples: blackberries, blueberries, cherries, grapes, raspberries, strawberries
Other Fruit: 3 cups
Examples: apples, bananas, oranges, lemons, pears, pineapples, watermelons
Cruciferous Vegetables: ½ cup
Examples: arugula, bok choy, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, radishes
Greens: 2 cups
Examples: arugula, chard, collards, kale, spinach
Other Vegetables: 1 cup
Examples: artichoke, asparagus, beets, bell peppers, carrots, corn, garlic, mushrooms, onions, pumpkin, purple potatoes, sea vegetables (dulse, nori), snap peas, squash, sweet potatoes/yams, tomatoes, zucchini
Flaxseeds: 1 tbsp
Consume ground flaxseeds for better digestion because whole ones are not absorbed as easily into the body
Nuts: ¼ cup
Examples: almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, chia seeds, hazelnuts, hemp seeds, macadamia, pecan, pistachio, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts. Or, two tablespoons of nut or seed butters including peanut butter.
Spices: ¼ tsp
One quarter teaspoon a day of turmeric, plus any other herbs and spices you may enjoy for example: allspice, basil, bay leaves, cardamom, chili powder, cilantro, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, curry powder, dill, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, mustard powder, nutmeg, oregano, smoked paprika, parsley, pepper, peppermint, rosemary, saffron, sage, thyme, turmeric, vanilla
Whole Grains: 1.5 cups
Examples: 3 slices of bread, 1.5 bagels, cereal, cooked grain (rice), 1.5 English muffins, oatmeal, pasta, pseudograins (amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa), popcorn, tortilla
Beverages: 5 glasses
Examples: freshest water you can find (this is in addition to the water you naturally get from food) or tea
Exercise: 40 mins
Examples: 40 minutes of vigorous activity like jogging or playing a sport; or 90 minutes of moderate activity like brisk walking
Note: Some of the example foods above technically are not part of that food group. Eg. grapes technically aren't berries and peanuts aren't classified as nuts (they’re legumes). But the nutrients are the same, and Dr. Greger uses a more liberal classification for simplicity to his plan.
Finally, here's how to distill it all into a simple and consistent daily routine.
Photo credits: Brooke Lark (fruit); Neonbrand (pills); Bewakoof (girl on street).