Don’t believe me about the benefits of a whole foods, plant-based diet: why you should be your own nutrition scientist

I’m not a scientist. Aside from watching David Attenborough on tv, I have done no formal study of life sciences since high school. I’m a gardener and I admit I would be hard pressed to correctly label a flower. Pistils, stamens, I always get them confused.

That doesn’t mean I don’t do science in my everyday life. We all do it. Every time we tweak a recipe we are testing a hypothesis. Taking a photograph and recording the date of the snowstorm on April 12. Trying a new bedtime routine so the baby sleeps longer. Searching for the place the mice get in.

I tend to be pretty comfortable with the conclusions I reach through my own experimentation and observation. If experimentation shows that the muffins need to bake for 30 minutes or the baby needs to be held like a football and swung gently in a clockwise manner, then had Twinkle, Twinkle sung in French, and a kiss on each cheek, each hand and each foot before falling to sleep, then so be it. It’s science.

Every week it seems there is a new nutrition study released and the media coverage ranges from basically correct to wildly misrepresentative. Knowing how best to eat is seen as some arcane knowledge that ordinary people cannot possibly understand. We choose our diet by choosing a guru who can interpret the studies. Or cherry-pick the studies to support their theology of eating.

Nutrition science even seems hard for proper scientists. The gold standard randomized double blind control trial is tricky as people are pretty good about guessing whether they just ate a cheeseburger or a bowl of lentils. If you ask people what they ate over the last day or week or month, they basically make it up. It’s considered unethical to stick people in cages and feed them human chow for extended periods of time.

Even with all the difficulties, the evidence is becoming pretty clear that a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds and low in meat, dairy and eggs is a health promoting diet¹. The dieticians are even on board saying that animal products are not necessary for health: “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”²

The claims that are made for a whole foods, plant-based diet are astonishing. Reversal of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, digestive problems, ms, depression –  it sounds too good to be true. Even I find my own story somewhat hard to believe.


How I reversed my chronic angina and got my life back


But you don’t have to trust any professional scientist, doctor or guru. Or worse yet, blogger. You can easily, and within a few weeks, demonstrate to yourself the amazing power of eating whole plant foods.

If you are waffling on whether to try a whole foods plant-based diet, do an experiment on yourself. Sure it will be n=1, but it will be n=100% of people with your particular biology and current health status. Figure out what outcome you are looking for and how you can measure it. For example, you might be concerned with weight loss which is easy to measure. Maybe you are like me and have angina. You could measure the amount of nitroglycerin you need to use or how far you can walk without pain. If your blood pressure is too high you can measure that. Sore joints? How much pain medication do you take? Perhaps your goal is less measurable, like wanting more energy. You can still make subjective observations.

Don’t be afraid to record your observations. It may seem silly, but down the road when someone (likely a doctor) is dismissing the connection between diet and health you will be armed with data. More importantly, if you yourself ever start to wane in your enthusiasm for wfpb eating, you can remind yourself of why you do it.

Be your own control (that’s the group in the experiment that makes no changes) and record your weight, blood pressure, symptoms, medication required or whatever it is that concerns you for a period of time before you make your changes. Use this time to prepare your pantry, fridge and freezer and research recipes.


A very brief whole foods, plant-based primer

3 Reasons to jump into a whole foods, plant-based life


Don’t change anything else in your life while doing this experiment. This is not the time to start taking supplements or starting a new exercise regime. By all means, get out and move if you are feeling energetic, but perhaps wait to start that new hot yoga program. How will you know what caused any changes in your health? This would be a good time to remind you that whole plant foods are powerful medicine and if you are on pills for blood pressure or diabetes make sure you consult with your doctor. Nobody wants you passing out because your blood pressure or blood sugar has dropped too low from the combination of your meds and diet.

How long should you continue your experiment for? Four weeks will probably be long enough to see results, depending on your condition. If you have given an honest effort for four weeks and see no benefit to eating this way then at least you know it wasn’t because you kept eating ham and cheese sandwiches at lunch (you didn’t, did you?).

At the end of the experiment you can decide how you will carry on. If you have seen positive changes, be assured that the benefits continue to accrue. I am confident that even if you haven’t seen the big change you were hoping for, you probably lost a bit of weight, cleared up your skin and have a bit more energy than before. But you can decide for yourself how to proceed because you have data.

¹http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/23/opinion/what-food-studies-show.html

²https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12826028

 

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