Googling “healthy food” is pretty much how I started. I had no idea that I was stepping into this crazy world of brain foodies, lunch box specialists, 5-minute-cooks, 2-min-chewers, Stone Age extremists, bodybuilder chefs and gourmet buddhas. Everyone has to eat, which is why the health food world is pretty much as diverse as the people who are preparing and eating it. I love it.
What We Know
There is common confusion about the word “health”. In the context of nutrition, we usually mean by the word health the soundness and vigour of the body and mind. A foodstuff is healthy if it promotes health. Nowadays, food is often called healthy if it contains some specific nutrients, often in the form of vitamins or minerals. “Milk is healthy because it contains a lot of calcium” are sentences that we are likely to encounter in a health section of a magazine. This focus on specific nutrients isn’t only conducted by the media and food industry but sadly also by science.
Say we have a glass of poison. One drop would kill a grown man or woman. You can add as much calcium as you want but would anyone call it healthy? No. Health is not only a matter of a small set of specific nutrients. In fact, there are “tens of thousands and hundreds of thousand nutrients in food”, as Prof Dr Campbell puts it in his certificate course.
Vitamins are only a set of nutrients that some scientists found to be important enough to give them a name. If we become aware of substances that fit into the criteria of being called a vitamin, they will be accepted into the class of vitamins. Nutrition science is really pretty young and it wasn’t until the early 20th century when the notion of vitamins was introduced. There are a lot of substances we still know little about. Phytochemicals for example.
Deconstructing Health and Nutrition
Let’s get back to the word healthy now. It is a relative term since it depends on what level of health we are talking about. If we are interested in optimal health, however, things will be less relative. Now, when we ask “Are eggs healthy?” we don’t only look at the nutrients they contain but rather we check if this is the best we can do for our body. If we do this thoroughly we’ll come to the conclusion that there are better foods than eggs.
We just talked about nutrients without really knowing what they are. This is the problem with nutrition: Few people have an idea of the subject but everyone is talking about it – especially the media, but more on this later. Nutrients are defined as substances that in certain amounts promote health. Too little or too much will cause disorders.
This is one of T. Colin Campbell’s definitions for nutrients: “The biologically (w)holistic process by which elements of food and water are used by the body to optimize health.” The word “(w)holistic” is the most important word in this definition.
Healthy Nutrition: The Confused Consumer
There are a lot of contradicting beliefs and often we read health advice that tells us “Don’t eat eggs” while another one will say “An egg a day keeps the doctor away”. Who should you believe? There is not much more the average person can do other than debating how trustworthy the sources are. There are books entirely focusing on nutrition myths. Many people can’t believe that the health section of a newspaper could publish “information” on nutrition that is just plain wrong or not proved.
We have a plague of nutrition myths because they can spread unbelievably fast – there are many people that are to some extent interested in healthy nutrition, but few that can actually fact check. But who is it that comes up with false dietary recommendations and promotes an unhealthy lifestyle? It’s the food industry.
$10 billion are spent every year by the food industry in direct media advertisements while the campaign for fruits and vegetables spends $2 million a year, says Marion Nestle in her interview with the New York Times. Marion Nestle is a professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. In her book “Food Politics” she describes how deeply the food industry manipulates our understanding of health.
The Whole Food Plant-Based Diet
I am not going to go into detail about why a whole food plant-based diet is better than an omnivorous diet. There are people who can do this much better than me. Have a look at documentaries like The Game Changers or What the Health for example (both available on Netflix) to get an insight.
If interested, read more on nutritionfacts.org, nutritionstudies.org, or in the books “How Not To Die” by Dr Michael Greger or “The China Study” by Prof Dr T. Colin Campbell. These are the most rigorous, comprehensible and credible sources out there on nutrition. Note that an optimal plant-based diet and an optimal diet are the same things.
The matter of nutrition in a whole foods plant-based diet seems to be almost too simple to be true. This simplicity is best summarized by Prof Dr T. Colin Campbell’s Eight Principles of Food and Health:
Eight Principles of Food and Health
“1. Nutrition represents the combined activities of countless food substances. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
2. Vitamin supplements are not a panacea for good health.
3. There are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants.
4. Genes do not determine disease on their own. Genes function only by being activated, or expressed, and nutrition plays a critical role in determining which genes, good and bad, are expressed.
5. Nutrition can substantially control the adverse effects of noxious chemicals.
6. The same nutrition that prevents disease in its early stages (before diagnosis) can also halt or reverse disease in its later stages (after diagnosis).
7. Nutrition that is truly beneficial for one chronic disease will support health across the board.
8. Good nutrition creates health in all areas of our existence. All parts are interconnected.”
Let them sink, they are the results of decades of research. They imply a drastically new approach to nutrition science and medicine (still).
Notes on Point 3
People who are not eating meat on a regular basis should have an eye on two nutrients: B12 and iodine. B12 is produced by micro-organisms that are short in our sanitized world. They and hence vitamin B12 used to be found on fruits, vegetables, in the rivers, … B12 being short in the modern vegan diet doesn’t imply that a vegan diet is unnatural. Furthermore, farm animals often have the same problem, which is why they are supplemented B12 as well. People who eat meat thereby supplement indirectly. So consider skipping the meat and supplementing B12 directly. You can also find higher amounts of B12 in fermented foods.
Don’t worry about protein, people are talking too much about it.
A nutrient that is little talked about, though, is iodine. Almost everyone is supplementing iodine in indirect ways. Farm animals, again, are supplemented with iodine, which is why omnivores usually have a higher intake of iodine. The supplemented iodine in salt alone is not sufficient. Therefore vegetarians should make sure they get enough by either eating iodine-rich foods like nori or kelp algae or by supplementing.
It Doesn’t End There
Research isn’t finished. You might be asking “Ok, a whole food plant-based diet is better than an omnivorous diet but can we be more specific?” And here the research is not always clear. So we might try and find certain things working out for us while taking into account both science and alternative medicine.
I can only recommend watching a documentary or reading up on nutrition a little bit. Each one of the sources I mentioned above is totally enough. It’s not about being a health freak but about a smart choice for life. Once you have set up a routine of preparing the optimal food for yourself you will benefit your whole life from it! Take care of your habits and your habits will take care of you!