Thursday, February 2, 2012

Not All Plant-Based Diets Are Created Equal!

In the past few years, there has been increased awareness of the benefits of plant-based diets. Once considered strange and unhealthy, plant-based diets have been welcomed into the realm of popular culture, thanks to a growing cognizance of the environmental, economic, and personal benefits to be reaped from adapting a plant-based diet.

The common point between all plant-based diets is that the main source of nutrition is derived from, you guessed it, plants! Within these dietary practices there are many differences-- sometimes to the point where things can become a little confusing. To clarify, I will outline a variety of dietary approaches.

The vegetarian approach to eating can be the most confusing because it may or may not include dairy, eggs, fish and even poultry, while at the same time adding more vegetables.

A vegan diet has very clear guidelines in that all animal products are avoided. Raw vegan diets include lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and often rely on a variety of “un-cooking” methods, such as dehydrating. 

The macrobiotic approach to diet can be completely vegan or it can include some fish. That choice is up to the individual. A macrobiotic diet is similar to other plant-based diets in that the main source of nutrition comes from plants. Grains and grain products are the central part of the macrobiotic diet while vegetables, legumes and other protein sources are secondary. To be considered complete, each meal should include both grain and vegetable dishes. The concept of having both grains and vegetables with every meal is the biggest difference from other plant-based dietary approaches.

Additionally, whole and partially refined grains are emphasized over refined grain products or starches. A vegetarian or vegan diet may or may not include grains. Starches are often substituted for grains, but they do not provide the same nutrition and can cause weight gain. The approach of having both grains and vegetables offers more balanced nutrition and helps to keep the blood sugar more stable. Since blood sugar levels play an important role in keeping our mind clear and focussed and our mood calm, making grains our principal food has the ability to lead to greater satisfaction.

The great thing about people choosing to follow a plant based diet is that the physical benefits can be experienced pretty quickly. Another benefit is that it is a more sustainable way of eating, environmentally speaking.

The problem with plant-based diets is that most people do not have the understanding of how to put foods and seasonings together in a balanced way. I have seen many recipes that use vegetable- and grain-based dairy and meat substitutes in order to achieve the similar textures and consistencies in an effort to replicate their “favorite” foods from the past. You will often see raw nut butters used for richness or as a thickener, and tofu or soymilk are often used to make non-dairy desserts or creamy soups*.

While such substitutions might be convenient, they are not going to lead to good health. Too many times in my practice as a teacher and counselor I have seen people continue their old food patterns by using plant based foods as substitutes which do not lead to a balanced condition, but instead get people in trouble. As my husband, Denny Waxman (world-renowned macrobiotic health counselor and teacher) says, “just because we stop eating a food does not mean we discharge it from our body.” What this means is that even though we replace animal and dairy foods with plant foods, we can continue to create the same imbalances that caused our health problems in the first place, unless we change our habits.

For example, creamy dairy foods can cause the intestines to become weak thus creating a problem with efficient elimination of waste. By consuming too many creamy textures, we will continue to weaken our digestive system, even if we switch to a plant-based diet. The same can be said with overuse of salt and salty seasonings, baked foods and overconsumption of oily foods.

The bigger problem is that many people, including professionals who advocate plant-based nutrition, do not understand the impact that regularly consumed food has on our body. While making the switch to a plant-based diet will yield short-term benefits, if not done with an understanding of balanced food preparation, there could potentially be negative longterm effects. It is not so easy to recognize the more subtle effects which may occur over time. Many symptoms go un-noticed before a problem manifests on a physical level. Most people are simply not aware of the fact that all food is energy and that by proper cooking and seasoning you can either make a food more balanced and enhance its energy or make it imbalanced.

My inspiration for this post came after I read a promotional article on vegan Super Bowl recipes. While I think is great that plant-based diets are becoming more mainstream, it does not help anyone’s health if recipes are not balanced. I hope that you will all consider this when preparing food for the game this Sunday or the next time you veganize a recipe. 

I’m planning continuing on this topic in the next few weeks, where I will be discussing how to transition to a plant-based diet and how to inspire, excite, and entice others around you into trying some new and delicious foods.

*Excerpted from my upcoming cookbook, Taste With Integrity

1 comment:

  1. Hi Susan,

    Can you please explain what you meant by "Starches are often substituted for grains, but they do not provide the same nutrition and can cause weight gain" in terms of the difference between a starch and a grain?