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Is a Plant-Based Diet for EVERYONE?

crowd of people raising their hands

Hi reader!

I sometimes hear that it's bad practice to prescribe one diet for everyone- surely we can't all thrive on the same diet.

Other times people will say, "Oh I tried eating vegan or plant-based and it just wasn't for me," or "my body didn't like it."

So I'm doing my best to answer this question today: Does the evidence support a plant-based diet being the best type of diet for almost everyone?

Or do we vary enough from person to person that we can't ethically promote a plant-based diet for everyone?

I started writing this, and now I'm wondering....where do I take it from here? Do I talk about the blue zones, gatherers and hunters, the intervention studies of hundreds of people, the case studies of people for whom a plant-based diet doesn't seem to work well, or talk about Patrik Baboumian- one of the strongest humans on the planet who is vegan?

I think I'll begin by talking about what happens when you type in "Whole Foods Plant-Based research" into Google Scholar. When you do, close to 400,000 results pop up. Just looking at the first 50 articles with a topic related to whole foods and plant-based, we see that all 50 of the articles have a positive tone regarding the research outcomes. Topics ranged from:

  • Whole foods plant-based for weight loss

  • Ameliorating kidney disease, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and migraines

  • Good for the planet, good for our health

  • The results of going whole foods plant-based during lifestyle interventions of varying lengths

  • The trouble that the medical system and government have with adopting these recommendations despite all the research.

When you amend the search to only bring up randomized controlled trials, which include participants undergoing lifestyle interventions, with a control group to reduce bias in the results, you get nearly 38,000 articles.

The average intervention group size on the first 10 RCTs was about 53 people. If even just 80% of the randomized control trials represent favorable results for people who eat more WFPB for the duration of the study (or to eliminate repetition in the results) we would be down to (30,400 studies). Then we would have approximately 1.6 million people represented in those trials who had favorable results from eating a more WFPB diet for a varying spread of chronic conditions.

I know that this is not very careful research, articles may be repeated, and averages are just averages, but I took this as a thought experiment. Since most WFPB intervention studies report favorable results for their participants- no matter what condition they are addressing, how many people have been helped by eating more whole food plant-based? 2 million or more in the research represented on Google Scholar.

Can we conclusively say that the results were favorable for every single person in every single trial? Of course not, but amongst those who followed the guidelines and ate how they were supposed to, many found positive shifts in their health.

Now, on to another point.

What are blue zones, and how can they help me understand whether eating a plant-based diet is good for everyone?

The Blue Zones were 5 locations around the globe that Dan Buettner and other researchers identified as containing high proportions of centenarians (people who live to be 100), as well as people who seemed to age without America's most common diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and dementia.

The 5 locations are:

  1. Okinawa, Japan

  2. Ikaria, Greece

  3. Ogliastra Region, Sardinia

  4. Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica

  5. Loma Linda, California (Where I did my Master's by the way).

What I love about looking at the Blue Zones is you don't see exact replicas of lifestyles across all these regions. But what you do see is some common features. I won't go into all 9 of the Blue Zone's lifestyle factors, but we do see that almost all of these groups have a plant-forward diet, they don't overstuff themselves, and they move regularly.

What is so fascinating is that the plants they are eating are very different! From sweet potatoes in Japan to bread and pasta in Sardinia to even more animal products in Costa Rica and more fruit and vegetables in Loma Linda- the diets all vary widely!

I find this SO encouraging because the protective effects spread to everyone who ate more plants, and not one specific kind of plant-based diet. In my mind, this fact alone should disqualify people who claim that a "plant-based diet didn't work for them". My follow-up questions are, "What kind of PB diet did you try? Where were you getting the majority of your nutrients? Did you try eliminating problem foods, but still eat a plant-based diet? And did you try it long enough for your body to actually adjust to the healthier higher fiber diet?".

On to the next point: Archeological research points to humans as gatherers more than hunters. For most of human history, humans have been fueled by mainly plants.

Not only are some of our healthiest current civilizations eating plant-predominant diets, but humans for a majority of their history have been eating plant-based. Modern archaeological evidence from Israel points to over 55 unique plants that were used for food, reflecting "a varied plant diet, staple plant foods, environmental knowledge, seasonality, and the use of fire in food processing."

Consider even the tooth differences between humans who have primarily flat teeth designed for grinding and chewing plants and the pointed teeth of carnivorous animals whose teeth are more designed for tearing off meat. I do agree that our teeth seem to indicate we can eat both cooked meat and plants, but I personally don't think my teeth would do good at tearing off raw flesh as lions and wolves do.

Humans also have longer digestive tracts than carnivores, which seem designed for digesting the full range of nutrients held within plant matrixes. Consider this sentance pulled from a Scientific America article, "If you want to return to your ancestral diet, the one our ancestors ate when most of the features of our guts were evolving, you might reasonably eat what our ancestors spent the most time eating during the largest periods of the evolution of our guts, fruits, nuts, and vegetables—especially fungus-covered tropical leaves."

Humans also live much longer than our ancestors and even close relatives. It's hard to correctly assume that a more "paleolithic diet" will actually suit modern humans who have twice or even 3 times the lifespan of early humans. Perhaps heart disease and other problems might have plagued them later in life, we just don't know! No one was there to fully understand how they ate, lived, and what caused them to die.

There are other considerations that show that even if our teeth and guts seemed designed for an omnivorous diet, this is not what's best for us in the long run.

For example, consider the beneficial symbiotic relationship that humans have with bacteria that digest plants. Our microbial diversity explodes when exposed to a high-fiber plant-based diet. We have a healthier and more stable spectrum of bacteria which provide wonderful health benefits. This is largely mediated by the production of short-chain fatty acids which are only produced by the breakdown of fiber by certain bacteria. For more info on SCFA's see my blog here.

Lastly, we humans do not seem to handle lots of meat, dairy, eggs, and processed foods that contain saturated fat. When we compare the diets of plant-predominant eaters to those consuming lots of animal products, we see reductions in the number of chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, hormone imbalances, dementia, and more!

On to the last point: Some of the "healthiest" people on the planet are whole foods plant-based, and while we may have different needs than them as "regular people" surely the diet that can fuel world-class athletes can work for the average person too.

Patrik Babomian is a world record breaker in three strongman events, log lift event, and a powerlifting champion. This is his message to the world,

“This is a message to all those out there who think that you need animal products to be fit and strong. Almost two years after becoming vegan I am stronger than ever before and I am still improving day by day. Don’t listen to those self-proclaimed nutrition gurus and the supplement industry trying to tell you that you need meat, eggs, and dairy to get enough protein. There are plenty of plant-based protein sources and your body is going to thank you for stopping feeding it with dead food. Go vegan and feel the power!”

Another incredible vegan athlete is Dotsie Bauch, an Olympic medalist in track cycling who claims that going vegan gave her an edge in her recovery and allowed her to perform well even past when most athletes retire.

And yet another two are Scott Jurek (ultrarunner) and Rich Roll (ultramarathoner and ironman athlete) who show that doing some of the most difficult athletic feats a human can endure is possible and even preferable with a plant-based diet.

Now, what about the people who have stopped being vegan or plant-based after many years? Or others who have tried the diet for a few weeks or months, but just never felt good on the diet?

Some celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Anne Hathaway, Samuel L. Jackson, and Zac Efron have left a plant-based diet behind, even claiming that their body just "doesn't process vegetables correctly" or that they didn't feel as strong as when they introduced meat, dairy, and eggs back into their diet.

Are these occurrences normal though? Are they caused by a poorly planned plant-based diet? Or are they a result of societal pressure, but it's easier to blame the food?

Any of these could be true, and I don't doubt that a poorly planned and executed plant-based diet could cause some people's bodies to not perform well. For example, you could overconsume certain nutrients which might lead to problems like kidney stones, or you could consume too few nutrients which can cause problems like iron and B12-related anemia- definitely something that would kill your energy levels and leave you feeling weak!

Some people bring up the point that not everyone has the time or intellect to execute a "well-planned" plant-based diet. And that is very fair! After all, I sometimes struggle as a female to get enough iron, despite being a dietitian! But for those people who may not have the motivation to strive for perfection in a diet, I think that supplements can be very helpful in making up for our lack!

People will object: "But, if you have to supplement to make a diet optimal, then is it really healthy?". My humorous comeback will be that you should do some digging, and see what supplements or keto-specific food products are being promoted by keto and carnivore promoters! You might be shocked to learn that Steven Gundry, who claims lectins in plants are harmful to health, sells lectin-blocking supplements, supplements designed to "heal your gut", and food products that he has designed and approved of.

Or that Mike Mutzel, a keto promoter, sells supplements to help you boost your metabolism (most of which are made with plant-derived compounds), despite claiming that the keto diet he promotes is the best way to lose weight, improve blood sugar, improve sleep, and "bio-hack" your body.

I would much prefer to eat a diet that contains almost all the nutrients my body could need, very few of the harmful ones that my body doesn't need, and supplement with (very affordable) B12, iron, vitamin D, and Omega 3's from algae (my current regimen), than supposedly get all those nutrients from meat and dairy, and add in lots of harmful nitrates, heme iron, saturated fat, toxins, antibiotics, pesticides, and metals. (Sure, some of those negatives can be mediated by getting locally sourced organic meats, but then you have all the environmental factors to consider (see more here)).

But I'll leave the decision up to you! Maybe the latter feels "safer" to you :)

Lastly, I don't doubt that there are bodies out there that are already sick and suffering either from the problems created by a poor diet or genetic problems, who generally will not feel well no matter how long they are on a plant-based diet. Some people have developed allergies and intolerances to plants (Celiac/Gluten Intolerance for instance). And still, others would need to take the transition to a plant-based diet WAY slower than the average American. However, when you transition well, educating yourself on the nutrients of concern, relying on a wide variety of plants for your nutrition, not limiting whether the foods are cooked, and paying attention to your body's signals, I really do not doubt that you will end up feeling better on a plant-based diet over time.

Your body can take between 6 months to a year or more to fully learn to thrive on plants- mine has! But does that mean it's not the most optimal diet for my body? My lab results indicate that this is not so! A plant-based diet, though it caused some discomfort in the beginning, has led me to have incredibly low cholesterol (100 mg/dL), triglycerides (73 mg/dL), and A1C (5.2%). I have no detectable inflammation in my body, and my mental health and gut health have never been better!

I have learned I need to optimize nutrients like iron and more recently water- as I've been dealing with some orthostatic hypotension (lightheadedness when standing up). But overall I feel more energy, more mental capacity and resilience, and more athletic prowess than I ever have.

On to my very last point- one that has become increasingly important to me!!!

Not only do I believe that plant-based diets are best for everyone on the inside (they provide the best fuel for our high-performance machines), but they also are the kindest diet for both the environment and other humans.

Did you know that less than half the world's cereal grain production goes to feeding humans? 93% of our soybean production goes toward animal feed and soybean oil (stripped of all the nutrition).

Maybe that wouldn't be so bad if we knew what to do with it! But manure management is a chronic problem, and seems to be unregulated.

People who live near animal agriculture operations or manure management operations tend to have more respiratory issues, asthma, worse mental health, and even worse immunity per one report. I expect it actually is much worse for many more people, given that manure impacts water quality far away from the animal location, that widespread use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is leading to antibiotic resistance, and that high meat diets themselves are linked to higher death from all causes.

So, what do you think?

Given that millions of people have seen clinical improvements in their diseases or symptoms, millions more have seen undocumented improvements in weight, health, and energy (my guess), some of the healthiest athletes in the world are going vegan for improved recovery and performance, not that many people are reporting reliable and clinically proven reasons for leaving behind a plant-based diet, and lastly that many humans are being negatively impacted by a world obsessed with animal protein, do you think a plant-based diet is for everyone?

If you think I'm missing something, then please by all means leave a comment and I'll try to edit the post and address that issue.

photo of Lucy Luong

Hello, many of you may be new to my blog, so I just wanted to introduce myself. I'm Lucy, a registered dietitian with a Master's in Public Health. Because of my health degrees, I love to share my knowledge about optimal nutrition and lifestyle because I really believe nutrition information should be available to everyone. So I hope you help this blog very informative and helpful! If you are someone who wants to connect about how I can support and encourage you as you transition to a more plant-based diet, then I'd love to touch base about my Ditch-the-Disease Program.

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