Foundations of a whole-food, plant-focused approach (1/2)

foundations-whole-food-approach-part-1

As a medical doctor who has devoted his practice to helping patients overcome chronic medical conditions through diet and lifestyle changes, I have seen first-hand the dramatic improvements in the health and quality of life my patients achieve by adopting a whole-food, plant-centered diet. In this 2-part article I’d like to help you understand exactly why this approach is so effective at restoring health, how it is different from a vegan diet, and why you simply can’t get these same health benefits from taking weight loss medications, intermittent fasting, eating low-carb, or even exercising.

As a medical doctor who has devoted his practice to helping patients overcome chronic medical conditions through diet and lifestyle changes, I have seen first-hand the dramatic improvements in the health and quality of life my patients achieve by adopting a whole-food, plant-centered diet. In this 2-part article I’d like to help you understand exactly why this approach is so effective at restoring health, how it is different from a vegan diet, and why you simply can’t get these same health benefits from taking weight loss medications, intermittent fasting, eating low-carb, or even exercising.

But as the germ-theory of disease was becoming well-established, our knowledge was still far from complete. We had yet to learn that not every disease is caused by an infection. That would soon change.

The field of nutrition was still in its infancy in the mid-1800s with the discovery of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats as the energy components of food. It was initially thought that these were the only nutrients required for health, but then experimental studies found that animals got sick and could not survive on artificially refined diets containing only these three nutrients. They developed diseases which could be prevented or cured by adding certain whole foods to the diet. The question was why? What crucial nutrients did the whole foods provide that were missing in the artificial, ultra-processed diets?

A monumental breakthrough occurred in the late 1890s. A Dutch bacteriologist was sent to Indonesia to discover the germ responsible for an outbreak of a disease called beriberi that had become an epidemic in the region. This devastating disease damages the heart and causes muscle wasting and paralysis, followed by death. During his research he happened to notice that chickens developed this same disease if fed white rice, but remained healthy if fed brown rice. He tried feeding brown rice to his patients and saw that most made miraculous recoveries. This bacteriologist subsequently won a Nobel prize for the discovery of vitamins, as beriberi is caused by a deficiency of vitamin B1 (thiamine) which gets stripped away when brown rice is polished into white rice.

This led to an explosion of research over the next few decades, and by the middle of the twentieth century all of the known vitamins and essential minerals had been discovered. Food manufacturers began fortifying white flour and other processed grain products with synthetic vitamins, and this helped to nearly eradicate many vitamin deficiency diseases like beriberi, rickets, scurvy, and pellagra. The fact that these diseases are unfamiliar to us is a testament to that success.

But even though this intervention helped prevent a few select deficiency diseases, the irony is that the widespread practice of fortification led to an overall worsening of the American diet, not an improvement. Consider this ad from the 1940s for “Vitamin Donuts.” Fortification began to serve as a permission slip, encouraging Americans to continue eating ultra-processed junk foods, while convincing them that fortification made these foods healthy. Of course, these same marketing tactics continue to be used today. Just look at the health claims on the labels of your favorite packaged foods and beverages.

Other dietary trends of the 20th century, including a marked drop in fruit and vegetable consumption coupled with a dramatic increase in animal product consumption, have only compounded the problem. But now, our chicken sandwiches are coming home to roost.

A disturbing pattern began to emerge. As our fruit and vegetable consumption went down, the prevalence of many chronic diseases that used to be relatively rare, such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, autoimmune diseases, and many others, began to increase at alarming rates. Advances in modern medicine have not been able to reverse this trend. Yet with America gradually getting sicker, the next frontier in nutrition was already beginning to take shape. After the discovery of vitamins, we began to identify a brand new class of plant nutrients called phytochemicals. Additional research demonstrated just how important these phytochemicals are to prevent chronic diseases. It turns out that our bodies’ defensive and repair mechanisms are strongly dependent on many of these nutrients to function properly.

Food processing removes phytochemicals just like it removes vitamins, but there is a difference between being deficient in a single vitamin and being deficient in phytochemicals. Whereas a single vitamin deficiency can result in a single disease, a deficiency of phytochemicals leaves you susceptible to developing many different types of chronic diseases. The good news is that just like adding back a single deficient vitamin can cure the deficiency disease, transitioning to a phytochemical-rich diet can help to improve or even completely reverse the chronic diseases you may already have. And since you won’t find phytochemicals in fortified or animal-derived foods, the amount of damage-reversing nutrients you get depends on only one thing. The amount of whole plant foods in your diet.

In Part 2 of this article we’ll learn more about phytochemicals, the difference between a whole plant food diet and a vegan diet, and we’ll take a revealing look at just how few whole plant foods most Americans actually eat. Stay tuned!

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Dr. Gutman is the founder of Cleveland Nutrition, which offers a unique opportunity to use a dietary approach to medical care, with the support of a physician and specialized registered dietitians. The Cleveland Nutrition team teaches patients to use food as medicine to restore health, normalize weight, eliminate medication, and reduce pain. Their approach includes education and coaching to help patients change their mindset and boost their motivation, while offering them the accountability, tools, and skills necessary to change their health for good.

Is our program the answer to your health challenge?

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