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


We learned in Part 1 that, in addition to vitamins and minerals, plants also contain unique disease-fighting nutrients called phytochemicals.

Phytochemicals, also called phytonutrients, are produced exclusively by plants. In fact, phytochemicals are what give plants their bright colors, fragrant smells, and unique flavors. There has been an explosion of research on phytochemicals in the past few decades, and over 50,000 types have been discovered so far, though there are estimated to be millions of different kinds!

As we continue to better understand the fundamental roles that phytochemicals play in preserving our health, we are fundamentally changing our understanding of disease yet again. For example, we are learning that certain phytochemicals help prevent plaque buildup in blood vessels. Others affect how cells regulate hormone levels. Still others promote detoxification pathways in cells, interfere with cancer growth and spread, strengthen immunity, turn genes on and off, repair damaged DNA, improve insulin function, nourish a healthy gut microbiome, and so much more!

Because different plants contain different phytochemicals with different effects, it’s important to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to get the maximum benefit. That’s why you’ve heard the recommendation to “eat the rainbow” to get different colored phytochemicals. For example, red tomatoes contain a powerful antioxidant called lycopene. The spice turmeric contains the yellow curcumin which has strong anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory effects. Blueberries contain purple anthocyanins which protect against diabetes and heart disease. The list goes on and on.

But here’s the catch: If you want the disease protection that these phytochemicals can provide, you have to actually eat the foods that contain them! There are no shortcuts. You won’t get phytochemicals by taking weight loss medications, exercising more, fasting intermittently, or by going low-carb. You have to eat whole plant foods, and they need to be a dominant part of your diet every day.

The key here is to make sure you are eating whole plant foods. Just labeling a food as vegan or even “plant-based” does NOT make it a whole plant food. Vegan just means that there are no ingredients of animal origin, and “plant-based” has come to mean the same. These foods can still be, and often are, ultra-processed, low nutrient foods, and will not help you achieve your health goals. In contrast, whole plant foods still contain all of their natural nutrients, and do not have unhealthy processed, refined, or artificial ingredients added.

Let’s illustrate how whole plant foods work with an example: When you eat an orange, you’re not just taking in 55 empty calories as you would if you munched on a half-ounce of orange Froot Loops.The calories in the whole orange come naturally packaged with an abundance of non-caloric nutrients, including antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber, water, and, of course, phytochemicals. The fiber helps keep you full, feeds your good gut bacteria to promote a healthy gut microbiome, and slows the absorption of the sugar into your bloodstream to prevent blood sugar spikes. The vitamins and minerals help your cells burn off the sugar as energy, instead of converting it to fat. The antioxidants protect your DNA from free radical damage that can sometimes occur from metabolizing sugar. The phytochemicals have anticancer and anti-inflammatory properties, and help insulin function better. Isn’t it amazing how whole plant foods are brilliantly packaged to keep us healthy?

So how much whole plant foods do most Americans eat? As it turns out, not much at all. Only about 6% of an average American’s calories comes from whole plant foods. This means that most Americans have almost no phytochemical protection in their diet at all. On the other hand, ultra-processed foods make up a whopping 60% of the diet, with animal foods accounting for another 25-30%. To really get a sense of just how drastically our diets have changed over 100 years, consider the following table:


Sugar5 pounds/year170 pounds/year
Oil4 pounds/year74 pounds/year
Dairy277 pounds/year580 pounds/year
Cheese2 pounds/year30 pounds/year
Meat140 pounds/year200 pounds/year
Soft drinkszero411 pounds/year
Home grown vegetables131 pounds/year11 pounds/year
Calories 2100 daily average2757 daily average

= an extra 240,000 calories per year!

It’s no wonder we are facing an epidemic of obesity and chronic disease!

But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Not for you. Now that you understand how chronic diseases are a direct result of our unnatural diet, you can choose to reverse course and follow a path to recovery. That is an incredibly empowering proposition, but it’s up to you. If you are serious about reclaiming your health once and for all, we can help you use Plants as Medicine to achieve your goals. You’re worth it. Let’s start today.

Dr. David gutman small headshot

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.

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