Diet and nutrition represent two of the most important, and perhaps most confusing elements when it comes to total wellness. The media is constantly flooding the market with next big food to help you lose weight, the newest fad diets, and a host of nutritional supplements that “guarantee” weight loss or other health benefits. Optimal nutrition and the ideal diet have become so convoluted with opinions not supported by science, and a market that is fueled by money. It is incredibly easy to throw in the towel when it comes to choosing how and what to eat. There is good news, however. Diet and nutrition concepts are not nearly as complex as many “experts” make them out to be. The basics of a well-balanced, nutritious diet are really quite simple, and we’re going to cover them here.

A Plant Based Diet
A plant based diet is just as it sounds; mostly made up of whole, natural foods that come from plants. Individuals consuming a plant-based diet would eat more vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, whole grains and meat substitute products like soy burgers or tofu. Plant based diets may or may not include a small amount of animal products. Animal products would include eggs, milk, cheese, and meats such as chicken, or beef. There is a great body of research that supports a plant-based diet and its abilities to reduce and prevent chronic illness as well as to better manage weight.

Weight Loss and Preventing Chronic Disease

One of the key benefits of a plant-based diet is its impact on the waistline. There is a large amount of research that has found vegetarians to have a lower body mass index than non-vegetarians. There are a number of reasons this may be. Firstly, a plant-based diet tends to be lower in calories. Few calories in with an adequate number of calories going out typically equals weight loss or results in the maintenance of a healthy weight. Secondly, a plant-based diet typically contains a large amount of fiber, helping those who consume it to feel full faster and to stay full longer. Resulting in less eating. Further, plant-based foods tend to have a lower glycemic index. A low glycemic index means that it takes longer for these foods to be converted into glucose. A diet high in foods that have a low glycemic index means that blood sugar levels are never spiking, and rather stay relatively even throughout the course of the day. This can help to control cravings, and promotes a healthy metabolism. All of these factors contributing to weight loss may also prevent the occurrence of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

A plant-based diet can reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes as well as help to control already diagnosed type-2 diabetes. As previously mentioned, consuming foods with a low glycemic index prevents a great fluctuation in blood sugar levels. This promotes a better control of blood sugars. Further, the weight loss associated with a plant-based diet is very beneficial to individuals with diabetes.

The plant based diet is often the ideal choice for treating/preventing heart disease. There is research supporting that individuals consuming a plant-based diet are less likely to die from a cardiac event. The high amounts of soluble fiber part of this diet contribute to reducing cholesterol levels. There are also many components of a plant based diet that contain healthy, protective omega 3 fatty acids. These can be found in nuts, olive oil and avocados. These omega 3 fatty acids may reduce total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels while raising HDL (good) cholesterol levels.

Other evidence has found vegetarians to have a reduced mortality and increased longevity when compared to their meat-eating counterparts. It shouldn’t be a surprise that mortality rates are reduced in individuals consuming a plant-based diet given the reduction in chronic illness incidence.

A Colorful Plate = A Healthy Plate

A plant-based diet offers numerous health benefits. It’s obvious that consumption of a higher proportion of fruits and vegetables would equal a larger intake of plant containing vitamins, minerals and fiber. In addition to the vitamins and minerals we’re familiar with; calcium, magnesium, potassium, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Vitamin A, etc, there are a host of other nutrients found in plant-based foods that give them an even greater nutritional kick, phytonutrients.

Phytonutrients represent organic nutrients found in plant-based foods that have been proven to be incredibly beneficial to the human body. A profound indicator of a food’s nutritional content is its color. Phytonutrients can be found in brightly colored fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods. Plant-based foods are represented in every color of the rainbow and more; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, tan, brown, black and white. Each of these color categories contain its own phytonutrients that impact and protect many functions of the body. For example, orange foods contain carotenoids which are beneficial to both eye health and immune health. Green plant foods contain a phytonutrient called Glucosinolates. Glucosinolates found in veggies like cabbage, broccoli, and kale. These are known for their ability to aid the body in eliminating toxins and possibly preventing the development of hormone-related cancer. Healthful phytonutrients are found in all plant-based, colorful foods. Ultimately- the more colorful your plate, the more vitamins, nutrients and minerals you are consuming.

Vegetarian Vs. Vegan

For a long time, people who didn’t eat meat were simply known as vegetarians. In recent years, this group of individuals has been further classified. The term vegetarian today typically means an individual who consumes a plant-based diet, does not eat meat, but does consume animal products like milk, eggs, and cheese. A vegan is an individual who consumes a plant-based diet but does not consume meat or animal products.

It’s important to understand that there are unhealthy “vegetarian” diets. For example, an individual can call themselves a vegetarian but regularly eat cheese pizza, candy and soda pop. Obviously this form of vegetarian is not plant based and is not healthful.

GMOs- What are they?

If you have spent any time watching the news or paying any attention to the media at all, you’re familiar with the term, GMOs or genetically modified organisms. GMOs are the result of a relatively new area of science that involves the manipulation of the genes of living organisms. The manipulation of these genes creates new bacteria, plants and animals that do not naturally occur in the environment. GMOs are very commonly seen in produce farming. For example, certain breeds of corn, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables are genetically modified to withstand severe temperature variations and pesticides. They may also be modified to produce more fruit for a longer duration than is natural.

GMOs have been a topic of interest for the last several years for a number of reasons. World-wide, these types of plants are not believed to be entirely safe for consumption. However, the FDA claims that GMOs are monitored in the US and are required to adhere to the same safety guidelines as other foods. One concern of consumers is that fact that GMO labeling is voluntary, not mandatory, making it very challenging to identify if store-bought products contain GMOs or not. Ultimately, GMOs are not naturally occurring plant-based products which raises concerns about their long-term health effects. Preliminary research has found that there may be unfavorable health consequences for the consumption of GMOs, however, there is a call for more research. Ultimately, the biggest concern surrounding consumption of GMOs today is the fact that Americans and Canadians have no idea if/when they’re consuming them. Given the fact that 80% of processed foods contain GMOs, odds are most American’s are eating them. There are a host of grocery stores nation-wide which make it easier for consumers to identify GMO containing produce. These stores place the decision in the hands of the consumer and whether or not they choose to consume GMO foods.

Organic Foods

Organic foods represent another common topic of discussion when it comes to produce and other plant-based foods. There is a large amount of information put out by the media; some favoring organic foods while others don’t stake a claim either way. There are a few key facts to take into consideration when evaluating the importance of organic foods.

Organic foods are those that are grown in a way that reduces pollution and promotes the conservation of water and soil. Organic farmers do not use conventional fertilizers and pesticides, instead opting to utilize natural fertilizers and other methods to manage weeds and insects. Organic foods are required to meet standards set forth by the US Department of Agriculture. Foods that are 100% organic may utilized the USDA Organic Seal. Foods that are 95% organic can label themselves as organic but may not utilize the USDA Organic Seal. Foods that are 70% organic may label themselves as “containing organic ingredients”.

There are several benefits of consuming organic foods. Pesticides are toxic chemicals used to protect crops from insects, weeds, disease, and molds. Residue left on these crops is often consumed by people buying the produce in the grocery store. There are a host of negative health effects related to pesticide use. Eating organic foods eliminates these risks. Organic foods are also rid of any additives such as colorings, flavorings and preservatives like monosodium glutamate.

The big downside of eating organic is its associated cost. Very often, organic produce and foods are more expensive than conventionally grown foods. One way to reduce the cost impact is to buy organic produce when it’s in season.

Plant Based Diet for your Future Health

All of this information points in one direction; an all-natural, plant-based diet is the best option for future health. Plant based foods contain health promoting vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that can support a healthy weight and prevent the incidence of chronic illness such as diabetes and heart disease. The more colorful the plate, the more nutritious it is. A plate with carrots, kale, quinoa, and black beans is a great example of a colorful, nutritious meal. A plant-based diet provides ample opportunity for colorful foods that promote long-term health and the prevention of chronic illness.

Christopher Burton, MD
Christopher Burton, MD

Christopher Burton, MD is a physician, speaker, coach and author, practicing in Pensacola, FL. He specializes in Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, which focuses on the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of conditions - particularly those of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems - that may produce temporary or permanent impairment of function. Dr. Burton also provides one-on-one Health & Wellness Coaching for select clients who want to improve their life significantly. In addition to his practice and coaching, he actively lectures on health, nutrition and exercise for healthcare groups, colleges, and businesses, and travels internationally teaching on various topics including the treatment and rehabilitation of athletes.