Vegetables in a plants-based whole foods dietHere’s a joke that’s been making the rounds since vaudeville days. A man goes to his doctor and says: “It hurts when I do this. ”The doctor replies: “Then don’t do that.” You’ve probably heard this one, and it may have made you chuckle. But have you ever stopped to think that we laugh at jokes when we recognize their kernel of truth? Perhaps on some level we know that avoiding pain and illness may be exquisitely simple. What if, to stop hurting, we just need to stop what we’re doing?

Surprisingly, many of us don’t know what we need to stop doing to feel better. Furthermore, neither do our doctors. Like the patient in this joke, we’re unlikely to get the thoughtful attention that we deserve, and we’re likely to get insufficient answers. Naturally, our frustration grows when we don’t know how to get better, let alone how to avoid disease before it even starts. What we and our doctors need to understand is that health is the natural, spontaneous consequence of healthful living. It’s rarely the result of pharmaceuticals or expensive or complicated medical care.

In the United States and other developed countries, most people eat extraordinarily unhealthful diets. Witness the national epidemics of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Unknowingly, we’re hooked on foods that cause these conditions, which are sometimes referred to as the “diseases of excess.” Yet we fail to recognize food as a major cause of these illnesses. For far too many people, the singular act of eating the standard American diet leads to devastating results.

T. Colin Campbell, PhD, coauthor of The China Study and author of the foreword to this book, has revealed just how damaging certain foods can be, despite our society’s enthusiasm for them. Campbell grew up on a dairy farm, and he and his family ate typical American fare, including meat and a lot of dairy products. He began his career looking for more efficient ways to develop animal protein. Over time, however, his research unexpectedly took him in the opposite direction. Now he warns people against consuming animal-based foods. Through their research, Campbell and his colleagues came to believe that animal protein is a major culprit in cancer development. They also discovered that the primary protein in dairy products—casein— appears to be an aggressive cancer promoter.

Eliminating animal-based foods does more than help us avoid cancer. This choice also helps us steer clear of heart and atherosclerotic disease. For example, people who abstain from eating animal-based foods have cholesterol levels that are 35 percent lower than those who don’t. Extensive research has also shown that people with a cholesterol level under 150 rarely suffer a heart attack. In addition, a plant-based, whole-foods diet can reverse a host of chronic health problems, including diabetes and obesity.

Subtract your way to health

The recipes in this book, and the delicious meals that we serve at TrueNorth Health Center, are designed with your optimum health in mind. They contain no meat, fish, fowl, eggs, or dairy products. In addition, they contain no processed oils, refined carbohydrates, salt, or sugar. What’s left, you might wonder. Instead of animal-based foods, processed products, and refined ingredients, we offer real foods packed with flavour and nutrition that promote health: fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Without harmful products tearing down our health, and with whole, nutritious foods building us back up, the body naturally regains its health.

The notion of removing foods from our diets to improve health may seem surprising, because it contradicts the Western view that we should “take something” to feel better. Modern medicine often leads both the physician and the patient to look for health solutions in all the wrong places. In the vast majority of cases, the conclusion reached is that something is “missing” and needs to be “added,” typically in the form of a prescription drug. The fact is, most modern-day health problems are the result of dietary excesses. Adding more pills to our healthcare regimen is not our only or even our best option. What we need to do is stop eating the foods that are making us sick.

End your addiction to harmful foods

Blame our ancestors for our built-in dietary preferences. Over millennia, they faced a problem that is unfamiliar to most of us today. Whereas we live in an environment of excess, where groceries virtually spill out of the stores and into the streets, they experienced scarcity on a regular basis. Even now, there are hunter-gatherer societies for whom a slight change in food availability could bring demise.

Miraculously, each of us is the result of countless generations of people who managed to get enough to eat and survived under some very harsh conditions. To persevere in an environment of scarcity, our ancestors depended on higher-calorie foods—ones that are naturally high in fats and sugars. Early humans did not live on roots and shoots alone; they ate fruits, nuts, seeds, and small game, if they could get their hands on it. Complex mechanisms of brain chemistry attracted them to these calorie-rich and pleasurable foods, which would help to ensure their survival in times of scarcity.

Because this collective memory and survival instinct was passed from generation to generation, our innate preference even now is to fill up on high-calorie foods, although we no longer live in “survival mode.” Understandably, today’s diet—artificially concentrated with animal-based proteins, oils, and sugar and other refined carbohydrates—appeals to us deeply. It seems to be the answer to our primordial prayer. But our ancient programming has become obsolete. In an environment of abundance, our instinctive preference for and overconsumption of high-calorie foods has come to do us more harm than good, leading many of us to suffer unnecessarily, and gravely, as a consequence.

We also are programmed to be more concerned about deficiencies than we are about excesses. After all, throughout human history, dietary deficiencies were common, while dietary excesses were rare. Psychologically, we find it difficult to accept that our bounty is killing us.

In addition, we fail to appreciate just how drastically our diets and tastes differ from those of even our recent ancestors. The modern American diet is largely built around processed foods.They have taste-stimulating capacities that far exceed those of the whole, natural foods that people used to eat, and our preferences have adapted to this unnatural stimulation. To us, this food tastes “normal,” because we have forgotten what real food tastes like.

Beyond being accustomed to highly artificial flavours, we’re inherently attracted to certain types of foods, and their ready availability and easy accessibility have caused us to become addicted to them. Some of the most unhealthful selections—including cheese and other dairy products, meat, and sugar—produce the same biochemical response as a class of drugs called opiates, which includes morphine and heroin. Food, like drugs, can stimulate the pleasure centre of the brain. Anybody who has ever needed a chocolate fix can attest to that.

While we crave the pleasure that food can give us, we simultaneously follow our instincts to conserve energy. Like other animals, we’re designed by nature to seek the greatest rewards with the least amount of effort. In essence, we’re programmed to make the most efficient use of the food and fuel that was so scarce for our ancestors. As a result, we now find ourselves in an environment in which it’s exceptionally easy to make not only unhealthful but also harmful choices. For example, fast food is a convenient and seductive option. Taking a detour to the drive-thru means that getting dinner on the table can require little thought, modest expense, and almost no effort. This scenario is significantly more appealing to our energy-conservation programming than the prospect of preparing a health-promoting meal.

Clearly, our ancestors passed along internal messages that ensured their survival but work against us in modern times, making us less likely to choose the most beneficial foods. This disadvantage is compounded by the powerful external messages we receive from advertisements, product placement, and other marketing techniques that take advantage of our instinctive urges and drive our behaviour in the wrong direction. The greatest reason that we don’t eat right may be this: Food is big business. The more we eat and the less the food costs to produce, the more profits there are to be made by manufacturers, investors, and, yes, even the medical profession. Consequently, we’re constantly bombarded with misleading information about food and health.

Defy common food myths

A significant portion of the food industry’s advertising budget is devoted to dubious claims about our “need” to eat various unhealthful products, especially animal-based foods. We’re told that unless we regularly consume ample amounts of dairy products, eggs, fish and fish oil, and meat, we won’t get the vitamins, minerals, proteins, or fats we need. Why does the food industry push these messages? Because compared to vegetables and other plant-based foods, these animal-based foods are highly profitable. When companies churn out artificially flavoured convenience foods with these ingredients, we readily fall into their trap and boost their profits even more. Let’s set the record straight: plant-based foods, eaten in sufficient quantities, provide everything we need with the exception of vitamin B12, which can easily be obtained from a supplement.

As long as we get enough calories from a wide variety of whole, natural foods to meet our weight and energy requirements, we will not only meet our nutrient needs, but we will also be dramatically better nourished than if we were eating only the “best” of the typical American diet. Contrary to popular food mythology, the issue is not whether it’s possible to maintain health without eating animal protein, fat, oil, salt, and sugar, but rather, whether it’s possible to maintain health while eating them.

Animal protein

The most pervasive food myth is that eating animal protein is necessary for our health. When you switch to a plant-based diet, you will invariably be asked this question repeatedly:“Where do you get your protein?” Our culture has been inculcated with the notion that animal protein is the ultimate nutrient.The idea is so prevalent, most people don’t even realize that plant-based foods are also rich in protein or that animal-based foods aren’t particularly high in protein per calorie: dark leafy greens, such as chard, collard greens, kale, and spinach, win that prize. Because leafy greens are low in calories, other protein-rich plant foods—legumes, such as beans and lentils; whole grains, such as brown rice and quinoa; and nuts and seeds—can help round out all our needs.

The bottom line is that animal-based foods have an undeserved reputation as being a superior source of protein. However, as a source of saturated fat and cholesterol, they have earned their place as well-recognized health threats, contributing to heart disease and other problems.

Calcium and dairy products

It’s true that our bodies need a certain amount of calcium for bone health, as extensive advertising by the dairy industry has alerted us for decades. However, we don’t need to rely on dairy products as a source of calcium. Green vegetables, beans, and other plant-based foods provide plenty. Vegetables such as broccoli and kale contain calcium that is more absorbable than the calcium from animal-based foods. In addition, plant-based foods provide potassium and numerous other bone-building nutrients.

In Japan, China, and some parts of Africa, people don’t traditionally consume dairy products, and they have healthy bones. Moreover, in those countries fractures due to thinning bones or osteoporosis are much rarer than in the United States.

If you’re worried about osteoporosis, let me remind you that subtracting harmful foods is the key to health. Calcium loss, and ultimately thinning bones, stems from eating diets high in salt and animal-based foods. Avoiding these will help you retain calcium in your bones; adding calcium supplements or dairy products is not the answer.

Fats and oils

The harmfulness of certain fats, especially trans fats and saturated fats, is so great that almost everyone knows they should be avoided. But consuming even small amounts of refined oils— including olive oil and other fats that are touted as healthful—can contribute to obesity and clogged arteries. Food industry myths about fats abound. The manufacturers of fish oil supplements promote their products as the answer to meeting our omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid needs. Thankfully for our health (and breath), we can meet our essential fatty acid needs simply by eating plant-based foods. Dark leafy greens and avocados, plus small amounts of nuts (especially walnuts) and seeds (especially ground flaxseeds), can provide all the healthful fats we need.

Salt and sugar

Salt and sugar are two substances that send our taste buds into a frenzy. Have a little, and we’ll want a lot. However, adding salt to food can lead to major health risks. Excess sodium is associated with serious conditions, including high blood pressure, heart attack, osteoporosis, stomach cancer, and stroke. All the sodium and other important minerals we need are contained in whole, natural foods. Don’t be deceived by “health food” industry advertising. Salt is salt. It doesn’t matter if it comes from the mine or the sea, or if it is blessed by your guru’s guru. Adding salt to your food is almost always a harmful practice.

Most added sugars are empty calories (calories without appreciable nutrients). Sugars are dangerous because they lack the nutrients we need to build health, and because they are easy to overeat. If you’re eating too many calories (whether from added sugars or from any other source), you will become overweight, and we know that being overweight is a risk factor for many diseases. All the healthful sugars we need are contained in appropriate amounts in whole, natural foods.

Refined carbohydrates

Many so-called diet books have irresponsibly warned us to beware the dreaded carbohydrate. The fact is, carbohydrates are necessary. Beans, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are carbohydrates, and they are the foundation of a healthful diet. However, refined carbohydrates, which are abundant in the processed foods that are churned out by the food industry today, are what we should fear.

There are three main drawbacks to eating refined carbohydrates or starches such as wheat flour and other flours. First, wheat flour contains gluten, the protein that gives bread dough its body. Many people are allergic to gluten to some degree, often without knowing it. Second, the outer coat of a whole grain is stripped when it’s made into refined flour, and fibre is lost. Fibre is essential for normal bowel function and maintaining the “friendly” bacteria in our intestines. Third, even when whole grains are ground into whole-grain flour, their calorie density per mouthful is increased. The milled grain, because it is more condensed, actually has more calories per measure than the whole grain! This makes it hard for our brains to calculate how many calories the body is taking in, which can lead to overeating. In part, the body determines satiety by the volume of food in the stomach. However, foods can be similar in volume but not in calories.When we eat a large volume of high-calorie foods, we aren’t likely to notice that we’re getting more calories than we need. Refined foods, and wheat flour in particular, can deceive the body in this regard. So while a few recipes in this book call for rice flour or oat flour, no recipes call for wheat flour.

A final word about wheat flour: The term “whole wheat” is mistakenly thought to be synonymous with “wholesome.” For example, the average consumer typically thinks that breads and pastries that include some whole wheat flour (regardless of the other ingredients) are more healthful than virtually identical products that don’t. Add the word “organic” to the mix and even more confusion abounds. Regardless of whether refined products contain a small amount of a whole food or were organically grown, they are still health-harming and have little nutritional value.

Moderation

When it comes to making healthful changes, one of the most dangerous beliefs is that any food is acceptable provided it is eaten in moderation. Another common but equally dangerous belief is that we should begin with modest changes and slowly build toward success. The truth is that, to break free of the insidious hold that unhealthful foods have on us, we need to make revolutionary changes if we want revolutionary results. If we hold on to the idea that it’s OK to sneak a few french fries or sip the occasional milkshake, we will retain our tastes for these foods, and they will retain their power over us. My advice is to make a clean break from unhealthful foods and commit to sweeping, simultaneous changes to achieve optimum health.

Alan Goldhamer, DC, is the director of TrueNorth Health Center in Santa Rosa, California. Visit him online at HealthPromoting.com.This introduction to Ramses Bravo’s book Bravo! Health-Promoting Meals from the TrueNorth Kitchen was excerpted with permission by TrueNorth Health Center, Inc. © 2012. The recipes in this book provide the benefits of a plant-based, whole-foods diet that resembles what our ancient ancestors ate. Buy the book here.

image courtesy robak_sxc

Pin It on Pinterest