Will a Whole Foods, Plant-Based Lifestyle Protect Us from Chronic Disease?

Conventional wisdom suggests that whole foods are healthier for us than processed foods. We also hear that foods from plants are healthier than those from animals. And yet, the advocate of a whole foods, plant-based WFPB diet is considered extremist and unrealistic. The blueprint for WFPB and the wonders it promises appears in Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition by Colin Campbell. As we drift away from a focus on nutrients to embracing a more holistic view of health, why does America increase its dependence on processed foods with even more consumption of ultra-processed products?

WFPB Lifestyle. Campbell describes the ideal diet as filled with WF (whole foods) consisting of beans, fruits, legumes, raw nuts and seeds, vegetables, and whole grains. Note, no foods from animals need apply. Animal protein causes cancer states the book. PB means plant based but not processed. Extracted proteins from plants as in plant-based meats are not part of his WFPB lifestyle. Like many health programs today, Whole prefers the term lifestyle to diet.

All we need to do is to change our dietary pattern to WFPB and we are guaranteed many beneficial outcomes:

  • elimination of 95% of all cancers,
  • prevention of all heart attacks and strokes,
  • prevention and reversal of type-2 diabetes,
  • achievement of our ideal weight without dietary restrictions,
  • slowing and possible reversal of global warming,
  • shuttering of all factory farms, and
  • reduction of malnutrition and dislocation of the poor.

What is not to like about these outcomes? The lifestyle embraces good foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It rejects bad foods like ultra-processed products and added fat, salt, and sugar. It also eliminates questionable foods like eggs, meat, and milk. We would not need Big Food, dietary guidelines, or obesity clinics. None of these recommendations go against conventional dietary wisdom. And yet we are a nation with a lifestyle consuming over 60% of calories in the form of ultra-processed foods. How dumb is that?

salad bowl with cucumber, green beans, carrots cheese and turkey

My lunch yesterday was almost WFPB except for the cheese and the turkey

Wholism vs Reductionism. There are two main ways to approach science—holism and reductionism. Holism looks at the big picture or attempting understand the wisdom of the forest. Reductionism narrows the problem down to its basic elements to give us an appreciation of the experience of the trees. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Current research tends to focus on one or the other. The science most of us were exposed to in school is reductionism. Campbell uses the term wholism instead of holism, as the latter spelling implies religious overtones associated with holiness. Wholism is also a clever pairing of the concept with whole foods.

Wholism relies on observation and correlation. It can’t project cause and effect. It provides us with broader perspective but no concrete answers. Reductionism can identify cause and effect but tends to ignore and miss critical interactions. Traditional nutrition with its focus on the importance of individual nutrients is reductionistic. Nutritionism, with its focus on the eating experience and social aspects of eating, is wholistic. Much of the book is a rejection of reductionism and an embrace of wholism.

Modern Health-Care Myth. Whole decries the American health-care system claiming that it is not really about health. It is really a disease-care system. The modern medical establishment does not promote health. Rather it promotes disease which it tries to treat but not really prevent or cure. Chronic, or noninfectious, diseases, are blamed on our diets. By avoiding heavily processed foods and animal products can we promote health and conquer chronic disease? We need stay away from added oil, salt, and sugar. Only 10% of our calories should come from fat and another 10% from protein. The remaining 80% of our calories are reserved for carbohydrates from whole foods from plants such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Campbell blames chronic disease on uncontrolled oxidation. Plant antioxidants consumed in their natural form protect us from these oxidative challenges.

Wisdom of Our Bodies. If we would just eat the right kinds of food our bodies will take care of us. A healthy lifestyle promotes healthy genetics, a healthy environment, and a healthy nation. It becomes the ultimate virtuous cycle. Nutritional determinism posits that “nutrition controls the expression of genes to cause health or disease outcomes, by turning on healthy genes and suppressing disease genes.” This statement represents the major premise offered in Whole. A WFPB lifestyle leads to good genetics. Ultra-processed foods and animal products lead to bad genetics. It’s as simple as that. The major problem with WFPB foods is that they do not stimulate the economy like processed foods or medicines. Big Food, Big Pharma, and Big Health Care can not make a profit on WFPB. It does not fit the American market, economic system, or way of life.

The Pain and Cost of Unpopular Beliefs. Although we have very different concepts on food and dietary patterns, I am sympathetic to Campbell’s point of view. He is vilified not because he is wrong but because we won’t eat right. Much of what he proposes fits into accepted healthy eating. It is just that nutrition professionals, the establishment, and most consumers don’t buy into his guidelines. He puts it all together, but, when stated directly, it seems extreme. For details as to how he drew his conclusions read his earlier book, The China Study. Of course, the author advances some very controversial positions. He states that animal protein causes cancer, listing casein as a potent carcinogen. He considers food to be more carcinogenic than environmental toxins. He introduces what he calls a new paradigm on nutrition, but it is hard to prove his points with wholistic methods. Wholism is not into cause and effect.

My sympathy for Campbell stems from his willingness to defend an unpopular position on food. Like him, I am under attack for taking a different unpopular position. Critics challenge my defense of ultra-processed foods because everybody knows that processing makes food unhealthy. I contend that ultra-processed foods can be a part of a healthy, balanced dietary pattern. My critique of the NOVA classification is that it

Read the latest warning about consuming ultra-processed foods in the context of the points listed above.

Campbell vs Shewfelt. Campbell proposes a simple solution to America’s public health crisis. Abandon the typical highly processed foods that compose our lifestyle for whole-food, plant-based alternatives. This shift could help us conquer the plague of chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. A true health-care system would replace our current disease-care one. Such a move might free us from a profit-based dependence on multi-national drug, food, and medical corporations. In turn, I ask you to use reason in your food selection. Don’t be dismayed by the demonization of processed foods, particularly those products made safe, convenientstable, and pleasing to the palate through the use of food additives. Personal health is much more complex than eating only healthy foods and avoiding unhealthy ones. Food is much more than a binary choice. What we eat has cultural, social, pleasure, and other philosophical dimensions beyond nutrition and health.

Take home Lesson. Despite the popularity of specific aspects of the plan, a WFPB lifestyle is still considered extreme. Could we solve our plague of chronic disease by eliminating animal-based and highly processed foods from our diet? Would such a plan greatly expand our lifespans/healthspans? Is nutrition as practiced today really that reductionist? We have adopted a simplistic view of nutrition and labeled it nutritionism. Yes, modern medical science is reductionist, but it is much more inclusive than its critics suggest. Vitamins, for example, play roles in our bodies that are much more complex than preventing deficiency diseasesSubclinical deficiencies of individual vitamins affect our health and wellbeing. Interaction between different nutrients within our cells and bloodstream affect our ability to perform daily metabolic function and fight off disease challenges.

Is (ultra)processing as dangerous as it is described? Is there an opportunity to take principles of food processing, additives, and parts of the WFPB perspective to promote healthier eating? Color me skeptical of miracle food dietary patterns that we reimagine as lifestyles. I am also skeptical of classification schemes that separate all foods into healthy and unhealthy ones. And yet, is there something about food substances in intact form that provides health-giving properties which are lost when we mash them up? That brings me to the concept of the food matrix, but I will save that discussion for another post.

Coming soon: The Food Matrix and It’s Role in Health

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