Plant-based Nutrition, Part 5
So in this module we learned about macronutrients, basically those are protein, carbohydrates, and fat. But backing up a bit, what even is a nutrient? We’ve been studying nutrients since the 1800s, but in isolation. And there’s been a long emphasis on proteins. (Cue every vegan rolling their eyes and groaning)
What is nutrition?
It is the “biologically holistic process by which the elements of food and water are used by the body to optimize health”. Note that water is a part of this. Also, T. Colin Campbell emphasizes how this works together like a symphony. It’s not about one vitamin or one macronutrient.
So, what is a nutrient?
It’s a food chemical that must be consumed because our body cannot make it. And hopefully, these chemicals are ones that will make us healthy.
Most of the weight from the foods we eat are from the macronutrients I mentioned before: carbohydrates, protein, and fats. And these macros work together in your body. Then there’s the vitamins and minerals (micronutrients), and water content.
Let’s talk about protein >:)
So, protein was discovered in the early 1800s and is associated with human progress and civilization. Like we could somehow absorb the strength, agility, and prowess from animals by eating them. The word protein from from “proteios”, meaning “of prime importance” and animal protein is considered the gold standard. Now, it does seem that our bodies use animal proteins most efficiently but you’ll see later on when we discuss cancer promotion why efficiency isn’t always a great thing.
In class, we discuss those who make various discoveries and proclamations about protein and how we got to the idea of focusing so much on meat.
As we know, we Americans are OBSESSED with protein. And this isn’t new because Carl von Voit in the later 1800s calculated that we need 52 grams of protein a day, but for some inexplicable reason suggested we should eat 120 milligrams a day.
The energy produced by protein is 4 calories per gram. It is an essential nutrient that plays a vital role in enzyme formation, enzymes that help control metabolism.
But how much protein do we actually need?
There’s the estimated average requirement (EAR) and the recommended daily allowance (RDA) and to make it short:
EAR = 0.5 to 0.6 grams protein per kilogram of body weight.
The RDA, which is widely accepted is 0.8 g per kg body weight. Or 8%-10% of your total calories, which is readily provided by a whole food plant-based diet.
I mentioned before that animal-based proteins are used more efficiently and have a higher “biological value”, but there’s a flip-side to this efficiency. This animal protein stimulates body growth. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to get any bigger. And especially casein and egg albumin lead to faster cancer growth rates. I’ll pass on that as well!
Plant-based protein is the opposite because it’s less efficiently used by the body and leads to less undesirable growth.
There was this idea of “protein complementing” back in the 1970s to make up for “incomplete” proteins and lack of certain amino acids. Basically, those on a plant-based diet should eat foods in certain combinations to get those amino acids. But now we know that plant foods do have essential amino acids and this complementing isn’t necessary. If you are getting enough calories and you’re eating a varied diet (not too much fruit, potatoes, or junk food) you should be fine.
Does anyone else feel like carbs are a bad word? I hit adulthood just as the Atkins diet was all the rage and I feel like we’re doing it again with the keto diet. (Did you know that the Atkins diet is so off-kilter than they also sell supplements? And I won’t even get into Dr. Atkins’ health.)
Anyway, we need carbohydrates because they are the body’s main energy source and are used by all tissues in the body. If your body has carbs to use for energy, it can use other macronutrients like protein for tissue growth and repair. Your brain, kidneys, muscles, and heart need carbs. And for intestinal health, you need indigestible carbs in the form of fiber.
Carbohydrates provide 4 calories of energy per gram and you should be looking for carbs in the form of fruits, veggies, whole grains, seeds, and legumes. Not from refined carbs like sugar and starches that don’t exist in nature (think processed foods). Ideally on a WFPBD, you get 80% of your calories from carbohydrates.
On a low carb diet, you are limiting consumption of plants because you are eating a lot of animal protein and fat which lead to chronic disease.
This is the thing we should be focused on instead of protein, in my opinion. Fiber helps regulate your blood sugar and keeps hunger in check. It’s not an essential nutrient though because technically you can survive without it. (I was advised by a doctor ages ago to avoid fiber when I was having some GI issues)
It only comes from plants. Let me say that again: only comes from plants.
There are 2 types of fiber:
- Soluble – this one soaks up water and becomes a gel that can be used by bacteria in your gut
- Insoluble – this one adds bulk to your poo (c’mon, you knew we would talk about poo at some point!). It’s not fermented in our gut and this is the fiber we consume the most of.
The health benefits of fiber:
- Slows down how fast food passes through your stomach and makes you feel more full
- Changes how other nutrients are digested, namely your body’s response to carbs and regulating blood sugar
- Lowers cholesterol levels
- Gut bacteria ferment and metabolize fiber to produce short chain fatty acids and we get a small bit of energy from these SCFAs. These SCFAs lower the pH in your colon, making it more acidic. And as I understand this, it affects the cell health and rate of production, which affects the level of inflammation in your gut lining. This means lower rates of colorectal cancer, IBS, IBD, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, etc.
How much fiber do we need?
Most Americans get only 15-20 grams a day. In. 1980, in China, they were eating 75 grams a day. Some studies of Paleolithic people show them eating 100 grams a day.
Whole vs. refined grains
By now we know that whole grain is better for us than refined. Refined products like white bread and white flour have lost up to 80% of nutrients. Oftentimes, vitamins are added back to these refined foods, but many are unfortified. And you can’t judge whole grain items based solely on their color because brown could be molasses or food coloring and whole wheat or oats can be lighter.
Fats are an important source of fuel, providing 9 calories per gram. As they are digested, the body breaks fat into fatty acids, which are great storehouses of energy. So more is better, right? Not so much. A WFPBD is usually 10-12% fat while the standard American diet (SAD) is 30%-50% fat. I can’t eat a bunch of fat anymore, but I remember that “blech” feeling after a high-fat meal.
Omega 3 fat vs. Omega 6 fat
The Center for Nutrition Studies covers this in great detail but I’m going to try to hit the highlights.
Omega 3 fats (alphalinolineic acid) are good because they lower heart disease and are anti-inflammatory. But pretty much only in food form and supplements may even increase cancer and diabetes risks.
Omega 6 fats (linolineic acid) are pro-inflammatory but the ratio of O3 to O6 is vitally important. You can’t eat a ton of omega 6 and take an omega 3 supplement to cancel it out. CNS gets into this very clearly about the effects of omega 3 and omega 6 and how they work together. We need both, but not an overload of omega 6.
So, if supplements aren’t ideal, what should you eat to get omega 3? Try walnuts, flax seed, chia seeds and leafy greens. For a good balance of omega 3 to omega 6, eat a variety of unprocessed plants foods.
Trans fats and other fats
We are all pretty aware that trans fats should be avoided because it raises our bad cholesterol and lowers the good cholesterol. Hydrogenated fats also have health consequences so we should be mindful about fast food, doughnuts, microwave popcorn, pies, cookies, crackers, frozen pizza, and cakes with icing.
A new way to read food labels
This blew my mind and will foreve change how I read food labels. If we know that carbohydrates and protein give 4 calories per gram and fat is 9 calories per gram. You can use this to calculate the percentages of fat, carbs, and protein for each food (rather than the percentage of your daily allowance).
If you’re still reading, you should get a gold star! This module was packed with information that I barely scratched the surface of here. There was so much that I’m still trying to wrap my mind around, like how what we consider “low fat” isn’t really. We should aim for 10%-15% of our calories from fat and even the “lowest fat” is over 20% fat. So much of what I thought I knew about food wasn’t ideal or healthy, really. But I’m getting there!