Vegetarians eat Rabbit food, right?
The vegetarians I know eat pies, curries, falafel, pasta, cake, stews, soups and o yes – some of them eat salads, occasionally. Which I guess is what rabbit food means.
So the vegetarian diet followed by the average person may not be an entirely healthy diet or a wholefood diet but it is probably a lot healthier and more varied than most diets.
But before we do that we need to discuss THAT WORD. Diet is a particularly loaded word.
"Diet" is almost a dirty word.
To me it implies suffering and "going without"; it certainly implies a serious and temporary special selection of foods designed to help you lose "weight". Almost always "diets" are badly designed attempts to get slim and they almost always fail in the longer term.
But diets aren't just for slimmers, they have a power to heal too.
A diet is just the way we eat – we all have a diet – a selection of foods we like and choose when we eat out and when we shop for food.
The healing power of food seems only to be known to Naturopaths, some Nutritionists and a small number of herbalists.
But a diet of healing foods has tremendous power to help us live the healthiest lives we possibly can and of course a diet of junk foods will sap our energy and deprive the body of the nutrients needed for cellular repair, detox and sound sleep.
Naturopathic Doctors have been using diet as a major part of treatment for thousands of years. Back in 400 BC Nature Doctors like Hippocrates made the food you eat- your diet, the centre of getting well.
So in this scientific age when we know much more about food plants and agriculture you'd think that diet would be at the heart of medical research.
Unfortunate the daily news carries alleged "revolutionary" advances of possible healing effects of new drugs and no news at all about the certain and known healing effects of food.
Which is strange really.
So in this article I want to share some of the research that has been done on the health effects of diet and why I think it adds up to us all following a vegetarian diet.
Our Daily Bread
As a Naturopath I have a lot of experience of experimenting with my diet and helping my patients with theirs. Working one on one is a fast effective way to optimise a diet.
But Science has a hard job when researching diets.
Let's say we decide to find out if a particular vitamin or food or selection of foods is good for our health; just how is a scientist going to test this?
Having two groups of laboratory animals and giving them different foods is easy enough – we can see if the animals are in poor health at the end of the study because the experimental food does not have enough vitamin E or vitamin B2 or whatever the special nutrient we're studying is.
We can see if the animals have glossy coats, clear eyes and enough energy and clarity of mind to do the experimental puzzles they get.
Then the scientists can just count the healthy animals, do a statistics test and you are home and dry! We know if that food or nutrient makes a difference and we have the statistical proof we want.
But try doing that with people!
Immediately you hit problems. You can try selecting groups with the same age and sex and same standard of living and you still encounter issues that cast doubt on the study.
Here is an example, a famous one.
It is called the China Study and was designed and carried out by some of the most capable and experienced scientists on the planet and now even after years of data collection and analysis, it is still a bone of contention.
The China Study
In this landmark research 65 counties in both mainland China and Taiwan were chosen from rural and semi-rural areas in all parts of the country to represent different conditions of weather and lifestyle, diet and countryside.
You might think that since all the people in this research were Chinese that this could be taken as a weakness in the study. In other words, is this study useful when looking at the health of non-Chinese people?
It depends how you look at it!
Since all of the people were Han Chinese the influence of genetics on the results of this research was minimised ensuring that the study focussed on diet and lifestyle. And that's important because we hear so much about the effects of genetics on our health.
So this study focuses on the environment and how it can powerfully affect our health.
"In fact only 2 to 3% of total cancer risk is down to genetics so this exhaustive study focuses on where the real action is- the environment." Doll and Peto (1)
How the China Study Worked
In each village blood and urine samples were taken of the people in the study and their diet measured and studied closely.
The Wiki puts it well…"In 1983 two villages were chosen at random in each of 65 rural counties in China, and 50 families were chosen at random in each village." (2)
Some of the results were astounding – they found that in some places the rates for particular cancers were 100 times that for other areas!
And since these were all genetically the same people the difference was due to the diet.
For all of us who want to be healthy and to have some control over our lives.
…Because knowing that it is the diet that makes the difference takes us away from the cloud of fear, doom and helplessness that surrounds the whole area of cancer and other serious diseases.
When we know that science – real science not the advertising claims made by drugs companies – is that cancer risk depends crucially on diet, then we can have much more control (that word again – are you thinking I'm a control freak yet?) over our lives.
Continuing to eat a diet that has a high association with Cancer is like choosing to continue smoking cigarettes – which of course have a high association with getting lung cancer.
It is your option!
And the whole point of this blog is to give you options for your health.
Back to the China study…
One of the 65 counties in the study is Guizhou county. I can't help you with the pronunciation of that word so we'll skip along here into the findings.
In the 3 years of the observation period there were NO deaths from heart disease among males aged up to 64 years old in a population of around quarter of a million.
This is astounding and shows as Dr. Michael Greger remarks, "There is nothing natural about Heart Disease".
It is an inside job – it is our diet. Not genetics but diet.
Connections like this were found right the way through the China study. County by county and village by village similar associations were found.
And the good news from the China study is not limited to Heart disease, the Cancer findings were striking too.
Measurements showed that Chinese women had half the level of the hormones estrogen in their blood that American and British women had. This translated to the rates of Breast Cancer being about one third that in the West.
We could go through the China study county by county or disease by disease
The overall message and finding is that a plant based diet massively reduces our risk of major killer diseases like Heart attacks, stroke and cancer; that these dramatic and common disorders come from eating a diet much too biased to animal protein.
We do not need to eat Chinese cuisine to get the benefits offered in this research but we just need to eat healthy plant based diets based on plenty of vegetables, fruit and grains.
And that can easily be done in American, British or French cuisine.
Speaking of which…
The French Paradox
French people really should get a lot more heart disease. They eat drink and be merry and yet don't seem to die…as least as much as orthodox medical views expect.
With the amount of cheese, butter and other sources of saturated fat in their diet the Cholesterol Hypothesis predicts that they should be experiencing much higher rates of heart disease.
Are the French special?
Or is the notion that cholesterol and saturated fat are not as important as we thought?
And if the French enjoy this benefit how about other people, in particular those in other parts of the Mediterranean?
The Mediterranean Diet
The French aren't special! Their Italian and Greek neighbours also followed a similar diet – a diet that was rich in fruit and vegetables and had little animal protein. The diet altered from country to country around the Mediterranean sea as you'd expect but the health benefits were substantial.
From the Harvard School of Public Health…
"Together with regular physical activity and not smoking, our analyses suggest that over 80% of coronary heart disease, 70% of stroke, and 90% of type 2 diabetes can be avoided by healthy food choices that are consistent with the traditional Mediterranean diet." (4)
The climate of the Mediterranean is ideal for the growth of many fruit and vegetables making it easy to access these health giving foods. When it is so easy to eat such a simple healthy cuisine is it any wonder that the health and longevity of the people benefit.
There are many versions of the Mediterranean diet, maybe even more than one per Mediterranean country but the following is a simple and brief summary using the "80: 20" principle.
The Mediterranean diet is 80% fruit and vegetables and 5% milk and cheese (probably from goats), 5% bread, 5% fish and 5% meat.
That is very broad brush but it communicates a simple truth – the diet is real food from the land and not from shops. It is not chemically altered and clearly not genetically manipulated.
It is fresh too; just out of curiosity ask a few people what "fresh" means – you'll be surprised what they say.
I found out in a camping trip in the Welsh countryside. We saw a note in a window for "fresh lettuce" – and when we asked about that the gentleman concerned excused himself and returned a minute or two later with the lettuce.
It was only when we got to our camping site and started to prepare our meal that we noticed the lettuce had a little earth around its base.
We realised that when we asked about the lettuce it was still in the soil – we bought fresh food meaning that we got it about 15 seconds after picking; that's fresh!
The people around the Mediterranean have been following this "diet" for thousands of years. It is not a modern invention or fad; it is probably the best known system of eating that we have and it could hardly be better.
But there are some longevity numbers we have to explain first.
The Okinawa Diet
One of the best ways we can test a diet is to see how long the people who follow the diet live for. It is easy enough to find a diet that delivers weight loss and follow it for a few weeks. But the diet may be unsustainable and even unhealthy in the longer term.
But when a diet produces long healthy lives for millions of people then we sit up and take notice.
Take a look then at this set of results for the countries listed below… look especially at the numbers in the right hand column
These numbers are provided by The United Nations and shown in the Wiki (5).
According to this table Japan is the country with the most people who have reached their 100th birthday which has to be an important criterion we take into account when looking for healthy diets.
Clearly the Japanese are doing something right!
Before we do let's just notice that the 3 countries following along behind Japan – France, Spain and Italy are Mediterranean countries so the Mediterranean diet is also delivering longevity to the people who use it!
I guess you are bracing yourself to withstand recommendations to eat rice or noodles or sushi all day, but hang on!
Because I am not too interested in the Japanese diet. What I want to briefly discuss is the diet followed in Okinawa. But isn't Okinawa part of Japan, you ask!
Okinawa is part of Japan at present.
In 1609 Japan conquered Okinawa and has ruled it ever since. Okinawa had trading and cultural ties with China and Korea for centuries before that and its cuisine is quite different to that in Japan.
And its people live even longer than (other) Japanese!
They seem to have developed a "longevity diet" with its main ingredient being sweet potato with rice being consumed much less than in the rest of Japan
Greens are a major feature of their daily fare too and Tofu and seaweed eaten regularly . Meat in the form of pork is eaten at monthly festivals and fish is eaten in very small amounts which is surprising for an island community.
Basically the traditional Okinawans have a diet based on sweet potato and greens and it results in the highest longevity in the world.
So What is the Best Diet?
I've marched you off to China to admire the amazing work of the Cornell Oxford China study and we learned that we least chance of killer disease when we eat a diet heavy in vegetables and fruit; we then marched back to France and the Mediterranean where we enjoyed a diet used for thousands of years rich in fruit, vegetables and olive oil; then we skipped over to Japan and in particular Okinawa to find a Longevity Diet of Sweet Potato, Tofu and greens.
All are based on fresh foods with no artificial chemicals or genetic manipulation. We'll end this tour around the dietary world in California. My American readers may be feeling restless at this stage admired the results and diet followed by healthy people around the planet and not mentioning the US even once.
If you look at the Longevity table above you'll see the US in 12th place.
So let's look at the healthiest community in the U.S. – Seventh Day Adventists living in California.
And On The Seventh Day
About 35% of Seventh Day Adventists or Adventists as we'll call them follow a vegetarian or vegan diet – one that is rich in fresh vegetables and fruit.
And as a group live up to 10 years longer than the average Californian.
And how about this…" Coronary heart disease 66% lower for Adventist men, 98% lower for Adventist women"
I'd say that was a pretty successful diet and one that can be followed by anyone regardless of their religious beliefs.
Plant Based Diets
Scientists like to avoid belief systems and just want to stick to the facts. So the results we have looked at in our whistle stop tour around the world of diet, could be summed up in ordinary conversation as vegetarian with even better results if you follow a healthy vegan diet.
For scientists these words, we might call them "V-Words" have overtones of fashion and fad and even worse attached to them so they uniformly describe the successful diets we have seen in China, Okinawa and the Mediterranean not as vegetarian or vegan but as "Plant Based Diets".
Diets rich in vegetables and fruit are the common factor in the successful longevity diets we have looked at.
To some such diets may seem restrictive, lacking in something or just weird; while to others perhaps more familiar with vegetarian cooking the sheer variety and choice available in this wide variety of possibilities looks enormous and quite liberating.
Importantly we have seen that traditional diets in regions around the world work at lot better than the modern mass produced fast food diets that so many of us have adopted in the last few years.
Along with the abandoning of traditional diets has been an enormous tide of heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes.
The traditional diets may well be called Longevity diets as I have done in this article and the way to "live long" is obvious – Follow a plant based diet – whichever one you like or if you'd prefer just design your own!
Just focus on whole fresh foods – vegetables and fruits and you can't go far wrong!
And you can ignore the fads of so called diet books, diet gurus and fitness trainers if it conflicts with these landmark studies of dietary facts.
Let them promote and claim what works – you know what works now. Author Michael Pollan advises us to "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants".
The shelves of supermarkets are full of brightly coloured but nutritionally useless "Food like substances" which we don't need; we need real food, fresh food minimally processed full of their natural flavours.
When we focus on real food that we could grow ourselves if we chose to we give ourselves the best diet in the world.
We can eat local or eat our own home grown veggies or eat from many different cuisines – Chinese, Mediterranean or many others. There are healthy versions of all cuisines available and unhealthy versions too.
As always we get to choose and that is very good news for control freaks who want more control over their health.
Even more control coming up soon in other articles on the blog. Feel free to add your voice in the comment section and do please share this with those you love.