I started to realise how confusing it might be to someone new to plant based eating, to hear all these different terms used to describe eating a meat-free and possibly dairy and egg free diet. Within ‘the community’ there can sometimes be just a hint of friction over which diet is ‘best’ or ‘healthiest’. There are a lot of great nutritionists, doctors and researchers who have written wonderfully informative and well meaning books on the subject of both plant based diets, and unrefined diets which avoid processed foods. But amongst these inspiring men and women, are slightly confusing messages. Can we really eat a 100% raw diet? Or are we actually meant to cook food? Is it not okay to eat food that has undergone any type of processing, including oil? Is vegan the same as ‘whole food plant based’?
I want to simply inform you of what the key terms mean and give you a brief idea of what I think the pros and cons are.
This is really a term which encompasses more than a diet free from animal products, it also extends to every aspect of a persons life and purchasing decisions. This is an ethical or moral choice, not a health one. Although I don’t suggest it doesn’t have an effect on health as well. A vegan will not consume, use or wear anything from an animal or that has been tested on an animal.
Pro’s: the vegan diet is typically varied. If you follow a real-food vegan diet, as opposed to a junk food vegan, than vegans and vegetarians, on average, weigh less than meat eaters. Vegans also have a lower BMI, suffer less incidence of disease, and live longer.
Con’s: you will get asked constantly where you get your protein, if you fart more and really unoriginal questions like ‘ so what do you eat?’. It’s annoying at first, but after a while it actually becomes rather humorous.
Whole Food Plant Based (WFPB)
This is a fairly new term, which relates purely to what food you eat. It was coined to differentiate from the term vegan, which doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. Whole food means food that has not been refined, nothing processed. How strictly that is followed, depends on the person. This type of diet usually allows for some healthy oils in limitation, and raw sweeteners. But some take this to the extreme and omit anything that is processed.
Pro’s: again, an extremely varied diet with an emphasis on fresh food. This type of diet is very popular right now so you will find a lot of recipes and inspiration on social media. With a high fibre intake, any pre existing digestive issues are known to improve with a diet of whole food and an avoidance of highly processed foods. Because of the sheer volume of vegetables and fruit, many experience an increase in energy levels and improved skin conditions, among other feelings of improved general wellness.
Con’s: It may also be limiting when eating out with friends and family. Menu planning is crucial as it is not always easy to purchase certain plant based foods which make this diet healthful, balanced and enjoyable. These restrictions can be overcome though, and there are great online stores which offer good deals on bigger quantities of some of the essentials. Menu planning also helps to keep within a budget and can help with efficiency.
A raw diet is all in the name. It’s all about raw food, no cooking. Technically someone following this way of eating, eats a 70% or greater raw diet. Some people follow it 100%, a raw food purist. The idea behind it is that cooking food destroys much of its nutritional value, essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants being lost, among others. To maximise the available nutrients, a raw foodist believes food should be eaten as nature gifts it to us, as it is. No food is prepared over 115F, which is said to be the point at which nutrients start to break down. Many raw foodists use a dehydrator to add interest and texture, and they gently heat things to this maximum temperature. This diet usually means a lot of blended food, and possibly juicing. The volume of food required to meet daily calorific needs is very high because plant food is so low in calories.
Pro’s: those following this diet strictly, report greatly improved skin conditions. I have seen many quite remarkable recoveries from severe cases of acne in people following a raw diet. I noticed an improvement myself when I followed a 70% raw diet. Improvements in health also include better digestion, sleep, energy, skin colour and tone, and quicker recovery from exercise.
Con’s: this type of diet relies on some serious amounts of fruit and vegetables, so the shopping involved can take some planning and adjusting. It can be more expensive, depending on where you live and access to things like farmers markets and box schemes, which greatly reduce the costs of produce. Ensuring adequate calories depends on having enough fresh food to meet needs. This diet can mean rather large changes in lifestyle which takes dedication and is not for the faint hearted. However, in my own experience and those I know who are purists, these problems are overcome with commitment, research and the benefits gained tend to be great motivation.
Made popular by Dr Doug Graham, who wrote a best selling book on it, this diet is all about percentages. 80% Carbs, 10% protein and 10% fat. Most of the carbohydrates are to come from fruit, which is what Dr Graham believes we are designed to eat. With some tender greens. He also believes sea salt, apple cider vinegar, fermented foods, spices and dehydrated foods should all be avoided completely as they are toxic or lacking in some way. Nuts, seeds and avocados are allowed in very small portions. Ideally this would be a raw diet, but not the ‘standard raw diet’ he believes most raw foodies eat. I did not find where he gets his information for a ‘standard raw diet’. It seems to be based on an assumption raw foodies eat gourmet every day, which they don’t. Dr Graham is a natural hygienist, but not all natural hygienists eat this way or encourage others to do so. This is the most extreme and selective of the common plant based diets.
Pro’s: this diet is easy to follow because it is based on fruit, and lots of it. It aims to be a high raw diet, so nutrient consumption will be high in those particular nutrients found in fruit and leafy greens. It rightly points out the healthful benefits found in fruit, and the misconceptions about the sugar in fruit. The ratio part of this diet, is naturally what a lot of plant food eaters consume.
Con’s: this is an extreme diet. Extreme because it is cutting out a lot of plant foods, without any real evidence that they are harmful. It seems to reject progress and evolution entirely in favour of what he has decided we are designed to eat.
Who To Ask for help
This is not as straight forward as you might think. There are a lot of people offering you advice about food and nutrition, but not all are suitably qualified or knowledgeable to be giving it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but do ask yourself just how informed is that opinion? Am I listening to someone that has undertaken nutritional study? How long have they been in the health industry? Do they have the skills to confidently analyse food science? Are they relying on reductionist science? Reductionist science studies nutrients in isolation, which is not how we eat. There are a lot of people making large sums of money off the back of a diet they believe is most beneficial. Many write about it, but most are authors, journalists and Doctors. You might think who better to give you diet advice than a doctor, but they have not trained in nutrition. They might all publish best selling books, but what if some time later, the weight of evidence shows that what they have been promoting is actually really unhealthy, or potentially dangerous? Once you’ve made a career and a large sum of money from best selling books and diet plans, it is very hard to turn around and say, hey now I think I was wrong.
I have also found that a lot of personal trainers give extensive nutritional advice, again well-meaning, with little to no nutritional qualifications or training. While they may cover some aspect of nutrition in their fitness training, it is minimal and insufficient to be professionally advising anyone. Some personal trainers do specifically study nutrition, what a gem they are to find! I know of a couple who are always attending lectures, up-skilling and constantly keeping informed of the latest information for their clients benefits. But, unfortunately, many many more give nutritional advice purely from reading a few books, or talking to other trainers. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had with PT’s that I have found really worrying. Please, do not take detailed or specific advice from a personal trainer about nutrition unless they can show you what their nutrition training is. They are not qualified to provide menu plans or analyse food diaries. Would you pay money to an untrained person to give you a personal training session? Probably not. It would likely be very dangerous. Give the same thought to nutrition advice.
So, who can give detailed nutrition advice?
Well, legally speaking, this differs from country to country. America has quite strict laws in some states, you have to be a registered nutritionist with a certain amount of training. Anyone else giving specific advice can be prosecuted.
In the UK, there are 3 main types of professionals in the area of nutrition. A dietician must be registered and works within the NHS. A nutritionist does not have to be registered, but those that are tend to work in the food, research or education industries. Nutritional therapists tend to work one-on-one, working through many issues including allergies, digestive and eating disorders. There are also a growing number of Health or Lifestyle Coaches, who generally charge less and offer counselling towards healthier and balanced diets. They do not have to be registered either. My best advice is to ask for qualifications and talk to them about their experience and approach.
Unless you have a diet related health problem, or have issues with your weight, you shouldn’t need to pay large sums of money for dietary advice. As I briefly discussed on my page, Don’t Know What to Eat?’, we have never known more about food before but we are more confused about it than ever. It is an information overload. Tradition and instinct used to be what defined our diets. That changed when the food industry became our main source of both food, and information. In the United States alone, the food industry spends 33 billion dollars a year on marketing food to us. How they present information, extracting single facts from scientific studies most are incapable of understanding, can make a huge difference to consumer choices. But we don’t need them to tell us how to eat. When you see a health claim on a product, my advice is, always question it. There is nothing stopping them from presenting either false or misleading claims. There is a scientific study for every claim, diet or piece of advice anyone could want to give. What we would really need is to look at the weight of evidence, understand study design, questions asked…. But does the ordinary person have the ability, or indeed the time, to do this? Clearly the answer is no. Which is why there is such a rise in nutrition professionals. But my best advice is really simple, and I have said it many times on my blog. Eat real food. The more real, unprocessed food that you eat, the healthier you will be. I don’t believe anyone would argue that. Become reliant on your own instincts, look to traditions that have stood the test of time. And finally, get into your kitchen. This is where it all happens, this is where your foundation for good health and a lean strong body is formed. This is where you will start to reconnect and enjoy food. Turn off the telly, put the diet books down and stop paying huge sums of money to be told what and how to eat.
Note: I have not included any diets which involve animals because I don’t see them as sustainable for the planet, or morally justifiable choices.