Why I Don't Recommend a Plant-Based Diet
Updated: Jul 7
Ever been a confused by all the conflicting information about nutrition?
This guy isn't, but more on that later.
Recently a friend of mine, whose husband had a serious health scare, reached out to me asking for my thoughts on all the information she was finding that led her to believe, for her and her family to be healthy, she needed to switch everyone to a plant-based diet.
I thought you might be interested in what I told her, but before I mention what I shared...what I take for granted in this post is:
You are interested in a thoughtful dialogue.
You care deeply about yourself and your family.
You're as interested in a sustainable food system as I am.
In the world of health, talking about the merits of plant-based diets is the nutritional equivalent to talking about religion and politics. It's often hard to have a logical conversation about it...but I'll try anyway.
GETTING ABOVE THE NOISE OF SCIENCE
I remember the me of about 16 years ago being so fired up about making sure "science" backed up whatever advice I would tell people about nutrition.
Science was like my armor. I read...a lot.
What I eventually ran into was no matter what theory I wanted to settle on, every camp had their "science." Just when I thought I had found some bedrock, someone would show me a study telling me the science I was leaning on, was bunk.
That went on for years.
I vacillated between thinking I should eat almost exclusively plants to thinking the opposite.
In hindsight, I was too zoomed in. What I was doing was ignoring history and context, and instead I was worshipping at the alter of science, as if it's some objective tool that fell from heaven and I just needed more of it to teach me what I don't know.
I eventually settled on what I think is...
A SANE VIEW OF SCIENCE
Great as it is, science is just a tool, used by imperfect people (often with agendas), limited by what they want to know, and the questions they can think to ask.
What I slowly came to realize is, 1) I can't read all the "science" (it's incomplete, and it just, keeps, coming), and thus, 2) I had to make common sense a peer of science if I was to have any hope of knowing what science was pointing in the right direction.
To develop sound, common sense, I needed to study history. I needed something that would help take the wildly conflicting "science" I was reading and give it a basic "smell test." In other words, does what I'm reading make sense with what I see and feel, and can history illuminate bad science by showing what it's missing?
For that, I had to zoom out and look at the breadth of human nutrition.
Key Question: How did people feed themselves before we had science to tell us how to eat?
Instead of overloading you with links to scientific studies I find compelling, let's stick with history and logic for now, shall we?
THE OVERLOOKED QUESTION
Where was all the food?
In today's "battle of the sciences" (i.e. the battle of good marketing), the question rarely asked is, where was all the food before the grocery store, before the refrigerator, and before we had access to as many plants OR animal food as we wanted, all the time?
Before those things, I can tell you humans were not subsisting on a plant-based diet, not even close--for starters see the Masai, Amazon jungle Indians, Peruvians, Inuit, Gaelics, Maori, Native Americans, Polynesians, Swiss, Aborigines, Mongolians, and Pacific Islanders like those in Papua New Guinea--that's six continents and several islands.
The most extreme example is the Inuit. They eat a diet that is almost entirely animal products (there aren't many plants to eat in Alaska during winter). Their diet is 80% saturated animal fat, yet they have none of the degenerative diseases we're told (by the plant-based-diet doctor squad) come with eating animal products.
The above indigenous people groups have had centuries and even millennia to refine what to eat to bring about good health...and they did. If a food didn't agree with them, they stopped eating it...and they also went way out of their way to procure and prepare foods that did nourish them.
WHERE THE LOGIC OF PLANT-BASED DIETS FALLS APART
If the proponents of a plant-based diet were correct, then it should be true that all (or you'd think at least some) of the indigenous peoples mentioned above would have the diseases that are are common in Western society. It's simply not the case.
Despite the large volumes of animal foods in the indigenous diets listed above, those people were (and where they stay on their traditional diets are) specimens of perfect health, not sickly people too dumb to figure out what to eat. And, we have the dental, skeletal, and in many cases photographic records to show that.
As an example, check out this recent video. In it you'll see the beautiful Masai tribe in Kenya (a man like the guy pictured above) talking about their traditional diet, drinking raw (fermented) dairy, processing a goat outside, and eating the kidneys like an apple. They remain in robust health and have been eating this way a long time.
You could also check out the show Extreme Engagement on Netflix for several other examples of indigenous peoples still on their traditional diets. It's not a show about food, but it does highlight what these (healthy) people eat.
It's not us Westerns in our little science bubbles who need to go teach these poor "primitive" people how to eat; it is them who have much to teach us how to eat to be healthy. We lost much of their hard-won wisdom when the tools of industry took over food production.
The modern grocery story, and the option to eat only plants all year, is truly an aberration in all of human history. No people group has ever eaten like proponents of a plant-based diet want you to believe.
Think about it...if you're in my home state of Virginia right now (it's November), and had to go find your own food, outside, what would you eat? How far through the winter would you make it? Would you be looking for berries, or hunting a deer? Exactly...hunger would eventually lead you to find a deer.
THE PHYSIOLOGY PROBLEM
Humans are omnivores, not herbivores.
We simply do not have the digestive hardware to turn cellulose into protein.
Herbivores can. We can't.
Herbivores have multiple stomachs. We have one.
Herbivores digest plants with fermentation. Our stomachs makes acid to break down meat.
Furthermore, there are various fats, vitamins, and amino acids our bodies simply can't make that must be consumed from animal sources--B12 is undisputed, but there are also eight amino acids and lipids (fats) we need from animal sources.
Ladies who are vegans, if they can become pregnant at all, have a very hard time making breast milk (nature's perfect food) because of the deficiencies mentioned above.
SPEAKING OF DAIRY
Isn't it unnatural to drink milk from other species?
If we're following the same logic here, isn't it unnatural to drink nectar from plants?
Plants are a completely different species.
It's (sort of) true, that we are the only mammals who consume dairy from other animals.
The reality is, mammals will happily consume milk from a different species...if we help as a middle man. Anyone who has fed a cat, cow's milk, knows this.
I've watched full grown moose eagerly drink raw, goat's milk. The same cross-species, milk-consumption phenomenon can be found as a strategy employed by zookeepers all over the country.
What's more true is that we're the only species who can domesticate other species.
And so we do. Our ancestors who started consuming milk from other animals weren't being stupid, they were being efficient at feeding themselves.
I'll certainly grant that many people today do not do well on modern dairy, but that's a discussion for a different article on digestion and commercial dairy.
In case you're interested, we cover these topics in much more depth in our personal coaching program.
LETTING GO OF IDEOLOGY
I truly admire people who want to be ecologically responsible and not participate in animal cruelty. I'm right there with you. Much of what happens in the food industry is deplorable, and can turn otherwise healthful food into something, not-so-healthful.
Yet blanket statements such as or "red meat is bad" or "dairy is bad" or "saturated fat is bad" or even "grains are bad" simply throw the baby out with the bath water. There's important context those statements miss.
Those who argue that "too many farting cows are bad for the environment" simply have never tried to build healthy soil. You can't do it without animals.
Giant confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are awful for the environment.
BUT, so are massive mono-crop farms. They lead to erosion and depletion of precious topsoil, kill countless small rodents and insects in their natural habitat, and are a source of billions of pounds of pollution every year in the form of pesticides.
Furthermore, while it may be "kind," to not eat meat, eating only plants eventually creates avoidable health problems.
Case in point...
WHEN YOUR BODY FORCES YOU TO GIVE UP A PLANT-BASED DIET
Two people, Lierre Keith and Tim Shieff took their idealism of a plant-based diet to the extreme, paid a dear price with their health, and publicly admitted they had to give it up.
Keith managed to hang on for 20 years! She now has permanent health problems. Eventually she wrote the book The Vegetarian Myth. It is a thorough and personal look at the inner struggles to let go of a view of the world that she wanted to badly to be true, but finally realized is false.
Shieff was a prominent vegan with a huge following and much to lose, but eventually had to give it up because his body was breaking down. You can watch him tell his story here.
Keith also pointed out this sacred truth: There can be no life without death. Whether we're talking plants or animals, something has to die for you to eat. Period.
Ask an honest vegan and they will tell you the number one "cheat meal" of people who eat like them, is a cheeseburger and milkshake.
Why? Because their bodies are screaming at them for missing nutrients they can find in animal products. The cravings are just too much.
Forget soy "cheeses," veggie "burgers," and fake dairy. The human body wants and needs the real deal--i.e. good animal fats and proteins.
You're not "weak" for wanting them.
A SANE, LOGICAL VIEW OF HUMAN NUTRITION
From where I sit now, it makes sense to me that, for the right person, a plant-based diet can be a good, temporary cleanse. Think of it almost like a fast.
Good plants, properly prepared, can form an incredible medicine cabinet.
Whereas healthy animal foods are the bricks, mortar, and lubrication we need to be healthy, plants are great mops and brooms to help clean us out and fight infection.
If you've been eating a crummy diet, getting a lot more plants in your body might help you feel better, but you might feel worse.
WHAT A PLANT-BASED DIET GURU WON'T TELL YOU
In Joel Fuhrman's book Eat to Live for example, he tells you all about the great results people got on his plant-based diet.
What he doesn't highlight is that only a third of the people in his study got better, a third got worse, and a third couldn't finish his program--not exactly a resounding success.
He tells you the good, but for the sake of protecting the ideology, unfortunately, he doesn't give an honest account of the bad.
The bad, is what Keith and Shieff (and many others) show us will happens when you put blind faith in the plant-based ideology, and take it as far as one can.
EVENTUALLY THE BILL WILL COME DUE
Depending on the level of health handed down from one's parents, and built during childhood, people have different constitutions that allow them to eat a plant-based diet and borrow from their future health to pay for their present deficiencies/idealism.
You're likely lose some weight eating only plants, and you may temporarily feel better and improve your blood markers, but gone on too long, a plant-based diet will lead to all sorts of deficiencies and a different set of significant health challenges.
We don't need to pretend we're carnivores, but pretending we're herbivores will eventually leave us feeling crummy.
Now, hopefully you know a few good logical reasons why.
YOU ARE, OF COURSE, WELCOME TO CALL ME CRAZY
You wouldn't be the first, I won't be the least offended if you do.
But, I have helped a lot of people (not the least of which is myself and my family), build great health, reverse all sorts of diseases, and enjoy delicious food freedom by building their own, personalized, sane philosophy of eating.
And if, you still think I'm crazy, let me know why. I love a good discussion.
Maybe I'll even invite you over for dinner.
I'll happily make you a salad...but I'll also sit next to you while I eat my steak.
Until next time,
PS. Several commenters have asked for a more thorough, methodical perspective in line with the approach I took with my 18 Reasons I Won't Be Getting a Covid Vaccine. In that vein, I recorded two long-form podcasts (with show notes) to dive much deeper into my thoughts on nutrition and why I (still) don't recommend a plant-based diet.
PPS. Curious about the work I do, and how we solve complex health challenges. Click here.
Check out the Weston A Price Foundation. They are a non-profit that curates a boat load of different nutritional experts.
If you want to see how most people in history actually ate, grab yourself a copy of Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A Price, or the book Nourishing Diets by Sally Fallon.
If you want a doctor's perspective with a boatload of scientific references behind a lot of the concepts above, check out the book Vegetarianism Explained by Natasha Campbell-McBride
You could also follow this link for some science on fats.
Have you been led to believe that saturated fat is bad for you and can clog your arteries? Here's a meta-analysis on PudMed (12 different studies of almost half a million people) showing that saturated fat significantly lowers your risk of stroke. Apparently the more you eat the better.
PPPS. For those of you who are saying..."But wait, what about The China Study!"
Here is a critique of it that might just put that in an entirely different light for you.
There are about five or so doctors (Ornish, Esselstyn, Fuhrman, McDougall, and Barna) in the plant-based diet arena who all refer back and forth to each other. Get outside the loop and you'll start to see what they are not telling you.