Traditional Wellness Wisdom

Are plants preferable to animal foods for optimal health and digestive wellness?

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The inspiration for this post was a recent question from a reader on my Facebook page regarding a live interview on the Cancer Summit with Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride, author of Gut and Psychology Syndrome.  The topic is whether we should consume animal foods versus plant foods, and the impact those dietary choices have on our health.

The reader asks about Dr. McBride’s claim that plants are indigestible. The reader understands that this recommendation runs contrary to advise with which she has been most familiar from mainstream medical and health authorities: that reducing intake of animal foods and increasing intake of vegetables and other plant foods is preferable for optimal health.

We are presented with the questions:

  1. Is there a correlation between eating more plants in the diet and better health?
  2. Are plant-based diets superior to animal foods for health?

Because there are misconceptions regarding plant-based and animal diets, I thought it would be helpful to post this question and the answer to it here.

Question:

“I’m listening to Natasha Campbell-McBride on the Cancer Summit. She says we are to eat animals-meat, fish, eggs, dairy, which are foods that FEED us and build the body. She says plants are indigestible in the stomach, do not feed us, but CLEANSE us. This is the first I am hearing this said in this particular way. I have not read her GAPS book yet. What about phytonutrients, ORAC, bioflavonoids, etc. that supposedly keep us healthy?! How can she throw all that out the window? Can you explain? This summit is available until 10 a.m. tomorrow.”

Before I post the answer: I want to talk a bit about recommendations from health authorities which call for plant-centered diets and advise reducing intake of animal foods.

Movies such as Forks Over Knives, books such as The China Study authored by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, and campaigns such as the Environmental Working Group’s Meatless Mondays have popularized the idea that eating a plant-centered diet is healthier than one that includes animal foods.

Some arguments which favor plant-based diets include:

  • Humans do not possess a physiological requirement for meat to achieve optimal health
  • Consuming meat compromises the environment due to harmful factory farming methods
  • Consuming meat is inhumane to animals housed in factory-farming environments
  • Consuming animal foods is either morally questionable or contrary to some religious beliefs
  • That an animal-based foods diet is “too acidic” for our bodies

I won’t address all bullet items above. Instead, I will emphasize the deficiencies of an exclusively plant-based diet. Later in this article, I will explain why we would want to consume animal foods in our diet , which includes eating plant foods using traditional preparation methods to maximize digestibility and nutritional benefits of those foods.

As another example of a widely recognized source for dietary guidelines which recommend consuming more plant and less animal foods, USDA My Plate provides these suggestions:

  • Plan some meals around a vegetable main dish, such as a vegetable stir-fry or soup. Then add other foods to compliment it.
  • Try a main dish salad for lunch. Go light on the salad dressing.
  • Include a green salad with your dinner every night.
  • Shred carrots or zucchini into meatloaf, casseroles, quick breads, and muffins.
  • Include chopped vegetables in pasta sauce or lasagna.
  • Order a veggie pizza with toppings like mushrooms, green peppers, and onions, and ask for extra veggies.

Some notes regarding My Plate recommendations:

Conventionally-sourced plant foods

My Plate as well as other proponents of plant-based diets do not acknowledge the sourcing or production methods of vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, or other foods. There are clear differences in conventionally-grown plant foods, and those produced by organic and sustainable methods.

Pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers

Most plants and other foods such as grains and nuts are sourced from conventional growing facilities which likely use herbicides and pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. Use of these chemicals has been linked to higher incidence of chronic health issues. Pesticide application has been linked to an increase in various forms of cancer including breast, and prostate as well as leukemia and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, reproductive harm, an increase in autism spectrum disorders, and is particularly dangerous for children who are more vulnerable to health risks due to their smaller body size and faster metabolisms.

One study shows a possible increase in prostate cancer among farmers, while another from the University of California, Davis found that infants whose families reside within a mile of crops treated with widely used pesticides were more likely to develop autism.

The use of chemical fertilizers is also problematic as the addition of synthetic nutrients creates an imbalance in the soil and contributes to health issues including thyroid problems and cancer.

Herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup have been linked to various health problems including Alzheimer’s disease, birth defects, cancer, obesity, Celiac disease and gluten intolerance, depression, and diabetes. For more information, visit Ecowatch.

For more information on the risks of pesticides, visit Toxics Action and Beyond Pesticides.

Mono crops

Growing environments for many plants and grains produce crops using mono-crop methods. The practice of mono cropping reduces nutrient values of food. According to Sustainable Table, “Monocropping refers to the practice of growing only one type of agricultural product in a large area of land, year after year. In industrial crop production, monocropping is used to facilitate planting and harvesting across large pieces of land (as well as the application of pesticides and fertilizers), often using specialized farm equipment.” Corn, soybeans, and wheat are examples of 3 common crops that are grown using mono crop techniques.

For more information on how mono cropping can affect nutrient levels in soil, refer to this study and this article from Natural Resources Management and Environment Department on practices that influence the amount of organic matter present in soil. Mono crop farming lowers bacterial diversity and nutrient levels that are critical to the health of crops.

Genetically-modified plant foods

Another concern not addressed in conventional recommendations is the consumption of genetically-modified plant foods. Some of the most widely produced plant foods such as the canola plant, corn, soy, cottonseed, are grown with genetically modified seeds and sprayed with herbicide or contain built-in pesticides (corn) which have been cited as a culprit for various chronic health issues. Conventional wheat which has currently not been approved yet for genetic modification is usually sprayed with herbicides. Research reveals the active ingredient in Roundup, Glyphosate, disrupts soil as well as gut bacteria, and also contributes to various chronic health issues. In 2015, The World Health Organization published research in the respected medical journal, The Lancet that shows the use of Roundup is probably carcinogenic.

For more information on how these chemicals alter soil and gut bacteria, see this study from Dr. Stephanie Seneff, MIT scientist and researcher.

What about saturated fat?

In more than several instances, My Plate guidelines recommend consuming vegetables since they contain fewer calories and fat, which is reiterated as a way to achieve optimal health. One recommendation advises to “go light on the salad dressing”.

Salad dressing typically contains some type of fat. However, not all fats are created equal. Many salad dressings contain modern fats such as canola, soybean, and cottonseed. All of these have been recommended in favor of animal fats since the 1980s via the USDA dietary guidelines.

These fats are not traditional, and are produced using industrial farming methods. Not only are they produced in ways that render them indigestible to the human body, but these fats are also usually sourced from genetically-modified crops.  The Institute for Responsible Technology explains how these products are produced by introducing “foreign genes forced into the DNA of the plants they come from. The inserted genes come from species such as bacteria and viruses, which have never been in the human food supply.” Consumption of these foods has been linked to reproductive issues, liver disease, increase in allergies, cancer, and death. For more information on how industrial fats have taken precedent over animal fats, see The Oiling of America.

Real fats used in salad dressings such as olive and coconut oil, although not primary sources of saturated fat from animal foods are real, traditional fats that are optimal for health.

What are the health benefits of saturated fat for optimal health?

  • Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K2
  • B vitamins
  • Minerals including calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, and manganese
  • Choline
  • Folate
  • Omega 3s
  • Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)

Coconut oil is a nourishing, non-animal based traditional fat which contains Vitamin E, K and iron.

Examples of traditional animal foods include meats, eggs, organs and full-fat dairy products. It is of critical importance to select foods from animals that consume a natural diet, such as meat from grassfed cows. These animals are typically not administered antibiotics, hormones, or consume feed treated with herbicides, pesticides or other harmful chemicals, or consume genetically-modified feed such as grains, corn, or alfalfa. Grassfed meat, pastured eggs and dairy from pasture-raised animals contain more of the nutrients listed above than their industrially-raised counterparts.

Although typically grassfed and pasture raised animal foods are produced without chemicals, antibiotics, genetically-modified feed, it is advisable to always know how your food is produced. Ask questions of the farmer from where you purchase your food.

Here are a few studies showing the importance to human health of nutrients found in foods from animals raised on pasture:

Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts: potential impact on human health. EN Ponnampalam, et al

Effect of pasture vs. concentrate feeding with or without antioxidants on carcass characteristics, fatty acid composition, and quality of Uruguayan beef, C.E. Realini, et al.

A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef, Cynthia A Daley, et al.

Among helpful attributes of cholesterol and fat including digestive and immune support, anti-cancer development, brain, mood and neurological support, cell and hormone production. Saturated fat found in animal foods and other fats such as coconut oil has been observed to not only increase levels of HDL (beneficial cholesterol) in the body, but also aids in conversion of the LDL (unfavorable cholesterol) into beneficial cholesterol.

Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat, and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet and Dr. Mary G. Enig, PhD, co-author of Eat Fat Lose Fat, and scientist and lipid researcher have written about the necessity of saturated fats for health.

Consuming animal foods does not increase the risk of heart disease and increased cholesterol

In recent years, a number of scientific studies showing an inverse correlation between heart disease and consumption of saturated fat have become more visible. These studies are not new, but have been largely ignored and censured by mainstream dietary and health authorities. For decades, these sources have incorrectly claimed that saturated fat and cholesterol are harmful to human health.

The questionable role of saturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids in cardiovascular disease, U. Ravnskov.

A systematic review of the evidence supporting a causal link between dietary factors and coronary heart disease, Mente A, et al.

Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease, Patty W Siri-Tarino, et al.

Remember the question I started with? Here it is again:

“I’m listening to Natasha Campbell-McBride on the Cancer Summit. She says we are to eat animals-meat, fish, eggs, dairy, which are foods that FEED us and build the body. She says plants are indigestible in the stomach, do not feed us, but CLEANSE us. This is the first I am hearing this said in this particular way. I have not read her GAPS book yet. What about phytonutrients, ORAC, bioflavonoids, etc. that supposedly keep us healthy?! How can she throw all that out the window? Can you explain? This summit is available until 10 a.m. tomorrow.”

Answer:

I did not have an opportunity to hear the cancer interview mentioned by the commenter, but have read Gut and Psychology Syndrome and have taught workshops on preparing healing foods for the GAPS protocol. Here is my response:

McBride does not advise against eating plants, but discusses ideal ways to prepare for maximum nutrient intake. Plants, grains, legumes, nuts, corn, and soy all contain phytic acid.  As two examples of traditional preparation, fermentation and and acid-soaking before cooking both neutralize phytic acid. Consuming phytates can cause mineral loss in the body that can leach minerals from our bones.

In modern industrial societies, populations have consumed these foods in not only larger quantities than our ancestors, but also in the ways of convenience rather than traditional preparation. In other words, we consume these foods in their processed forms rather than how our ancestors would have done. These practices contribute to digestive compromise and chronic disease of many types.

Dr. McBride recommends juicing only for short term detox. Other considerations may include those with oxalate-sensitivities or those with thyroid issues. In those cases, a person would avoid chocolate, seeds, nuts, spinach, beets, chard, okra, parsley, leeks, blackberries strawberries, celery, collards, and purple fruits such as plums and grapes, and also figs. Thyroid challenges would call for avoiding cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, cabbages, mustard plants, and Brussels sprouts. McBride advises preparing any plants a person may be having sensitivities to after healing by slow-cooking and using low-heat temperatures, served with animal fats such as butter, ghee, lard, tallow or schmaltz (chicken fat), and/or fermented.

In another interview, Dr. McBride confirms from her clinical experience that fats are essential for the healing process. The molecular structure of fats is so similar to our own and easy to absorb, especially considering the nutrient-dense quality of fats. She recommends that some patients who experience severe intestinal tract damage can eat a diet of 90% fat. The more fat they eat, the more quickly they heal. Hear this interview with Dr. Mercola for more details.

Other authors such as Ramiel Nagel have also discussed how even fermentation and souring in grains, nuts, and other foods does not sufficiently reduce phytic acid levels to justify consuming them. This would be especially true of anyone with compromised digestive systems and chronic disease, which is becoming more visible in industrial populations due to poor dietary habits and lifestyles.

For more information on this topic, I recommend reading Ramiel Nagel’s book Cure Tooth Decay .

To recap, plant-based diets lack supportive properties necessary for human health due to the following:

  • Plant-based diets typically include large amounts of grains (refined and unrefined) and legumes, both of which are lacking in bio-available nutrients and high in anti-nutrients such as phytates which can inhibit the absorption of minerals and other nutrients.
  • These diets advise against consumption of meat, organ meats, and seafood which are counted among the most nutrient-dense foods available and have been consumed by our ancestors for thousands and thousands of years.
  • Unless organic or sustainable-produced, plants usually come from sources that are treated with with pesticides, herbicides, use chemical fertilizers and mono-crop farming techniques which reduce nutrients in the soil, and from genetically-modified seeds.

Recommendations to consume animal fats as a way to support health are supported by practitioners such as Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride and other respected experts including Dr. Thomas Cowan, M.D., author of The Fourfold Path to Healing, Nora Gedgaudas, NC and author of Primal Body, Primal Mind, Louisa L. Williams, MS, DC, ND, author of Radical Medicine, and The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith.

Consuming plant foods that are produced organically and without pesticides, herbicides, are not genetically-modified, and are prepared traditionally either served with traditional fats raw or cooked, or fermented is recommended.

The bottom line:  recommendations to seek out phytonutrients, antioxidants, ORAC, bioflavinoids, and other properties found in plants for optimal for health have not taken into consideration the methods by which these foods have been historically grown or raised, prepared and consumed. Consuming raw plants and other foods without traditional preparation can actually cause harm to consume due to phytic acid, food sensitivities and digestive compromise. Foods from animals raised on pasture are naturally produced and contain nutrients needed to support optimal health.

I highly recommend Gut and Psychology Syndrome  by Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride, even if you do not follow the GAPS diet. Her research into how the digestive tract functions, what can go awry under conditions of less-than optimal lifestyle and diet, as well as the healing protocol she developed, is eye-opening. Although many, many people have seen great benefit and healing from this diet, it is not a cure-all for everyone. I also encourage you to hear her interviews.  Here is a recent interview with Dr. McBride and Acres USA.

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17 Comments

  1. Megan Stevens

    Great post, Raine. Thank you! We own a Paleo and gut-healing cafe and many of our customers are former vegan folks whose doctors have told them they need bone broth, fat and meat to heal. They come in reluctantly, but willing out of necessity. One woman has permanent spinal damage. Lack of iron and B vitamins are often big issues with long-term vegan diets. For my own gut-healing, animal fat was the gentlest food, what I craved, and what I needed to progress. Although I love salads, I had to take a long break from raw veggies to get well. Even now I am careful. Cooked veggies are gentler. Of course living enzymes are great, but in context, seeing the big picture of one’s personal health.

    Reply
    1. Raine Saunders (Post author)

      Thanks for sharing your experience with your customers, Megan. There are indeed a lot of chronically ill folks who are in need of healing, and many of them come to this method of real healing after many, many years of illness.

      I too had to take a break on salads while on GAPS. For about 8 months I backed off and then tried again every so often until I was finally able to digest raw greens and other vegetables again. I do agree that cooked veggies are easier to digest and I make them quite often in my own kitchen!

      Reply
  2. linda spiker

    Love this post. Lot’s of great information here. Fats are so important and often overlooked (if not demonized) and while I am a big fan of veggies I realize for many they are a problem for digestion. Pinning 🙂

    Reply
    1. Raine Saunders (Post author)

      Hi Linda – thanks for stopping by! Fats are so instrumental in healing. I hear this from so many people, I am encouraged! I also love vegetables, but find that as with many ways of health, the information becomes skewed by the conventions of our society in what’s going to make us well and what won’t. Thanks for your pin! 🙂

      Reply
  3. Emily @ Recipes to Nourish

    Thank you so much for writing this! I hope this information spreads far and wide. I love your points on conventionally sourced plant foods. I’m so glad this is being talked about. On saturated fats, “These fats are not traditional, and are produced using industrial farming methods.” Yes! Traditional saturated fats are so important for our bodies, especially little developing ones. I wish more people understood this. I wish I could go back and change my past diet, I had no idea that my vegetarian turned vegan diet over over 17 years was doing so much damage to my health and to my first child’s health too. I am so grateful I learned more when she was 3 so I could start feeding her better. I thought I was feeding her well, very nutritious, homemade, etc. but it wasn’t until I heard her holistic Dr. say, she’s not thriving on this diet that I woke up. Changed my whole life that day. My second baby was raised on traditional foods diet and I can really see the difference.

    Reply
    1. Raine Saunders (Post author)

      Hi Emily – thank you for sharing your experience here. Yes, children so need traditional fats. The lack of those nutrients is one of the main reasons we are seeing so many children with chronic health issues from ADD to autism to food sensitivities to all types of digestive issues, and cancer. Your children are so lucky to have a mama that is mindful and does the research, and most of all, pays attention to what your and your children’s bodies are saying! So important! xo

      Reply
  4. Cathy R. Payne

    What a great article, Raine! You took a lot of good information and synthesized it in an easy to understand and “digest” way. I’m a long time believer in nutrient dense, animal based foods that include vitamins A & D and nutrients such as healthy saturated fats. My husband had a heart attack in 2008 but is healthy today after ditching wheat, soy, corn, most milk products, processed foods, many nightshades, and sugar. Gone are IBS, migraines, joint pains, and obesity. Our daily fare now includes heavy cream, butter, pastured eggs, organic vegetables, and grass fed meat. I now grow our own eggs, pork, lard, heirloom vegetables, and lamb. I know what works for us in our 60s. I was so much sicker in college when I was a depressed vegetarian with severe backaches, low energy, flatulence, and constipation. I could not go back to that.

    Reply
    1. Raine Saunders (Post author)

      Hi Cathy – thanks for sharing your experience here as an individual and as a farmer. What you have done is remarkable in your journey to finding better health for yourself, your family, and creating your farm to share the remarkable experience of real food with others who want to learn. I am grateful for you and all you have done. Many thanks! xo

      Reply
  5. Carol@StudioBotanica

    Great article, Raine! I am always learning and will read this well-researched post, a few times, and check out some of your book references as well.
    I have come to recognize that for myself, personally, and re herbal clients, that the best quality traditional whole foods, mindfully prepared, nourish and support us, the best.
    I believe that greens are a delightful addition to life, and in good combinations, they can be life-enhancing. In the interest of “balance”, does this idea fit into your diet?
    Will purchase Dr Campbell’s book, finally (on the list) and learn more. Thanks for this insightful article.

    Reply
    1. Raine Saunders (Post author)

      Hi Carol – thanks for your comments! Yes the the continuation of learning, every second, every day! 🙂 I hope this article is of use to you and those with whom you share.

      Yes, greens are definitely on my list of things to eat, I typically eat them with fats, wilted (cooked) or fermented. If I do eat them raw, I avoid cruciferous veggies and some of the leafies like chard and mustard greens (as mentioned in the article). Those I would typically only eat fermented or cooked. But I adore them and find them to be a wonderful addition to a traditional, real foods diet. I hope I made the distinction in this article clear that I don’t advocate for removal of vegetables, but merely that an exclusively plant-based diet does not support health. Animal foods are so important, and we can have optimal health with animal and plant foods when careful attention is given to preparing them as our ancestors would have done. 🙂

      Reply
  6. Rebecca

    Thanks for the balancing information. I have been looking at nutritionfacts.org a lot. He is a medical doctor and posts a lot of videos showing scientific studies in support of whole foods plant based diet. I also have read “The
    Blue Zones” book and the author makes a case for healthy long-lived cultures that eat some animal products, but a lot of plant foods. It’s a bit confusing, to tell the truth, but I do have some gut healing to do, so I eat meat , broth and grass-fed butter and coconut oil.

    Reply
    1. Raine Saunders (Post author)

      Hi Rebecca – I have been very encouraged by the improvements I’ve seen in my own diet by adding in more animal foods from pastured sources, as well as fermented and well-cooked vegetables. I first started learning about this when I read the research of Dr. Weston A. Price who studied the diets of traditional people all over the world which was based on his travels that spanned a decade of time. He expected to learn that vegetarian diets were what healthy individuals were consuming, but was actually surprised to discover that the most vibrant and robust cultures that were healthy and free from disease of all types, both physical and mental, were in fact those that were not consuming any processed foods and were consuming some type of animal fat that was a prominent feature of the diet. Those cultures also consumed various other foods including properly prepared grains through soaking and sprouting, long-fermentation or souring, cultured foods including raw dairy foods, cured meats, and fermented vegetables, and other foods that were native to the areas where these cultures originated.

      I haven’t read The Blue Zone or much on nutrition facts, but tend to be skeptical any dietary advice which departs from real food diets based in traditional historical growing, producing and preparation methods.

      Reply
  7. Renee Kohley

    I am finally getting a chance to sit down and read this and I am so glad I did! What a great resource! It is so important to understand the inherent need for balance here and listening to what our bodies need. Thank you so much for this comprehensive answer to this important question!

    Reply
    1. Raine Saunders (Post author)

      Hi Renee – thanks for your comments. I’m glad you have found this to be a helpful resource. I really wanted to convey the importance of balance in diet, why animal foods from pastured sources are such an important source of critical nutrients, and the ways to prepare and consume plant foods that are most beneficial for optimal health. I appreciate you taking the time to read and provide feedback! 🙂

      Reply
  8. Mandy Lee

    There is so much in here! The source of food is so critical and as each person has a little different protocol based on ailment and genome, this article is very clear in the value of all food properly prepared. I will be using this as a reference page.

    Reply
    1. Raine Saunders (Post author)

      Hi Mandy – thanks for your comments. I am so glad you have found this article helpful for a reference to help others. That makes me very happy! And, many thanks for all you do. 😃

      Reply
  9. Lorinda

    After 6 years of doctors trying to regulate my autoimmune and Hashimoto’s thyroid with “gluten free, raw juicing, vegan” diet, I feel like a run over squirrel…90 years old and feeble minded. I HATE vegetables! Used to love pasta, French bread and grains, plus a good steak and potato once a week. We NEED fat! Our brain needs fat. Years ago, breakfast consisted of a raw egg, raw milk, lecithin granules, raw liver powder, a square of live yeast, and frozen orange juice. Tasted like an orange Julius, made me feel like Wonder Woman. Now, all of that is verboten. With the information highway, it’s so difficult to determine which is the “right” way. Doctors sure don’t know. Experts go back and forth like a squirrel in the road. I’m going out for steak and potato. Grass-fed or chemical laden, it’s what I WANT!

    Reply

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