Plant-Based Nutrition — Is this approach trendy or timeless?

March 2012 View more


March is National Nutrition Month, an opportunity for us all to take a closer look at our nutrition to see how we measure up. However, with all the advertisements claiming one diet works better than another, and “eat this, not that,” America is confused about nutrition as in evident in numbers from the Center for Disease Control. Almost 34 percent of American adults, and 17 percent of children are obese—clearly, something is amiss.

The very first USDA food guide was created by Wilbur Olin Atwater, PhD, an agricultural chemist, in 1902. Mr. Atwater published a USDA Farmer’s Bulletin, which emphasized the significance of variety, portions, and moderation in healthful eating. Atwater stressed the importance of a diet that included more proteins, beans, and vegetables, and to limit the intake of fat, sugar, and other starchy carbohydrates—a man ahead of his time.

When The Food Guide Pyramid made its debut in 1992, it became a slippery slope for two reasons: First, the pyramids confused people; second, there was talk of heavy influence by the agricultural departments on what types of foods to promote. This confused and biased information left people seeking advice elsewhere, typically from magazines and television.

So where has that left us as a country, nutritionally speaking? Completely lost. In my 25 years of nutrition research, following all the fads and “diet miracles,” nothing has really stood out as a solid nutritional plan with staying power, until recently. Exciting buzz about plant-based nutrition is permeating the mainstream, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

Plant-based nutrition means eating more nutrient-rich foods, and nutrient-rich diets, which are plant-based. Thanks to stores like Whole Foods Market with their Health Starts Here program (see box above), and books like Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, The China Study by Dr. T Colin Campbell, and documentaries like “Forks over Knives” and “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” nutrition research is shared in an easy-to-understand and entertaining way.

Stephanie McCubbin, a registered dietitian and healthy eating specialist at Whole Foods in Naperville, says, “I think one of the reasons why plant-based nutrition is becoming more well known is that people are ready for a change. Even with the millions of dollars donated to research, this country has never been sicker, and we are still dying prematurely at alarming rates. People can, in fact, take their health into their own hands, and plant-based nutrition is the way to do that.”

McCubbin believes that the benefits of eating plant-based are endless. “Nutrition that can prevent or reverse a chronic disease should support a healthy life across the board, and plant-based nutrition does just that. If you look at cultures that traditionally eat a whole-food, plant-based diet, they do not have the problems with chronic diseases (heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, kidney stones, MS, and so on) like we have here.”

So is plant-based nutrition just another trend? McCubbin doesn’t think so. “It is based on years of scientific research, so I think it is here for the long haul. Most diets focus on what we should eliminate, and those diets don’t last very long. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes can heal us. This type of eating not only addresses weight loss, but more importantly, heals the body from the inside out.”

For a good starting point, McCubbin encourages us to eat more dark leafy greens: Kale, collards, spinach, Swiss chard, arugula, etc. These greens should be eaten every meal, every day. She believes that cooking more at home makes it easier to control the amount of sugar, fat, and salt you’re consuming.

“Switch from processed, refined grains to whole grains like brown rice, whole grain pasta, whole wheat bread, quinoa, millet, bulgur, etc. Pick a veggie and build your meal around that. If you eat meat, use it as a condiment or for flavoring, not for the focus.”

In a time when our country is less healthy and more overweight than ever, something needs to give. Why not try adjusting your diet to a more plant-based model? It may be just what you need to improve your diet and your health.

Health Starts Here

Whole Foods offers a 28-day nutrition challenge, focusing on whole, plant-based foods. The weekly class features a cooking demo, store tour, and healthy eating education. 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays, March 7 to April 4. Cost is $30 for new participants, $20 for repeat challengers. Sign up at Whole Foods, 2607 West 75th Street, or email