The Vegetarian Diet Style
We currently live in a world that has become more interconnected than ever before in the history of man. This globalization includes economic, environmental, cultural and political dynamics and concerns that are complex and far-reaching, to say the least. At Bonfire we recognize the legitimacy of these realities and how they relate to the production of animal protein sources. The industrial meat production industry is fraught with a wide range of ‘collateral damage’ issues surrounding the methods used in the mass raising and slaughter of animals and those that affect the quality of commonly consumed animal proteins, as well as significant associated environmental problems.
There is also the purely humanitarian perspective of killing and eating animals that many people are sincerely and legitimately opposed to. Respecting and recognizing that charged environment and perspective, at Bonfire we have adopted a purely evidence-based perspective which considers the optimal physiological or biological function as the compass for strategic health recommendations.
Historically, man has always been and is genetically programmed to ingest, digest, metabolize and thrive on pure-sourced animal protein. Science has determined the historical and physiologic need for animal protein intake for optimal health. At Bonfire, we advocate a plant-driven nutritional profile that falls within the Paleolithic diet style; meaning a diet style consistent with our genetic ancestry which has remained unchanged since the late Paleolithic era 50,000 to 100,000 years ago.
This is a diet style that emphasizes high percentage of plant food consumption (vegetables, nuts, seeds, some fruit, a little starch and no sugar, grains, or dairy), in conjunction with optimal intake of fish and free-range (grass-fed, pasture-fed), grain-free, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, uncured meats, and wild-caught cold-water fish. Furthermore, we advocate a diet style that has no grains or dairy food whatsoever, due to the fact that these foods are genetically or physiologically incompatible with modern man. We realize this may be in direct contrast with vegetarian philosophy and lifestyle strategies; therefore, we’ve incorporated comprehensive vegetarian menu alternatives to address the needs and concerns of our fellow Bonfire members who choose vegetarianism as their diet style.
Health Concerns for Vegetarians
Like many people in our culture today, vegetarians have a misconception surrounding fat. Fat is one of three macro nutrients that should be on every plate at every meal (see Fat is good). This unfortunate and tragic misconception surrounding fat in general and animal (saturated) fat in particular was started in the 1950’s and later re-emphasized in the 1990’s when our culture was incorrectly taught that eating fat makes us fat and causes cardiovascular disease. This started the low-fat, non-fat, no-fat trend that persists today, albeit it’s now finally starting to breakdown under the realization of how dangerous a low-fat diet style has proven to be (evidenced by the increased rates of obesity, diabetes, etc.). Not coincidentally, obesity skyrocketed 61% between 1991 and 2006 when people shifted to getting their calories from low-fat foods such as pasta, cereals, and other grains (which also happen to be nutrient poor).
Sadly, many vegetarians, in an effort to get caloric sustenance, end up displacing their body’s need to for nutrient-dense foods by eating nutrient-poor grains and cereal foods. This sets up insulin dysregulation and the consequences of that hormone derangement (i.e. weight gain/obesity, diabetes, chronic inflammation, elevated triglycerides, blood lipids, hypertension, etc.).
This low-fat, non-fat trend is often exacerbated or amplified within a vegetarian lifestyle due to the lack of animal protein. As is outlined in The Truth About Saturated Fats, fat is part of every cell membrane in the body; fat is a foundational building block of all hormones in the body; to illustrate, the brain is 60% fat, the synapses within the brain are 80% fat.
It is generally accepted by anthropologists, physiologists, paleontologists, etc. that the current human genome was established approximately 50,000 years ago. This period is referred to as the late Paleolithic era when humans were ‘hunter-gatherers’ (think Stone Age). The reason this is important is that because our genome hasn’t changed since then and it was during this period when our genetic requirements for health within the domains of eating, moving and thinking were determined.
For example, as most of us have personally discovered and what science has confirmed, we are meant to move regularly throughout our day. Yet, due to our ‘sitting’ culture, we are sedentary for much of our day; as a result, we’ve had to develop efficient strategies to meet our genetic requirements for movement. Hence, we do yoga, ride mountain bikes, run, hike, swim, go to spin classes, etc. The concept of movement as a ‘nutrient’, actually an essential nutrient, has now emerged within the health and scientific community with great clarity. To illustrate, not only is exercise critical for brain development (a great book on this topic is Spark), it’s now known that all types of heart disease and cancer risk and survival rates are positively impacted by regular exercise; this includes skin cancer, which on the surface (no pun intended) wouldn’t make sense. However, when we look at cancer as an immune dysfunction syndrome (as well as a dietary toxicity/deficiency syndrome) and see how exercise enhances global physiology including immune function, it makes perfect sense. Similarly with regards to our diet or nutritional habits, again we can look to our genetic hunter-gatherer ancestors to learn what the requirements are for us to be optimally healthy. We know our Paleolithic genetic ancestors ate a plant-driven diet combined with lean, grass-fed/pasture fed animal proteins.
Another area of concern: vegetarians getting adequate protein and plant foods – I know that last part is ironic; but many vegetarians often get the majority of their calories from grains.
Perhaps the most profound or significant information to glean from this analysis is that the two main food groups that modern culture eats from and gets much of their caloric intake from today didn’t exist when our current genome was being formed. Those two food groups are grains and dairy, both being developed approximately 10,000 years ago when agriculture and animal husbandry came on the scene. This is HUGE. There are many respected doctors and scientists who advocate a grain and dairy-free diet. We personally and professionally know of many people who have taken this path, including how they raise/feed their children within a grain and dairy-free diet style, with amazing success. Milk of course, is a ‘hormone delivery system for baby cows’; when pasteurized and homogenized, it is a terrible food for the human body (baby cows will die before reaching maturity if fed their own mother’s breast milk that has been pasteurized and homogenized). Nearly all countries where dairy consumption is high so are all chronic disease rates, especially osteoporosis (the book The China Study covers this very well). A great resource on the deleterious effects of milk on human health: www.notmilk.com.
Now when you factor in someone who chooses to live a vegetarian diet style, it’s gets quite complicated. As mentioned above, I totally understand, support and respect the humanitarian, social and environmental precepts behind the personal choice to avoid animal foods.
Significant Challenges for Vegetarians
There are some significant challenges when choosing to be a vegetarian. The first, is getting adequate protein. Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s book THE CHINA STUDY, through the use of epidemiological studies, makes his case for modern man’s over consumption of animal protein. He presents a compelling recommendation for minimizing or eliminating meat consumption. Opposing this view and with equal credibility and certainty is Dr. Loren Cordain’s compelling book THE PALEO DIET (and his resource-rich website), and the constructs that support our genetic requirements for protein, particularly of animal origin; he qualifies this with the mandate for eating large amounts of vegetables and the avoidance of grains. The two authors/researches debate this topic at length (the debate can be downloaded here). At Bonfire, we have done quite a bit of research on this controversial topic in addition to evaluating our patients’, and our personal and family’s diet style choices, we have come to the confident conclusion that the ‘pre-agricultural’ diet style that Dr. Cordain’s research and recommendations incorporate produce the outcomes that define or determine health:
- Decreased disease rates/overall health, energy and vitality
- Healthy weight management, weight /loss
- Skin and hair health
- The stabilization of blood sugar/insulin, thus eliminating spikes and crashes
- Improved bio-markers: serum lipids, homocysteine, blood glucose, cholesterol, blood pressure, and important inflammatory immune markers such as C-reactive protein, etc..
Sadly, many vegetarians, in an effort to get caloric sustenance, end up displacing their body’s need to for nutrient-dense foods – such organic vegetables, nuts, seeds and quality protein sources – by eating non-nutrient-dense grains and cereal foods. This sets up a deadly metabolic situation in the body – insulin dysregulation – and the cascade of physiological consequences associated with that hormone derangement (i.e. weight gain/obesity, diabetes, chronic inflammation, elevated triglycerides, blood lipids, hypertension, etc.).
At the nexus of this discussion is the across-the-board agreement by all doctors, researchers, authors and the like for the body’s need for a high consumption of nutrient-dense organic vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. When grains are consumed, particularly wheat, the result is double-edged sword of high insulin levels and pro-inflammation, due to nature of gluten and its core component, gliadin. Actually, it’s a triple-edged sword: wheat also causes intestinal permeability, or ‘leaky gut syndrome’. A great book on this subject is WHEAT BELLY by cardiologist William Davis, MD. Furthermore, the preponderance of refined grain food products and its over consumption in our culture in general and often by vegetarians in particular seeking calories through pasta, breads, baked goods and the like, creates a dangerous digestive metabolic end-result called insulin resistance.
Insulin resistance is being shown to be a hallmark for longevity, and one of the root causes of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity (along with the deficiency of antioxidant-rich organic vegetables and exercise as the two other legs of that disease triad stool). Insulin sensitivity is further exacerbated by the additional over consumption of high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners found in many, many food products such as soda pop common to our culture (soda pop, believe it or not, makes up nearly 25% of caloric intake for many Americans, especially teens on their path to diabetes in their 20’s; diet sodas are worse in that artificial sweeteners are neurotoxins; additionally, they cause a disconnect within the blood glucose – insulin feedback loop between the brain and the body; that’s why you see so many obese people drinking diet sodas and getting more overweight).
Please understand that here at Bonfire we’re not judging or recommending anybody not be a vegetarian. What we are suggesting is that any person choosing a vegetarian diet style needs to be very vigilant and diligent in navigating their way through the nutritional minefield that vegetarianism presents (or any diet style, for that matter). There are some definite ‘laws’ if you will, to follow so that your body doesn’t experience insulin resistance issues and the deadly consequences concomitant to that.
The second challenge for a vegetarian is getting sufficient fats into their diet, particularly the omega-3 essential fats. Raw nuts, seeds, avocados, healthy oils (extra virgin olive and coconut oil in particular) provide valuable fats which are integral to many metabolic pathways in the body. Again, in our misinformed culture we eat so many snack foods such as chips and crackers made with poor quality oils sourced from processed vegetable oils (canola oil, soy oil, corn oil, safflower oil, etc.). This grain consumption combined with processed vegetable oil consumption has upset the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA). Research shows that we should eat a diet which has a ratio of 1:1 or 2:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3; current estimates are that modern society eats at ratio of 20:1 to 50:1 omega-6 to omega-3.
Most people have by now heard of ‘fish oil’ and omega-3 EFA and its health benefits. The deficiency within our culture as well as the benefits of omega-3 cannot be overstated. [Another great book is THE OMEGA-3 CONNECTION by Andrew Stoll, MD, director of Psychopharmacology Research at McLean Hospital (Boston) and a professor of Psychiatry at Harvard. This book outlines how psychotic, depressed, bipolar, schizophrenic, and psychopathic patients were given high doses of fish oil which resulted in the patients discontinuing all of their medications.]
Because our modern diet is grossly deficient in omega-3, we need to seek it out in the foods we eat (fish and pasture fed/grass fed animal meats like our Paleo ancestors – not grain fed meats which contain omega-6 fats), and through supplementation. For vegetarians who would be adverse to eating fish or taking fish oil, this would mean high consumption of flax seeds and flax oil, raw walnuts, and borage oil (unfortunately, the conversion rate for the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) in flax seed or flax oil to be converted to critical and essential omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids is low: 4% to 5% for DHA and EPA respectively).
So what’s the take away in all this? The concern for all vegetarians is that they may be falling victim to ‘high calorie malnutrition’ and are at risk for insulin sensitivity combined with a protein and fat deficiency.
Recommendations for all vegetarians:
- Drastically reduce or eliminate altogether your consumption of grain products. This would include bread, pasta, muffins, cereals, crackers, cookies, chips and the like. In the process you will also be avoiding displacing high nutrient calories, and avoiding the bad processed vegetable oils present in so many of these types of packaged/processed foods.
- Eliminate all high fructose corn syrup consumption from soda pop, prepared foods, processed foods, etc. (HFCS is in many, many foods). Stay away from diet sodas and artificial sweeteners at all costs. Water should be our predominant beverage – always.
- Eat large vegetable salads with your lunch and dinner; along with lots of vegetable side dishes. Avoid starches such as potatoes, and rice (ironically, white rice is preferred over brown rice due to brown rice containing ‘anti-nutrients’ – phytates – they can bind to minerals like zinc, magnesium and calcium, preventing them from being absorbed by the body.
- If you choose to eat eggs – they are an excellent source of many nutrients.
- At each meal, you should be able to look at your plate and easily identify plant, fat and protein. Eating a healthy breakfast every day is critical – smoothies are very strategic here in that they are quick, can be taken on the road, and can be made to be highly nutrient-dense with greens, frozen berries, coconut oil (and excellent plant source of saturated fat).
A personal note from Dr. Paul Kratka, one of the founders of Bonfire Health:
“I’ve attempted to be a vegetarian twice in my life – once when I was 20 years old and knew a little, and again when I was 40 when I thought I knew a lot. Both times I was choosing to pursue vegetarianism for what I mistakenly believed would be health benefits, and to attempt to remove myself from the environmental and moral issues connected with eating meat. The short version of my experience: I didn’t do well due to what I’ve now come to understand as insulin sensitivity issues due to eating grains, combined with protein and fat deficiencies; I came to the realization that I was forcing a ‘philosophical lifestyle choice upon a biological system that wasn’t designed for it’.
“What I’ve come to realize is that I couldn’t impose a philosophical belief system on a biological system that isn’t programmed for that belief system. After thirty years of professional study, clinical observation, teaching, and personal experience, I have now adopted a purely evidence-based perspective (and lifestyle behaviors for my life) which utilizes the optimal physiological or biological function as the navigational compass for my own personal health choices as well as the strategic health recommendations to others.
“In my professional opinion, the most successful vegetarians are ‘raw foodists’. By restricting their dietary intake to raw foods, number one, they do not eat grains unless sprouted which is nutritionally-speaking, light years away from whole or processed grains. And second, they eat lots of raw nuts and seeds which provide both protein and fat, both critical nutrients for satiety and sustained energy. And lastly, they consume the very important antioxidant-rich and nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits in large enough quantities to augment their protein needs (surprising to many people is how much protein there is in vegetables such as broccoli or kale). There are a number of great raw food ‘cookbooks’ presently on the market which are a perfect way to expand your food selections (see Carol Alt’s RAW 50). Studies now show that organic vegetables have considerably higher amounts of immune enhancing/cancer fighting minerals, trace elements, phytonutrients and antioxidants, as well as the lack of toxic pesticides and fertilizers.
“Clearly, this is a complex subject that has significant health consequences if not handled properly. I sincerely want the best for every person, including those who choose a lifestyle that differs from what I personally pursue and professionally advocate.” – PK