Making Whole Food, Plant-Based a Movement; Not a Cult

I am 100% whole food, plant-based 99% of the time, and I believe that for me and for many, many of my friends and acquaintances, it has literally been the best thing for us since sliced bread. Being WFPB, I have lost 150 pounds and have kept that weight loss off for two years since leveling out at my current weight. I have gotten off of all prescription medications that I was taking and thought I would be taking for the rest of my life. I've totally gotten rid of a number of ailments I was having before going whole food, plant-based almost five years ago now. Clearly, for me, this has been the way to go for not only my health but also my overall happiness and well being.

I believe that most others can benefit by moving toward a whole food, plant-based way of eating as well. I know a lot of people who have been inspired by my success, and they have made the switch. And they are happy they did. They too have seen remarkable successes relative to their own situations in life.

Of course, there's nothing controversial about eating more fruits and vegetables. Every dietitian in the world, every nutritional expert in the world, every food scientist in the world will say that it is beneficial to eat more fruits and vegetables. The public recognizes it too. A few weeks ago, I was checking out at the grocery store with my load of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the man behind me, with his basket of doughnuts and sugary cereal and one steak, remarked, "You sure eat healthy." Get it? He knew! Even though he was eating what we would not consider to even be food, he knew that all the whole plant-based foods I was buying were healthier than what he was buying. And yet what I was buying was not what he was buying. And I could have stood there and preached to him, and it would have done absolutely no good. He already knew that it was healthier to be eating fruits and veggies. He just didn't want to eat what I was eating.

So, if people know this and it's already out there in the public as generally accepted wisdom to eat more plant-based foods, why is it that what we do seems to become so controversial with people? And what can we do to remove that controversy? I ask that question because I believe no big changes will come in the general population until we make the effort to listen to and understand what the objections are to our way of eating. Now, some of my readers may say they don't care if the general public accepts our way of eating or not. But I do care. I care because the more we get into the mainstream, the more stores there will be that sell real foods; the more restaurants there will be that offer whole plant-based foods on their menus; and the more opportunities I'll have to socialize with friends over food. Plus, very few of us like being out there on the fringes of society (especially when society actually agrees with much of what we do).

I've heard many people who are not whole food, plant-based call us a cult. I'm particularly sensitive to that because I was once in a cult. Back in the 80s, my wife and I joined a Catholic charismatic community in the Washington, DC area. Catholic charismatic communities in and of themselves are a force for good in the community and the church itself. This one that we belonged to started out as such, but it became very cultish, so much so that Cardinal Hickey, then the archbishop of the Washington, DC diocese split it up and disbanded much of it saying that it had gotten away from Catholic teaching. And the Washington Post did a scathing six part series on the community as a cult making the whole thing look bad.

As a Catholic, that was unfortunate because the basic underlying messages of that community were in fact good, Catholic teachings. But it was a cult, and I had actually come to recognize that it was a cult years before Cardinal Hickey stepped in. In fact I left the community two years before he stepped in. But I can still remember the cultish like behavior that existed and that drove me away (and eventually resulted in Cardinal Hickey stepping in). One of those characteristics was we had our own set of priests and we listened to only them. Out of the thousands and thousands of priests in the Catholic Church, we narrowed it down to about ten or twenty priests who were worth our time to listen to. The rest, in our opinion, didn't know what they were talking about. Another characteristic was we believed our approach was the only right approach to salvation. Others didn't pray enough. Others didn't read the Bible enough. Others didn't try to follow Jesus enough. Others didn't die to self as we believed we did.

Does all this sound familiar? When we talk about "our doctors" and will only consider what "our doctors" tell us as truth. Is that not like that community that had its own priests that it would only listen to? When we reject any other way of eating as being unhealthy. When we close ourselves off to any other way of eating as being acceptable for someone. Is that not like the cult that believed its way was the only way to salvation? In other words, do we perhaps come across as showing cultish behavior at times? I hear people who tell me that we do come across as a cult, and seeing the similarities to my previous involvement in a cult, I understand that criticism.

Let me suggest something. As much as I believe that eating whole food, plant-based is healthy and can prevent and reverse severe chronic diseases in most cases (there is no 100% certainty), it's also true that I can't prove that (nor can anyone else right now). There has never been a population of people in the world and throughout history who have eaten the way we eat over an eighty plus year lifespan. That is significant because it means that we don't have any populations that we can study to determine the true benefits and effects of the whole food, plant-based way of eating.

Not even the Blue Zones have eaten this way. On average, within the Blue Zones, people ate meat five times a month (or a little over once a week). In at least three of the Blue Zones, people used olive oil in their cooking. Perhaps the ones who come closest to our way of eating would be the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, CA, and it's encouraging that of all the Blue Zones, they are the ones who live the longest and stay healthiest the longest. But there are caveats. Or should I say confounders? Seventh Day Adventists not only don't smoke, but they've never smoked. That leaves me out (and many others in my age group) since I once smoked as many as three packs of cigarettes a day. That's damage that has already been done that doesn't show up in the Seventh Day Adventist population. Seventh Day Adventists also abstain from alcohol (that's strike two against me). They prioritize physical activity, sunshine and lots of fresh air, family life and health education. Those are all factors, in addition to the diet, that could be affecting their longevity and health. Some Seventh Day Adventists eat meat and some don't. From what I've read, that doesn't seem to make a difference in terms of health or longevity in the Seventh Day Adventist population.

Within more mainstream dietary patterns, dietitians usually recommend the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet as a healthier way to eat than the standard American diet. And they are healthier ways to eat. We tend to regard them as inferior to our way of eating because neither diet has ever shown itself to reverse chronic diseases. However, these diets do mitigate chronic diseases and at the moment, they are where people are willing to go. I think a lot of people have false hope in the medical industry and are shocked when the day comes that the medical industry can't come through for them. I know I was shocked by the inability of the medical industry to seriously do anything for my wife when she was dying of cancer.

And we're always hoping for more from the medical industry. Today, immunotherapy is starting to take the place of chemotherapy. But immunotherapy has its problems too. Latest research shows that immunotherapy may be causing the body to attack its good organs as well as attacking cancers. In other words, having immunotherapy may lead to later autoimmune diseases, a serious side effect in itself.

The best answer is still to stay out of the hospital. And I believe that by eating a whole food, plant-based diet, along with getting plenty of exercise, sleep, social interaction and stress-reduction is a good way to do that. It may be the best way to do it, but I can't prove that right now. And I can't guarantee 100% that it will keep me healthy and out of the hospital. But it's what I can control.

Getting back to my point about cultish behavior, however; our WFPB way of eating turns people away when we act, out of some kind of certain knowledge that is actually much less certain than we realize, as if it is the only acceptable dietary pattern for somebody. We are still learning about this way of eating. And I find it significant that there are no scientific studies being done, or that have been done, to compare people eating whole food, plant-based with other ways of eating. Even in all the studies cited by Dr. Greger on his NutritionFacts website, not one of them that I'm aware of, studied people on a strictly whole food, plant-based way of eating.

And that's something that should definitely change. I've mentioned this before. Why aren't organizations like PCRM and NutritionFacts and other WFPB doctors organizing to do some scientific studies of the WFPB way of eating? These studies need to be done. And the food industry isn't going to be interested in doing those studies. But plant-based organizations, interested in the science behind our way of eating, should get interested in doing some studies like that.

One of the questions I have is how important giving up meat is in the WFPB way of eating. Some people see that as the main element, but in reality, it may not be. It might be the movement toward more fruits and vegetables that might be where the real health gains are. Or it might be the move away from processed foods. I think it would be good to know because I see a lot of times people looking at WFPB as being about giving up meat and they don't necessarily increase their fruit and vegetable consumption nor do they decrease their processed food consumption. And in reality, I think doing those two things are more important than giving up meat (from a health perspective).

Why do I say that they may be more important? Partly because to some degree, all diets work to improve a person's health. So, I ask myself what's common among all diets and giving up meat is not common. But what is common is increasing fruit and vegetable consumption and decreasing processed food consumption. That's true even when we go to the opposite extreme of the WFPB diet and look at diets like Atkins and the Paleo diets. People swear by those diets too. So, if they swear by those diets, then they must believe those diets are working. And I suspect they believe they're working because like us, they are giving up processed foods and they are getting their carbs primarily from vegetables. On Atkins, for example, most vegetables, along with meat, can be eaten in unlimited quantities. But processed foods are out, just as processed foods are out and vegetables are in on our diet.

We can be certain that eating whole food, plant-based has been healthy for us and is right for us. We can be certain that it offers a healthy alternative for people. But we can't be certain that it's the only way. None of us have reached Blue Zone status yet, and as I said, the Blue Zones were not whole food, plant-based (close maybe, but not there). And we can't always be certain of outcomes. I have a friend from back when I lived in Washington State who was Type II diabetic and he went on Atkins and was able to get off of his insulin requirements. That goes against what Dr. Barnard says about dietary fat being the cause of Type II diabetes (Atkins is a very high fat diet). I think that rather than trying to definitively say why our WFPB way seems to work, it's better to just say that we know that it has worked. But we get into trouble when we give a reason for it that can be easily contradicted by somebody who has knowledge that contradicts that reason.

That's the difference between being a cult and becoming a movement. We need to look at our way of eating as a dietary pattern that has worked for us and we believe can work for others. But we also should be open to listening to others and understanding others because if nothing else, it will help us to understand what is right and not right about our own way of eating too. The world of nutrition is complicated. But if we just learn to do what Michael Pollan says and "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants" then we'll be fine. And eating a whole food, plant-based diet is an excellent way to do that. Combine that with exercise, adequate sleep, physical activity, family and social relationships and reduction of stresses in our lives and we'll be living much healthier than the population at large.

J Lanning Smith
January 6, 2018