Core beliefs about a plant-based diet

NUTRISPEAK by Vesanto Melina


portrait of Vesanto Melina•  I recently took out – from our wonderful public library system – a set of CDs entitled This I Believe. They are based on a popular NPR (National Public Radio) series that invited people to write a 500-word essay on a core belief that guided their daily life and to then read their essay on the air. (See website at the end of the article). After listening to a selection and wondering, “What is a core belief for me?” I recognized that mine centres on a shift towards a plant-based diet.

Pythagoras and his community adopted a vegetarian diet 2,500-years-ago. He derived the idea from Asians, who had adopted these practices as part of their Hindu or Buddhist faith. In North America, in the early and mid 1800s, a gradual interest in diets of whole plant foods included a reaction against food adulteration: chalk and plaster in milk and flour and dirt, sand and leaves in coffee and spices. Subsequently, dietary reformer Sylvester Graham’s emphasis on whole grains led to the current graham cracker and John Harvey Kellogg inspired a popular line of cereals. By 1850, vegetarian associations had formed in England and North America and vegetarian restaurants became popular.

Scientific backing was gained in the mid 1950s when Harvard-based research clearly established that adults could get all their necessary protein and amino acids solely from plant foods. However, we were not certain about deriving every one of the essential nutrients until after the last remaining vitamin, B12, was isolated in 1949. The origin of B12 is neither animal nor plant, but bacterial. This vitamin is present in animal products, originating from bacteria that are present, but it is not in clean plant foods.

By 1987, questions about the suitability of plant-based diets were addressed when the maternal care records and birth outcomes of 775 vegans showed that the mothers’ vegan diets did not affect birth weight. In fact, health advantages were noted. In 1989, the growth of vegan children was assessed by the Centers for Disease Control and found to be within the normal range. The families involved ate a plant-based diet centred on vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans, peas, lentils, fortified soyfoods), grains, seeds, nuts and vitamin B12 supplements. From conception to old age, they were thriving.

The National Academy of Sciences, 2016, says that by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 27% if we followed global dietary guidelines – eat more fruits and vegetables; eat less meat, sugar and calories – ?and by ?70% if we ate a vegan diet. A global shift to a plant-based diet is strongly urged?. Forward-thinking China is already encouraging its citizens to eat 50 percent less meat – for environmental and health reasons.

Over the course of my life, I have been at most of the places along the spectrum, from meat eating to vegan, though for the last half, at the plant-based end. We can be healthy at many places on this spectrum. You, too, may have experienced a gradual shift towards a more plant-based diet for any number of very sound reasons.

To return to our original theme, what is a core belief of yours?

Vesanto Melina is a Vancouver dietitian and author. To read essays from the This I Believe series, see

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