The most significant thing you can do to improve your health, vitality, and energy levels, according to nutrition scientist Dr. T. Colin Campbell, is to change the way you eat. This doesn’t mean following the fad diet du jour, joining Overeaters Anonymous, or counting every calorie. It means, at least according to Campbell, simply eating more real foods, especially plants.
So, there you have it. Your mom was right when she told you to eat your vegetables. As Campbell explains in his provocative, thoroughly referenced, and fascinating best-seller “The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health,” first published in 2004, eating a whole-food, real-food, plant-based diet is not only protective against cancer, adult-onset diabetes, and heart disease, it can actually reverse these conditions.
Lessons From the Philippines
It was while Campbell was doing original research in the Philippines that he uncovered what he calls “a dark secret” in his book. That dark secret was that Filipino children on the highest protein diets seemed to have the worst health outcomes. “Children who at the highest-protein diets were the ones most likely to get liver cancer!” Campbell wrote.
After observing this paradox, Campbell, who has published more than 300 peer-reviewed scientific articles, found a provocative research report from India. A team of Indian scientists had studied two groups of rats, exposing each group to a cancer-causing mold that often contaminates peanuts and corn called aflatoxin. One group of exposed rats was fed a diet that contained 20 percent protein, which is similar to the amount of protein that most Westerners consume. The other group was fed a diet of only 5 percent protein.
The study results were both surprising and unexpected: Every single rat that ate the higher protein diet showed evidence of liver cancer. Conversely, every rat on the low protein diet avoided the cancer.
His own mentor was so skeptical that he told Campbell the Indian researchers must have made an egregious mistake by mislabeling the rats in each group, so Campbell and his graduate students replicated the research several times over in a series of experiments conducted in his own laboratory. He and his colleagues published their findings in the early 1980s in several peer-reviewed science journals, including Cancer Research, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, and Nutrition and Cancer, among others.
Campbell’s research at the time was controversial and remains so to this day. Critics—especially those who promote meat and dairy-based diets—insist that a diet high in fat and cholesterol is the healthiest. They accuse Campbell of simplifying the science and leaving out key information in the studies he highlights in the book.
Despite the controversy, there’s something empowering and exciting about the research Campbell details. It suggests that, even though we often can’t control our over-exposure to toxic chemicals or eliminate all of the carcinogenic substances we come in contact with throughout the day, we can win the fight against cancer just by improving our diet. In Campbell’s words: “Nutrition trump[s] carcinogens, even very potent carcinogens.”
And, although the debate about whether a plant-based diet is truly best is far from settled (a long and detailed article by Denise Minger, a self-described “recovered” vegan, insists that vegan diets are not healthy), experts and consumers do seem to agree that eating highly processed and highly refined packaged foods is the least healthy choice for humans.
So if you want to eat more fresh vegetables, colorful fruits, and whole foods, how do you do it?
Here are five ways to improve your bad eating habits and incorporate more whole plants into your diet. Some of these suggestions may seem a little wonky at first. Suspend disbelief and try them anyway.
If you do, you will be pleasantly surprised by the results. The more whole foods you eat, the fewer blood sugar spikes and dips you’ll experience throughout the day, the more energy you’ll have, and the trimmer your waistline will become.
You’re likely to notice other positive changes as well. If you’re prone to acne, your skin will likely clear up. If you’ve had trouble moving your bowels in the past, you’ll find your trips to the toilet more productive. And if you’ve been struggling with feelings of self-doubt and sadness, you may even see a lift in your mood.
1. Add Crunch to Your Breakfast
Most Americans eat highly processed sugar-coated cereal for breakfast. According to data compiled from the U.S. Census and Simmons National Consumer Survey, which was then calculated by Statista, more than 283 million Americans ate cold breakfast cereal in 2020. If processed cereal is your go-to, it’s time to switch to Swiss-style muesli, made from rolled oats, rye, and barley; almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and other nuts; and dried fruits such as raisins, cranberries, and date pieces.
But even if you want to stick with the toasted Os, thank you very much, you can make your morning meal healthier and less processed by adding some chunks of fresh organic apples and pears to give any breakfast cereal some color and sweetness.
Or take it one step further: Chop some purple and green cabbage or thinly slice some carrots and add them to your breakfast bowl. Cabbage and carrots in breakfast cereal? Both will add a delightful crunch. And soon you may decide to give up the processed cereal completely and instead enjoy a more Mediterranean-style breakfast of hummus; vegetables such as cucumbers, celery, and carrots; olives; and fresh figs or other seasonal fruit.
2. Drink Your Vegetables
You can also upgrade your morning meal—or any meal throughout the day—by swapping out the pasteurized homogenized cow’s milk for a plant-based liquid such as coconut water or homemade almond, oat, or soy milk.
Dr. Meredith McBride, a recently retired surgeon based in Sonora, California, stopped drinking dairy in order to help mitigate the troublesome symptoms of an autoimmune disease.
“When I don’t drink milk or eat dairy, I have less autoimmune flares—less joint pain and GI upset, swelling, headache,” McBride said.
McBride makes her own soy milk from tofu. She puts a high-quality soft tofu (she says to choose one that’s organic and doesn’t contain any additives or binders) into the blender with water and a pinch of salt. Add water in a three to one ratio of water to tofu. Blend on high until creamy.
“You just drink it, it’s really creamy and smooth,” McBride said. “It’s very similar in texture to whole dairy milk and it pours nicely.”
A whole-food fruit smoothie with a handful of added greens (such as kale, spinach, arugula, or lettuce) is often filling enough to constitute an entire meal. Try making a smoothie from The Epoch Times list of smoothie recipes: https://www.theepochtimes.com/t-smoothie-recipes.
3. Make It Deceptively Delicious
When I interviewed Moorea Malatt, a Los Angeles-based parent coach and educator, about how to get kids to eat more vegetables for a Jefferson Public Radio audio feature, she pooh-poohed the idea of secretly adding vegetables to food.
“Your job is to decide which foods are healthy for your child and put them on the table frequently,” Malatt told me. “And your child’s job is really to decide whether they are going to eat them or not.”
Unlike Malatt, I’m a big fan of sneaking vegetables (and other healthy extras) into my family’s meals. Food writer Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling book, “Food Rules,” advises eating “junk food” only if you make it yourself. So why not add some vegetables to your homemade treats?
I’m not just talking about making carrot muffins and zucchini bread, though those are delicious and nutritious “junk” food options. Campbell would likely advise that you make them with whole grain flour and use whole-food sweeteners such as dates or applesauce in the place of refined sugar. Adding black beans to your homemade brownies is another great trick.
But I’m talking about putting vegetables into other dishes. I like to grate a half cup or more of a combination of any of the following: broccoli, cabbage, kale, squash, carrots, and spinach. Then I cover the grated vegetables with water and simmer them on the stove until they’re softened. I add this mixture to cake recipes, pancake batter, savory muffins, and pasta sauces.
My eldest was born in 1999, and I’ve been doing this since my kids were little. So I was delighted when Jessica Seinfeld published a cookbook in 2008, “Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food,” which recommends adding pureed cauliflower to mac and cheese, avocado puree to quesadillas, and kale to spaghetti and meatballs.
Another excellent way to eat more vegetables, advocated by Dan Buettner, longevity writer and author of “The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest,” and several other books, is to replace some meat (in sausages, meatballs, meatloaf, or hamburgers, for example) with chopped mushrooms.
Though they’re technically not plants (mushrooms are fungi), mushrooms are a low-calorie nutrient-dense food with a variety of health benefits. If you chop them in a food processor with the S-shaped blade, they have a similar consistency to meat. Well-seasoned mushrooms are both nutritious and delicious. An excellent whole-food meat substitute. Yum.
4. Offer Your Family (and Yourself) Colorful Plants at Every Meal
Freshly picked strawberries. Roasted yams. Slices of red, orange, and yellow pepper. A bowl of shelled green pistachio nuts. Green beans. Belgian endive. Purple grapes. Kohlrabi. Endive.
“If it’s a plant, eat it,” is Michael Pollan’s Rule No. 19. “If it was made in a plant, don’t.”
As you strive to eat less processed food and more whole-plant-based foods, try putting out a plate of beautiful, colorful, fresh vegetables, as well as fruits, nuts, and seeds, at every meal.
Highly processed snack foods have that perfect factory-tested taste and texture, which is why we reach for them so quickly, eat more than our fair share, and easily become addicted. Potato chips, anyone? Having healthy food options within easy reach at mealtime and for snacks (there’s no law that says snacks have to be sweet) will help you stop being a junk-food junkie.
5. Try New Things With Vegetables
I’ve seen many an adult wrinkle their nose and heard them protest that they “don’t like turmeric!” or “My kids would never eat that!”
If the only plant you ate growing up was mashed potatoes, you might think that improving your diet to eat more vegetables just isn’t possible for you. Don’t give up so quickly. Just like any other habit, you can change the way you eat.
Experiment with eating different vegetables, and you’ll find the ones you like. Okra, popular in the South, tastes better every time I eat it. Jicama, a crunchy white tuber, has a light, cool, pleasing flavor (like a cross between a turnip and an apple). Whole steamed artichokes are great fun to eat, leaf by leaf, all the way to the heart. My husband’s favorite vegetable is broccoli rabe, because it’s bitter and crunchy at the same time. He also loves bitter dandelion greens.
Make a point of trying new vegetables and experimenting with different ways to cook and serve them as often as you can. You’ll have fun discovering new flavors and textures as you incorporate more whole, real plant foods into your diet.
Though Meredith McBride, the surgeon in Sonoma, has been eating almost entirely vegan food of late, she says she doesn’t espouse a vegan diet for everyone and that it’s important to eat the foods that make your body feel good. But for McBride, eating plant-based whole foods not only keeps her autoimmune disease in check, it also makes her feel less self-reproach.
“Once I had been following a plant-based diet, I realized how much I enjoyed the freedom from carnivore-guilt,” McBride told me. “You do it for health reasons, but I always had this nagging guilt every time I read an article about the commercial meat industry or saw a post about how awful commercial feedlots are. It feels really freeing to not participate in that anymore.”
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning science journalist and book author. Learn more at JenniferMargulis.net