It is exciting to know that quality research and science is catching up to what many people, modern and ancient, have known for a long time. This being that whole, plant foods provide the ideal nourishment for the human body to thrive. (Don’t mistake this with the ability of the human body to survive, which it can do on literally anything that is edible, and how many people eat to this day, not realizing they are simply eating to survive, rather than to thrive.) As all science goes, however, it is prone to presenting topics or findings in the often “sterile,” “narrow,” or “theoretical” ways that are commonplace in reductionist thinking and disconnected from practical or real-life applications.
When it comes to nutrition, today we not only know that whole, plant foods are the most nutrient-dense, healing and protective foods, but we even know how different whole plant foods score amongst themselves in being better or worse, where their “healthiness” factor goes. Given this, it is valuable to consider whether we should be focusing our diets strictly around a narrow range of the most nutrient-dense plant foods or opt for wider plant food variety in our diets for optimal health and longevity.
To explore this, I recently received a great, in-depth query about optimizing whole, plant-based eating from one of my students. As part of this article, I will share this query to help you gain perspective about what may make more sense for you when it comes to variety or nutrient-density as part of optimal, whole-food, plant-based eating.
Should You Sacrifice Variety for Nutrient Density
I am wondering if you could weigh in on the concept of focusing on the most “nutrient-dense” whole plant foods in order to maximize health outcomes. My understanding is that you emphasize a diet including as wide a variety as possible of whole plant foods, while in general minimizing attention to any particular vitamins/minerals/nutrients. But do you think there might be any merit in trying to center one’s diet as much as possible around only the most nutrient-dense foods, even if this occurs at the expense of diet variety?
If one has access to a wide variety of foods, then sure, it may make sense to center one’s diet around the most nutrient-dense whole plant foods. However, we should not limit the variety in our diet by solely trying to eat the most nutrient-dense foods. Sacrificing variety for nutrient-density in such a way may not work to our advantage. In much of my educational content, I refer to eating based on a “basic” or “general” variety of whole, plant foods. This means that you shouldn’t eat the same thing repeatedly and aim to get some foods (of your choice) from the main plant food categories daily. Namely, veggies, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, grains/starchy vegetables, herbs, and spices. I aim to help people in all circumstances meet optimal health goals, and when we factor in the many different geographic, financial, seasonal, and lifestyle needs that people have today, the more specific any guidelines are, the more people they exclude and don’t work for, or are not capable of being very “usable” or “valuable.”
One can most definitely center one’s diet based on scientifically-backed recommendations like those shared by Dr. Fuhrman or Dr. Greger if it resonates with them, and it still meets very well what I speak about above. The two approaches, theirs more specific, and mine more general, are not out of alignment in this sense.
However, if someone were to push their approaches to an extreme and have, for example, kale, broccoli, strawberries, blueberries, quinoa, black beans, flax seeds, and walnuts each day, every day, then that can easily become problematic. Not only from an overly narrow nutritional sense but also problematic from a potential slight risk of increased food allergies and sensitivities. If we overeat any one food, it can create an imbalance of sorts. But no one can tell anyone else with certainty what that “overeat” case scenario would be. Some people develop an intolerance to avocados after several weeks of eating 2 avocados each day, while nothing like this happens to others.
The Relative Nature of Healthy Foods
This question basically comes from what I’ve heard or read from other advocates of WFPB diets, such as Michael Greger & Joel Fuhrman. Dr. Greger often discusses his idea that an evaluation of the healthfulness of food is only valid in the context of comparison; for example, eggs are healthier than bacon, berries are healthier than bananas, and sweet potatoes are healthier than white potatoes. He has also alluded to the idea that he himself tends to only stick to the “healthier” choices when both choices are available (i.e., he no longer personally buys white potatoes or white onions and avoids bananas when berries are an option).
Most definitely, everything, above and beyond just nutrition, is relative. However, the markers used to measure or determine what is “better” or “worse” are not going to be universal. These markers and how we rate or compare things will also depend on each person’s perspectives and priorities. For example, let’s consider bananas and strawberries, which will be discussed further down. Overall, strawberries may prove more nutrient-dense than bananas. But what if someone is specifically looking for high potassium foods to offset certain medication side effects? Then bananas are a better choice, containing almost double the potassium than strawberries in a similar amount. So as part of good science, we need to address how or what we are measuring that relativity based on and how it serves different needs.
From another angle, you have seen Dr. Fuhrman’s ANDI scores for foods, which provide a rating based on nutrients per calorie. Fruits/vegetables seem to be highest in general, with leafy greens coming out on top, but most nuts/seeds/grains/animal products are mixed in terms of relative rankings of nutrient density.
Yes indeed. Both Dr. Fuhrman and Dr. Greger provide their own similar “checklists” of ideal foods to focus on in one’s diet. Dr. Fuhrman also has his G-BOMBS food approach, while Dr. Greger has his daily dozen. And these are all extremely valid approaches and well worth knowing about. However, both sets of these resources are sharing a more “idealized” approach, that is going to be most valuable or possible for people to achieve who have at minimum a middle-class income, and who find themselves living in metropolitan areas of the United States, Canada or Europe.
Take berries as an example, which both these doctors focus on heavily to be part of our daily diet. Berries are one of the most difficult foods for people to eat on any kind of daily or even regular basis. First, they are one of the most expensive fruits, so this limits a large portion of the population right away. Second, they are not easy to get in many parts of the world. For example, people in tropical, Caribbean, and equatorial regions have little, if any, access to berries. Berries are naturally occurring only in certain geographic climates, and if we go in balance with nature, for only a short time of each year. Today, berries are more widely available beyond their narrow ranges, but their global market has its own challenges to contend with. The fact that we can get berries in the winter in Canada or Northern US, for example, does not mean that this is the ideal food for us to eat. Third, berries are one of the foods with the highest applications of pesticides, which exposes people to a whole other spectrum of risks. So getting organic berries only compounds the previous two problems even more. Having experienced living in a more remote and rural part of Ontario (Canada), I personally experience the serious limitations, to the point that if I were to eat berries daily, I would either have to widen my grocery budget by a lot and/or eat a lot of conventionally grown berries.
So this is why, while the scientific advice is sound and works perfectly in theory, it does not work in practice by any ideal means. As it goes with many situations in life, unless and until we step into other people’s shoes, we often have a very one-sided perspective or view of things and how they should be. This is largely why I try to reach the needs of any of my audience members, no matter where in the world they may be or what circumstances they may be in. For example, I have a lot of people who take my courses or follow my work who live in India, where berries are not the norm and will not be part of most people’s diets. If we get too specific in our dietary advice and tell people you should have A, B, and C or else you are not getting the best or most benefits, then that is not very empowering if you are on the receiving end. In truth, the best food for any of us is the food that grows around us, in season. Of course, the fact that humans have moved out into areas that are not ideal for them to thrive and they have to depend on imported food complicates this greatly, but the point still stands that we benefit most from food that is as local and seasonal, as possible. Going back, if I teach about the health benefits of certain foods, be it berries or avocados, many people ask what they should do, as they either don’t have these available or cannot afford to buy them. And the truth is, they don’t have to. All whole, plant foods, especially fruits and vegetables, have unique benefits for us that go above and beyond nutrient density alone, and we should work to the best of our abilities with what we have access to.
As an aside, I didn’t even mention all the increased food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances that are making it hard for people to eat various wholesome, plant foods. This alone can be a deal-breaker, removing from their diets many of the healthiest foods. Just consider nuts alone. Yes, they may be optimally healthy for this or that reason, but what happens to you if you cannot eat them? Same goes for any other plant-healthy food today. We have to know that we can fall back on other whole, plant foods without feeling that we are at a disadvantage beyond our control.
Eating for Least Harm and Most Benefit
When it comes to consumption of non-whole foods (whether animal or plant), my understanding is that you generally advocate for an approach that minimizes potential harm from them. I believe this basically boils down to minimizing consumption amount and frequency and focusing on the least harmful options available. So, since these non-whole foods are on a spectrum of potential benefits/harm, wouldn’t it also make sense for whole plant foods to have a similar spectrum that we can try to use to our benefit?
Yes, in general, it will, but again it will depend on what our markers of measurement are and how we are structuring our comparisons. As shared above, fruit A may be more beneficial in X, but fruit B may be more beneficial in Y. At different times of the year, at different times in your life, you are bound to benefit from different foods and the unique nutritional profiles and healing qualities that they offer us.
Here is an example from nature, which I feel exemplifies this so well. In truly wild areas, chipmunks and some squirrels seek out, and readily enjoy, various fruits from late spring throughout the summer. In the fall or winter, you’d be hard-pressed to see one eat fruit, even if it is presented with it and no other food is available. At those times, they are strictly seeking out higher energy foods like seeds and nuts. Why do they do this? Because they are perfectly calibrated to their natural surroundings and in tune with their body and environment. We cannot even argue simple survival reasons here, because if it was only that, they would eat the fruit in the colder months. So let’s imagine that a “chipmunk doctor” said that for optimal health science shows they should always focus on fruit over seeds, it would make no sense to them, and the same goes for us. Sadly, we are out of balance with nature due to many factors and have lost much of our natural calibration with our body, the seasons, and with different stages and needs throughout the year and in our life. Add to that globalization, which provides us with almost anything we want, anytime, if we live in most developed places, and we stop being guided by natural, optimal cues and become guided by good science at best or bad marketing at worst.
The Best Way to Balance Variety with Nutrient Density
To summarize my question, what is the best way (from an optimal health perspective) to draw a line in one’s diet in order to maximize the volume/frequency of the most nutrient-dense plant foods while still maximizing variety?
My answer to address this in the most practical of ways is as follows: do the best you can with what you’ve got. If you are able to follow the more specific guidance of people like Dr. Fuhrman or Dr. Greger, then great, do so, as long, of course, as it is done with some sensible reason. If you resonate with their guidance but cannot fully follow, again, do the best you can and get as close as you can. Otherwise, do the best you can from the basic/general variety of foods I described in the first paragraph above. Know that you can still achieve optimal health and are not necessarily in any kind of worse off situation - the primary reason being that the mind trumps everything. So a person can be eating the most “perfect” diet and still get sick because of mental/emotional mismanagement, and vice-versa, a person can eat a “poor” diet and enjoy better health because of better mental/emotional management.
Food is important, but as I always try to share, it is the second most important and only one piece of all the pieces that make up our optimal physical, mental, emotional, and social health. This is where and why my perspective differs somewhat from Dr. Greger or Dr. Fuhrman because they are looking at all this predominantly from the lens of nutrition, whereas I look at it from a holistic perspective of multiple factors that create our health and wellbeing. (I share more on this specifically in the last chapter of my book.)
Would you expect one who eats all varieties of fruits in equal quantities to experience more positive health outcomes than one who sticks only to different varieties of berries?
The answer is definitely no, for both the holistic reasons shared above and because it defies the natural law of having all foods available at all times. As mentioned previously, the more specific the solution or approach, the more exclusive it is. This is where those who claim “there is no one right diet for everyone” are partially correct. They are just using that reasoning for the wrong reasons usually, to promote animal foods and all sorts of harmful eating patterns. Given that all people are part of the same human species, we all benefit the most (to thrive, not just survive) from whole plant foods. There is no doubt about that, despite what some naysayers like to believe, given our same anatomy and physiology. But it is impossible to say which whole plant foods will be specifically ideal for every human being and in what amounts, and at what times of their life.
Higher Nutrient Density and Better Longevity
In theory, consuming more nutrients with fewer calories over a long period of time should result in satiation with fewer calories. And I would think that this type of natural caloric restriction might have a positive impact on health and longevity as a result of lower bodyweight & slower metabolism. As a lifelong goal, it would seem (to use a specific example) that making the permanent substitution in one’s diet of bananas for strawberries would be a positive movement towards that goal. And this could also be extended to a substitution of other less nutrient-dense foods for more nutrient-dense ones.
Yes, indeed, consuming more nutrients with fewer calories over a long period of time should result in satiation with fewer calories consumed. I speak here from both direct personal experience and indirect observational experience. And yes, lower caloric input, while meeting all nutritional needs, does benefit longevity. This has been extensively studied. The more we eat, and the more complex or “un-ideal” the food is for our human bodies, the faster we wear out our body, organs, tissues, and optimal functions. But even here, we still have to keep things in perspective that there is more at play here than just a physical body that will dictate how long we live.
Regarding that final substitution of swapping out a banana in favor of the more nutrient-dense strawberries analysis, that is a yes in theory but no in practice, for the reasons shared above. There is much more regulating our health and life, their quality and quantity, than just food. Speaking about food alone, though, and the example provided, bananas are one of the perfect foods, as all fruits are. But one will be more likely or able to see that if one lives in the tropics, where slightly different markers would be used in terms of what may be best or most ideal.
*, Do the best you can, based on what resonates with you.
- Don’t get lost in details or sweat the small stuff.
- Work within the right foundation (whole, plant foods) in a way that best meets your needs.
One of the biggest reasons why people throughout time enjoyed great health and longevity, even if they ate diets that would seem rather unhealthy compared to whole-food, plant-based eating, is because there was a component of joy in it. Food wasn’t seen as a means to an end, or in any sterile, scientific way, but seen as something to enjoy and celebrate life with, and that goes a long way. So if you love bananas, for example, then, by all means, do not remove them.
To your best health!