Plant vs. animal.
I could also say: Vegan vs. Paleo or plant-based diet vs. traditional foods.
If you’re navigating the world of nutrition advice, you will certainly come across widely disparate views on what is the most nutritionally-dense, healing, and appropriate diet for us humans. It is confusing, to say the least.
At the heart of the matter are two primary schools of thought dressed in many colorful diet-specific variations:
School of thought #1: Plant foods are good, animal foods are bad. This is based on the belief that the nutrients (especially the fats) in animal foods are unhealthy and the root cause of most disease. Plant foods are largely lower in fat and provide an array of micronutrients you can’t find in animal foods, and are thus cleaner. Besides, it feels more virtuous to eat a salad than a steak.
School of thought #2: Plant foods are okay, but animal foods are awesome. This is based on the belief that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate a diet rich in animal foods and thrived. The proteins and fats in animal foods are the most complete sources of some vitally important nutrients we simply can’t get from plants (branched-chain amino acids, most fat-soluble vitamins, plus many of the B vitamins), and are thus more nutritionally robust. Besides, that salad alone will leave you hungry.
So what’s the deal? Is one school of thought right? Both have testimony upon testimony of people who’ve changed their diet to one extreme or the other and experienced drastically beneficial health results. Both have scientific research (albeit imperfect and often flawed) backing them up. What gives?
A piece to this conversation that is rarely, if ever, discussed is the important role that these two types of foods have in the body.
At the most basic level, plant foods are deeply cleansing. With their fiber and high profile of micronutrients and anti-oxidants, they are excellent housekeepers. For the most part they have an alkalinizing effect on the blood that is an important balance to the often acidifying effect that many modern foods and an overconsumption of animal foods can create. After years of dietary abuse to our bodies, transitioning to a plant-based diet can feel incredible. It’s a powerful way to detoxify.
BUT: we can’t cleanse forever.
At a certain point, we need to build and repair. And that’s where animal foods come in.
Animal proteins and fats are structural and building. They provide the building blocks to many vitally important functions in our body – including hormone production, body repair, muscle development, brain development, and many more – in the most complete and bio-available form. At critical building times such as pre-conception, during pregnancy and breast-feeding, and for babies and children, these building blocks are absolutely essential. That a strictly plant-based diet requires supplementation to be complete is telling.
BUT: as much as we need to build, we also need to keep our house clean.
And that’s where plant foods come in.
My take? We are – and have always been – omnivores. Our teeth are designed to chew both plant and animal foods. Our digestive systems are designed to break down and assimilate both. Our bodies are designed to thrive on a balance of both. Pitting plant vs. animal as so many food debates do is like pitting the right side of your body against the left. Both are fundamental and vital to the whole. There is no “good” or “bad” – just different, and all important.
That said, there are two criteria that are absolutely vital regardless of whether we’re talking about a plant or an animal:
1) Quality trumps all. Pesticide-laden nutritionally-deficient industrial produce offers a mere shadow of the benefits (not to mention taste!) that seasonal, local, organic produce yields. Meat and dairy from industrial feedlots are a far cry from what you’ll get from pastured, healthy, and loved animals on all levels: nutritionally, environmentally, and energetically.
2) Form matters. Processing kills food, regardless of how it started. Take the most beautiful basket of organic fruit and vegetables, grown locally and picked when ripe – process and pasteurize this into commercial juice, and you’ve killed most of the value. Take some delicious pastured pork and mix it with excess sugar, “natural” spices (read: MSG and other chemicals), add a bunch of fillers and stabilizers, and you’ve got a nutritional nightmare on your hands.
There are times to focus on cleansing, and times to focus on building and repair. Most of the time, however, we need to be doing a balance of both. Want to get and stay healthy? Eat a diet rich in high-quality, unprocessed plant and animal foods.
Plant plus animal = true health.
photo credit: Mike Licht