Explaining Our Plant-based ‘Traffic Light’ System

One of the greatest strengths of a whole food plant-based way of eating, and why so many of us try to avoid the term ‘diet’, is that it’s a very sustainable lifestyle change. If you’ve ever tried ‘diets’ in the past, you’ll know that these have rather variable results, usually expect you to count calories or ‘macros’, and end up being tricky to maintain for the longterm. Going plant-based gets great results consistently and quickly for EVERYONE. You’ll start feeling and looking a lot better within a week or so (sometimes just a few days!), and if weight-loss is a goal you can expect a steady 0.5-1kg a week. People love that this happens almost effortlessly, and you can really eat whenever you feel hungry, and as much as you like while still shedding excess weight.

As we’ve seen there are some guidelines though, and this is where an important distinction is made between a whole foods plant-based way of eating, and one that’s simply ‘vegan’. As anyone who’s vegan or has tried vegan food will know, there’s a lot of ‘junk’ that happens to be vegan – Oreos, fries, and Coke for example. The standard diet is already just over 60% processed plant foods, including added fats and oils, sugar, and refined grains. Because there are lots of good other reasons to become plant-based or ‘vegan’, it’s possible to become swept up in the excitement and novelty of eating plant-based yet super-processed versions of the junk foods you were eating before. While it’s fun to try ‘vegan’ cheeses, donuts, and pies, you often miss out on the benefits of looking and feeling your best while eating plant-based.

You’re going to do extraordinarily better if your food choices come for the most part from the ‘Green’ category – that is, whole, minimally processed vegetables, fruit, legumes, and whole grains. Naturally, animal products sit squarely in the ‘Red’ category, which won’t really come as a surprise. But how come oil is in the ‘Red’ category too? And why are some foods that we tend to think of as healthy, like nuts and seeds in the ‘Orange’ category, alongside sugar and salt?

It’s important to point out that were I to ask any of the well-known plant-based practitioners, like Dr McDougall, Dr Esselstyn, Dr Ornish, Dr Fuhrman, Dr Klaper, or Dr Barnard for example, to place these foods in the three main categories, there would certainly be differences and points of contention. One of the things I found difficult when I first started eating this way over 7 years ago was coming to terms with a degree of uncertainty. There’s no agreement on the ‘perfect’ way to do plant-based. Everyone has their own take which I suspect depends largely on the personality, personal preferences, and ideas of the individual doctor. There’s certainly much more agreement than disagreement though.

My approach is to try to keep things simple and attainable. So similar to all the aforementioned doctors, there’s an element of pragmatism in my recommendations. Ideally we’d eat foods as close to how they’re found in nature as possible, all of the time. And of course ideally also we’d never touch oil, salt, or sugar. Dr Esselstyn, and Dr Ornish to a slightly lesser extent, are very concerned with the avoidance of high-fat plant foods in order to maximise recovery from heart disease. So we could deduce from this that avoidance of any of these is also best. The problem is that we do not live in an ideal world, besides which what really matters in almost all situations in life is what we do most of the time rather than what we do some of the time.

So this is particularly why salt and sugar are in the ‘Orange’ category. Of course they’re not the best, and there’s unlikely to be anyone on the street who couldn’t tell you that. We know these things are not health foods, so most of us are already limiting them to a large extent. But good luck finding anything at a cafe or restaurant or pre- or partially-prepared at a supermarket other than fruit or an undressed salad that avoids salt and sugar entirely as well as animal products and oils.

When you’re starting out you may find that all that seems to taste good to you, or all that you seem to be able to find time for, are foods that include sugar and salt. Over time you’ll find that this changes, and the amount of these additives that taste good to you will become lower and lower. This is why Dr McDougall is not opposed to a little salt and sugar. And also why Jeff Novick has rules about how much of either of these is acceptable in a food rather than recommending that any food containing them is avoided. I agree that in the grand scheme of things salt and sugar are relatively small issues if used in small quantities, and that an overemphasis on avoiding these at all costs can distract from the enjoyment, sustainability, and practicality of a whole foods plant-based way of eating. A whole foods, plant-based lifestyle including salt and sugar is still orders of magnitude better than the standard diet.

Oils are in the ‘Red’ category for several reasons. I’m not saying that oils are better or worse or equivalent to eating animal products. But what I am saying is that I do consider them a better ‘target’ for absolute omission than sugar or salt. Unlike sugar and salt, oils really do very little to enhance the flavours and taste of food, so there’s much less excuse for them finding their way into your meals. Oils are the most energy-dense substance we consume, while providing almost no nutrients whatsoever.

The energy density of our food choices is important. The average New Zealander gets 35% of their energy from fat, which doesn’t sound too bad when you consider that our Ministry of Health recommends 30-33%. However, looking again at the eating patterns of the healthiest people in the world, and at what chimps eat, about 10-15% is likely to be optimal (chimps in fact get at most about 8-9% of their energy from fat). So eating oils that are 100% fat, or too many avocados, coconuts, nuts, or seeds (all over 70%) or other high-fat plant foods is a trap for young (plant-based) players.

Another reason to limit high-fat plant foods is that they tend to provide the wrong kinds of fats: they’re particularly high in inflammatory omega 6. It’s very easy to end up with an unfavourable ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 when you’re eating these foods in anything but the smallest amounts. An almond has a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 of 4000:1, for example. I recommend that when you do use them they are used as condiments rather than the basis of a dish on all but the most special occasions. If you are having difficulty achieving weight loss or other health goals then these foods should be used even less.

The amount of change that you decide to make is your choice. Some people may wish to do less than what I recommend, whereas some will feel these guidelines are too lenient and avoid any oil, salt, or sugar whatsoever. Of course greater change will generally provide greater results. Plus life’s not fair, so some of us need to be more focussed than others in order to really thrive on a plant-based way of eating. Nonetheless, I’d encourage all but a very few to strive to do their absolute best rather than to strive for absolute perfection. I suspect that with plant-based eating there’s a law of diminishing returns just as there seems to be with practically everything else in life. So making sure you’re consistently achieving a B+ grade is a better focus than striving for the difference between an A and an A+ for most of us, and can be a good starting point. This means it’s ok to accept or to allow ourselves to be ‘Plant Strong’ rather than ‘Plant Perfect’ (as Rip Esselstyn terms it) at times.

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