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For this Natural Truth discussion, we would like to briefly but carefully answer the question of whether green diets are personally better for us than red ones, and also explain which overall forms of modern eating are likely best and why. To do this, we will first define our terms and then consider the overall health implications of four example daily diets on a “red-green-beige” continuum. Importantly, we won’t consider the ecological impacts or environmental health of different diets here, but you can explore this topic via a companion Natural Truth post, Vegetarian Ecology.
HumanaNatura’s OurPlate Model In Practice
When we talk about green diets, we of course mean ones dominated by plant foods, and notably as measured by total calories. Here, we will define green diets as having at least 65% of calories from plant sources, as much as and likely more than this by food volume, and often very high amounts of raw-edible leafy greens, whole vegetables, vegetable fruits, sweet fruits and starches, and tree nuts and seeds (foods that often, but not always have a low caloric density – with the latter ones listed having increasing calorie to weight ratios).
Importantly, green diets include not only vegetarian and 100% plant-based vegan diets, but also other vegetable and plant-rich forms of eating – for example, such as the so-called Mediterranean Diet and HumanaNatura’s green but omnivorous OurPlate healthy eating model.
Red diets, by contrast, are ones where overall calories are dominated by animal foods, and which we will symmetrically define as having 65% or more of calories from animal food sources. But unlike green diets, red diets often will have significantly less animal food by volume than this, owing to the generally high caloric density of animal foods (which are usually low in bulky fiber and composed of tightly packed proteins and fats). In practice, red-dominated eating typically involves diets rich in fish, eggs, dairy, red meats, and/or poultry.
In defining and contrasting these two important, though perhaps slightly uncommon, modes of modern eating, it is important to introduce a third and quite useful additional archetype or general mode of modern eating – the idea of beige diets. By beige diets, we mean eating patterns high in carbohydrate-dense vegetable foods, whether refined or whole, but excluding the green foods listed above. Once again, we will define beige diets as having more than 65% of calories from these carbohydrate-rich foods. Specifically, beige diets involve the elevated, less desirable, and even harmful consumption of sugars, grains, cereals, legumes, beans, and modern foods derived or processed from them – and thus use of many foods outside of our natural or historical green-red diet of raw vegetables, unprocessed animal foods, fruits, and (with the control of fire) cooked starches.
In practice, modern or agricultural-age carbohydrate-dense beige foods tend to displace more historically natural foods – in both their green and red forms – and in either case generally resulting in elevated dietary calories from sugars and other carbohydrate-dense foods. However, and as with combined green-red eating, it is important to emphasize that beige eating can be, and commonly is, blended with either green or red dietary patterns, as in the case of the grain and bean dominated green-beige diets of most vegans and many vegetarians, along with the red-beige diets common in modern fast food and processed food eating. And of course, there can be relatively balanced red-green-beige eating, which is very common in practice and even our dominant form of eating today.
The Scientific Evidence
As we consider optimal modern nutrition, and the particular question of red versus green eating, it hardly can be a surprise that HumanaNatura concludes that highly green diets are generally healthier than predominantly red (and beige) ones.
After all, health science institutions and government health agencies – see here for example – have long campaigned for greater raw vegetable and fruit consumption, for reduced meat and processed food use, and for limiting sugars and refined carbohydrates – all supported by extensive and still growing scientific evidence recommending a predominantly green pattern of eating. Similarly, there has been a steady stream of research highlighting the benefits of vegetarian and primarily plant-based diets over meat intensive ones – see here for a recent example.
Importantly, however, while research into vegetarian and plant-based diets supports the larger proposal that significantly green eating is better than predominantly red eating , we would point out that the overall scientific case for 100% plant-based or vegan diets is much less strong than for diets that are simply or generally plant-dominated, as is succinctly summarized here.
As suggested before, all vegan diets, of necessity, involve less natural and often less healthy green-beige eating, along with variety of required nutritional supplements – in the first case, to ensure adequate proteins, and in the second, to compensate for basic nutritional deficiencies inherent in all vegan or 100% plant-based diets. And as suggested, this significant but necessary emphasis of or reliance on beige foods – sugars, grains, cereals, legumes, beans, and their derivatives – is apt to be inherently less healthy and even significantly detrimental, and both for us and the environment.
Four Model Diets To Shed Light
If green but not 100% plant-based or green-beige eating plans – and thus green-red diets – are naturally healthier for us, and not just more natural historically, this begs the question of the forms of green-red eating that are most optimal for us, or what amounts and forms of red foods are most desirable from a nutritional standpoint, within the context of a generally high-green (and low-beige) diet.
To get at these important questions in a clear and accessible way, we would like to discuss four example diets and use them to explore and build upon the essential ideas related to optimal modern eating we have introduced. These ideas include: 1) why excessive red eating can be harmful, 2) why beige foods of all kinds are less desirable, especially when highly refined or processed 3) why either exclusively green or mixed green-beige diets are neither natural nor optimal for us nutritionally, and 4) what the ideal mix of green and red foods likely is within a health conscious modern diet.
#1: Meatarian – let’s start with the extreme case of a high-meat diet. What we will call meatarian eating is red-rich and high in animal foods, perhaps even approaching 100% of total calories Any non-meat foods included in this general way of eating of course can range from ultra-beige processed foods to agricultural-age grains and legumes to natural vegetables and fruits. In all cases, and as outlined before, this basic diet and its variants is simply not consistent with our best health science (even including diets counterbalancing high meat intake exclusively with natural raw veggies and fruits – what we might call a “red-paleo” diet). In practice – while affording high amounts of essential fatty acids, minerals, and fat-soluble and other vitamins – it produces a diet with too much protein and animal fat, too little dietary fiber, and inadequate natural phyto-nutrients. And depending on the amount and degree of processedness of any accompanying beige-eating, this diet will potentially contain too many unnatural sugars and refined carbohydrates than is desirable as well. Overall, key risks in meatarian eating include cardiovascular disease and intestinal cancers. While our parents in the developed world, the wealthy of earlier civilizations, and even some of our natural ancestors may have eaten in this general way, our best science says it is less healthy.
#2: Carbotarian – for comparison, we’d next like to introduce the idea of a carbotarian diet, one low in meat and therefore much less red than in the first example diet, but using greatly increased and perhaps highly unnatural carbohydrate consumption to make up for the more limited calorie intake from animal foods – and thus a diet that may be more beige than green in content. In this way of eating, large quantities at least of natural (green) fruits and starches are added, and then perhaps less natural and desirable (beige) sugars, grains, cereals, legumes, beans, and foods processed from them. Fat intake will be substantially lower than in a meatarian diet, as typically will be protein consumption. The amount of raw-edible vegetable consumption may vary as well, though it often may be lower than is desirable. Overall, this eating pattern will often take the form of modern junk and fast food eating, with diets that are often rich in so-called “empty” calories or non-whole and unnatural foods, though it can have important expressions in some vegetarian and many vegan diets as well. While protein intake may be adequate and is less likely to be excessive, this approach to modern eating often may produce a diet unnaturally high in refined carbohydrates and at risk of being excessively low in dietary fiber. It is also a diet that may be marked by food cravings and/or feelings of lethargy, leading to increased eating – as dominating carbohydrate foods are quickly metabolized, spike and then reduce blood sugars, and thereby fail to produce stable natural satiety after meals. Key risks include chronic metabolic and hormonal imbalance, chronic tissue inflammation, destruction of bacteria essential to our natural physiology, insulin resistance, diabetes, and elevated rates of some cancers.
#3: Vegetarian – diets without any animal foods or that include only animal-sustaining foods (eggs and dairy) represent the two basic forms of vegetarian eating. Like carbotarian diets, vegetarian diets can vary considerably in content, but in all cases should be viewed as at least partly unnatural – in the sense that they do not reflect the way that naturally omnivorous humans once ate in wild nature. Depending on how protein is obtained, vegetarian diets can be high in nutrient-rich eggs and dairy products, or alternatively in less nutritious grains and beans. Similarly, typical amounts of processed foods and whole fruits and vegetables can vary widely, as can the mix of refined and whole grains. For this reason and as highlighted in the research summary here, the quality of vegetarian diets can range from poor to very good. In general, vegetarian diets emphasizing a high intake of raw vegetables and fruits, significant eggs and dairy, and moderate and only whole grains and legumes will generally produce good health outcomes – by enabling diets with adequate protein and fat that are high in fiber, natural carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Importantly, vegan diets with no animal foods will be deficient in a number of vital nutrients (necessitating supplementation) and may produce a diet with insufficient protein levels as well. And almost always, vegan diets will have high carbohydrate levels and include significant amounts of unnatural carbohydrates (those not from fruits and roots), potentially leading to metabolic patterns similar to those found with carbotarian diets. Still, owing to the high fiber, adequate fat and protein, and often low refined-carbohydrate nature of many vegetarian diets, (non-vegan) vegetarian eating often will produce health outcomes superior to the first two example diets.
#4: Humanitarian – the last example eating pattern we will discuss is a relatively natural human diet, or one modeled on our ancestral (green-red) eating patterns in nature, but also one that has been intentionally and additionally greened to optimize its health effects. We will call this diet a humanitarian diet, a term intended to underscore its natural foundations in pre-agricultural human life (and more than coincidentally, its strong alignment with HumanaNatura’s Natural Eating recommendations). As suggested already, this diet is plant-rich, but not plant-exclusive, and is represented substantively and graphically by HumanaNatura’s OurPlate natural eating model. Notably, this overall form of eating is similar to a Mediterranean Diet, except that grains and legumes are not used (for both personal and ecological health reasons, and in keeping with the humanitarian diet’s natural or pre-agricultural orientation). This green-red approach, which also might be characterized as “green-paleo” eating, includes the goal of at least 50% of food volume in the form of raw-edible vegetables, adequate but not excessive fish and land animal protein foods to meet DRI levels, inclusion of tree nuts and other vegetable fats, some amount of cooked starches, and adequate sweet fruit consumption to meet our remaining caloric needs. In practice, this general pattern of eating avoids many or all of the above dietary shortcomings, and thereby produces near ideal nutrition and health conditions – with adequate protein, moderated saturated fats and limited unnatural carbohydrates, high fiber, adequate essential fatty acids, and all needed vitamins and minerals.
Our Natural Truth Rating
Given our discussion, HumanaNatura rates the proposal that plant-dominated green diets are superior to meat or red diets, and also carbohydrate-rich or beige diets, a 8/10 (Strong Evidence) in our Natural Truth rating system.
We base our rating on extensive science supporting plant-dominated, but not plant-exclusive, modern eating – and would again highlight that the science supporting 100% vegan diets, or green-beige eating, is much less strong. On this important point, we also would underscore that plant-rich diets can be less than ideal, whenever they contain inadequate animal foods (at least some eggs and/or dairy) or high amounts of beige foods ( carbohydrate-rich grains, cereals, legumes, beans, and their derivatives). Instead, a diet that is mostly green, partly red, and negligibly or only slightly beige appears both more natural and far healthier for us overall.
We hope this discussion of plant-dominated and other forms of modern eating is valuable to you, and that it helps you to make more informed and optimal decisions regarding your and your family’s daily eating practices.
You can click the following link to learn more about our Natural Truth health information campaign and evidence-based 1-10 rating system. And we always welcome your comments and input on this or any other HumanaNatura Natural Truth review.
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