Is Plant-Based Eating Best? with Dietitian Sharon Palmer


Jonathan: Hey everyone, Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast. Today’s episode is one that is definitely going to make you smile. I hope they all make you smile but this one’s going to make you smile even bigger because we have a wonderful woman with us. She is a registered dietitian, a food and nutrition writer. She is a plant-based nutrition expert. She is the author of the wonderful book The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today. Sharon Palmer, welcome to the show.

Sharon: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Jonathan: Well Sharon, just to get us started what set you on this path to not only heal people but you think much bigger, you want to heal the whole world?

Sharon: Yes, well ever since I was a little girl I was just fascinated with food and nutrition and studying it. I went to university and received my degree in nutrition and I’ve always just been fascinated with this cross-section of food and health and how powerful it is. Food is medicine. Basically eating more of a whole plant foods-based diet is really my approach to wellness.

Jonathan: Sharon, one thing that I really liked about your message and I haven’t gotten all the way through your book yet but right on the cover and I have a lot of respect for this, right on the cover of your book, obviously it says ‘The Plant-Powered Diet’. So someone might see this on the shelf, they might if they don’t know you and they don’t know your work and say, “Oh my gosh, militant veganism is about to be placed upon me.” But you say right on the cover of your book ‘Power up on a wide array of whole plant foods whether you’re an omnivore, vegetarian, or vegan.’ It seems like you’re taking a much more inclusive approach.

Sharon: That’s right because I believe that there’s so much science right now that’s pointing to eating a more plant-based diet and that really indicates that we should be trimming our animal food intake a little bit and eating more whole plant foods. That can mean different things to different people because not everybody wants to be a vegan, not everybody wants to be a vegetarian but I believe that everybody could eat a plant-based diet where they’re focusing on more plant foods.

Jonathan: Sharon, why do people seem to make this so much of an either/or proposition? It’s either you can eat a lot of plants or you’re a carnivore. It seems that even someone like let’s say Nell Stephenson, who’s a big Paleo advocate, I was speaking to her the other day and she was like, “Hey, even this Paleo diet that people often call ‘this carnivorous diet’ is plant-based. At least 50 percent of your plate should be vegetables.” Why is there so much debate when it seems like we all basically agree the vast majority of your plate should be whole food nutrient-dense plants?

Sharon: Yeah, I know. There is a lot of polarization right now between these two camps but I look at it at more of an overall big picture. Most of the nutrition experts out there today recommend a plant-based diet. Even three-fourths of your food should be plant-based. That’s even in the dietary guidelines which come from our government’s nutrition panel of experts and even when you look at traditional indigenous diets throughout the worlds for example, the Mediterranean diet.

The famous Mediterranean diet with all this research is a plant-based diet where most of the food is coming from whole plant foods rather than animal foods. My approach is more broad because I would just like people to return to eating whole plant foods and what I mean by whole is foods that come back to nature. I do think that a lot of people are really putting an emphasis, no matter what their specific micro challenges are they’re really coming back to this whole plant foods rather than highly-processed plant foods.

Jonathan: We can all celebrate that sentiment of things found directly in nature rather than things coming off of an assembly line for sure. I love that you help to keep people focused. Really the problem in our country is so many of us aren’t eating food anymore, we’re eating edible products, right?

Sharon: Exactly. I really focus on that because if you think about it, a lot of the junk food that we’re eating is plant-based. You can’t just say, “I’ll eat a plant-based diet.” You need to focus on eating a whole foods plant-based diet. One of the things I like to say because people ask me, “Well, what does that really mean?” What I like to say is when you look at a food when you’re in the supermarket, can you see how it was touched by Mother Nature? Can you envision how it grew on a farm? Can you see that it came from a plant or a field?

When you pick up a bunch of green beans you can see that came from a plant or when you pick up some quinoa those are the seeds from a quinoa plant but when you have a package of highly-processed chips or puffs or crackers, it’s very hard sometimes to see the trace of Mother Nature.

Jonathan: Sharon, I’m going to give you a verbal hug here because you are one of the few people that explicitly comes right out and says — and you did it just now that the vast majority of junk, edible products people are eating are plant-based. A Snickers bar is plant-based. It’s not enough to just say ‘plant-based’, we’ve got to say ‘nutrient-dense’, we’ve got to say ‘found directly in nature’ and one other conflating factor that I want your opinion on because I know you touch on this in your book.

The conflation between a vegan and vegetarian or, let’s say, even a plant-based diet and a low-fat diet because for me personally I love cocoa, I love coconut, I love macadamia nuts, I love avocados and chia seeds and flax seeds. In fact, I bet I get at least 30 percent of my calories from plant fats, that is still a plant-based diet. All the research I’ve read suggest that is extremely healthy but there seems to be this conflation sometimes in the vegan and vegetarian communities between eating plant-based and eating low-fat.

Sharon: You’re absolutely right and I am in the camp that agrees with you. I believe that there’s no evidence really to indicate that healthy people should be reducing their fat so much especially when you’re on a vegan diet where you’re eating a low-fat diet to begin with. I recommend about 30 percent of calories from fat and there is a lot of research that shows that all these healthy plant fats, especially the ones from avocados and nuts and olives, are actually good for your heart. Look at the Mediterranean diet again.

Up to 35 percent fat. There’s a variety of fat levels but it’s a moderately high-fat diet and they have lower risks of heart disease. Plus I think there’s the whole delicious factor. I think that fats bring so much flavor and I’m not saying that you need to just pour it on this is still moderate use but they add so much flavor and I think it’s not so much the amount of fat as the type of fat you’re choosing.

Jonathan: Exactly. I was speaking with Dr. Barry Sears and he made a really good classification let’s say of fats. There’s bad fats, just like there’s bad carbs and bad processed spam protein. There’s bad fats, there’s neutral fats which should really just be thought of as sources of calories and then there are therapeutic fats. Like these omega-3 fats, these monounsaturated fats, these medium-chain triglycerides. Obviously you’re plugged into the plant-based community. Why would anyone say that a diet that has got 30 – like instead of eating starch, you get your calories from healthy therapeutic monounsaturated omega-3 and other healthy fats. Why would anyone say that’s unhealthy? I just don’t even understand that.

Sharon: Yeah, I don’t understand it either. I hate to see people put so much negative emphasis on diet where it almost becomes punitive. My version of a vegan diet which in my book, I have a vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore plan it’s very delicious because there are nuts and olive oil and olives and avocados. I mean, those add so much flavor to foods and textures. Sometimes I just hate to see where a diet has to be so bland and boring. I do think that the research supports that moderate amounts of healthy fats, somewhere in this range of 30 percent is actually better for you.

I know that some experts have published research on lower fat diets that can actually be reverse-disease. They’re working with clients that have existing issues and they have published research that shows that they can treat people with these low-fat diets. But my population is the everyday people who want to be well and healthy and live a longer, rich life and that’s who I’m speaking to.

Jonathan: It seems like there are also so many complicating factors Sharon. For example, having a study that says this zero percent fat diet does something, it doesn’t prove that a ten percent diet doesn’t do that. It actually just proves what the study studied, which is that that type of diet did that but so often then we’re led to believe that that is the only way of eating that can do that when the study doesn’t prove that it just proves that that diet did. Does that make sense?

Sharon: Yeah. The world of nutrition research is very complicated and most people do not understand it, so we have studies that are published that are conflicting. Like there was in the news all of these studies show that eating breakfast actually helps with your weight and then one study showed that it could make you gain weight and now all the other studies have been you know people don’t understand that you have to look at the body of research sometimes. Maybe one study will show one thing but then you have to go back and look at the design of the study. There are always confounding factors. Nutrition research is not perfect it just kind of steers us in a particular direction and we have to look at the body of science in my view.

Jonathan: Sharon, speaking of looking at the body of science, how much of this also has to be us looking at our individual bodies to decide what’s best for us when it comes to picking between the whole foods available?

Sharon: That’s a good point, too, because we all have individual preferences and profiles and this is becoming more and more apparent as we understand the human genome and how we have individual genetic profiles and we may handle foods in a different way than somebody else. We’re just starting to learn this whole new field, so I really do think you have to listen to your body. You have to listen to what it’s saying and what makes you feel good and that’s a huge part of having a diet that works for you because I really don’t believe that people should go on and off a diet and a diet shouldn’t be punishment.

I hate that whole philosophy. I think a diet is your eating style, something that nourishes your body and makes you feel good about yourself, it’s sustainable, it’s something you can do every day, and it’s not something you can’t wait to get off of.

Jonathan: You said eating style. I really, really like that term because one thing that I so admire about vegetarians and vegans is how they do treat that lifestyle. Even if it’s an unhealthy vegan that eats junk food all day, it’s not a diet, it’s a style of eating and they’re not waking up in the morning just thinking, “Oh my God, it’s such a struggle.” It actually empowers them to have that eating style. What can omnivores learn so that we stop thinking in terms of dieting and start thinking just in terms of a whole foods nutrient-dense eating style?

Sharon: Yeah, I think people really have to struggle with this idea that healthy is delicious because let’s face it all the surveys show the number one factor that people use in making food choices is taste. Health is growing in importance but taste is always number one. A healthy diet and healthy eating style has to be one that you feel is delicious and satisfying and rewarding. I’m all about food traditions and cooking and eating with friends and family and enjoying food. A lot of people still think a healthy diet is a punishment, that “Oh, I’m going to have to do this. I’m going to hate it. I can’t eat this and that.”

But you have to find things that are delicious that you enjoy, finding your favorite recipes and with plant-based this is the same thing because I think for example, I just love what chefs have done with vegetables. I live in California and it’s just all about vegetables. I mean meat is like an afterthought now. I mean they’re just taking farmer’s market vegetables and making these amazing side dishes and showing that those kinds of foods can be just as delicious.

Jonathan: Speaking of delicious things we can eat, I know you’re working on plant power for life which will provide 52 simple steps as well as over 100 recipes to get you started on a more nutrient-dense whole food lifestyle. What are some of your – maybe people would see them and not even believe that these things are healing and healthy, they’re so delicious, they’re wonderful treats that also heal us?

Sharon: Yeah, for instance one of the recipes that I developed for my new book is the jambalaya. Jambalaya is a classic Creole dish and it really exemplifies that a lot of plant-based diets come from a culture because most indigenous cultures ate a plant-based diet because meat was precious and scarce and expensive so they ate plant foods that surrounded them that were local to them. In the jambalaya I have whole grain brown rice, I have legumes or red beans and lots of spices. Spices are anti-inflammatory.

A lot of vegetables in there, okra, peppers and it’s so flavorful that I’ll serve it to a group of omnivores and not even mention that it’s vegan and everybody will say it’s the best jambalaya they’ve ever had. That’s just an example of how you can make foods delicious. I believe in a lot of herbs and spices which we know are health protective now. That’s just one example.

Jonathan: Sharon, would you have any concerns with someone who maybe they just — you talk about an eating style that is delicious and one that you could sustain and enjoy for life. Let’s say you’re signed up, you’re an individual, Sally, she’s signed up, she wants to eat nutrient-dense foods but she really likes the taste of fat. Fat is very satisfying for her. She chooses to focus maybe a little bit less on starch and a little bit more on healthy fats. Is that something you would find to be useful or do you feel that grains and starches are uniquely critical?

Sharon: Well, I do think that we have to look at people on an individual basis and that’s one thing that dieticians are really good at doing. If you find a dietician who can see you on a one-on-one basis and help you develop something that works for you because people do have preferences and those need to be accommodated so that it’s an eating style that works for you. I do think that as I said a moderate fat level is good. I like to keep it below 35 percent fat. Naturally a vegan or vegetarian diet tends to be a little higher in carbohydrates but I also think it’s important for vegans and vegetarians to get their protein up there. Which I think that’s a challenge and something that’s often missed. That’s one thing that I would work with them, too, to make sure there is this balance so it’s not just a carbohydrate-focused diet that we’re getting all those other macronutrients in there too.

Jonathan: Well do you see a future for just as compelling as the eating nutrient-dense plants research is, there is a lot of really compelling research on it for some individuals of a much more moderate and even lower carbohydrate intake can be beneficial. The question is then where else do I get my calories from? Do you think it’s possible to eat a high-fat plant-based extremely healthy diet?

Sharon: Well it would depend on what you’re saying is high-fat. I mean you’d have to work it out where you’re getting everything you need because once you start on a vegan diet you’re challenged to make sure you’re getting everything in there. For a vegan, a lot of their protein sources for instance, legumes is a huge protein source. It’s high in protein but it also has carbohydrates. Soy, you know is another good protein source. Nuts, nuts are high in fat and protein, rather than carbohydrates. It would have to be worked out but I believe that it’s not so much the volume of carbohydrates that’s as important as the quality of carbohydrates and this keeps going back.

I mean if you’re eating completely whole plant foods, your glycemic index for these foods is very low. For instance, a whole grain when you’re eating the actual kernel, like barley or wheat berries or rye berries or quinoa, the glycemic index is so low but if you grind it into a flour, even if it’s a whole grain flour, it goes up dramatically. When you’re looking at the quality of carbohydrates I think that’s a really important part of that whole thing.

Jonathan: I love that distinction. Well let me get your expert opinion on a very concrete example. Let’s say someone comes into your office, let’s say that person’s name is J. Bailor – wait that’s too obvious, let’s call this person Jonathan B. Let’s say Jonathan B. comes into your office and he says, “I’m getting the vast majority of my protein from very lean, humanely-raised, non-hormonally poisoned fish and mammals… cows, for example.

Grass-fed cows, wild-caught, non-mercury-saturated fish and I eat a massive amount of vegetables we’re talking between ten and 20 servings of non-starchy vegetables, a large majority of which are raw throughout the day. I eat some berries on occasion but I get the vast majority of my calories from plant fats. So from macadamia nuts, from avocado, from coconut, from flax, chia, all that kind of fun stuff. What would your reaction to me be?

Sharon: So basically, it’s almost they’re eliminating grains from their diet. This is the main thing that I would be concerned about because this is a popular trend right now. The thing about completely eliminating grains is they’re very, very rich in fiber and all kinds of fibers. Even though for instance vegetables have fiber, they do not have the same levels as legumes. Legumes and whole grains are our best sources of fiber and Americans are way too short on fiber. Also there’s a whole bunch of other vitamins and minerals that are found in that whole grain group so I would really like to see people eat some grains.

I know that’s a big subject right now but it doesn’t mean they have to eat so many of them. It’s like feast or famine. People in America are eating too many carbs. They’re eating too many mostly refined carbs and even if it’s just a small amount, I would like to see people include whole grains and preferably in their whole form and that means the way they came from the plant like in the actual kernel.

Jonathan: Sharon, when you said the key source of fiber, are you thinking in terms of a quality of fiber or is there something unique about the fiber in a whole grain that is not found in the fiber of a spinach? Remember my example I was eating ten to 20 servings of non-starchy vegetables per day so I’m probably taking in maybe even too much, 90 grams of fiber a day? That’s a lot of fiber.

Sharon: Yeah, you’re right. That’s true if you’re eating that much, but it depends. Vegetables are not as high in fiber but when you’re eating that many, you probably don’t need to worry about the total grams of fiber. Whole grains do have different kinds of fiber. It’s just a case-by-case basis but I still would like to see a couple of grain servings because I think that they provide unique nutrients.

That’s my preference. It doesn’t mean that people have to just eat this enormous amount and base their whole diet on it, but I’m not an advocate of eliminating the whole grain category. I know it’s a really popular thing right now. I don’t think there’s enough evidence to support that.

Jonathan: Sharon, it certainly seems like you live that message that you preach, which is let’s take this on a case-by-case basis. We’ve got these universal principles where we look at the entire body of research out there and we’re guided and its pretty common sense. The stuff that is least messed with by people and most closely tied to nature and the most rich in nutrients is what we should be focused on and that seems like that’s at the core and the heart of your message and your mission.

Sharon: Yes, that’s true. I think we can all agree on that and I’m glad to see that more and more people are getting that message.

Jonathan: Sharon, what’s next for you?

Sharon: Well I’m working on my next book which is, you mentioned it, Plant Power for Life and its due out in spring of next year and it will be kind of a more simple approach. My first book was really like the primer it had everything you needed to know and this is more of a simple easy book with beautiful recipes and photography. I feel like my recipes are really approachable and I could get a lot of positive feedback on that.

I’m just really busy in my work doing a lot of writing. I’m the editor of Environmental Nutrition and I have a blog, if anybody wants to check it out called The Plant-Powered Dietitian Blog at my website, which is www.sharonpalmer.com. So I’m out there doing a lot of speaking as well.

Jonathan: Well I love it Sharon and I so appreciate that you are representing positivity along with your plant-based message because I think whether it’s plant-based or Paleo, which is itself plant-based, or low-carb or whatever it is, when we come with a spirit of positivity and are just like, “Hey. 90 plus percent of Americans aren’t even eating food, so maybe we should solve that before we argue about the nuance of the perfect way of eating.” Right? I so appreciate that.

Sharon: I know, it’s so funny.

Jonathan: Sharon, thank you again for joining us today and thank you for being such a ray of light in the nutrition community.

Sharon: Well thank you it’s been a pleasure.

Jonathan: Listeners, our guest today was the delightful Sharon Palmer, R.D. Again, you can learn more about her at her website SharonPalmer.com and you can also check out her book which is called The Plant Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today. Sharon, thanks again for joining us.

Sharon: Thank you.

Jonathan: Listeners, I hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as I did. Please remember this week and every week after, eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Chat with you soon.

[Audio Ends 25:09]

Jonathan: Wait, wait! Don’t stop listening yet.

Sharon: You can get fabulous free SANE recipes over at SharonBrown.com.

Jonathan: And don’t forget, your 100% free Eating and Exercise Quick Start Program as well as free fun daily tips delivered right into your inbox at BailorGroup.com.

This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Sharon Palmer. In her own words:

The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today

“Sharon has created an award-winning profession based on combining her two great loves–food and writing. As a registered dietitian with 16 years of health care experience, she channeled her nutrition experience into writing features covering health, wellness, nutrition, and cuisine. Sharon is also a passionate writer about food and environmental issues, having published a number of features on plant-based diets, hunger, agriculture, local and organic foods, eco-friendly culinary practices, sustainability, food safety, and food security. Over 850 of Sharon’s features have been published in a variety of publications, including Better Homes & Gardens, Prevention, Oxygen, LA Times, Cooking Smart, Today’s Dietitian, and CULINOLOGY. 2009). Her book, The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health
Beginning Today (The Experiment) was published in June 2012. Sharon is also the editor of the acclaimed health newsletter, Environmental Nutrition.

In addition, Sharon is a nutrition advisor for the Oldways Vegetarian Network and Today’s Dietitian.

Sharon was the proud recipient of the Loma Linda University Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2013.

Living in the chaparral hills overlooking Los Angeles with her husband and two sons, Sharon enjoys visiting the local farmers market every week and cooking for friends and family.

Sharon Palmer is available for the following services:

    • Freelance food and nutrition writing for newspapers, magazines, websites and blogs
    • Writing and editing for newsletters
    • Author and contributor for non-fiction books related to food, nutrition, and cooking
    • Original recipe development with nutritional analysis
    • Speaking on nutrition, cooking and wellness in a variety of settings
    • Culinary demonstrations and cooking classes

Expert on nutrition in the media, including print, radio and television

  • Specific expertise in plant-based nutrition, including Mediterranean, Vegetarian and Vegan diets”