Over the past year+, Whole Foods Market has introduced a campaign to their stores called Health Starts Here which aims to provide customers with nutritional advice in choosing healthier foods as well as following a health supportive diet. A handful of stores also offer a Wellness Club, where customers can partake in lectures, cooking classes, dinner clubs, and a variety of other things centered around this program.

Whole Foods’ Health Starts Here program is based on what they call the “4 Pillars of Healthy Eating”: whole food, nutrient dense, plant strong, and healthy fats. On the surface, it appears like sound advice, but a closer look shows a different story.

Whole Food

The first proper step to any diet is to eat whole, real foods. It is the consumption of refined and processed foods that has largely contributed to the current disease epidemic. Naturally, Whole Foods’ central philosophy has always been to consume whole foods.

Curiously though, absent of the whole food pillar is whole milk. Instead, Whole Foods suggests consuming low-fat dairy which is itself a refined food. This is a strange paradox of most healthy eating plans that promote whole foods except when they contain fat. More on this later.

Nutrient Dense

Whole Foods suggests consuming foods with the highest nutrient density. Throughout the store, many foods are marked with an ANDI (aggregate nutrient density index) score, which signifies nutrient density. If you recall my article on meat and disease, then you may remember that these numbers are fudged. This system was developed by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, a Member Physician of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) (a vegan front group that masquerades as an independent scientific body promoting the pinnacle of non-partisan nutritional advice.. that’s just coincidentally vegan) ; it suggests that the highest scores are determined by the amount of nutrients per calorie in a food. There’s a little problem, though: Fuhrman doubles the numbers for plants and does not count the nutrients found in fats (fat soluble vitamins and fatty acids).

Basing nutrient density on calories is a very poor way to measure, for a few reasons. Firstly, as I’ve explained in other articles, calories are a nearly meaningless unit of measure. It’s not calories that make you fat; it’s a physiological reaction by the body to the food one eats. Not all calories are created equal, and it’s really sad that so many individuals in the field of health and nutrition do not get this.

Based on the ANDI system, skim milk is more nutrient dense than whole milk. If you understand that there are essential nutrients found in fat (which anyone who has studied basic nutrition should), then you should know that it is physically impossible for this to be true.

Plant Strong

This term is borrowed from Rip Esselstyn who describes his vegan Engine 2 Diet as “plant strong”. Whole Foods suggest that plants should compose the majority of one’s diet. As we’ll learn later, they really try to promote a vegan diet. This is a turn off for some people, since they do not want to switch to a diet that completely eschews animal products, and others (like those who are gluten intolerant and/or those with nut allergies) would have significant trouble trying to sustain such a diet for the rest of their lives.

The promotion of a vegan diet as the end-all-be-all of healthy eating is a large mistake. This diet is undeniably deficient in essential fatty acids, fat soluble vitamins (especially those of animal origin like retinol and K2), cholesterol (yes, cholesterol is a nutrient), and B12.

Eschewing animal products as a whole leaves out some very nutrient dense foods from one’s diet, such as: eggs, raw dairy, bone broth, organ meats, and seafood. Of course, under the ANDI system, these products all would appear to have a low rating, but in reality, they are all very nutrient dense and highly supportive of your good health.

Healthy Fats

Interestingly, this pillar was originally called “low-fat”. I questioned Whole Foods regional management about this and they completely denied that they support a low fat diet, but I’ve got the documentation to prove that this was indeed originally called “low fat”. You’ll find that all the individuals who make up their “scientific advisory board” support a diet that is low (or very low) in total fat and they also promote the consumption of reduced fat dairy.

Regardless of this word play, Whole Foods takes the same stance against saturated fats like most everyone else. Typically, they make the unbacked claim that saturated fats correlate with heart disease by clogging arteries and there is simply no evidence to suggest this.

Whole Foods takes this one step further though, because unlike others, they do not promote so-called “heart healthy” polyunsaturated vegetable oils. Whole Foods rightly cautions against the consumption of these newfangled foods, but for reasons different from mine. I feel that polyunsaturated fats in general should be avoided because they contain a strong imbalance of omega 3 to omega 6, while Whole Foods feels that all extracted oils (including olive oil) are empty calories and can increase cholesterol via weight gain.

Whole Foods’ stance against all extracted oils is a head scratcher for me. Dr. Fuhrman claims on his website that olive oil is dangerous because it contains 14% saturated fat, but there is no evidence that 14% or 50% or any particular percentage of saturated fats are correlative with heart disease. Fuhrman also says that olive oil can increase weight gain because it adds calories to a meal but doesn’t add fiber or protein. Fuhrman seems to have something against fat since he fails to mention fatty acids and fat soluble vitamins which are still present in the olive oil. The claim that these extra calories from fat will lead to weight gain needs a citation, but you won’t find one, because weight gain isn’t as simple as just calories. Cooking foods in butter or coconut oil, for example, will lead to weight loss since the fat will help the body with insulin resistance (high insulin levels lead to weight gain) and medium chain fatty acids burn fat.

The works supporting the program

To be fair, when I say Whole Foods supports these claims, really what they are doing is relying on a handful of individuals that make up their Scientific Advisory Board. This board is composed of 4 PCRM board members, 1 PCRM member physician, and 3 ethical vegans:

  • Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn (PCRM board member)
  • Dr. John McDougall (PCRM board member)
  • John Robbins (ethical vegan)
  • Dr. Neal Barnard (PCRM president)
  • Dr. Joel Furhman (PCRM member physician)
  • Dr. Michael Klaper (ethical vegan)
  • Dr. Scott Stoll (ethical vegan)
  • Dr. T. Colin Campbell (PCRM board member)

Do you sense a conflict of interest here? Is it any wonder that a vegan diet is promoted as the pinnacle of good health?

Whole Foods also promotes certain books and other materials rather heavily to either influence one’s diet or help assist it, such as:

The Engine 2 Diet

The first one is The Engine 2 Diet, by Rip Esselstyn (son of the Dr. Esselstyn mentioned above). Rip is a former athlete and firefighter; his book talks a lot about how firefighters have to be in good condition and they can’t afford to drop dead of a heart attack while in a burning building. Rip’s book continues on with the themes of heart disease and fitness. The Engine 2 solution to the current diet dilemma is to just eat lots of plants. He offers no real direction or advice on how to balance a vegan diet, just “eat lots of plants”. Rip of course can’t help but promulgate the myth of saturated fats being correlative with heart disease on a number of pages.

In his book, Rip claims that our athletic performance will improve after switching to a “low fat plant strong diet”. I guess Rip has never heard of the Kalenjin people of Kenya, who have more championship Olympic runners than any other country in the world. The Kalenjin are a pastoral tribe, so they eat meat, and a whopping 50% of their calories comes from raw milk products such as mursik, which is a dietary staple among the Kalenjin. Amazing, isn’t it, how collectively 40% of all championship Olympic runners are Kalenjin and they consume a diet that supposedly will give them heart disease.

The Engine 2 book is filled with other gems throughout the “myths and truths” section. Rip claims that the only nutrient missing in a vegan diet is B12, but one can easily overcome that by eating nutritional yeast and fortified foods. Assimilation of B12 from nutritional yeast is rather low, and the assimilation of any vitamin from a fortified food is quite low as well. Rip also has no problem promoting the myth that “excess consumption of dairy leeches calcium from the bones”. This is based on observational data that shows high rates of osteoporosis in countries with high dairy consumption. If you read my previously mentioned article, then you will likely know that this in itself is not proof. In addition to calcium, dairy also contains vitamin D and cholesterol which assist in the assimilation of calcium. What do you think most Americans are deficient in, considering the trend of low-fat, vitamin-fortified, and cholesterol-free foods?

Eat To Live

The second book that is offered as a guideline is Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s Eat to Live. Fuhrman’s book proposes that one consume foods with the highest nutrient density (labeled a “Nutritarian diet”) based on Fuhrman’s own ANDI scoring system. This program is, in my opinion, a bone thrown to those who don’t want to switch to veganism, because you can consume up to 10% of your total calories as (low-fat) animal products. While Fuhrman gets some things right (nutrient density is always good, and he even suggests to soak grains, nuts, and legumes), it ultimately fails in the end. Chris Masterjohn writes in his review of the book:

Fuhrman’s calculations of nutrient density suffer from three fatal flaws: first, he excludes from these calculations many nutrients known to be essential to the body while doubling the score of other putative nutrients whose physiological functions are uncertain; second, he fails to account for variations in the bioavailability of nutrients between foods; third, he groups all nutrients present in a food into a single score as if they were interchangeable, rather than acknowledging that different types of foods provide different types of nutrients.

His definition of nutrient density as nutrients per calorie can be valuable for someone whose first priority is to restrict calories, but it can be inappropriate for others. Rather than instructing the reader about how to judiciously use the ten percent of calories allotted to animal products to select the most nutrient-dense of these foods, Fuhrman dismisses their nutritional contribution as insignificant. Although the premise of Eat to Live—nutrient density—is solid, his assumptions in the application of this principle seriously diminish the value that this book will have to many readers and may even lead some down a path that will ultimately damage their health.

I’ve been talking about deficiencies, and Fuhrman actually confirms that sometimes his patients who follow his nutritarian diet, especially the vegans, develop a deficiency in:

  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin B12
  • DHA Omega 3
  • Taurine
  • Idodine

Aside from vitamin B12, the others are not present in the ANDI scoring. Chris Masterjohn mentions in his review:

According to the explanation of this ranking system posted on Fuhrman’s web site, he also excludes a number of other important nutrients. The B vitamins biotin and pantothenic acid, preformed vitamin A, and vitamins K1 and K2 are among those absent. Major minerals such as sodium, chloride, potassium, sulfur, and phosphorus are excluded. Essential trace minerals such as copper, manganese, boron, molybdenum, and chromium are nowhere to be found in Fuhrman’s list. Essential fatty acids like EPA, DHA and arachidonic acid are likewise absent. Finally, none of the eight essential amino acids is included in his ranking system.

Fuhrman excludes a whole host of essential nutrients from his list while including a number of non-essential nutrients. Some non-essential nutrients are actually required by the body but are not considered essential because we can synthesize them ourselves. Other non-essential nutrients are not required by the body but may nevertheless be beneficial because they can absorb free radicals—dangerous compounds with unpaired electrons that can wreak havoc on the cell—and thereby act as antioxidants. The selectivity with which Fuhrman includes non-essential nutrients heavily favors plant foods over animal foods and likewise favors compounds that play no essential role in the body and may even be harmful under certain circumstances over compounds that do play essential roles.

Many of the “antioxidants” in fruits and vegetables are actually potent inhibitors of enzyme activity. Some of them may reduce the levels of certain enzymes that some researchers believe promote cancer. Many of them, however, especially those found in onions, kale, broccoli, apples, cherries, berries, tea and red wine, are potent inhibitors of a process that takes place in the liver called sulfonation. Sulfonation is necessary for the detoxification of drugs and environmental pollutants and the normal activity of steroid hormones and thyroid hormone. Because sulfonation can also make some chemicals more toxic, researchers have proposed that the inhibition of this process could be beneficial. Perhaps because the absorption of these compounds from many foods is negligible, or perhaps because they have so many conflicting effects on our metabolic processes, they are not associated with either an increase or a decrease in the risk of cancer.

While Fuhrman doubles the score of plant chemicals that play no essential role in the body, he completely excludes many nutrients found in animal foods that do play essential roles. Creatine is vital for muscle function; taurine is essential to digestion and the functioning of the brain and retina; carnitine and coenzyme Q10 are required for energy metabolism; carnosine functions as an antioxidant, protects DNA and proteins from being destroyed by sugars that run amuck, and plays important roles in the nervous system. None of these nutrients—not even taurine, which Fuhrman himself says is sometimes deficient in his vegan patients—is included.

As can be seen, either Fuhrman relies on data that is either unknown to many health experts, or he simply chooses to leave out these details that are rather important. How odd that plant numbers are doubled in Fuhrman’s ANDI scoring, but more than two dozen nutrients found in animal products are completely ignored. If a nutrient-dense diet ignores a range of essential nutrients, then is it really nutrient-dense after all?

Supplemental material

One book that gets name-dropped all the time in vegan circles and that is heavily relied upon as the defacto proof that animal protein correlates with cancer is The China Study, by Dr. T. Colin Campbell. Campbell’s evidence relies on 2 separate studies. The first was an epidemiological study done in China which found that those who consumed the most animal protein had the most disease (see my quick post for a simple understanding of what’s wrong with epidemiological studies). The second piece of evidence was a biochemical isolation study where Campbell fed either powdered casein or gluten to rats and found that the rats who ate the casein died of cancer, but the rats that switched to gluten had the cancer halted. In my article Will Ditching Meat Save You from Disease?, I elaborated on how poorly controlled such a study is:

..in regards to the rat study, this was seriously flawed. In fact, the way the study was designed really makes one wonder if Campbell was purposely making the study flawed to get the results he wanted (that meat is bad and plant protein is divine). The rats were given powdered casein as the representative of the “meat group”. They weren’t given real meat, or milk, or eggs, or any whole food animal product. Instead, they were given a powdered protein isolate that I can assure you I wouldn’t touch with a 10 ½ ft pole! Really, I am not surprised that feeding rats powdered casein gives them cancer, not at all. In addition to the casein being removed from the vitamins and fatty acids that are naturally found with it, it’s quite likely that the source came from conventional milk which is cancerous when treated with growth hormones. Even if Campbell’s source came from a healthy, pastured cow, it’s still likely that isolated protein (especially when powdered) can trigger cancer. An easy way to test this would be to give rats powdered casein that comes from rat milk (since all breast milk contains casein). But surprise, surprise: Campbell never investigated this.

My qualms about the study’s controls aside, Denise Minger actually took the time to read through the “China Study” (not the book that Campbell wrote, but the actual study with all the raw data) and it is undeniable that the data in the study doesn’t support the conclusions that Campbell came to. Really, the data showed an interesting conclusion that was opposite of what Campbell claimed: animal protein protects against cancer.

The last piece of information that Whole Foods heavily promotes is the documentary Forks Over Knives. This film essentially discusses the work of some of the PCRM board members, as well as other select studies. Denise Minger did an extremely thorough critique of the film (~40pgs, I believe). I really should write an abridged version of this review, but until then, here is a very short summary of the heavy flaws in the film, from Minger:

  • Hey, fatty. A major component of Esselstyn’s heart-disease-reversal diet is the massive reduction in fat—not just from animal sources, but also the elimination of nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, olive oil, canola oil, coconut, and any other forms of concentrated plant fat; this movie barely mentioned this part of Esselstyn’s program. By keeping fat under 10% of total calories, omega-6 intake—particularly the problematic linoleic acid—sinks. Although these plant-based-diet doctors have a different view of fat than I do (Esselstyn, for instance, believes that any dietary fat damages the endothelial cells and promotes heart disease), it still would’ve been useful to hear about this in the movie, if only for the sake of full disclosure. I almost wonder if the movie’s creators dodged the “uber low fat” message to avoid freaking out the audience. What? We can’t even put olive oil on that ten-pound salad?! 
  • Go fish. Some of the anecdotes used to support a plant-based diet (such as Norway’s war-time cuisine and the traditional Japanese diet) actually point to marine foods being a great addition to your menu. For some reason, no one in the movie says a gosh darn thing about fish. Are they lumping fish into the same “meat” category as Oscar Mayer Weiners? Have they forgotten that fish exists in the food supply? Are they ignoring the health benefits of marine foods that nearly everyone—even the folks who swear on their momma’s grave that red meat will kill you—agrees on? What’s going on here?
  • Welcome to False Dichotomyville—population: you. According to this movie, “plant-based diet” and “Standard American diet” are the only two ways you can possibly eat, and an egg is exactly the same as a bag of Cheetos. A recent pingback led me to this review, which nicely sums up the movie’s flip-flopping description of America’s cuisine: “the definition of the Western diet changes suddenly, one second referring to cake and donuts and the next [to] animal products.” Animal foods, it seems, are synonymous with the Western diet, and meat exists only in industrialized countries. Non-Westernized populations like the Masai, traditional Inuit, Australian aborigines, and countless hunter-gatherers have conveniently vanished for the duration of this movie. It must be awesome to selectively choose reality like that!

A week of meals and the 28-day challenge

On Whole Foods’ website they offer a sample menu for this diet as part of a 28-day challenge. In the interest of saving space, I won’t go over each food in detail, but it is obvious that this diet is deficient in essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, fat soluble vitamins, and cholesterol. It also seems to be rather rich in foods that contain enzyme inhibitors (unprepared grains, beans, nuts, and legumes), and other nutrient blockers (phytates and saponins).

Jimmy Moore, of Livin’ La Via Low Carb, made a great post about Whole Foods’ online health immersion program. Individuals fill out a survey noting their diet, height, weight, and cholesterol, and then are given a bunch of nonsensical scares based on the previously cited poor science. Jimmy was told that his diet put him at an extreme risk of a heart attack, but his heart scan showed zero buildup in his arteries. Throughout the length of the program, Jimmy notes that the individual is encouraged to cut back more and more on animal products. Jimmy is correct when he says that the amount of allowable animal products is so slim that one may as well be vegan; there really is little difference. This of course pokes a hole in the “we’re not trying to make people vegan” argument Whole Foods is making.

Final thoughts

Many people will likely look at this article and be outraged that Whole Foods supports such a wretched dietary program. Indeed, Whole Foods really made a mistake by handing the program over to the PCRM and not taking an integrative approach to healthy eating. I had tried to ask this of Whole Foods’ corporate management that oversee this program, and the only answer I got was that “we’re not trying to make people vegan, we’re just saying eat more plants” and “it is integrative; we have a program for meat eaters, vegetarians, and vegans”. Really though, it is John Mackey, the head of Whole Foods, who shoulders the blame for this because he personally follows the Engine 2 Diet, which is how all of this came into being.

Regardless of Whole Foods’ disastrous nutrition advice, it is still a great company. Whole Foods does a lot to help their local neighborhoods, as well as back positive environmental programs, and they pay their workers a fair wage. Boycotting Whole Foods won’t change their nutrition program; it will just affect those that work at the store itself. It is debatable if change will ever come, considering how the PCRM is running the show now. The best thing you can possibly do to incite change is to contact John Mackey and Whole Foods’ corporate management, and express to them what a mistake they have made. Back your statements with as much science as you can muster. I fear that anything less will fall on deaf ears.

I really don’t mind that Whole Foods offers a vegan nutrition program. What I take issue with is that Whole Foods mistakenly promotes this as the ultimate dietary way (there is no evidence to support this claim), that animal products are correlative with disease (again, an unfounded claim), and that they didn’t have the sense to make this program more integrative. Whole Foods’ program will only continue the nutritional confusion that so many people face. The unfounded claims by Whole Foods advisory board (there’s not much science to it) will further drive the false notion that people carry in their heads that animal products, dietary fat, saturated fats, and cholesterol are all bad for your health and that animal products are low in nutritional value. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. Slowly, people are starting to understand this, but it will still take a while longer for it to be accepted as fact and Whole Foods’ dietary dogma isn’t going to help things any.