Can a Plant-Based Diet Help You Live Longer and Prevent/ Reverse Heart Disease, Cancer, Diabetes, and Other Chronic Illness? We are in the midst of a global epidemic of chronic disease. The incidence of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, behavioral health and dementia continues to rise despite the availability of better and more sophisticated medications and procedures. In some areas of the country, the rate of obesity is 39% and is increasing at a rate of 5% per year. Unhealthy diets consisting of processed foods, an over consumption of animal proteins, and an underconsumption of fiber and whole-plant foods; fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are now the top cause of chronic disease globally. Of all the diets recommended over the last few decades to turn the tide of these chronic illnesses, the best but perhaps least common may be those that are plant based. The Research A tidal wave of research has demonstrated that eating a predominantly plant-based diet high in antioxidants and phytonutrients, minimizing animal- derived foods, exercising and minimizing stress, is the best way to counteract inflammation, prevent chronic disease and can lead to a healthier, longer life. Vegans and vegetarians have the lowest rates of overweight and obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. The fiber in plants feed our healthy gut bacteria, which are crucial for promoting health, and the low fat content maintains favorable blood lipid levels, preventing fat from depositing in organs where it leads to malfunction. A low fat whole food plant-based diet is the only diet that has been shown to arrest and reverse atherosclerotic plaques in the heart arteries, responsible for causing heart attacks. The Ornish Program which utilizes exercise, a plant based diet and stress reduction is now covered by Medicare for most types of heart disease.
Current studies now demonstrate that his way of eating also reverse diabetes, fatty liver disease and early stages of prostate cancer. The more plant-based the diet after a diagnosis of breast and colon cancer the better the chance of remission and survival. The World Health Organization has attributed millions of deaths every year to inadequate fruit and vegetable intake. Other international health organizations also recommend plant-based diets for disease prevention, including the American College of Cardiology and the World Cancer Research Fund. It described the ‘planetary health diet’ as being optimal and it is one that is more than 85% plant-based with less than 15% of calories recommended from meat and dairy. They also estimate that a global shift to this type of diet could save 11 million lives per year. This change in diet pattern is not only necessary for human health but for the health and sustainability of the planet. In one study, Fang Fang Zhang, MD, PhD, from Friedman School of Nutrition Science at Tufts University, and colleagues assessed dietary data from the 1999 to 2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to determine how the quality of a plant-based diet affects mortality compared with an animal-based diet. During a median follow-up of 7.8 years, participants who followed a higher quality plant-based diet were 27% less likely to die of any cause and 37% less likely to die of cancer.
In 2006, after reviewing data from 87 published studies, authors Berkow and Barnard reported in Nutrition Reviews that a vegan or vegetarian diet is highly effective for weight loss. They also found that vegetarian populations have lower rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. In addition, their review suggests that weight loss in vegetarians is not dependent on exercise and occurs at a rate of approximately 1 pound per week. The authors further stated that a vegan diet caused more calories to be burned after meals, in contrast to nonvegan diets which may cause fewer calories to be burned because food is being stored as fat. Why hasn’t my doctor recommended I go on a plant based diet? Despite the strong body of evidence favoring plant-based diets, including studies showing a willingness of the general public to embrace them, many physicians are not stressing the importance of plant-based diets as a first-line treatment for chronic illnesses. This could be because of a lack of awareness of these diets or a lack of patient education resources. Most physicians do not receive extensive education in nutritional studies while in medical school.
It took almost 17 years from when it was discovered that smoking was dangerous until the public was fully informed and advised against smoking. During this period of time, many doctors still smoked. One can only imagine that the industries that could be detrimentally impacted by shifts in public behavior toward plant based diets may have taken a page out of the playbook of the tobacco industry to ensure that this did not happen to their industries – meat, dairy, fast foods, processed snacks, the list goes on. The economic disruptions could be huge. And yet the economic impact of our current health crises ravages on. The Debate Where will I get my protein and nutrients? Whole food, balanced plant-based diets are not a risk for protein deficiency. Proteins are made up of amino acids, some of which, called essential amino acids, cannot be synthesized by the body and must be obtained from food. Essential amino acids can be obtained by eating combinations of plant-based foods. A well-balanced, plant-based diet will provide adequate amounts of essential amino acids and prevent protein deficiency.
What about Soy? A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that women with breast cancer who regularly consumed soy products had a 32% lower risk of breast cancer recurrence and a 29% decreased risk of death, compared with women who consumed little or no soy.
What about other nutrients? Plant-based diets often contain more nutrients and fiber than those eating a “standard American diet” with the one exception – B12, an inexpensive supplement that should be taken once a week.
The Change Too often, physicians ignore the potential benefits of good nutrition and quickly prescribe medications instead of giving patients a chance to correct their disease through healthy eating and active living. If we are to slow down the obesity epidemic and reduce the complications of chronic disease, we must consider changing our culture’s mind-set from “live to eat” to “eat to live.” The future of health care will involve an evolution toward a paradigm where the prevention and treatment of disease is centered, not on a pill or surgical procedure, but on another serving of fruits and vegetables.
Current published medical guidelines are advising physicians to start talking about eating healthy, whole, plant-based foods (primarily fruits and vegetables) and minimizing consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products to their staff and patients.