If there were a drug that could not only stop heart disease and type 2 diabetes but reverse it, would you take it?
Oh, and it may also cure some cancers, stop Alzheimer’s disease and treat depression — how about now?
It is safe — the drug has no harmful side effects. It only seems to have benefits, including an improvement in your sex life.
You might demand a prescription right this minute from your doctor and bust down the pharmacy doors to get a lifetime supply.
Except it doesn’t require a prescription and it’s not available at the drug store.
That’s because it’s not a drug at all. It is a plant-based diet.
Well, that’s just crazy, you might think. That’s way too extreme.
In this era of growing awareness that holistic wellness is firmly rooted in physical health, it might be time to think the unthinkable.
The current American diet clearly is not leading to peak health.
Seven in 10 Americans are either overweight or obese, according to federal statistics. And it is only getting worse with younger generations. Extreme obesity was rare 50 years ago. Now, nearly 10 percent of people ages 12 to 19 tip that end of the scale, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Americans are living larger, but also shorter. Starting in 2015, the United States began its first sustained increase in mortality rates since the flu pandemic of 1918.
All the top causes of death in the United States have a lifestyle connection. Excluding accidents, the top causes of death are:
This is actually more of a top five list because heart disease and strokes are both considered a cardiovascular disease, which Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn calls a “foodborne” illness.
Esselstyn became a proponent of a plant-based diet in the late 1970s when he was treating women for breast cancer in Cleveland. He was frustrated with perpetually operating to remove cancer rather than preventing it. When he looked for answers globally, he noticed that Kenya had a fraction of the U.S. breast cancer rate.
Then he found the same dynamic in Japan, which has the world’s highest life expectancy. He also saw that when Japanese women moved to the United States, within a generation or two, they had the same breast cancer rate as the average American. Prostate cancer was another rare condition — killing only 18 men in all of Japan in 1958.
These cultures also lacked heart disease. It was simply non-existent. Back at the Cleveland Clinic, Esselstyn asked for a small group of patients with advanced heart disease to treat. A colleague called them “the walking dead.”
Within a month and a half, their conditions reversed with a plant-based diet. He is far from the first physician or researcher to see these results.
Researchers such as Dr. Dean Ornish have shown that a vegan diet can reverse heart disease, type 2 diabetes and maybe even cancer.
The Blue Zones book was the result of another comparison of cultures by Dan Buettner. He identified five areas where people lived longer, healthier lives, meaning they would age into their 90s and 100s still tending their gardens and the other chores and joys of their lives.
These were disparate cultures with little in common except a diet that was almost all plant-based. One of them was Okinawa, for example. Before significant Western contact, the residents had among the highest number of people in their 100s who were also still in good health. Even though Okinawa was the poorest of Japan’s 47 prefectures, it was also the healthiest.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a Cornell University researcher, found that the traditional Okinawan diet was 70 percent sweet potato. Yes, loaded with carbs.
And although they lived on an island, their diet was only 1 percent fish.
Until 1949, that is. Even though World War II smashed into the island, the impact was not as devastating as the Western diet that followed. Since then, longevity has been plummeting and obesity increasing — growing along with Western diseases, such as heart disease and cancer.
How Does It Work?
So, why does a plant-based diet improve health? Key reasons have to do with inflammation, oxidation and cholesterol. Scientists argue over which one causes cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. For example, LDL cholesterol has been implicated in heart disease but lately some scientists have argued it is more related to inflammation.
Here is a simple answer: all three are related to animal products. They are also related to each other, one giving rise to the other.
Inflammation: When your body protects itself, it produces the conditions leading to inflammation, such as a lump on the head after a bump. You do the same when you consume animal products. It is your body saying that this stuff does not belong there. Inflammation leads to many conditions — arthritis, of course, but also nearly every other major illness, such as heart disease, cancer, auto-immune disorders and even depression. With any of these conditions, it is no surprise that one of the first things a doctor will usually talk about is diet.
Oxidation: When you see rust, you are looking at oxidation. Technically, it is the loss of an electron from a molecule or atom. In your body, that creates an unstable element (aka, a free radical) that floats around, looking to bind with something else. Those free radicals are actually beneficial in getting rid of toxins, but are really damaging when they overwhelm antioxidants. Free radicals can break down tissue, organs, DNA and proteins.
Oxidative stress has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and cancer, along with many other maladies. A leading culprit is heme iron, the kind you get from animal products. That iron is more readily absorbed in the body, but it is too much of the wrong kind of iron because it produces excess free radicals. Antioxidants from berries, nuts and dark chocolate (woo-hoo!) help achieve a healthy balance.
Cholesterol: Your body generates its own cholesterol and you do not need it from other sources, which would be animal protein and fat — meat, dairy and fish. Fruits, vegetables and grains do not have cholesterol. Even high-fat plant foods, such as nuts, do not contain cholesterol. Your body cannot burn off cholesterol as it can other fats. There is no “good” cholesterol that you could consume, only what your body makes.
Yeah, But …
Someone hearing all this might say, “Yeah, but you aren’t getting the essential nutrients …” So, here are a few common ones.
Vitamin B12: People suddenly get really worried about B12 when the subject of a vegan diet comes up. And B12 is in fact vital for nerve and blood cell health. But B12 is produced by bacteria in the ground — not by animals or plants. It gets into animals through contamination or supplementation. Basically, before humans discovered hygiene, we were lapping up all sorts of B12. According to a Tufts University study, 40 percent of Americans don’t have enough B12 — a percentage far surpassing the vegan population (about 3 percent of the total U.S. population). Supplementing is the only way to get B12 and there is some argument that the most effective absorption is from drops under the tongue (sublingually).
Omega-3: This fat protects cell walls. A lack of omega-3 contributes to many maladies, including heart disease and stroke. Omega-3 must be ingested because animals cannot create it. Fish has been identified as a good source, but the Journal of the American Medical Association published an analysis in 2018 of 10 studies that showed “supplementation with marine-derived omega-3 fatty acids for a mean of 4.4 years had no significant association with reductions in fatal or nonfatal coronary heart disease or any major vascular events.” In fact, because that omega-3 is derived from fatty fish at the top of the food chain, such as salmon, it is accompanied by many toxic substances, particularly mercury. Plant-based sources are walnuts and seeds such as flax and chia (all good to put into your almond milk yogurt!).
Calcium: This mineral is essential to bone health and has long been associated with cow’s milk. But where do cows get it? They used to get it through pasture grass, but now alfalfa or other grass is added to their feed. Leafy greens such as kale provide a high level of calcium that is actually better absorbed than calcium from dairy. Also, studies have shown that countries with high dairy consumption have a higher osteoporosis rate than other countries.
Those are just a few of the objections that naysayers make. But those arguments ignore the larger picture: More and more research shows that meat and dairy consumption is linked to most serious diseases; just as more studies bear out the healthy benefits of a plant-based diet.
Three researchers from the University of Limerick concluded a meta-analysis of inflammation’s role in chronic disease with a dash of ancient wisdom:
“Nature has provided us with a wide range of dietary weapons, which, if appropriately combined in dietary patterns such as the Med-diet, can beneficially contribute to improving our quality of life, health, and life expectancy by equilibrating the inflammatory milieu to normal levels and thus preventively reducing the risk of inflammation-related chronic disorders. Let us not forget the words of Hippocrates of Kos (460-377 BC), who is universally recognized as the father of modern medicine: ‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.’”
Plant-Based Vs. Vegan
A vegan diet is plant-based but a plant-based diet is not necessarily vegan.
Both eliminate any animal products — meat, fish and dairy — but the motivation is different. That is a general understanding, however. Even some people in those categories use the terms interchangeably.
VEGAN: This is more of a lifestyle built around not exploiting animals in any way. Not only would it exclude animal products in diet but also in clothing and in other products. For example, they might avoid products that were tested on animals.
PLANT-BASED: This phrase has become popular as people go without animal products for health rather than ethics. Some do not like the association with the word “vegan.” And on the other hand, some vegans want to distinguish themselves as doing it for animals.
But Where Do You Get Your Protein?
Tom Nowak knows what you would probably ask about his vegan diet.
“Where do you get your protein?” he said, but could not help chuckling as he recalled the typical reaction. “That’s not the real question. It’s where do vegans get their patience?”
That is because protein deficiency in any diet with sufficient calories is rare. In fact, many of the planet’s largest animals, such as elephants, are herbivores. Powerful apes and gorillas are almost exclusively herbivores.
Before Nowak was a financial advisor, he was a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry. So he knows something about biochemistry — enough to know that protein comes from plants. When humans eat animals, they are consuming the protein that the animal’s body made from plants.
“That’s how everybody else gets their protein and we are just buffaloed, so to speak, into believing the messaging out there that vegans can’t get enough protein,” Nowak said. “Even though the best tennis player in the world is vegan; the No. 1 weightlifter is vegan. I met an 85-year-old triathlete and she’s a vegan. So they get plenty of protein.”
If anything, Americans suffer from too much protein. It might seem that if some protein grows muscle, then more protein would be better, but excess protein does not build muscle it grows fat. Excess protein, particularly the kind from animals, overloads kidneys and is considered a factor in the increase in renal failure.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s daily recommendation is 56 grams of protein for men and 46 for women. Although some researchers are doubting if that is too high, Americans are already doubling that by taking in about 100 grams a day.
In fact, even with all the growing attention to healthier eating, Americans ate more red meat and poultry than ever, 222.2 pounds per person in 2018, according to the USDA. — Steven A. Morelli