Plant-based diet: Let food be thy medicine

Plant-based diet: Let food be thy medicine

Team ErbologyErbology

A plant-based diet is increasingly seen as a way to truly combat chronic diseases and improve overall health. What's the evidence behind these claims - and does eating a plant-based diet really lead to better health?

June 21, 2022 9:51 am

Pitfalls of the Western lifestyle

Here in the West, we enjoy a quality of life which is among the best in the world. Our medical system treats many illnesses incredibly effectively, and we’ve managed to curb the effects of some of the world’s most dangerous diseases.

Public hospitals, the private health-care industry, and pharmaceutical companies centre around the treatment of infectious and acute diseases. These are usually caused by viruses or bacterial infections, and include strep throat, malaria and cholera, among many others. Acute diseases come on quickly and, with the right treatment, often end quickly, too.

However, there is another subset of disease to which we, in the West, are particularly vulnerable. These are chronic diseases, which come on slowly and can often affect people over a long period of time. Diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes fall into this category.

Although there is no one identifiable cause for chronic diseases, the answer may lie in ‘nurture’ rather than ‘nature’. While some people are vulnerable to certain diseases because of their genes, research has shown that only 10% to 20% of the risk of suffering from heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases is down to our genes.(1)

That means a lot of the factors which determine our overall health are under our own control.

Lifestyle choices and illness

Many believe that lifestyle and diet are the biggest contributors. of chronic diseases, a stance which is supported by scientific research.(2)

Unlike many cultures around the world, in the West we’re particularly prone to eating lots of processed foods, not exercising enough, and spending most of the day sitting down at a desk or watching television.

To deal with chronic disease, we can’t rely on the same treatments as we do for acute disease (such as vaccinations, courses of antibiotics etc.). Instead, we have to make changes to our lifestyle at a more fundamental level.

Using our diet as a way of combating chronic disease might seem novel, but actually the concept has been around for a very long time! The Greek physician Hippocrates, known as the father of Western medicine, sums it up best: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”



"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." Hippocrates

Plant-based food as medicine

The scientist Dr. Michael Greger has taken up this concept in the modern day and has devoted his life to studying the use of food as medicine. He advises that a diet based around plant-based whole foods is the best available for preserving our health.

A ‘plant-based’ diet, as the name suggests, contains only foods which come from plants. Nothing that is made from, or comes from, animals is included. This means dairy, meat and eggs are all off the menu.

Meanwhile, the term ‘whole foods’ refers to foods which have been minimally processed, with the aim of leaving them as close as possible to their natural state. Whole foods include whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa, as well as fruits, vegetables and legumes. Eating whole foods can be beneficial because processing, such as cooking, pasteurising, preserving or curing foods often has the effect of diminishing their nutritional value.

There is some evidence that following this kind of diet can help protect you from lifestyle diseases, both before and after their onset.

In his popular book, “How Not to Die”, Greger cites a study which suggests that diet may be better than drugs at treating heart disease, even after signs of the disease are present. Doctors involved in this study put patients suffering from heart disease on a plant-based diet. Not only was the progression of disease delayed, but plaque in the patients’ arteries actually started to melt away!(3)

In another study, an impressive 82% of the patients suffering from heart disease who started following a plant-based diet reported improvement.(4) No other diet shows the same results.

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Solutions to a health crisis

Dr. Greger is far from the only nutrition expert who recognises the potential of a plant-based diet. Alarming trends in lifestyle diseases in the West have alerted many people to the need to change the way we live.

In some parts of America 39% of the population is obese. It’s a figure that is rising rapidly and represents a trend which is spreading across the world.(5)

While many of us are becoming more aware of the effects our diet has on our health, unhealthy foods such as junk food, overly processed food and products high in fat, salt and sugar are still extremely popular. For most of us, they continue to make a regular appearance in the food we eat.

Switching to a diet which is more centred around plant-based foods helps to eliminate some of the more dangerous animal fats from our diet. Meanwhile, eating whole foods eliminates over-processing.

That said, diet alone isn’t enough to combat obesity and lifestyle diseases. As we all know, exercise is also a key part of any healthy lifestyle.

Which foods to eat…

It’s also important to recognise that following a vegetarian or vegan diet doesn’t necessarily mean you are eating healthily.

Processed peanut butter and jelly on white bread is a vegan meal, but it’s not a particularly nutritious one!

When choosing your food, try to ‘eat close to the earth’. That means choosing products which have undergone as little human interference as possible before reaching your plate.

If you need more specific advice, Dr. Michael Greger recommends a ‘daily dozen’ list of foods to get you started. It includes beans, berries, other fruits, flaxseeds, nuts, spices, and cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli. Add leafy greens, other vegetables and whole grains, with a side dish of exercise, and you’ll be well on your way to eating well for your health.

Dr. Greger’s list isn’t prescriptive, but you might find it useful in the early stages of changing your diet. We’d encourage you to experiment and explore. You may find that some other balance of foods works best for your needs and lifestyle.


… and which to avoid

Which foods should you especially avoid? That’s easy – anything processed. But what exactly does that mean?

A few examples include fast food, white sugar, white grains like white rice and white bread, anything in a package like biscuits, crisps, and sugar-laden breakfast cereals. You should also keep an eye on your intake of processed meats like sandwich meats, sausages, and bacon.

Of course, it’s entirely up to you how prescriptively you stick to these guidelines. Some nutritionists advocate for a completely plant-based diet, and some think a more ‘omnivorous’ mix is fine. However, generally speaking, they all recommend eating more fruits, vegetables and whole foods, and avoiding processed foods.

You could also try transitioning into a more plant-based diet slowly, by making a few small changes over a period of time. You can decide how far you want to go, based o