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Plant-based diet: Let food be thy medicine

Is Western medicine, taken on its own, enough to deal with chronic diseases?

November 13, 2019 2:17 pm

Sick is sick, right? Wrong! Understanding the types of illnesses that we suffer from is important to understanding why we suffer from them. For instance, acute illnesses – which, we promise, are anything but cute – happen quickly and end quickly. Causes of acute illnesses are often viruses or infections. Acute illnesses include strep throat. Similarly, bacteria, germs, viruses, and other external organisms cause infectious diseases. Malaria and cholera are infectious diseases.

On the other hand, nothing immediately identifiable causes chronic illnesses. They start slowly and end slowly. Cancer, heart disease, and diabetes are chronic diseases. However, many people believe that lifestyle and diet are the biggest contributors to chronic diseases. Further, research strongly backs this up.(1)

 

Sick in the West

Western medicine has been nothing short of miraculous in many cases. That is to say, Western medicine is brilliant at treating many acute illnesses and infectious diseases that were unbelievably tough to fight in the past. This is why public hospitals, the private health-care industry, and pharmaceutical companies centre around the treatment of infectious and acute diseases.

However, chronic diseases are the biggest threat to health in today’s developed world. Further, the Western diet of processed foods and the Western lifestyle of working behind a desk and then watching television – all whilst sitting down – is spreading to the rest of the world. Chronic diseases will follow. Is Western medicine, taken on its own, enough to deal with chronic diseases?

As with so much else, ancient wisdom has had the answer all along – it’s modern humanity that has forgotten it. The Greek physician Hippocrates, known as the father of Western medicine no less, said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

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

Plant-based whole foods…

Plant-based whole foods are increasingly seen as a way to truly combat chronic diseases and improving overall health. They are also better for the environment! Whole foods are foods that are much less processed or altered from their natural state. Plant-based foods come from plants. Nothing that comes from animals – that means dairy, meat, eggs or dairy – is included in plant-based dishes. Research suggests that this type of diet is effective prevention against chronic disease. It may have even more influence than just prevention. We’ll tell you about this in the next section.

… as medicine

Certainly, the scientist Dr. Michael Greger has devoted his life to studying the phenomenon of plant-based whole foods as medicine. Consequently, in his important book “How Not to Die”, Greger cites a study which suggests that diet may be better than drugs even after heart disease is present. For instance, 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!(2) In another study, 82% of the patients suffering from heart disease who started following a plant-based diet reported improvement. That is a startlingly high rate.(3) No other diet shows the same results.

Research also suggests that only 10% to 20% of the risk of suffering from heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases is down to our genes.(4) Therefore, that puts a huge onus of responsibility on the individual. In other words, you are accountable for much – not all – of your own health. In the same vein, Dr. Greger was motivated to start his life’s work by witnessing what happened to his grandmother. She was told by doctors that she would live only a few more weeks. However, she recovered through a plant-based diet. Further, there have been many stories like this floating around for years. How to substantiate them through scientific research? Certainly, that is what Dr. Greger sees as his task.

 

Solutions to a health crisis

However, Dr. Greger is far from the only one. That is to say, in some parts of America 39% of the people are obese. Further, it’s a figure that is rising rapidly and a trend which is spreading across the world. No wonder that many are deeply alarmed about what this means and trying to find possible solutions.(5)

Of course, plant-based eating on its own is not a miracle cure. Accompanying a good diet with regular exercise is very important, among other factors. Still, taking a step away from animal fats and towards fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes is definitely a step in the right direction.

Which foods to eat…

Just because you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet does not mean that you are healthy. Processed peanut butter and jelly on white bread is a vegan meal, but it’s not a particularly nutritious one. Your mantra should be to eat close to the earth. That means as little human interference as possible before something reaches your plate.

Dr. Michael Greger is very helpful here too. His specific recommendations give a clear place to start if you need an introduction to basing your diet on plant-based whole foods. His “Daily Dozen” includes beans, berries, other fruits, flaxseeds, nuts, spices, and cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli. And leafy greens, other vegetables, whole grains… topped off with healthy beverages, with exercise the fresh, organic cherry on top of this very healthy sundae!

There are other ways of grouping plant-based whole foods. If you explore further, you may find that some other balance of foods works best for your needs and lifestyle.

… and which to avoid

What foods should you especially avoid? That’s easy – anything processed. But what exactly does that mean? Fast food, white sugar, white grains like white rice and white bread, anything in a package like biscuits, crisps, and sugar-laden breakfast cereals. Processed meats like sandwich meats, sausages, and bacon.

It’s important to remember that everyone is different and some folks would prefer a slow transition into a new way of eating, or to keep their options open. Whatever way you lean, there’s a way to incorporate some basic principles of plant-based eating into your life.

 

What about protein?

There are some common preconceptions about a plant-based diet. Many people believe that animal protein is necessary to optimum health, especially for athletes and fitness buffs. However, plant-based foods contain all the nine essential amino acids that our body cannot produce on its own. From these amino acids, our body can make protein. Further, we only need one gram of protein per kilogram of our body weight, not the huge amount that you may believe.(6)

… and nutrients?

A plant-based diet can also provide all of the nutrients that your body needs. Calcium? Eat almonds, leafy green vegetables, sesame seeds, or tahini among other possibilities. Omega-3 fatty acids? You could dress your salads with chia seed oil, walnut oil, or hemp oil. Iron? Sprinkle your porridge with nuts and seeds, accompanying them with fresh strawberries that will help your body absorb the iron. The Association of UK Dietitians has a very helpful guide that will ease you into a fuller understanding of what plant-based whole foods provide you with which nutrients.(7)

… and fat?

Your plant-based diet can also provide you with heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Nuts, avocados, and vegetable oils like olive oil all contain healthy fats. Animal fats are mainly saturated fats, which are much harder for your heart and body to process. A Harvard study suggested that taking in more plant-based fats lessened the risk of death by 16%, while eating more animal-based fats increased the risk by 21%.(8) Those are powerful numbers!

… and carbs?

Carbohydrates often have a bad name, but it’s simple carbs – which are processed carbohydrates like white rice and white bread – that are bad for you. A plant-based whole foods diet is full of complex carbs, which contain essential fibre. Vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, and whole grain bread are among the sources of complex carbs that are accessible to you on a plant-based whole food diet.

…. and more!

If you’re still pondering, ponder on. We just thought we should leave you with these thoughts. Research also suggests that a plant-based whole food diet can be an effective way to manage weight.(9) Unlike other diets, which may help you lose weight in the short term but may leave you unsatisfied and without essential nutrients, eating plant-based whole foods is a satisfying, sustainable long-term lifestyle.

Further, scientists have suggested that this type of diet may help prevent and care for hypertension and high cholesterol. It also lowers your risk of several types of cancer.(10) (11)

The best reason of all

The best reason of all to introduce more plant-based whole foods into your life? They are absolutely delicious! Granted, it may take your taste buds a while to come around if you are used to a different type of satisfaction from your food, but you will adjust. And then you’ll discover a deeply subtle and nuanced palette of flavours and textures that can be mixed and matched much more freely than animal-based, processed foods can be. If you have addressed any bad eating habits in the past – reducing consumption of sugary drinks or milk chocolate, for example – and noticed how you perceived the same foods differently just a bit down the road, you will be familiar with how this process works.

Hey, it’s a whole new world of possibilities. Flowered and planted beautifully.

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References

(1) Willett et al, “Prevention of Chronic Disease By Means of Diet and Lifestyle”, Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries, 2006, https://bit.ly/2QgzTqy.

(2) https://go.cms.gov/2NKxano.

(3) Ornish D, Scherwitz LW, Billings JH, et al. Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease. JAMA. 1998 Dec 16;280(23):2001–7. DOI: https://bit.ly/2CI2Hjr.

(4) Willett WC. “Balancing life-style and genomics research for disease prevention”. Science. 2002.

(5) Tuso et al, “Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets”, The Permanente Journal, Spring 2013, https://bit.ly/34WlJ1D.

(6) https://bit.ly/2qNq7S0.

(7) https://bit.ly/34Vm5pk.

(8) https://bit.ly/34YQV0c.

(9) Turner-McGrievy et al, “A plant-based diet for overweight and obesity prevention and treatment”, Journal of Geriatric Cardiology, 2017, https://bit.ly/2NHIukg.

(10) Alexander et al, “A plant-based diet and hypertension”, Journal of Geriatric Cardiology, 2017, https://bit.ly/2OaP0Po.

(11) Lanou, Amy Joy and Svenson, Barbara, “Reduced cancer risk in vegetarians: an analysis of recent reports,” Journal of Cancer Management and Research, 2010, https://bit.ly/2KibzR8.