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 8:51 am November 04, 2019 2:48 pm
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.