If we recognize that life is precious, when it comes to investing in our long term health, we will not wish to gamble. Everyone knows that diet is important, but which diet will give the best long term results? If we are seeking advice on this subject, we won’t have far to look. Diet books abound, and the internet seems to be an inexhaustible source of information. But that is where the headache begins. The abundance of advice and opinions can easily lead to confusion. The “information” found on the internet can range from real information, based on outcomes from valid scientific and clinical research, to unexamined but sincere dogma, to misinformation, gossip and vested interest marketing at the expense of the consumer’s health.
As a doctor, I have devoted time and resources to searching out reliable information for myself, my family and my patients. A body of evidence supports role of a whole food, plant based diet in promoting health and preventing and reversing disease, especially cardiovascular disease which is a number one killer in the Western world.
The Seven Countries Study looked at the correlation between saturated fat in the diet and cardiovascular disease. The first phase of this study lasted 25 years, and indeed found a strong correlation. The bottom line: the less saturated fat in the diet, the less atherosclerotic disease and heart disease deaths. The more saturated fat in the diet, the more atherosclerotic heart disease and heart disease deaths. How much more disease and death? About 5 times more, or 500%.
The Framingham Study is a huge American epidemiological study, associated with Boston University and other Boston medical and academic institutions, and is now in its third generation. Over 1000 scientific papers have been published from the findings of this study alone. The one observation from this study that I wish to share is the following: virtually no heart attacks in patients whose cholesterol levels were less than 150. By the way, if one looks at one’s standard lab test results, the range of “normal” is up to 200. But do we want to be “normal” if normal means a higher than necessary risk of heart disease?
The China Study involved a collaboration between Cornell and Oxford Universities, and Chinese institutions, and looked at associations between patterns of eating and disease in 65 rural Chinese areas. The findings: an analysis of the Chinese diet showed it was high in fiber, and very low in animal foods, where the average Chinese would take a week to consume the amount of meat that an American would consume in a day. Average cholesterol was 127, and heart disease was extremely rare, about 1/17 or 6% of the American rate.
These and other data show that heart disease can be promoted or avoided, depending on dietary factors, and big differences in diet make for big changes.
Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr Caldwell Esselstyn have both carried out long term clinical studies on the effect of nutrition on patients with advanced atherosclerotic disease, using a very low fat plant based diet. They have both shown that, on such a diet, not only does coronary artery disease not progress, but blood flow improves and cholesterol plaque in the arteries of the heart is reduced.
It seems, incidentally that the same diet which is good for the heart is also good for preventing cancer and reducing symptoms and damage of autoimmune disease.
The plant based whole food diet means eating mainly vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, seeds and nuts, avoiding as much as possible processed foods, added sugar salt and oil, and generally avoiding animal foods. Vegans will all need vitamin B12 and some will need vitamin D, but in general other supplements need not be consumed or purchased.
As a fringe benefit, avoiding meat and dairy incidentally avoids the environmental damage associated with the livestock industry, which is considerable.
It is a win-win prescription, a sound and reliable investment in long term health, with short and long term benefits. The only problem is that, if everyone followed this, we might need fewer hospitals, operations, drugs and even fewer doctors. Be that as it may, it is what I practice and what I recommend to patients who wish to improve their health, and prevent and reverse disease.
I hope you will join me, and give it a try.
The author is a family doctor with over 20 years of experience. She has a small private practice in Tel Aviv and also works in Scotland.