Plant-based diet for a healthy planet

Conway McLean, DPM

Despite better methods of detection and a plethora of medications for the treatment of heart disease, it remains the number one killer in America for both men and women. About 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year-that’s 1 in every 4 deaths. Despite our efforts to reduce the incidence of cardio-vascular disease, the numbers continue to climb. Treatment for cardiovascular diseases accounts for nearly $1 of every $6 spent on health care in the United States. In 2010, an estimated $444 billion was spent on cardiovascular disease treatment, medication and lost productivity from disability.

Many of us are looking for a quick fix for our heart health. When we are told there is a pill that can take care of the problem, that is what many choose. This, despite mounting evidence that pharmacologic methods are the proverbial “finger in the dike”. The billion-dollar pharmaceutical industry likes it this way. For your average American, taking a pill is much easier than making long-term changes to one’s diet and lifestyle.

What if you were told there was a potential treatment for heart disease that might not only stop atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) in its tracks, but also potentially reverse its course? Would this be big news to you? If this information came to you from your physician, it’s likely you would treat it differently than reading about it in some magazine. And yet, when a physician talks pointedly and specifically about the beneficial effects that diet can make, many just groan and roll their eyes.

Why is there so much reluctance to embrace dietary change as an important treatment strategy, a core part of such a plan? In part, it stems from a great deal of confusion about what constitutes the optimal diet. This is true among physicians, and not just the public. Multiple studies demonstrate the value of a single food group, from chocolate to olive oil, all of them centered on the concept that a single food might be the answer. The reality is that we all need to embrace a more inclusive dietary approach, consuming a variety of healthy foods from differing food groups.

Many of my patients complain about the number of medications they have to take. Frequently, they are looking for ways to cut down on this number. In addition, there have been several studies revealing very low compliance rates for taking prescribed medications. Believe it or not, even in the days after some coronary event, compliance is shockingly low with most drugs.

Physicians do not spend enough time talking about the impact of diet or lifestyle. Many recommend it in passing to their patients, but do not really give it much emphasis beyond that. How different would it be if we had more definitive studies really committed to advancing this field? Of course, it’s challenging, because there are no corporate sponsors for diet and lifestyle changes as we have for many pharmaceutical compounds. It’s also much harder to get patients to participate in these types of randomized studies, in order to have rigorous levels of evidence. This phrase refers to how powerful the results of a research study are, and the ability to draw conclusions from it about treatment. Long term studies on nutrition and disease are exceedingly difficult.

Yet, there has been a growing body of evidence repeatedly demonstrating the impact diet can have on our health. Many cardiologists are now recommending plant-based diets for their patients. Obviously, there are challenges to this approach. By trying to tackle the subject of diet during a patient’s visit, there is a significant additional time commitment, rather than just telling someone to take a pill every day.

Abundant evidence exists for the consequences to health of a plant-based diet. For example, some studies noted that in certain countries, breast cancer was 30-40 times less frequent than in the United States. In rural Japan in the 1950s, breast cancer was very infrequently identified, and as soon as Japanese women migrated to the United States, they had the same rate of breast cancer as their Caucasian counterparts. Perhaps even more powerful was cancer of the prostate. In the entire nation of Japan in 1958, there were a total of eighteen autopsy-proven deaths from cancer of the prostate! Two per 100,000 men died of prostate cancer in Japan in 1958. This is a mind-boggling public health figure, one that is shockingly low, certainly as compared to those on a Western diet. It was evident, upon examination, that cardiovascular disease was virtually nonexistent in so many other nations. Yet, it was the number one killer of women and men in Western civilization.

A pilot study was performed several years ago in which a handful of patients were carefully managed. This study involved individuals who were seriously ill with cardio-vascular disease, who thought they had passed the point of no return with their heart disease. These people were asked to eat plant-based nutrition, meaning they would avoid foods known to injure their endothelium–that delicate innermost lining of the artery. This tissue produces the magic molecule called nitric oxide. (This substance is the great salvation and protector of all our blood vessels. More on this later!) The patients were asked not to have a drop of any kind of oil, eat no meat of any kind, including chicken, fowl, turkey or eggs (nothing with a mother, or a face!), and avoid all dairy (cream, butter, cheese, ice cream, or yogurt). They were asked to be very easy on sugar. The participants began to lose weight, and then began to lose their symptoms. Some of them were able to truly reverse their disease, a result both powerful and exciting.

When discussing a diet such as this, certain responses are typical. “Where am I going to get my calcium if I don’t eat dairy?” Even more common are concerns about getting sufficient protein. But think about it for a moment….where did that cow get its protein? All large mammals on the planet–elephants, horses, giraffes, etc –are plant-based animals, so there must be protein in vegetables.

If we could get people to eat to save their heart, we would get so much more bang for our buck, and see fewer side effects from pharmaceuticals as well. In the process, they would also likely be saving themselves from the common Western cancers of breast, prostate, colon, and perhaps even pancreatic. Many Americans are beginning to see that their dietitian was wrong, and their physicians are not giving them adequate information. Many have come to the conclusion that they actually can do plant-based nutrition.

The Western diet looks good, tastes good, and smells good, and yet it is injuring quietly. You do not feel pain when you eat these foods. On the other hand, the whole food plant-based diet looks and smells good, and quietly heals you. And it does not wreck the planet.

Editor’s note: Dr. Conway McLean is a podiatric physician now practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, having assumed the practice of Dr. Ken Tabor. McLean has lectured internationally on surgery and wound care, and is board certified in both, with a sub-specialty in foot orthotic therapy. Dr. McLean welcomes questions, comments and suggestions at drcmclean@penmed.com.