If you’re interested in improving health and maintaining wellness for yourself and your family, finding a clear and consistent message on the right dietary lifestyle choices can be very challenging. There are so many confusing and contradictory messages that we all see and hear every day about what, or what not, to eat. We hear these mixed messages from the media, through our school system, from our medical professionals, and especially from the food industry, with product labels touting words like “heart healthy,” “whole grain,” “nutritious” and “natural”. Where can we turn for the truth? Since this is such an important issue, the best and most sensible approach is to consider the scientific evidence.
Each year, more nutritional research studies demonstrate that following a whole food, plant-based diet can prevent and even reverse chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, other autoimmune disorders, and several types of cancer. These studies have repeatedly shown that such illnesses stop progressing and even go into remission when patients reorient their diet to more foods found in the produce aisle and the farmers’ markets: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Unlike treating illness with pharmaceuticals, the reported “side effects” of this approach to wellness are all positive, such as improved energy level, mental clarity, loss of unwanted weight, elimination of pain, improved complexion, improved sleep, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and reduced dependence on prescription medications. The largest managed health care system in the United States, Kaiser Permanente, recently issued a health bulletin to all of its physicians, recommending that they “prescribe” a whole food plant-based diet—discouraging consumption of meat, dairy products, eggs, and all processed and refined foods—as the first line of treatment, especially for patients with high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes or obesity.
What makes whole plant foods so beneficial?
First, only plant foods contain fibre. Fibre is important for keeping the digestive tract flowing smoothly, which removes toxins from the body and also helps to remove excess levels of circulating hormones, such as oestrogen, that can lead to hormone-dependent cancers [e.g., breast and ovarian]. Fibre also helps us feel full and satisfied after a meal. Perhaps most importantly, fibre is essential for maintaining the good bacteria in the digestive system that are critical for a properly functioning immune system. When people eat a mainstream diet that is high in animal-derived products and contain no fibre, and refined and processed foods, that contain minimal fibre, they miss these beneficial effects, thereby increasing their risk of developing chronic diseases.
Whole plant foods are also rich in micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals, which play a key role in helping our immune system function optimally, so we can fight off communicable illnesses as well as genetically mediated diseases like cancer. When our immune systems are functioning properly, inflammation is minimised. In some, this may mean elimination of chronic pain [including migraine headaches and joint pain], reduction in inflammatory markers related to arthritis and a decrease in body mass index [BMI]. Studies have repeatedly shown that elevated BMI is a risk factor for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.
How much does it matter whether or not those foods are organic?
Ideally, we want to minimise our exposure to toxins, like pesticides. However, it may not always be possible or affordable to eat only organic produce. A good rule of thumb is that, if a vegetable or fruit is consumed in its entirety, such as leafy greens, apples, berries and peppers, choosing organic is more important, but if the vegetable or fruit has a skin or rind or similar outer coating that is not typically consumed, choosing organic is less important. The Environmental Working Group maintains a list of the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen,” so you can see which crops are least and most heavily sprayed.
If you purchase conventional produce, wash these items well and, where applicable, peel them to remove possible chemical residues. But always remember that it is better to eat conventionally grown produce than no produce at all.
Once you begin eating this way, your taste buds adapt and you begin to enjoy more intensely the natural sweetness of fruit, the saltiness of leafy greens, and the astringent nature of legumes. You will soon find that eating is even more pleasurable than ever before! It is important to note that even when you are eating healthy whole plant foods, you should eat only until you are satisfied, and over-full. Although whole plant foods are generally low in calories and nutrient-dense, over-eating these foods, like any other foods, can cause problems such as indigestion, bloating, and lethargy, and weight gain if done habitually. Overeating too close to bedtime may cause gastric reflux and interfere with sleep; best to allow 2 – 3 hours after the last meal before lying down. However, whole plant foods, with their high fibre and high water content, are naturally filling, and the body gives clear signals when sufficient calories, nutrients, and bulk have been consumed.
How to get started
If you are hesitant about jumping in with both feet, start by increasing the proportion of healthy whole plant foods in your diet. Allow vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains to make up the majority of your plate, and consciously reduce consumption of meat and dairy and processed foods. These changes alone will make a positive difference in your health. But if you want to see more substantial results, give an exclusively whole food, plant-based diet a “test drive.” Try it for three weeks and see how you feel. There is no need to make a long-term commitment; just pick a day to start and mark your calendar to note how you are doing at the end of 21 days. To help get you started, try out this free online program, starting next month: Every day for 21 days, you will receive an email in your inbox with recipes, tips, and lots of encouragement along the way.
Food as medicine
Our genes are not our destiny. Rather, it is our lifestyle choices that most profoundly affect whether we can live longer, healthier lives, with the freedom and mobility to participate in the activities that bring us joy and to share precious time with our loved ones into our advanced years. Do yourself a favour and watch the documentary “Forks Over Knives.” In this film, you will follow the inspiring stories of several patients as they transition to a whole food, plant-based diet and experience remarkable health transformations. As the film so powerfully demonstrates, we can all benefit if we remember and apply the maxim, “let thy food be thy medicine and let thy medicine be thy food.”