What is a Plant-Based Diet and What Does It Do?

It was the summer of 2011 when CNN aired a catchy documentary by Dr. Sanjay Gupta titled “The Last Heart Attack.” Being a primary care physician in the Dallas – Fort Worth metroplex and seeing firsthand the enormous amount of heart disease cases in Western society, the title seemed almost phony to me – A scheme to pique my interest and get me to watch. After all, we know that the number one killer in America is progressive and irreversible. Nevertheless, I watched the documentary. It introduced me to Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s extensive research and articles on coronary artery arrest or reversal, as well as his popular book “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease”.

In 2011 and at 38 years old, I was just like anyone else in the Western world – A statistic with common maladies like being overweight, having elevated cholesterol in the low 200s and suffering from chronic fatigue, gastroesophageal reflux disease, acne and prediabetes. I had previously tried the Atkins Diet and, like everyone else who had tried it, I simply couldn’t sustain that way of eating. I had even more fatigue, followed by constipation, headaches, more acne and even a bout of hematuria, or urinating blood. I went back to being an omnivore until I saw this life-altering documentary.

After about two weeks of doing a plant-based diet, I lost 20 pounds without additional exercise. My total cholesterol dropped 60 points and my waistline decreased by 3 inches. My exercise endurance, sleep, digestion and mood all markedly improved. After experiencing these benefits, I decided to apply this lifestyle within my medical practice and have since seen numerous success stories for patients who decide to embrace it.

Since I advocate a lifestyle change to my patients, I spend additional time counseling them and I encourage their spouses to be present as well. I suggest frequent follow-ups, about every 2 weeks, to gauge if they are adhering to the plant-based diet or not. If they are fully on board, I may need to adjust or even discontinue some of their medications. I also like to inquire about what exactly they’re struggling with and discuss food options at length. If a patient cannot adhere to the plant-based diet, care may be resorted to a pharmaceutical approach – Though there are often associated risks and adverse effects in doing so.

The wellness and medical benefits of a plant-based diet are wide-ranging and nearly endless. Common improvements noted include:

  • Weight loss in obese individuals
  • Lower or normalized blood pressure (likely due to higher dietary potassium and fiber intake)
  • Improved hemoglobin a1c in diabetics (due to decreased saturated fat intake and overall weight loss)
  • Improvements in constipation
  • Clearer skin
  • Minimized joint pains
  • Improved allergy and asthma symptoms
  • Drops in total and LDL (bad) cholesterol in as little as 2 weeks
  • Fatigue also improves considerably, likely due to less inflammation as evidenced by decreased C-reactive protein (CRP) levels.

Personally, I’ve learned a lot from Dr. Michael Greger’s nutritionfacts.org and his book “How Not to Die”. I even show his free 3 – 5 minute YouTube videos inside my practice’s exam rooms while I finish charting. These resources were helpful in introducing me to other studies pertaining to the benefits of this lifestyle in terms of other organ systems and disease entities.

Those who are interested should also read “The China Study” by T. Colin Campbell, which explains the science and politics behind nutrition and disease prevention in great detail. Because I am a medical professional, research is important to me – I would never advocate for something that I was not completely confident in or that carried certain risks. In doing extensive personal research, I was led to other pioneers in the plant-based lifestyle, such as Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Neal Barnard and Dr. Garth Davis. I was genuinely surprised by the amount of data and evidence that support this safer and sustainable method of living while being simultaneously perplexed that plant-based living is barely taught in medical schools and residency training, or even maligned in the medical community unfamiliar to the research. This can be best summed up by Dr. Kim Williams, a past president of the American College of Cardiology, who says: “There are two kinds of cardiologists – Vegans and those who haven’t seen the data.”

Why Are Plant-Based Diets So Beneficial?

By now, you realize that plant-based diets have shown improvements in lung function (in COPD), kidney function tests in renally-impaired individuals, liver function tests and even in patients with erectile dysfunction, chronic lower back pain, fibromyalgia, diabetic neuropathy and even certain eye and other neurologic conditions. However, you may be wondering how our bodies see so many benefits by eating this way. The simple answer is that the human body has evolved and is designed to heal itself, so long as the insult is abated and the body is properly nourished.

To know what the perfect food group is for us, all we have to do is look at our anatomy and learn from other wild animals. They all eat what they are designed to eat, based on their anatomy and environment. Almost all animals in the wild maintain an ideal body weight to sustain their life and preserve their species. Surely, they never count calories – But are never overweight! At times, wild animals may be underweight due to a lack of food or some external forces, but they are never obese. Humans, aside from some domestic animals, are the only species with overweight issues. Knowing that and based on our anatomy, we should focus on eating plants:

  • We have diurnal vision, which is ideal for finding colorful, nourishing fruits, flowers, leaves and other plant parts.
  • We have flat front teeth and big molars to bite, chew and grind fruits, leaves, nuts and seeds.
  • We have amylase in our saliva to digest starch.
  • We have taste buds for sensing sweet, salty, bitter or sour foods.
  • We have a less acidic stomach than our carnivorous counterparts, suggesting that meat and flesh is not center to our diet.
  • We have very functional apposable thumbs to pick and peel fruits.
  • We have long intestines to process fiber, as compared to carnivores who have relatively shorter intestines (which allow them to rapidly excrete rotting flesh).

If we eat what we’re supposed to – what our anatomy is designed to consume and digest – our body is designed to heal itself quite optimally.

You may be wondering if there are large populations out there who follow this way of eating. In fact, the longest living populations in the world – including Okinawans from Japan, Greeks in Ikaria, people of Sardinia, members of the Seventh Day Adventist in Loma Linda, California and people of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica – generally eat plant-based diets that consist of beans, rice, sweet potatoes, whole grains, fruits and other vegetables, with very limited animal products. These people remain active for decades and have close family ties for support. I recommend learning from their ways of living and eating if we want to live longer and happier.

Dr. John McDougall has been a strong proponent of plant-based lifestyles, especially the inclusion of starches. He coined the term “starchivore” and states that the largest and most successful populations in the world have long centered their diet on starches. Examples include rice among Asians, corn among Mayans, potatoes among the Incans and wheat among Egyptians. As a result, these populations generally have lower rates of diabetes, obesity, hypertension, GERD, autoimmune disease and certain cancers. People from these groups who migrate to Western countries and adapt the standard American diet (SAD) eventually succumb to common Western diseases and chronic illnesses, as listed above. The things that make starches unhealthy here are the ingredients that are added, like oils, cheese, excessive salt and animal products – All of which are typically calorie-dense and nutrient-deficient, which just about defeats the purpose of eating the healthy starches at all.

As you can see, there are nearly endless benefits to transitioning to a plant-based diet. To learn more, please schedule an appointment with me by calling 214-296-2945 or simply dropping in at LuminCARE Cross Roads during our hours of operation. We always take walk-ins – whether you’re in need of a physical or you or your child is suffering from an illness – and look forward to serving you soon!