As I posted on Facebook, I recently completed a certificate program in plant-based nutrition. In case you missed it, here’s proof:
This program was incredibly eye-opening, and I thought I was pretty well-informed before I started. There was so much information, not only about the nuts and bolts of plant-based nutrition (protein, carbs, fats, vitamins, minerals) but the course also provided an excellent overview about the relationship between nutrition and disease, understanding and evaluating nutrition research, and how research does and does not impact public policy.
Before I talk about the highlights of this program for me, I’d like to say that it is very possible to eat a diet free of animal products and not be particularly healthy. Soda is vegan. So are many processed foods like donuts, cookies, crackers and chips. There are dozens of frozen and prepared vegan entrees full of fat and loaded with salt. A whole foods, plant-based diet (WFPBD) eliminates all animal products as well as processed foods, sugar, and most, if not all, oils. It includes vegetables, potatoes, beans and legumes, fruit, whole grains, nuts and seeds. This program taught me a great deal about the relationship between nutrition and human health. Here are the themes that stood out most for me:
Doctors Know Best-NOT
Unless your doctor is an alternative healthcare provider of some kind or a doctor who has taken this course (lots of participants were working in health care) or a similar continuing education series, I probably know more about nutrition than your physician does. That’s not because I know it all, but because he or she probably knows next to nothing. The fact is that nutrition is seldom taught in medical school. Imagine your car mechanic not knowing the difference between diesel and regular gasoline! Not so great. So, if you’re expecting your physician to educate you about the healing properties of food you’re barking up the wrong tree. That’s also true if you’re expecting your doctor to endorse a way of eating that he or she is uninterested in trying for themselves. It wasn’t all that long ago that doctors were recommending cigarettes to their patients and smoking themselves. Doctors profiled in this course sought out new ways of preventing and treating disease because their patients simply were not getting better with conventional, western approaches like pills and surgery. They discovered that a whole foods, plant-based diet addressed the cause, rather than just the symptoms of disease. Sadly, docs like these are in the minority, but the information is out there. We can and must educate ourselves.
One Diet To Help Everything
There is plenty of compelling evidence that shows that eating an animal-based diet contributes to heart disease, cancer, diabetes and a myriad of other chronic diseases and conditions. At the same time, there is also evidence that shows that switching to a whole foods, plant-based diet can slow or even reverse these diseases as well–with no side effects. Consider a person suffering from Type 2 diabetes. This person might also be struggling with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Treating the diabetes with medication might control blood sugar but won’t touch the underlying cause which is most likely obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. A whole foods, plant-based diet will naturally lead to weight loss while at the same time positively impact the diabetes, high cholesterol and blood pressure. Name me a pill that can do all that! In this program, we heard stories of many patients who traded in their bags of pills and syringes for whole plant-based foods. Even chronic and progressive illnesses such as MS, fibromyalgia, arthritis and asthma could be greatly helped with a change to a plant-based diet. People eating this way routinely experienced improvements in a very short period of time, and many were able to get off all medications.
Forests, not Trees
Eating healthfully on a whole foods, plant-based diet means eating from a wide variety of foods–eating the rainbow, if you will. If we do this, we no longer need to fuss with how much of this or that nutrient we are consuming (with the exception of vitamin B12 which should be supplemented). What a relief! By eating a mix of colorful vegetables, potatoes, beans, lentils, whole grains, fruits, nuts and seeds we have it all covered. If you’re interested in the details, there are great books out there that show typical plant-based meals and how they stack up nutritionally against options one might find in an animal-based meal. Let’s just say there’s no comparison in terms of the good stuff. And in case you’re wondering, yes, there’s enough protein and calcium and omega 3 and all the rest of it. This is a gestalt approach to eating well, rather than a vitamin here, a mineral there. A major point made in the program was that the body is infinitely complex, and if we eat the right foods our body will do right by us. No single nutrient, vitamin or mineral can change our overall picture. I imagine though, that most of us who begin a WFPBD need to get educated about all the plant-based foods that are out there in order to benefit from the full spectrum of nutrients available. For me, these “new” foods were beans, lentils, ground flaxseeds, chia seeds and nutritional yeast. Again, we have to take responsibility for what’s on our plates.
Follow The Money
It will lead you right down a path of poor health. The horrible state of our collective health is a direct result of money to be made by corporations, individuals and organizations at every level. Would it surprise you to know that at one point half of the members of a committee in the FDA assigned to create new dietary guidelines for public programs (such as school lunch, hospitals and programs for women, infants and children) had ties to food industries that had a financial stake in the policy? It’s no wonder the kids in our country eat junk in their schools. Scientists have known for decades that milk is unhealthy, yet it’s still touted as necessary for our kids. Dairy lobby anyone? It’s all for sale. It’s virtually impossible to not find conflicts of interest everywhere, and the goodies go to the highest bidders. Consider who would lose money if everyone hopped on the whole foods, plant-based bandwagon. Hospitals that make most of their money from heart surgery, doctors, big pharma, big agra, and supplement manufacturers to name just a few. So if you’re thinking that your health comes first, think again. Our poor health is very big business and there’s no money in broccoli. This certainly explains why a recent article in the NY Times was discussing the exorbitant cost ($14,000 per year) of a new class of (much needed!) statin drugs. So much hand-wringing about that insane number, yet not a word about the cheaper and more effective way to lower cholesterol through a plant-based diet. Business as usual. We get sicker and lots of people get richer.
There’s so much more to talk about when it comes to our health and nutrition, but I think the title of this post, “Heal Thyself” says it all for me. The days of thinking that our institutions (government, medicine, education) will work tirelessly to keep us informed and healthy are long over, if they ever really existed. But that does not mean we can’t educate ourselves and take matters into our own hands. I am a 55 year old woman, and between my parents and two sets of in-laws there has been one quadruple bypass, two prostate cancers, two colon cancers, leukemia, liver cancer, dementia and chronic lung disease. Two have passed away from these diseases. While there are no guarantees when it comes to disease, this program convinced me that by switching to a whole foods, plant-based diet we can greatly reduce our risk of getting any of these diseases. That is exciting and empowering, and I can’t think of a reason not to try. Can you?
If you are interested in learning more about a whole foods, plant-based diet I recommend starting with the movie, Forks Over Knives, which you can access online.