"Food is really and truly the most effective medicine." ~ Dr. Joel Fuhrman
I was having a conversation with a new medical doctor at the clinic where I worked one day. We were discussing my radio program, and I had mentioned that some of my recent interviews were with nutritional experts, including speaker and author of the bestseller, Eat To Live, Dr. Joel Fuhrman and national speaker, rehabilitation specialist, and founder of Fully Alive Today, Dr. Scott Stoll, all of whom had discussed the health benefits of a mostly plant-based diet while on the program.
"That's very irresponsible." His comment stunned me, and for a moment I didn't know what to say. I had been planning to invite this doctor for an interview about his non-profit health group, yet his reaction made me second-guess my decision.
"It's wrong to advise people not to eat meat. It's very unhealthy," he scowled, as he sipped soda from a cup with the name of a fried chicken fast food chain printed on it. I was baffled by such an extreme negative response and remained speechless, choosing to refrain from commenting on the nutritional "virtues" of his recent fried chicken lunch ... or from making the interview invitation.
The doctor's comments stayed with me for the past couple of years, and I wondered how he could maintain such an adamant position given his own poor nutritional choices. Luckily, I had the opportunity to vent during my interview with Dr. Michael Greger, one of the top nutritional researchers, founder of NutrionFacts.org, and author of the bestselling book, How Not to Die. When asked about how to respond to such comments as the one above, Dr. Greger stated, "That doctor must not have cracked open a medical journal in at least 10 years."
The research in nutrition has been finding, again and again, that a diet that is high in plant-based foods (fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts, and whole grains), rather than the Standard American Diet (ironically, the acronym for which is SAD), reduces the risk of the most deadly and disabling illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, to name just a few -- as well as mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety. On the other hand, diets high in animal protein (meat, fowl, fish, eggs, and dairy), as well as refined carbohydrates (sugar, white flour, and white rice), have been linked to an increase of deadly diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, as well as more rapid aging. In fact, a recent study in Korea, found that people with Type 2 diabetes demonstrated significant weight loss, a significant reduction in their HbA1C (a measure of blood sugar level over an extended period of time), and better control of daily blood sugar levels when they followed a vegan diet, while those who followed a conventional diet typically recommended for diabetics did not have those positive results. In another recent study, participants who ate seven or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day had a forty two percent decreased risk of death due to any cause, when compared to those who ate the lowest amount of plant-based foods.
In addition, the research has recently shown a direct relationship between the amount of fresh fruits and veggies one eats and their mood. Those people who eat more of these nutrient-dense morsels have been found to feel significantly calmer, happier, and more energetic than those who eat less produce. The reason for this, according to Dr. Greger, who has reviewed several of the studies, is that fresh fruits and vegetables are high in levels of the neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, as well as the hormone, melatonin, which increase happiness, relaxation, restful sleep, and memory. These also slow down the effects of aging on the brain and the body. In addition, plant-based foods have been found to decrease the risk for depression also because they're very high in antioxidants, which protect the brain from oxidative stress, one of the causes of depression.
"Nutrition can solve about three quarters of health problems that most people are facing. And, not only do their diseases get better, but they feel better. They're happier, more joyful, and they have more energy," said Dr. Stoll, during our interview.
I can tell you from my personal experience that, since I've changed my diet from the sad Standard American Diet to one that is much higher in plant-based foods, many of my issues of gastrointestinal discomfort, blood sugar instability, and low energy have gradually fallen by the wayside. I've also noticed a decrease in the frequency and severity of flare-ups of an autoimmune disorder that affects my skin. I'm able to detect the difference when I've gotten off track with my dietary choices and I definitely don't like how I feel when that happens.
As my friend, Venus DeMarco, breast cancer survivor, speaker, and author of Fearless: My Journey That Healed Breast Cancer--and my life, Through Faith, Food, & Fun, said to me, "Personally, I love feeling great! Once you do, it's hard to go back to an unhealthy diet."
Said Dr. Fuhrman, during our interview, "Americans are eating a diet with 90 percent of our calories coming from foods that do not contain the phytochemicals and antioxidants that the human body is designed to function on. The five to ten percent that we're eating is not enough for us to be healthy. Instead of eating ninety percent processed food and animal products and only ten percent vegetation, we have to eat ninety percent vegetation and maybe ten percent of other things." Therefore, the goal is not necessarily to make a sudden extreme change in diet or to necessarily become vegan. Rather, making gradual changes toward a diet that is high in plant-based foods (fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains) will have the effect of decreasing the amount of animal proteins (meat, fowl, fish, dairy, and eggs) and refined carbohydrates you consume and will lead you away from the Standard American Diet. The more you can move your diet in that direction, the better.
Realistically, getting started with creating new, healthier, eating habits can be quite difficult, when we've been in the habit of consuming less healthy foods. There's a good reason for that. In his article, The Simple Psychology of Habits, founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, Marc David, explains, "The distinguishing feature of negative habits is that they come naturally, take little effort to develop, and quickly gain a momentum of their own that is difficult to offset." In fact, it has been found that foods rich in fats and sugars, especially that combination, have an affect on our brains that is similar to that of heroin and cocaine, making these foods extremely addictive.
"The more unhealthy your diet is," said Dr. Fuhrman, "the more addictive it becomes and the more difficulty you will have in even considering a different way."
Small Steps to Life-Saving Changes
Let's talk about how to make some simple changes with powerful results. The first step is to eat mindfully -- that is, having greater awareness of what we're ingesting. Keeping a food diary can be quite eye-opening because many of us often pop food into our mouths without even thinking about it. Mindfulness also includes doing a little bit of detective work. Check out what's in the foods we're consuming. Stay away from foods with lists of ingredients that are long and with hard-to-pronounce names and/or high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and hydrogenated oils which contain trans-fatty acids, found to be directly connected to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes, among other health problems.
To alleviate potential health risks, eat more whole foods, those foods that are closer to the source, with little or no processing, such as whole grains, rather than refined flour, or nuts and seeds as a source of fat, rather thank hydrogenated oils. And make an effort to increase the amount of plant-based foods. For example, eat a large salad every day that includes many different colored vegetables. Perhaps, add some beans and seeds, as well as a healthy dressing. This one small dietary addition may result in very big health benefits. It's also tasty and filling at the same time.
Another small change with significant returns might be eliminating soft drinks and replacing those with clean water (Check out my blog, The Magic of Water), and gradually decreasing sweets, such as cakes and cookies, and dairy foods, such as cheese and ice-cream. In addition, you can decrease meat consumption by eating smaller portions of it and trying to have some meals throughout the week that don't include any meat or animal proteins. Bean burritos might be a great option for dinner one night. Or commit to a full day without meat. A great trend that helps with decreasing meat intake is "Meatless Monday." You might notice that you feel better and will want to extend it to several days per week.
Keeping the Naysayers at Bay
The negative comment made to me, mentioned at the beginning of this blog, was certainly not an isolated incident. I have frequently met with negativity from people witnessing my dietary choices. You wouldn't think that ordering the types of foods that we were told to eat as children, such as green vegetables, would cause so much angst in people around us. Maybe, some people feel that our healthier choices are a silent critique of the steak and fries on their plate or they fear these choices because of all of the years of learning the wrong information. Just know that, if you decide to make a change in your diet to a healthier one, there may be people in your life who will not be supportive of your choices and will let you know of their disagreement. As I've written about in my previous Huffington Post blog, Surviving and Forgiving the Critics , there will always be naysayers when beginning on a new path. In order to be successful, we need to become a little more thick-skinned, to let those comments roll off, and, as they say, "Keep calm and truck on." At some point, those same naysayers may actually come around and ask what you're doing to get so healthy and may want to follow in your footsteps.
If your friends are not willing to try out your new healthier foods with you while you're just getting your own footing on this journey and, if you find that this makes eating with them uncomfortable or difficult, then stick to non-food-related activities with those friends and find a like-minded group of friends to enjoy "breaking bread" with, so to speak. Check out MeetUp.com or other websites that connect people with similar interests and attend some plant-based potluck dinners in order to create a support group to help with your new lifestyle. It also helps to have guidance with any new endeavor. Some excellent books to guide you in this journey include, How to Be Vegan, by Elizabeth Castoria, as well as any of the books by Dr. Joel Fuhrman and Dr. Michael Greger, and there are more great books coming out onto the shelves daily. For some fun recipes, check out Crazy Sexy Kitchen, by Kris Carr and Chef Chad Sarno .
Remember, in order to be successful with any new habit, it's important to not berate ourselves or feel guilty at those times when we may get off track. Every day is a chance to start over again. Reward yourself for successes and be kind to yourself when you run into obstacles and challenges, knowing that just making the effort is a sign of courage.
Finally, allow yourself to feel excited about your new healthy life-style and about how great you'll feel by taking such good care of yourself, rather than approaching it from a place of feeling fearful about eating unhealthy foods. Creating this sort of positive emotional connection to any lifestyle change is one of the most powerful secrets to success. Then, the rewards you'll receive, including those of more vibrant health, energy, and mood, will surely keep you moving along this path with even greater enthusiasm and ease.