Top 3 Reasons to Go Plant-Based
A plant-based diet can have profound effects on chronic disease states and longevity.
The debate over the healthiest way for humans to eat has been a heated one for decades, and will continue to be for years to come. We will continue to argue about how humans evolved to eat, how much of each macronutrient we need, and whether a particular diet is “too restrictive” regardless of its health benefits. The confusion will persist as long as scientific research and even our US dietary guidelines continue to be funded and influenced by special interests. The good news is that more information and scientific evidence is available supporting plant-based eating and its remarkable health benefits.
What is a Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet?
While the word “diet” is widely used, a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet is, in fact, a dietary pattern, a way of eating, a way of life. The bulk of a plant-based diet is made up of whole grains, legumes, fruit, and vegetables. It is low in meat, dairy, eggs, and processed foods, while some choose to eliminate these foods altogether.
Top 3 Reasons to Adopt a Plant-Based Eating Pattern
1. Heart Disease Reversal
While heart disease has been the nation’s number one cause of death for almost a century, there has been evidence of disease reversal for a few decades now.
The Mediterranean diet has been touted as the healthiest diet for the heart and has shown to slow the progression of coronary artery disease (the most common form of heart disease). However, only one way of eating has been shown to cause reversal of atherosclerotic plaques (aka “blockages”).
Drs. Dean Ornish (1) and Caldwell Esselstyn (2) have helped their patients successfully reverse their heart disease by reducing plaque size and thus reducing rates of chest pain, heart attack and need for certain heart procedures.
Dr. Ornish accomplished this with comprehensive lifestyle changes including a plant-based diet, exercise, stress management and social support, while Dr. Esselstyn did so with diet alone.
2. Type 2 Diabetes Reversal
While the current treatment for type 2 diabetes centers on managing its main symptom, elevated blood sugars, a plant-based diet has been shown to correct the main dietary cause of insulin resistance.
Studies conducted over the course of almost a century (yes, you read that right) support the insulin resistance-reversing power of a low-fat, plant-based diet and the restoration of carbohydrate tolerance either alone (3) or in conjunction with exercise (4,5).
In fact, insulin resistance can be induced within hours in a very reproducible manner using fat (not carbs!) as the inducer (6,7).
The key to successfully reversing insulin resistance is understanding that dietary fat quickly and predictably causes insulin resistance, which then leads to carbohydrate intolerance (more on that later).
3. Impressive Longevity
“Longevity seems to be only moderately heritable”, stated the authors of the famous Danish Twin Study (8), concluding that only about 20% of how long we live is determined by our genes. In other words, 80% of longevity is dictated by the quality of our lifestyle.
A prime example linking healthy habits with impressive longevity would be the “Blue Zones” study which identified 5 geographic locations around the world that inhabit the longest-lived populations (9).
One commonality across these geographic locations is their plant-forward diets, with legumes being a cornerstone of the diets of those that live to 100. Certainly food is only one important player in the game of longevity, but our diet may just be our most influential lifestyle factor.
In addition to the impressive benefits outlined above, evidence shows that any movement toward a plant-based diet is beneficial, with the closest adherence yielding the best health outcomes.
What I am trying to say is, if such a change sounds intimidating or unrealistic, don’t give up before you start! Take one step. Then maybe take another. The beauty of making healthy changes is that they are often catalytic. One healthy change boosts motivation and leads to another. Every step in the right direction, no matter the size, is worth every ounce of effort.
(1) Ornish D, Brown SE, Scherwitz LW, et al. “Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? The Lifestyle Heart Trial.” Lancet 336 (1990): 129-133.
(2) Esselstyn CBJ, Gendy G, Doyle J, et al. “A way to reverse CAD?” J. Fam. Pract. 63 (2014): 356-364b.
(3) Anderson JW, Ward K. High-carbohydrate, high-fiber diets for insulin-treated men with diabetes mellitus. Am J Clin Nutr. 1979;32(11):2312-2321.
(4) Barnard, RJ, Massey MR, Cherny S, et al. Long-Term Use of a High-Complex-Carbohydrate, High-Fiber, Low-Fat Diet and Exercise in the Treatment of NIDDM Patients. Diabetes Care. 1983 May; 6(3): 268-273.
(5) Barnard RJ, Jung T, Inkeles SB. Diet and Exercise in the Treatment of NIDDM: The need for early emphasis. Diabetes Care. 1994 Dec; 17(12): 1469-1472.
(6) Hernández EÁ, Kahl S, Seelig A, et al. Acute dietary fat intake initiates alterations in energy metabolism and insulin resistance. J Clin Invest. 2017;127(2):695-708.
(7) Lee S, Boesch C, Kuk JL, Arslanian S. Effects of an overnight intravenous lipid infusion on intramyocellular lipid content and insulin sensitivity in African-American versus Caucasian adolescents. Metabolism. 2013;62(3):417-423.
(8) Herskind AM, McGue M, Holm NV, Sørensen TI, Harvald B, Vaupel JW. The heritability of human longevity: a population-based study of 2872 Danish twin pairs born 1870-1900. Hum Genet. 1996;97(3):319-323.
(9) Buettner D, Skemp S. Blue Zones: Lessons From the World's Longest Lived. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2016;10(5):318-321. Published 2016 Jul 7.