Whether your goal is to lose weight, feel good, or improve your health (i.e. lower cholesterol or manage diabetes), following a diet can be just plain difficult. It takes dedication, social support and extensive health education to help someone make a lasting lifestyle change. With the media promoting a new fad diet every month, the ultimate “fat-blasting” workout regimen, or the next miracle weight-loss drug, many of us are left feeling confused and unsure who to believe. When a fad diet fails to help, or helps only temporarily, there is a tendency to jump right back to the “everything in moderation” philosophy. Moderation has become a safe word in popular nutrition, but is it really safe? Health professionals and fitness experts often preach the benefits of moderation, but is there science to back it up? We will explore the answer in this section.
Observational studies show that we all have different definitions of moderation based upon how much we like a certain food and how often we consume that food. Essentially, moderation is whatever we want it to be – a nice way to feel good about eating whatever we want, whenever we want. Ironically, moderation typically applies to foods that we know should be limited in consumption (sweets, saturated fat, red meat, etc). Have you ever been told to moderate your consumption of vegetables? I sure haven’t! So on one hand, we know a food item should be avoided for health reasons, yet we create a mantra to rationalize that allowing that food in our diets as being healthy and perfectly natural. This is something the human brain does well, coping mechanism for the unpleasant. The problem with this moderation mantra is that people are really bad at estimating portions. Again, our idea of a moderate portion is highly influenced by how much we like that food, and by how much of that food we’re already eating.
Another problem with moderation is that it ignores the immediate effects certain nutrients can have on the body. For example, within 1 hour of consuming a meal containing animal fat (ex: chicken breast, hamburger, steak), the endothelium, a.k.a the inner lining of 60,000 miles of blood vessels in the body, has already been damaged. Ever hear of people suffering heart attacks during or shortly after eating a large meal? This is not just coincidence. Every time high-fat meal is consumed, it causes direct damage to this important lining, leading to a cascade of inflammation, impaired vessel relaxation, plaque formation, and the #1 killer, coronary artery disease. This process can persist up to 5 hours post-meal, just in time for another food-borne assault! In the case of heart attacks, this process leads to plaque rupture which restricts or completely cuts off blood flow to the heart muscle. The scientific and medical communities agree that this inflammatory process is highly mediated by nutrition. Animal fats and proteins, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco all damage the endothelium. There is even evidence of heart disease found in children, teens, and young adults who follow the Standard American Diet (SAD). While not all of us will suffer a heart attack, heart disease remains the number one killer, and it has become abundantly clear that heart disease can be caused by, and prevented by what we put in our mouths. This, my friends, is why moderation is not a safe option.
The good news is, coronary artery disease is a completely preventable, food-borne disease. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn is a brilliant pioneer who has dedicated much of his medical career to helping individuals with advanced heart disease heal their arteries and reverse coronary artery disease through a no fat, no oil, whole foods plant-based diet. Alterations in endothelium, a.k.a. endothelial dysfunction, are now known to be directly involved in numerous diseases including peripheral vascular disease, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, insulin resistance, chronic kidney failure, tumor growth & metastasis, blood clots, and severe viral infectious diseases. The good news is we can improve our endothelial health by changing what we put on our plates. The optimal diet for endothelial health and reducing risk for western diseases is a low fat, whole-foods plant-based (WFPB) diet. Physical activity, stress reduction, and even meditation have also been shown to improve endothelial function!
If you aren’t sure what constitutes a WFPB diet, then I highly recommend you click on the link below, to the Forks Over Knives website which provides an excellent summary of the WFPB way of eating and answers several common questions (i.e. how do I get protein, calcium, and other nutrients?). What is a Whole-Foods Plant-Based Diet?
What are the benefits of a WFPD Diet?
There are numerous benefits of a WFPD diet. A recent paper published by Kaiser Permanente, the largest managed care organization in the U.S. employing over 15,000 physicians, recommends a plant-based diet and urges physicians to begin counseling patients on plant-based eating. Some of the benefits include:
- Healthier body weight
- Lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar
- Prevention and even reversal of heart disease (leading cause of death in U.S.)
- Lower rates of cancer and diabetes
- Patients may be able to reduce their medications (under physician guidance)
- Improved symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
- May slow the progression of certain types of cancer
- Longer life expectancy
- Lower food costs
- Helps protect the environment
Click here to view Kaiser Permanente’s patient education materials on plant-based diets.
I hope you’ve found this information intriguing and powerful. For patients with diet-related life-threatening diseases, it can be incredibly empowering to learn that that we do have some control over our health outcomes. If you are struggling with a chronic disease or new diagnosis, I urge you to talk with your health care provider about diet. If he or she isn’t sure how to advise you, please keep looking for answers. Many excellent and well-meaning health care providers simply did not receive training in nutrition during their schooling. Search for a plant-based provider or dietitian.
For the rest of us who just want to live long, healthy, joyful lives, and avoid disease, the message is simple.
- What we put in our bodies gives us the fuel we need to thrive, and the protection against food-bourne disease
- Feed your body the nutrients that nourish and protect it, avoid the ones that might damage it
- Engage in some form of physical activity every day (walking, biking, yoga, weights, etc).
- Learn techniques to reduce your stress level and practice them daily or multiple times per day
- Practice gratitude every day