With endless fad diets, workout regimens, and weight-loss supplements being popularized by the media, many of us are left feeling confused and defeated. When one diet fails to help, albeit with weight loss or lowering cholesterol, 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? Everyone touts the benefits of moderation, but is there science to back it up? We will explore the answer in this section.
Observational studies have found that individuals have different definitions of moderation based upon how much they like a certain food and how often they consume that food. Essentially, moderation is whatever we want it to be. It’s a nice way to feel good about eating whatever we want, and 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 tomatoes? I sure haven’t! So on one hand, we know a food item should be limited for health reasons, but then we immediately create a mantra to rationalize allowing that food. It’s something the human brain does well, a 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, the inner lining of 60,000 miles of blood vessels in the body, has already been damaged. Ever hear about people suffering heart attacks shortly after or while eating a large meal? This is not just coincidence. Every time a meal high in fat and cholesterol 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. Science and medicine agree that this inflammatory process is highly mediated by nutrition. Animal fats and proteins, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco all damage the endothelium. With evidence of atherosclerosis being found in children, teens, and young adults following the Standard American Diet (SAD), it becomes obvious 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?).
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 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
- Feed your body the nutrients that nourish and protect it, avoid the ones that might damage it
- Be active
- Find a way to reduce your stress level every day
- Practice gratitude every day