As a medical professional, I have been teaching heart patients the benefits of a whole-food, plant-based vegan diet since 1990, and one of the most common questions I get is, “My doctor isn’t supportive of my diet and tells me to add meat back into my meals. What information can I share?” Often, my answer involves the Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. Created by the Kaiser-Permanente Medical Group—one of the nation’s largest health plans—the document presents a balanced view of plant-based nutrition and includes five main benefits of the diet (and five concerns). Any patient can share this information with his or her medical team, but with so much information, a question arises: where to begin? To answer this inquiry, I’ve created a list of six of the most important lessons found in the document. As someone who has been in the medical industry for nearly three decades, I’m confident that this information can help any doctor understand his or her patients’ health journey.
1. Plant-based nutrition fights obesity
If your doctor asks why you’re vegan, explain to him or her that a plant-based diet has been proven to fight obesity, as recent studies on the topic of weight management have found that a vegan diet burns more calories after meals than meat-and-dairy-based meals. By sharing the Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets, doctors learn that vegan diets are nutrient dense and are beneficial for weight management without compromising diet quality. Furthermore, parents can tell their children’s physicians that plant-based diets are one way to prevent obesity in kids and that eating vegan is one way to encourage optimal health for people of all ages.
2. A vegan diet can prevent diabetes and lower high blood pressure
The Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets also highlights the fact that vegan nutrition might offer an advantage for the prevention and management of diabetes. The research notes that a “low-fat, plant-based diet with no or little meat may help to prevent and treat diabetes” and that “people on the low-fat vegan diet were able to reduce their medication.” When it comes to managing blood pressure, the report also found that “vegetarian diets were associated with lower systolic blood pressure and lower diastolic blood pressure.”
3. Veganism can reverse heart disease
The strongest data for the health benefits of plant-based nutrition are for heart issues. The Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets authors reviewed data from Dean Ornish, MD, including the startling finding that “regression of even severe coronary atherosclerosis after only one year” was observed in those who switched to a plant-based diet. In another study group, “vegetarians had a 24 percent reduction in ischemic heart disease death rates compared with non-vegetarians.” Those are very convincing statements.
4. A plant-based diet can reduce mortality
Need one more piece of ammunition for your next doctor’s visit? How about the fact that, according to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, “plant-based diets were associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality compared with non-plant-based diets.”
5. The health benefits are myriad
The authors also note that “generally, patients on a plant-based diet are not at risk for protein deficiency” and that “a well-balanced plant-based diet will provide adequate amounts of essential amino acids and prevent protein deficiency.” In addition, iron stores might be lower if you follow a plant-based diet, but researchers say that “iron-deficiency anemia is rare even in individuals who follow a plant-based diet.” The information also suggests that there are a number of plant-based sources high in calcium, including greens and tofu, and that vitamin D is found in soy milk and cereal grains. And for those doctors who say vegans need supplements, the Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets offers this piece of advice: ”Supplements are recommended for those who are at risk for low bone mineral density and for those found to be deficient in vitamin D.” My advice? Ask your doctor for a blood level analysis of your vitamin D-25OH before taking any potentially unnecessary supplements.
6. Fatty acids are essential
Vegans are most likely to be deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, which is why the Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets suggests that “foods that are good sources of n-3 fats should be emphasized.” The report recommends “ground flaxseeds, flax oil, walnuts, and canola oil” as examples of foods that can ensure a vegan is getting enough linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid). If you’re concerned with your fatty acid intake, ask your doctor for a blood test that measures omega-3 levels. These are widely available and not expensive, which is why I advise them for all of my patients, vegan or not.
Joel Kahn, MD, a Summa Cum Laude graduate of the University of Michigan School of Medicine, is founder of the Kahn Center for Cardiac Longevity and serves as Clinical Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine.
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