Doctor’s column: Which diet is most healthful for you?
ABOUT THIS COLUMN
Greg Feinsinger of Carbondale, who retired in February from Glenwood Medical Associates after 41 years as a family physician, is writing a 10-week series.
Diabetes and prediabetes
What causes heart attacks
How to prevent heart attacks
There’s lots of conflicting information out there about nutrition, but the science is very clear: The most healthful diet is a plant-based, whole (unprocessed) food, low-fat diet with avoidance of simple carbs such as sugar.
During the Korean war, autopsies on young American men who were killed revealed that the majority of them had significant atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries, which is what causes heart attacks and strokes), whereas the Korean soldiers had none. The same thing was found during the Vietnam war. The difference was not genetic, because Korean and Vietnamese Americans have the same health problems the rest of us have.
So it was determined that it was differences in diet, with Americans eating an animal-based and the Asians a plant-based diet. In German-occupied Norway during World War II, the Germans kept all the meat and diary for themselves, and the rate of heart disease among Norwegians plummeted. But it rose again after the war ended and Norwegians started eating meat and diary again.
More than two decades ago, cardiologist Dean Ornish proved that coronary artery disease could be reversed by a plant-based, whole-foods, low-fat diet. Most M.D.s get little training in nutrition in medical school and most cardiologists aren’t interested in prevention, but Dr. Ornish was an exception.
Then, T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., at Cornell, was studying cancer cells in his lab and found that adding animal proteins to them made them grow faster, but adding plant proteins inhibited their growth. Later he was the lead scientist on the China Study, the biggest population study ever done, and found that the people in China who were too poor to afford animal proteins weren’t overweight; didn’t have hypertension or high cholesterol or Type 2 diabetes; didn’t have heart attacks or strokes; had very little cancer of the breast, colon and prostate; had fewer inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis; had a low incidence of autoimmune diseases such as M.S.; didn’t have osteoporosis or kidney stones; and had a much lower rate of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.
Then Caldwell Esselstyn, who was a general surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic several years ago, was operating on young women who came in with breast cancer, and back then the surgery was the very disfiguring radical mastectomy. He decided there must be a way to prevent breast cancer and found through his own research that woman on a plant-based, whole-foods, low-fat diet didn’t get this disease. He then proved once again that this diet reversed heart disease.
Part of this diet is what you don’t eat: meat including chicken, seafood, dairy and eggs, oils including olive oil, and refined carbs such as sugar. But even more important is what you do eat: a variety of vegetables every day, including legumes such as beans and lentils, fruit and berries (but not fruit juices or smoothies — chewing is important in releasing nutrients from food), and whole (unprocessed) grains.
Plants have millions of antioxidants, micronutrients and cancer-preventing substances that animal products lack. Whereas an animal-based diet is acidic and causes inflammation, a plant-based diet is alkaline and anti-inflammatory, which is important in disease prevention because inflammation plays a role in many diseases, including cardiovascular disease. The latest scientific information that supports eating a plant-based diet is that the bacterial flora in our gut influences our health in many ways, and while people on an animal-based diet have disease-promoting bacterial flora, plant-based eaters have health-promoting bacteria.
It makes sense that a plant-based diet is the healthiest because that’s genetically what we’re meant to eat. The human genome was developed during a 4½ million-year period of time, when people were hunter gatherers, but they were gatherers for a long time before they were hunters. Also, the jaw and GI structure of humans is that of herbivores rather than carnivores (sorry Paleo fans).
Currently the Paleo Diet is popular, but other than getting the part right about processed food and simple carbs being bad, there is no scientific evidence to support it (see nutritionfacts.org for example). The Mediterranean Diet is currently being touted by the medical establishment as a healthy diet, and it certainly is healthier than the S.A.D. (Standard American Diet), but people on it are still dying from heart attacks and strokes, whereas people on a plant-based, whole-foods, low-fat diet aren’t.
Next week we will discuss why it is taking so long for this information to get out to medical providers and the public (follow the money). If you want to find out about local support for getting on the most healthful diet, contact Ardis Hoffman at 303-305-9664 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Feinsinger is a retired family physician who is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention, plant based nutrition, and other health issues. Call 379-5718 for an appointment.
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