Middle-aged adults are being especially hard hit by heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So it just launched Million Hearts to help prevent a million heart attacks and strokes by 2022. The initiative encourages people to eat a heart-healthy diet, get physically active, and quit smoking. Good advice. But the CDC’s Million Hearts Initiative should be clear that the heart-healthiest diet is a plant-based diet.
The CDC says that about 16 million heart attacks, strokes, and related events could happen by 2022, but that 80 of premature heart disease and strokes are preventable by focusing on what it calls the ABCS of heart health: Aspirin use when appropriate, Blood pressure control, Cholesterol management, and Smoking cessation.
Well, research shows that eating more fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans, and avoiding meat, dairy products, and eggs—which are packed with saturated fat and cholesterol—is the best prescription for blood pressure control and cholesterol management.
In fact, my colleagues and I recently published a scientific review in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases that looked at multiple clinical trials and observational studies and found that a plant-based diet:
- Reduces the risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 40 percent.
- Reduces the risk of coronary heart disease by 40 percent.
- Fully or partially opens blocked arteries in up to 91 percent of patients.
- Reduces the risk of hypertension by 34 percent.
- Is associated with 29 mg/dL and 23 mg/dL lower total cholesterol and LDL-C levels, respectively, compared with non-vegetarian diets.
Of course, plenty of other research shows similar benefits. So if the CDC wants to help prevent 1 million heart attacks by 2022, a plant-based diet is good medicine.
“Change happens through education,” says Indian actress Mallika Sherawat, who believes a plant-based diet could help fight India’s diabetes and heart disease epidemics. That’s why she’s supporting a Barnard Medical Center and Physicians Committee tour of 11 medical schools in India, where students are learning how to use the power of a plant-based diet to help patients fight obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
The tour, led by Zeeshan Ali, Ph.D., Physicians Committee Kickstart India specialist, and James Loomis, M.D., M.B.A., Barnard Medical Center medical director, includes information on the Physicians Committee’s new Nutrition Guide for Clinicians app; evidence-based lectures; and plant-based meals and resources for students.
Below, Sherawat, who is featured on two Physicians Committee billboards in Mumbai, answers questions on why she follows a vegan diet and how a vegan diet could help keep India fit and healthy.
Why are you supporting the Physicians Committee’s medical school tour?
I support the tour because I’m a vegan, and I believe in spreading the message of the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Change happens through education. Teaching medical students across India about the benefits of a plant-based diet is the first step in changing dietary habits in India. India is set to emerge as the youngest nation in the world by 2020, so we need a fit and healthy India.
How can diabetes and heart disease rates be reduced in India?
There is a diabetes epidemic in India—More than 72 million Indians have diabetes! Diabetes and heart disease rates can be brought down in India by educating people about the innumerable benefits of switching to a plant-based diet and moderate exercise. A vegan diet can help prevent plaque build-up in the blood vessels and lower the risk of heart disease. Make conscious food choices, and stay away from processed foods, meat, dairy products, and sugar. Incorporate lots of leafy green vegetables and seasonal organic fruit in your diet.
Why do you follow a plant-based diet?
I follow a plant-based diet to boost my energy during long working hours. I’ve never felt better in my life—both physically and emotionally.
What is your favorite vegan food?
My favorite vegan food is a big bowl of salad with lots of organic leafy green vegetables and avocados along with a bowl of steamed quinoa.
Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and New York Times best-selling author, discovered the five places in the world—dubbed Blue Zones™—where people live the longest, healthiest lives. He will present his findings at the Physicians Committee’s sixth annual International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine on Aug. 10, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Learn more about ICNM and register at PCRM.org/ICNM.
What nutrition tips from your research should health care professionals bring to their patients?
Dietary surveys done in all five Blue Zones™ over the past century reveal that the diet associated with longevity is 95-100 percent plant-based, 65 percent of which is carbohydrates. So tell patients to beware of high-protein diets. I believe the most meaningful piece of advice is to tell patients to make friends with people who eat a plant-based diet. Healthy behaviors are contagious.
What are common plant-based foods across Blue Zones™?
The five pillars of every longevity diet in the world are: Whole grains, tubers, greens, nuts, and beans. If you’re an American and eating a cup of beans a day, you’re probably adding four years to your life expectancy.
Your latest book is The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World’s Happiest People. How does diet affect happiness?
Many of the happiest locations are the same or similar to longevity locations, because we have found the health and happiness go hand in hand. The happiest places are Denmark, Costa Rica, Singapore, and Boulder, Colo., because the leaders and communities have set up their environment so that happiness and health will ensue. In the United States there is a strong correlation between access to healthy eating and subjective well-being. And it turns out that the happiest people report eating seven servings of vegetables daily.
Is the Western diet encroaching on and endangering existing Blue Zones™?
Yes, Western diet practices are endangering existing Blue Zones™ hotspots. Modern society has been set up for convenience. You can jump in your car and go get fast food, which is much easier than getting healthy fresh produce.
Andrew Freeman, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.P., is the director of clinical cardiology, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness, and an associate professor of medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colo. He is also a founder and co-chair of the American College of Cardiology’s Nutrition & Lifestyle Work Group.
Dr. Freeman will present “Heart Failure and Plant-Based Diets: A Cure?” at the Physicians Committee’s sixth annual International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine on Aug. 10, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Learn more about ICNM and register at PCRM.org/ICNM.
Nutrition was rarely discussed when Andrew Freeman, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.P., was training in his cardiology fellowship. And his experience is not unique. A recent survey of about 1,000 cardiologists found that 90 percent received minimal nutrition education.
“When I started my practice, I was good at diagnostics and prescribing medicine,” says Dr. Freeman. “But many of my patients were dependent on pills and not getting better.”
So he started learning about how a plant-based diet, in addition to standard medical treatment, could help his patients fight heart disease. Then about six years ago, after months of research, his life changed personally and professionally.
“I had a cheeseburger for dinner,” remembers Dr. Freeman. “Then I finished reading The China Study that night and started a vegan diet the next day.”
Within a few months, he lost 35 pounds, and his health improved so much that he received a rebate following his next life insurance physical. He soon began recommending a plant-based diet to all of his patients.
“For the first time in my career, I was awestruck by my patients’ improvements,” says Dr. Freeman. “One patient who was suffering from heart failure, diabetes, and overweight was off most of his medications within about six months of starting a plant-based diet.”
He gives patients a packet of materials with literature including the Physicians Committee’s Vegetarian Starter Kit, a guide to local plant-based eating, and recommendations for documentaries such as Forks Over Knives.
“The No.1 question from patients is about diet,” says Dr. Freeman. “First, I ask my patients for permission to be critical of their diets. Then we have a patient-centered discussion that takes into account their values, culinary skills, socio-economic situation, and other factors.”
Dr. Freeman also helped launch a nine-week intensive cardiac rehab program in partnership National Jewish Health and Saint Joseph Hospital that follows the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine™ approach. Two times a week patients participate in one hour of exercise; one hour of learning about a plant-based, which includes a meal; one hour of stress relief; and a one hour support group.
On Saturdays, Dr. Freeman hosts Walk with a Doc, a weekly walk open to all members of the community, which includes tai chi, a healthy snack, and often discussion of a plant-based diet.
“We’re at a tipping point,” says Dr. Freeman, whose hospital now serves plant-based meals in the hospital lounge. “I even persuaded a Colorado cattle rancher to start a plant-based diet.”
Members of Congress are ready to let off some steam and celebrate summer. But instead of attending this year’s International Dairy Foods Association’s annual Capitol Hill Ice Cream Party, they should cool off with a delicious dairy-free ice cream social.
It would certainly be healthier treat than the Capitol Hill Ice Cream Party. Last year, the event served about 1,500 gallons of ice cream to members of Congress—some who might even be co-sponsors of the DAIRY PRIDE Act, which if passed would only allow the word “milk” to be used for products “obtained by the complete milking of one or more hooved mammals.”
But the DAIRY PRIDE Act’s last-ditch effort is not enough to turn the tide on the popularity of plant-based milks ranging from almond, soy, and coconut to pecan, flax, and quinoa. In fact, U.S. nondairy milk sales have grown 61 percent since 2012, while U.S. dairy sales are expected to decline 11 percent between 2015 and 2020.
Why? A recent survey found that 50 percent of U.S. dairy consumers are ditching dairy and choosing alternatives because of health concerns. Thirty-five percent say it’s because of lactose intolerance, 26 percent say dairy sensitivity/allergy, and 24 percent say to reduce saturated fat consumption.
Instead of the DAIRY PRIDE Act, Congress should help dairy producers transition from cow’s milk to plant-based alternatives to meet consumer demand for healthier products. A recent report from Rabobank, which specializes in food and agriculture financing says, “The results over the last five years have favored dairy players who have invested in milk alternatives across the supply chain—from planting almond trees to buying brands.”
Of course, Congress isn’t the only branch of government promoting dairy products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPlate give the American public the impression that dairy products are mandatory, which is not supported by the body of scientific evidence. Although calcium is an essential nutrient, it is available from many other more healthful foods, such as beans, green leafy vegetables, tofu products, breads, and cereals.
Dairy products harm a significant portion of the U.S. population who suffer from lactose intolerance, which causes bloating, diarrhea, and gas. The National Institutes of Health estimates that 30 million to 50 million American adults are lactose intolerant, including 95 percent of Asians, 60-80 percent of African-Americans and Ashkenazi Jews, 80-100 percent of American Indians, and 50-80 percent of Hispanics.
Scientific evidence also shows that dairy products offer little if any protection for bone health and increase the risk of breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers, cardiovascular disease, Parkinson’s disease, cognitive decline, and early death.
What Capitol Hill really needs is an ice cream social like the one Elmhurst, a former dairy, is hosting in New York this weekend. After 92 years of supplying cow’s milk to 8,300 grocers and 1,400 public schools in New York, Elmhurst shut down operations, but reopened and is thriving by selling only dairy-free plant milks.
Even better: The Dietary Guidelines say most individuals in the United States would benefit from increasing their intake of whole fruits and recommends choosing them over ice cream. Congress should skip the dairy industry’s Capitol Hill Ice Cream Party and chill with One-Ingredient Banana Ice Cream instead. Now that would be cool.
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CDC Should Prescribe Plant-Based Diet for Middle-Aged Hearts - September 10, 2018
Q-and-A: Actress Mallika Sherawat Says Go Vegan to Fight Diabetes - August 3, 2018
Andrew Freeman, M.D.: A Cardiologist’s Plant-Based Prescription - June 20, 2018
Congress: Be Cool with a Dairy-Free Ice Cream Social - June 7, 2018