Buckle up, folks! This is a long one!

A couple of weeks ago, Dr. John Bisognano, a preventive cardiologist at University of Rochester, did an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) on Reddit. In case you don’t know what an AMA is, it’s essentially an interview where an expert in a particular field answers questions from the Reddit community. This topic was:

Let’s talk about your heart, specifically how to prevent a heart attack and what to do if you’ve had one. We can talk about recovery, diet and lifestyle changes, going back to work, relationships.

One user asked: Is there a significant difference in cardiovascular outcomes between those who consume animal products and those who don’t (typical diet vs vegetarians vs vegans)?

This was Dr. Bisognano’s response: There is no question that a diet low in animal fats — and indeed a vegan diet — is best from a pure cardiovascular preventive standpoint. Some of those diets have actually been shown to reverse progression of plaques in arteries. 

The AMA got me thinking. As you dear readers already know, my reason for being vegan is because I care about animals rights. As I embarked on this journey, I found that there are plenty of other benefits as well: a vegan diet supports human rights, it is better for the environment, and the food is a lot more delicious than non-vegans make it out to be. However, from a strictly self-preservation standpoint, health is the most immediate and beneficial reason to go vegan.

How to Not Die has been on my sitting on bedside table for quite some time, and I finally cracked it open last week. It was written by Michael Greger, M.D., the founder of nutritionfacts.org. Each chapter is predictably titled “How to Not Die of [X, Y, or Z],” and the potentially death-inducing maladies include things such as diabetes, high blood pressure, prostate cancer, liver diseases, digestive cancers, and even suicidal depression. Obviously, there are genetic risk factors at play here as well with most of these conditions, but the idea is that we can avoid agitating inherent predispositions by making smarter choices about what we eat.

The book opens with a discussion about America’s #1 killer: heart disease. According to the CDC, over 600,000 people die of it every year. That’s nearly 25% of all deaths in the country. Because of those staggering numbers, heart disease is a condition nearly all of us have been affected by, either personally or via a relative or friend’s diagnosis.

The amazing thing about heart disease is that its not only preventable: it’s reversible. Study after study show that patients with advanced heart disease who are put on plant-based diets actually get better.  And why shouldn’t they? Dr. Greger astutely notes that the human body wants to be healthy. He underscores this idea with a clever metaphor that has really stuck with me: if you bruise your leg by bumping into a coffee table, the wound will eventually heal. “What what if you keep whacking it in the same place three times a day,” he asks, “say, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner? It would never heal.” Your physician can prescribe a painkiller, which will make you feel better, but the medication does nothing to treat the underlying cause. With heart disease, we know what the underlying cause is (eating animal proteins). We can change our lifestyle in order to give our bodies the time and ability to heal themselves. There’s certainly precendence for this in medical literature. We all learned in health class that once someone quits smoking, his body gets to work repairing his damaged lungs.  In fact, within about 15 years after quitting, an ex-smoker’s lungs look almost identical to lifelong non-smoker’s. Our arteries function in a similar way. If we stop bombarding them with animal proteins, they have the opportunity to clean out the plaque. Neal Barnard, M.D., president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible medicine says, “Plant-based diets are the nutritional equivalent of quitting smoking.”

Of course, it’s up to each of us to make our own decisions as to what to eat and how to live, but shouldn’t we try to make these choices consciously by educating ourselves about the predictable consequences of our actions? Just as we avoid sugary foods that rot our teeth, we can avoid the trans fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol-laden foods that clog up our arteries.

The documentary Forks Over Knives helps hit home these points without having to dive into a 400+ page book. You can rent it on Amazon for $3.99. According to the film, over 500 thousand Americans undergo bypass surgery annually, at the whopping price of nearly $100,000.000 a pop. If you’re thinking to yourself, “That number is ridiculous, it must be vegan propaganda,” think again. This figure is also cited by the University of Michigan’s Department of Cardiac Surgery.

Let’s take a look at a list of the prescribed drugs in the United States during 2011:

  • Hydrocodone: 131.2 million prescriptions
  • Generic Zocor  (a cholesterol-lowering statin drug): 94.1 million prescriptions
  • Lisinopril (a blood pressure drug): 87.4 million prescriptions
  • Generic Synthroid (synthetic thyroid hormone): 70.5 million prescriptions
  • Generic Norvasc (an angina/blood pressure drug): 57.2 million prescriptions
  • Generic Prilosec (an antacid drug): 53.4 million prescriptions (does not include over-the-counter sales)
  • Azithromycin (an antibiotic): 52.6 million prescriptions
  • Amoxicillin (an antibiotic): 52.3 million prescriptions
  • Generic Glucophage (a diabetes drug): 48.3 million prescriptions
  • Hydrochlorothiazide (a water pill used to lower blood pressure): 47.8 million prescriptions.

Notice any trends? 60% of the drugs above are related to issues that could be eased by diet, and the majority of those are related to heart conditions. They are not magical panaceas, either. Lipitor comes with some serious side effects, including muscle pain, nausea, and can even cause liver failure. Nearly 17% of patients who take statins report some side effects. The FDA warned that taking statins can increase your risk of diabetes, even in people with a healthy weight and with no other risk factors. Despite this, Lipitor has become the best selling drug of all time. It has generated over $140 billion in sales globally. At an initial diagnosis, the benefits of statins outweigh their risks; however, eating a plant-based diet has been shown to perform as well as statins over time without any side effects (except, of course, lowering your risk for cancer and diabetes).

It’s not just heart disease that can be averted through a plant-based diet. Some of our most deadly cancers can be curbed as well. One study cited in Forks Over Knives outlines that in Japan during 1958 there were only 18 prostate cancer deaths in the entire nation. Let that sink in for a moment. 18. By comparison, there were 14,000 in the US, despite the fact that our population was only double that of Japan’s.

A recent study conducted by Loma Linda University in California found similar results. In a group of over 26,000 men, the study concluded that men who adhered to a vegan diet had a 35% reduction in prostate cancer risk, which the researchers dubbed statistically significant.

As a lady, I’m lucky to not have to worry about prostate cancer. But it does run in my family, and new research shows that women’s risk of breast cancer increases by 14% if their father or brother suffered from the disease. Breastcancer.org notes that there are lifestyle choices you can make to help prevent it, including “eating a healthy diet that’s low in processed foods, sugar, and trans fats.” Do I even have to say it? A plant-based diet fits the bill. 40,000 women die each year from breast cancer, but studies indicate that lifestyle changes such as walking 30 minutes a day and eating more fruits and veggies are associated with a significant survival advantage: women who adopted healthier habits had cut the risk of dying from their cancer in half during the two years following their diagnosis as opposed to those who made no lifestyle changes.

Cancer starts with our genes. It could be the genes we were born with, or it could be in genes that have mutated with time. Study after study shows that cancer genes grow much, much more rapidly when given animal proteins, suggesting that most cancer is not caused purely by our genetics.

One or two cancer cells never hurt anyone. But how about a billion cancer cells? That’s how many may be in a tumor by the time it’s picked up by a mammogram. Like most tumors, breast cancer starts with just one cell, which divides to become two, four, and then eight. Every time a breast cancer cell divides, the tumor can effectively double in size… In just thirty doublings, a single cancer cell can turn into a billion… Breast cancers can double in size in anywhere from as few as twenty-five days to a thousand or more. In other words, it could be two years, or it could be more than a hundred years, before a tumor starts to cause problems. Where you fall on that timescale — two years or a century — may depend in part on what you eat.

It just seems to obvious. By changing your diet, you can dodge potentially life-threatening illnesses, avoid being placed on medications indefinitely, and prolong your life expectancy. I’d gladly give up steaks for such beneficial outcomes.

Alright. I’ve officially eclipsed 1,500 words. Here are your action items from this post:

  1. Watch Forks Over Knives
  2. Do some preliminary research about the health benefits of plant-based diets
  3. Try a plant-based recipe!  If you don’t know where to start, the Forks Over Knives website is a great resource. I made the “Tu-No  Casserole” for dinner earlier this week and it was a big hit (although, full disclosure: we added some salt).

Cheers to a happier and healthier you!