Roadmap to Good Health: Best Diet for HEALTH

By Leonard A. Katz, MD
Medical Advisor, NY 44 Heath Benefits Plan Trust
 
There are five areas around the globe where the people live heathier and longer than anywhere else. Many live to be over 100. They have been dubbed, BLUE ZONES: Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece. While the people's practices differ from each other, there are several common characteristics (see the diagram below). One common practice is a plant-based diet including legumes.
 
Studies of populations that eat plant-based, vegetarian and vegan diets have demonstrated extraordinary health benefits. The most obvious benefits include no obesity, greatly reduced heart disease, lower rates of cancer and possibly most strikingly, very little dementia.
The plant-based diet is recommended by many health plans and nutrition advisors. While other diets such as The Mediterranean Diet also are health inducing, a diet with all food derived from the earth is likely the best.
 
The diet consists of all fruits and vegetables including beans and legumes. It excludes all animal products including meat, milk, and fish and all processed foods.
 
Here are results of a few of many large-scale observational studies:
  • Diabetes: One study found that over time, non-vegetarians were 74% more likely to develop diabetes than vegetarians. And, the diet is effective in treating diabetes (medication may still be required but often can be reduced.)
  • Heart Disease: The plant-based diet can improve clogged coronary arteries. And those following the diet were found to have just 29% the risk of death for heart attack compared with those who did not.
  • Obesity: a vegetarian diet is highly effective in achieving weight loss. Vegetarians also have lower rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
  • High Blood Pressure: Vegetarian diets are associated with lower systolic and diastolic blood pressures.
  • Mortality: With plant-based diets there is increased longevity and reduced heart disease. (of course, all meat including red meat is excluded.)
The benefits are clear. Are there any potential problems? Plants are not rich in iron, vitamin B12 and calcium. Attention needs to be paid to these essential nutrients.  Supplements may be needed particularly of vitamin B12 and vitamin D. Guidance from a health professional can be helpful – simple blood tests can determine if levels are low.
 
Additionally, sugar, that is sucrose, derives from a plant. And grains are plants. Problems arise and can reverse the benefit if the foods are processed such as white sugar and white bread.
 
If you wish to learn about the plant-based dietary approach to healthy living, please consult the information below and check out the many great recipes.  Get some Blue Zone recipes here. 
 
While the observations about the total diet are clear, there have been no major studies assessing partial adherence to a plant-based diet. Knowing that the Mediterranean Diet which also promotes plant-based food and is health producing but includes fish and olive oil, one could logically wonder if inclusion of some fish would still produce major health improvements.
 
Our understanding of diets and food and health has zoomed forward in recent years. We were stuck in the past focusing on calories, food groups, the food pyramid, carbohydrates and fats. The route to good health does not include counting calories; it will be achieved by eating lots of fruits and vegetables and avoiding meat, especially red meat and most importantly, processed meats (salami, hot dogs, bologna, etc.) and…processed foods, generally. Back to nature is the best guide. Beware of fad diets.
 
Many people have become sincerely health conscious and have been exercising, and are eating wisely. If you want to improve your health and achieve a healthy, long life, check out the plant-based diet.
 
References:
Gene Stone. Forks Over Knives; The Plant-Based Way to Health. The Experiment 2011.
Philip J Tuso, MD. National Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. The Permanente Journal. Spring 2013.
Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr, MD, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. Avery 2007.