Remember the old saying “you are what you eat”? Too often, as busy people, many of us give too little thought to what we put into our bodies as fuel. But when I recently read a book by GP, researcher, and healthy eating advocate, Dr Michael Greger, I decided it was time to start sharing this information with others interested in living longer and healthier.
There is little doubt these days about which foods lead to healthy outcomes, as a number of highly respected, scientific studies have shown that a mainly whole-food, plant based diet is significantly related to a reduced risk of many chronic illnesses – including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. The problem is that most people don’t read scientific research papers, and the message does not seem to be getting out there.
As psychologists, most of us at Open Sky Psychology have been impressed enough by these findings to pay more attention to what we are eating ourselves – as well as raising our clients’ awareness about the research into diet and wellbeing.
We are gradually starting to incorporate more salads packed with beans, brown rice, lentils, chic peas and a medley of coloured vegetables in our lunches, as well as including more nuts, fruits and spices as main-stays in our diets.
Dr Greger’s book, with the provocative title How Not to Die, devotes a chapter to each of the main chronic illnesses that most of us in the West have come to accept as normal – but which he sees as largely avoidable through healthier eating choices. He also documents the importance of educating people about healthy eating choices in treating depression.
Let’s take a look at some of the more detailed evidence that Greger points to, in making his claims about plant-based eating being more healthy.
In non-Western countries or localities where people eat mostly a plant based diet with little or no meat – the incidence of chronic illnesses is much lower. For example, Greger cites studies which show that in India, various cancer rates are 10 to 20 times lower than in the United States. He offers an explanation that this may be due to the daily consumption in India of lots of leafy greens, beans, split peas, lentils and chic peas – and in particular the regular use of the spice turmeric – in addition to the fact that only 7 percent of the population eat meat on a daily basis.
In a landmark 10 year study published in the world renowned scientific journal Lancet which followed and documented the food and health profiles of 135,000 people across 18 countries, it was found that significantly higher total fruit, vegetable and legume intake was associated with less major cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and deaths from all causes.
Another major journal, BMC Medicine, reported findings from the aptly named EPIC investigation into cancer and nutrition (involving 450,000 people in 10 European countries). This study found that men and women who have a high consumption of processed meat are at increased risk of early death, in particular from cardiovascular disease, but also cancer.
In a Lifestyle Heart Trial study led by Dean Ornish, published in JAMA (the American Medical Association journal), it was found that intensive lifestyle changes (including a vegetarian diet, exercise, stress management, no smoking and group psychosocial support) in fact led to a reversal of coronary heart disease, in those who already had moderate to severe coronary heart disease. This reversal of heart disease in the subjects who made the lifestyle changes was in stark contrast to the worsening condition of the control group subjects (who did not make the lifestyle changes and received standard medical care) who went on to have twice the number of cardiac events.
Greger’s amassed evidence-based studies of this kind suggest that the less meat you eat (of any kind – red meat, pork, chicken, and even fish), and the greater the proportion of plant-based, vegetarian dishes, especially those including beans, legumes and vegetables, brown rice, lentils and chic peas – the less you are likely to suffer from, or die from chronic illnesses.
Does this mean you can no longer have your faviourite peperoni pizza or your grandma’s wonderful chicken soup? Greger makes an important point here – that if you are eating predominantly healthy plant-based food most of the time, then there may be no real harm done by having the odd treat sourced from less healthy foods – because it is all about daily proportions.
My take on this, as a psychologist, is that this emotional flexibility of allowing yourself a few treats every so often is possibly quite critical to your likelihood of being able to stick to healthier eating overall.
Feeling permanently deprived sets you up for resentment about healthy eating, and often only leads to bingeing later. Healthy eating means enjoying food and how it makes your body and mind feel. Lots of diverse vegetarian, colourful plant based variety will create and feed a much healthier environment in your gut. It takes only a few weeks of extra-healthy vegetarian eating for your palette to change, so that former cravings start to fade and healthy eating becomes its own reward.
How to start? It can be either and all-in kick-start or a gradual process across weeks or months – that choice is best made by you. Some people will enjoy the sense of commitment by getting stuck into the fridge and pantry and pitching out the unhealthy things at once, to avoid temptation. Those who prefer a gradual approach may find it easier to start by incorporating just a few vegetarian meals a week or fortnight, learning how to cook or prepare new interesting and tasty vegetarian meals before shifting over to a mainly plant-based diet. In this, Google is your great friend, as you can enter just a few ingredients to summon up a plethora of interesting recipes and instructions.
I must emphasise that I am not a nutritionist nor dietitian, but as a psychologist and researcher I have recognised Michael Greger’s massive contribution in compiling so much ground-breaking, scientifically rigorous research about food and its relation to chronic illness. I believe it is important that the general public have access to this high-quality information resource. Since I read his book, my own food intake has changed to a 90% vegetarian diet where nothing is totally excluded – but the proportions have changed vastly. Many of us at this practice are now choosing vegetarian more often.
For more detail on the research and rationale for switching to a more plant-based, whole food diet, see Dr Michael Greger’s book, and his address to the staff at Google, available online. The research he is presenting is drawn from impeccable sources, and the advice may literally save lives.
Author: Dr Margo Orum