Can we eat our way to better health?
Most of the current research, and some of our favorite doctors at the Medical College of Wisconsin, say the answer is yes: A plant-based diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains has a number of benefits, including controlling weight, lowering cholesterol, and reducing the risk of cancer and diabetes.
How does eating this healthy diet affect your body?
We turned to some experts to explore the topic.
Two Doctors Share the Good News
In this episode of our video series Coffee Conversations with Scientists, two professors at the Medical College of Wisconsin share their personal and professional experiences with plant-based diets. Dr. Stuart Wong, an oncologist, and Dr. Ken Jacobsohn, a urologist, share some of the findings on the benefits of lifestyle changes to improve health.
In particular, they are both proponents of plant-based diets — for themselves, their families, and their patients.
What Does Plant-Based Mean?
A plant-based diet is focused on eating food predominantly from plants. A whole-foods, plant based diet (WFPB), is the healthiest version and focuses on consuming minimally to unprocessed forms of plants—think foods in their natural state, though not necessarily raw foods.
Both doctors have found benefits from moving away from a diet based on animals (meat and dairy), and towards plans like beans and soy. And, it’s been well established that eating fresh fruits and veggies instead of highly processed foods is good for your body.
Dr. Jacobsohn says he has been impressed with the research showing the impact that a healthy diet has on chronic disease. He says plant-based nutrition has been shown to help:
Lower blood pressure
Reduce risk of chronic disease
Maintain a healthy body mass index (BMI)
Reduce cancer risk
Dr. Wong adds that 18 cancers are associated with obesity or poor nutrition, and that he felt that switching his personal diet “made a lot of sense” given that he was recommending dietary changes for his patient.
What Happens in Our Bodies?
Dr. Wong says plant-based diets are a proven way to help avoid the “big 3”: cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
How does that work?
“When you follow a plant-based diet, there’s evidence that there are changes in macronutrients, fatty acids and sugars,” explains Dr. Wong. “You take in micronutrients: vitamins and phytochemicals. There’s evidence that those are the things that can provide benefit.”
In addition, plant-based diets increase fiber intake, and there’s evidence that you increase carbohydrate fermentation and decrease protein fermentation. This leads to increased appetite control and changes in lipid control that can improve outcomes.
And, he adds, plant-based diets improve anti-inflammatory processes and immune function.
Both of these doctors believe so much in plant-based nutrition that they have switched their own lifestyles to reap the benefits.
A Personal Transformation
Dr. Jacobsohn explains that his own experience adds anecdotal evidence to the scientific findings. His father, a retired physician, was not seeing great results managing diabetes and a shoulder injury. His physical therapist told him there’s a better way to control his diabetes.
After switching to a plant-based diet, his dad lost pounds, reduced his medication, and has been maintaining a healthy weight ever since. “I put on my scientific hat and said there’s something I should have learned in medical school,” says Dr. Jacobsohn. “I started to watch every documentary, read every article, and learn as much as I could. My wife and I, almost overnight, changed our diet.”
The doctor thought he was eating pretty well before the switch, but he lost 22 pounds, and his cholesterol dropped 65 points. “My exercise tolerance and energy levels increased, and a whole bunch of things happened that I never anticipated were even possible. That led me to start to give that data to my patients and learn how to help people to really transform their health.”
It takes a mind shift as well as a nutritional one to make this type of change, says Dr. Jacobsohn, “The default in our society is the unhealthy choice, unwrapping the fast food, driving through the drive through lane. You have to be intentional.”
As for his dad: “It’s been transformative in terms of diabetes, energy and future outlook, and his perception of himself. We’re all very proud of him.”
Controlling Your Health Future
The data shows that switching to a plant-based whole foods diet helps most people decrease their risk for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. But not everyone is prepared to make dramatic changes in their diets. The doctors have experience talking to patients about nutrition, and helping them understand why they might want to consider changing their diet and how to do it.
“We introduce it by trying to frame the reason why someone’s seeing me,” says Dr. Jacobsohn, who sees many patients with prostate cancer. “It’s a 10-year mortality if we don’t treat it. We have to think about all the arrows pointing at somebody. We ask ‘What is it you want the rest of your life to look like? Do you want control over your health future?”
People want to live long, healthy lives, he says, and while not everyone is 100 percent receptive, many start to connect the dots and understand that diet is key to many health indicators.
Some people are motivated by financial concerns, adds Dr. Wong. “People look at their insurance deductible. It would be great to not have to dip into your deductible. If you can take control by living a healthy lifestyle and eating well, that would be great.”
Two Paths to Change
Dr. Jacobsohn says he frames nutritional changes as a prescription. But before prescribing change, he talks with patients about why they should consider changing what they are eating. Some people respond to radical changes, while others will need more gradual shifts.
For everyone considering lifestyle changes he suggests getting informed about what qualifies as a whole foods plant-based diet. “How do you get it on your plate? Take about a week to do that,” he says. Then decide if you want to go for drastic or gradual change.
Option 1: Go All In
“Then go all in for 1 month. “Move the junk away, put it away, throw it away, freeze it,” he says. “Your taste buds will change, cravings will go away, you’ll be pooping more, you’ll drop weight, and feel the difference. Even though it sounds radical, that might be the way to be the most successful.”
Option 2: Progressive Change
“The other choice is to make gradual choices,” says Dr. Jacobsohn. “If you have 4 sodas a day, can you just have one? Can you just change breakfast? Can you move the needle somewhere? It will take longer, but it’s a progression.What do you need to take the next step?”
Both pathways lead to success, says Dr. Jacobsohn. It really depends on the person, and your doctor can help you make the changes.
It’s always important to get support from other people who eat at the table. With other people motivated to make change, it becomes easier to load the table with healthy, delicious food.
Dr. Wong says some people object to the idea of switching to plant-based foods because of cost. But plant-based diets tend to be less expensive, and they don’t need to be time consuming. These days, we are seeing major rises in the cost of meat and dairy, so plant-based alternatives can also help the pocketbook.
Fun with Food
In the end, both doctors say that patients should have fun while exploring and trying different things. “For me, changing my diet was a challenge and it was fun to do,” says Dr. Wong. “People need to get over the fear factor.”
Another bonus: “When you cut out the calories from animal products, you have all these extra calories. I’m never hungry,” says Dr. Wong.
Dr. Jacobsohn says planning also helps him. “When we go to the picnic or the potluck, we bring something that I’m going to want to eat. Almost invariably, it’s the best dish anyone brings.” Call restaurants before you go to talk through options and modifications. And keep in mind that restaurant food is often loaded with fat, sugar, and salt.
The Protein Connection
Our bodies do need protein, and there are plenty of healthy alternatives to meat and dairy. Consider substituting plant-based proteins — beans, legumes, tofu, vegetable protein — into familiar dishes. “Protein gives you a satisfied feeling,” says Dr. Wong. “You feel full.”
He also recommends people who switch to plant-based diets take a daily vitamin supplement that includes B12.
Incorporating Nutrition into Medical Schools
Although society has been moving toward embracing plant-based nutrition, there is not enough nutrition education in medical schools. However, the two professors say medical students are keenly interested in the topic, and they look forward to more advances in scientific understanding of lifestyle changes.
They are also working on a proposal for a new clinic that will improve the lifestyle of patients where primary care physicians can refer patients and do research to get at key issues. They want to continue to study how behavior modification can help people overcome barriers to good nutrition.
By doing so, we hope to experience a delicious—and healthier—future.