Health and Fitness: Can switching to a plant-based diet improve your health?

Salad with chickpeas, roasted vegetables, baby beets, cherry tomatoes, and arugula. Delicious vegetarian eating.

News about the healthy effects of plant-based diets seems to be cropping up everywhere these days. It reached a kind of critical mass last summer, when former president Bill Clinton slimmed down for daughter Chelsea’s wedding by switching to a whole-foods, plant-based diet, then stayed on it for its reported long-term health benefits.

Just what are the health benefits claimed for a whole-foods, plant-based diet? First, let’s define some terms:

• A vegetarian eats plant foods and no animal foods or products derived from them. Ovo-lacto vegetarians also eat eggs and dairy products; ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy products; lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but not eggs.

• Vegans eat only plants and plant-derived foods but do not necessarily exclude refined flours, sugars, etc.

• A whole-foods, plant-based diet is a vegan diet that excludes refined foods. (For brevity’s sake, in this article, “plant-based diet” means “whole-foods, plant-based diet.”)

There have been many books written on the subject of plant-based nutrition, but the best-known recent tome is “The China Study,” by T. Colin Campbell, PhD and his son, Thomas M. Campbell II. Dr. Campbell, an emeritus professor of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University, oversaw 20 years of the most comprehensive study of nutrition every conducted in partnership with Cornell and Oxford universities and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine. It’s interesting to note that Dr. Campbell grew up on a dairy farm believing milk was “nature’s perfect food,” and that his early career in biomedical research centered on the importance of animal protein. His transition to believing in the superiority of plant-based nutrition is detailed in the book.

The findings of the research known as the China Study have become something of a phenomenon since the book’s publication in 2006. (A Google search brings up in excess of a half-million results.) Four-hundred pages of densely packed information can’t be summarized in a few words, but below are some of the book’s major points, which are echoed by numerous other scholarly papers and popular books, magazines and websites. Even the American Dietetic Association recently endorsed well-chosen vegetarian and vegan diets.

Major points about “diseases of affluence” detailed in “The China Study”

Cancer: Animal protein, especially casein found in milk, causes cancer cells to grow; plant protein discourages cancer growth.  

Heart disease: Animal protein clogs arteries; a plant-based diet can stop and even, in some cases, reverse heart disease.

Obesity: The standard American diet (SAD) causes obesity; a low-fat, plant-based diet combined with moderate exercise enables permanent weight loss.

Diabetes: SAD promotes both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes; a high-fiber, plant-based diet protects against these diseases.

“Eight Principles of Food and Health”

In the book, Dr. Campbell offers “Eight Principles of Food and Health” and delineates these benefits of the healthy lifestyle he encourages: live longer, look and feel younger, have more energy, lose weight, lower your blood cholesterol, prevent and even reverse heart disease, lower your risk of many cancers, preserve your eyesight in later years, prevent and treat diabetes, avoid surgery in many instances, vastly decrease the need for pharmaceutical drugs, keep your bones strong, avoid impotence, avoid stroke, prevent kidney stones, keep your baby from getting Type 1 diabetes, alleviate constipation, lower your blood pressure, avoid Alzheimer’s, beat arthritis and more. The principles:

1. Nutrition represents the combined activities of countless food substances. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

2. Vitamin supplements are not a panacea for good health.

3. There are virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods that are not better provided by plants. [Editor’s note: The exception is vitamin B12, which is formed by microorganisms in rich soil. Dr. Campbell recommends B12 supplementation for people on plant-based diets.]

4. Genes do not determine disease on their own. Genes function only by being activated, or expressed, and nutrition plays a critical role in determining which genes, good and bad, are expressed.

5. Nutrition can substantially control the adverse effects of noxious chemicals.

6. The same nutrition that prevents disease in its early stages (before diagnosis) can also halt or reverse disease in its later stages (after diagnosis).

7. Nutrition that is truly beneficial for one chronic disease will support health across the board.

8. Good nutrition creates health in all areas of our existence. All parts are interconnected.

Adopting a Plant-Based Diet

Dr. Campbell suggests aiming to eliminate all animal-based products from your diet, but not to “obsess over it.” He gives the example of vegetable soup with chicken stock, or whole-wheat bread with a tiny amount of egg as things not to worry about. A handy chart in the chapter titled “How to Eat” lists many of the fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grains you can eat freely, plus foods to minimize (refined carbs, added vegetable oils and fish) and foods to avoid (meat, poultry, dairy and eggs). This chapter also offers helpful advice for making the transition from an animal-based diet.

Part IV of “The China Study” delves into the politics surrounding food in the U.S. and the skewing of nutritional science to favor the interests of powerful food lobbies. It makes for very interesting reading, to say the least.

“The China Study,” is a must-read for anyone seeking a way to better health. I was convinced enough to gradually switch to a whole-foods, plant-based diet myself and the results tell a compelling tale. Along with daily power walking, a whole-foods, low-fat, plant-based diet has enabled me to lose 30 pounds in a little over four months. And my remaining excess fat is melting off, slowly but surely, with no hunger or cravings. I’m confident that I will eventually reach my ideal weight and be able to maintain it with my new eating and exercise habits. For a chronic yo-yo dieter like me, that’s a remarkable statement.

The best part, though, isn’t the weight loss, but my increased energy and general sense of well-being. I truly feel 30 years younger, and what could beat that?

Plant-based recipes

Very Quick Black Bean Chili

From “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease” by Caldwell B. Esselstyn Jr., M.D.

This is really delicious served over brown rice or with a side of whole-grain corn bread or baked yams. It’s a very forgiving recipe, so adapt to your taste buds’ delight.

1 large onion, chopped

A little vegetable broth or water for stir “frying”

2-3 garlic cloves, chopped

2 15-oz. cans black or kidney beans (I use one of each), drained and rinsed

1 16-oz. jar salsa (as mild or hot as you like)

1 16-oz. package frozen corn

1 bunch green onions, white and green parts, chopped (optional)

1/2-1 cup cilantro, chopped (optional)

Stir-fry onion in a large nonstick pan over medium heat until soft and beginning to brown. Add garlic and continue cooking 1 minute longer. Add beans, salsa and green onions. Cover and cook over medium heat about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add corn and cook, stirring, until heated. (I run the corn under hot water to thaw before adding it to the pot.) Add cilantro just before serving.

Serves 4.

Italian-Style Pasta

From “The Gluten-Free Vegan,” by Susan O’Brien

Sort of a pasta primavera gone wild, this dish is a tasty hit with vegans and nonvegans alike. If you don’t have to eliminate gluten from your diet, you can use regular penne.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1/4 cup roasted red bell peppers, chopped

1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, chopped

5-6 cloves garlic, chopped

1 cup washed spinach, chopped

1/4 cup red wine

1/2 cup artichoke hearts in oil, chopped (or eggplant, peeled and cubed)

1 cup seeded and diced fresh tomatoes (out of season, you can use canned)

3 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped (or 1 T. dried)

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1/4-1/2 cup pine nuts

1/4 cup capers (optional)

20 kalamata olives, pitted and cut in half

8-12 oz. rice penne, prepared according to package directions

Pour oil into a Dutch oven or large sauté pan and heat over medium-high heat. Add onion and saute until soft, 4-5 minutes. Add roasted red bell pepper, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic. Continue to cook 2-3 minutes. Add spinach and cook another 2-3 minutes. Add wine, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, herbs, pine nuts, capers and olives. Turn heat to low and simmer until heated through and vegetables are tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper (or leave out the salt, as I do). Pour sauce cooked penne and toss.

Serves 6.

This story originally appeared in the Times/Review annual Health and Fitness supplement.