Veganism is going mainstream -- under a new, less rigid-sounding name: plant-strong. Bill Clinton says he's switched to a "plant-based diet." So has Mike Tyson and macho retired firefighter Rip Esselstyn, author of the best-selling Engine 2 Diet based on his efforts to convert his station house buddies to a vegan way of life.
Turns out that following a fiber-rich diet consisting mainly of whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables not only helps to reduce heart disease risk, but might even lead to a longer life. In a study published today, National Cancer Institute researchers found that those ages 50 to 71 who ate at least 26 grams of fiber a day had a 22 percent lower risk of dying over 9 years compared with those who ate 13 grams of fiber a day or less.
The study's half-a-million participants were free to choose their own diets and, to no surprise, those with the highest fiber intakes also were more likely to exercise, eat fruits and vegetables, and avoid red meat and smoking. After accounting for all these differences, however, the researchers still found that a high fiber intake reduced the risk of dying from heart disease, infections, and respiratory diseases.
This suggests that whole grains like oatmeal, wheat bran, and barley have a real health impact. They're rich in antioxidants like selenium and zinc that "may protect tissues from oxidative damage which is ... common in chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn disease," wrote two Harvard School of Public Health researchers in an editorial that accompanied the Archives of Internal Medicine study.
The research certainly doesn't prove that switching from Big Macs to lentil pilaf will add years to your life -- there might have been factors the researchers didn't account for that made people who ate high-fiber diets healthier. But it adds to a growing body of evidence documenting the importance of diet in reversing health risks like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar that pave the way to heart disease, diabetes and many cancers.
A sure-to-be controversial new documentary called Forks Over Knives underscores this in advocating for a "whole-foods, plant-based diet." The documentary, which will hit Boston theaters in May, blames the American obesity epidemic and all its related health ills on animal products like milk, cheese, chicken, and fish -- as well as those tough steaks that require knives to eat. Processed foods with their white flour, trans fats, and corn syrup are also taken to task.
The film primarily shows overweight folks with chronic illnesses who were put on plant-based diets and saw dramatic improvements in just a matter of weeks in their weight and disease markers like cholesterol and blood pressure. The diet is extreme and forbids fish, dairy (even fat-free), eggs, sugar, flour, and any kind of oil (even olive).
But, as Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist, argues in the film, coronary bypass surgery is what's extreme. The implication here is that this diet will prevent that. I should note that Esselstyn, who is Rip's father, grew up on a dairy farm and now believes that Americans have been hoodwinked into believing that milk is the perfect food.
In a panel discussion that followed yesterday's screening at the Museum of Science, Harvard Medical School nutrition researcher Dr. David Eisenberg remarked that he didn't agree with all the tenets of the diet advocated in the film; for example, he wasn't going to give up fish or olive oil. And there is no evidence that low-fat animal protein causes any health ills.
But, Eisenberg added, most experts agree that "if we ate predominantly plants and reduced our intake of saturated fat and salt, we'd make a big dent in our country's rate of heart disease and diabetes."
Fellow panelist Tara Madigan, the nutritionist for the Boston Red Sox, agreed, adding that she would prefer to encourage Red Sox players to make small changes. "Big Papi came up to me with a container of yogurt, thinking I'd be so proud of what he was eating," she recalled. "I took a look at the label and showed him that it had the same amount of added sugar as the Coke we banned from the clubhouse." Instead, she suggested not that he switch to tofu but, rather, plain yogurt with fresh fruit slices mixed in.
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