Did you know that eating a plant-based diet reduces your risk of heart disease, America’s number one killer?
A vegan for the last six years, Dr. Sabine Gempel sees the benefits of plant-based eating in her own health and in her patients. A physical therapist at the University of Miami Health System’s Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Program, she recalls a 33-year-old who started rehabilitation because of heart failure. After he began eating vegan six days a week, he lost 30 pounds, his heart function dramatically improved and he eliminated some of his medications. Other patients report having more mental clarity. Many reverse their diabetes. “That’s important, since diabetes increases the risk of cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Gempel notes. And patients who avoid animal protein in the few weeks leading up to a lipid profile blood test typically see positive changes in their test scores.
Despite these benefits, many people are reluctant to change. “People have preconceived notions of vegan and vegetarian foods. If they worry about getting enough protein, I give them my ‘Top 10 Plant Sources for Protein’ handout. If they’re concerned about having enough energy, I tell them about patients who feel less lethargic after adopting a plant-based diet. On the other hand, I also say that just because a food is vegan, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Oreos are vegan, after all.”
Research confirms Dr. Gempel’s assertions. A large-scale, multi-year study showed that substituting just one serving of healthy protein for red meat daily resulted in a lower risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease and cancer. A second study demonstrated that coronary heart disease could be reversed in one year by adopting a vegetarian diet, aerobic exercise, stress management and other healthy habits. Yet another revealed that coronary artery disease patients who followed a vegan diet significantly reduced their inflammation, while those who followed the American Heart Association dietary guidelines did not.
“Americans need to try something different because what we are doing isn’t working. Gym memberships are rising, medications that are available and being prescribed are rising and surgeries are getting more advanced and less invasive, and yet, cardiovascular incidence and deaths went up in 2017. Fruits, veggies, beans, legumes, and whole grains might be the simple solution to our health crisis,” Dr. Gempel says.
Small steps, big changes
You don’t have to go full-on vegan to improve your health. Dr. Gempel says she believes that with every step you take to limit animal protein, you experience benefits.
Here are some strategies she shares with patients:
Limit vs. eliminate. The concept of gradually cutting back on certain foods is easier to swallow when you’re trying to change a lifetime of eating habits. Try eliminating one animal protein source at a time. When you adapt, move onto something else, choosing more and more foods from plant sources. If you want to reduce, but not eliminate meat, try the Mediterranean diet. Or try filling half of your plate with fruits or veggies, a quarter with whole grains or beans, and a quarter or less with animal protein.
Keep it simple. If the food label has words you can’t pronounce or an endless list of ingredients, it’s highly processed. Whole foods have fewer, more recognizable ingredients.
Plan and prep. Designate a few hours a week to prepare several meals at once. With nutritious meals on hand, you’re less likely to snack on unhealthy foods your family may still keep in the kitchen. Planning is critical to success.
Cultivate convenience. Frozen fruits and vegetables eliminate cleaning and chopping chores, and a heart-healthy, minimally-processed frozen veggie burger makes a quick meal when paired with a salad.
Substitute and experiment. Instead of buttering that baked potato, try a light drizzle of cold pressed olive oil. Toss in a few fresh chopped (or dried) herbs instead of salt. When dining out, ask for steamed vegetables instead of fries and choose baked or broiled fish over burgers.
Stay motivated. List the reasons you want to make changes (avoiding heart surgery, being there for your grandchildren, etc.) and post it on the fridge. Watch health-inspired documentaries, listen to a vegan lifestyle podcast, join an online community, or find an accountability partner.
Tweak food traditions. Cultural barriers to plant-based eating are common, especially in Miami. “Many of my patients are of Cuban heritage. They can enjoy family get-togethers with a few simple changes. For the traditional chicken and rice dish, substitute brown rice for white and add beans and salsa or peppers, onions, tomatoes and avocado. Eliminate cheese and use chicken as a condiment not the entrée.”
Redirecting your food choices may be challenging, but it’s possible to have fun in the process, by experimenting with new recipes, cooking methods, spices, and ingredients. You’ll not only become more creative in the kitchen, you may live longer as a result.
Nancy Moreland is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News. She has written for several major health care systems and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her writing also appears in the Chicago Tribune.