August 27, 2018

As with most physicians who have practiced as long as I have, the extent of my medical school education on nutrition back in 1981 was how to feed patients through their veins or tubes down their nose when they were so ill they couldn’t eat normally.

Even today, only one-quarter of medical schools have any courses at all in nutrition.

My real nutritional education began in 2006, when someone asked my opinion on The China Study by nutritionist T. Colin Campbell. Dr. Campbell’s book meticulously documented strong associations between animal protein consumption and common cancers, such as breast, prostate and colon. Eating animal-based products like poultry, beef, fish, eggs and dairy was also strongly associated with illnesses such as heart attacks and strokes.

 

Recent studies show that whole, plant-based Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) as well as Mediterranean diets are effective at decreasing mortality and improving health. A comprehensive scientific review by the World Health Organization concluded in 2015 that processed meats are Group 1 carcinogens, just like asbestos and tobacco. This review also concluded that red meat is probably carcinogenic to humans.

I tested a whole-food, plant-based diet myself and lost weight and felt better. Then I started telling my patients how to use diet to reverse their high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.

About 10 percent of them told me I was crazy and found a new doctor. However, many made progress at eating more plants and fewer animals, and over time, they reduced the number of medications they needed, lost weight and felt better. Perhaps 10 percent of my patients wholeheartedly adopted lifestyle change and actually got off all of their medications and reversed their metabolic syndrome-related disease.

There is nothing more satisfying professionally than curing a patient of a lifetime of disease with simple lifestyle education.

My new lifestyle evangelism for a time caused my wife, Stacey, to roll her eyes until they were stuck in the back of her head whenever I talked about food. Thank God that after the give-and-take that marriages require, we now see “eye to eye” on the emotionally charged issue of what to eat.

Here is Stacey’s story:

About 12 years ago, my husband announced that he was no longer eating meat. Reading books and reviewing scientific articles on plant-based diets convinced him – and eventually me – that consuming large amounts of meat was not good for the human body..

I call myself a “flexitarian,” meaning, I occasionally consume meat, eggs and dairy products. People would ask, “Are you vegan? Vegetarian? On a keto diet?”

What? I just try not to eat too much meat.

“So what do you eat?” I would get that all the time. “Curry?” I guess that’s the first thing people think of since I’m Chinese.

Think of the sides you would eat with the chicken — a salad, steamed veggie, a potato. You just eat that and not the meat.

 

“Don’t you get hungry?” people ask me. Yeah, I do, but I eat a snack and I am good.

Everything is hard at first, but you learn to substitute. I use lemon juice instead of salt. Carrots and beets add sweetness, and mushrooms have a meaty texture and add a savory taste often associated with meat.

At first, making sure that there were vegetables in the house was a problem. Today, you can find more options in the frozen food section (veggie burgers, cauliflower rice, zucchini noodles). You can also buy chopped vegetables that are ready to serve.

Your palate adjusts after a while, though I still have cravings for fried chicken, ribs, fish and brisket. I learned that if you are craving something, go ahead and eat a small portion of it. Otherwise, you might continually focus on the craving.

The benefits of switching to a whole-food, plant-based diet were not noticeable at first. However, as time went on, I became more energetic and had few aches and pains. I also feel happier and lighter.

To me, this isn’t a diet, but a way of life. I watch what I eat because it’s better for my body.

 
 

Sidney Ontai, MD, MBA, is the medical director for the Texas A&M Coastal Bend Health Education Center.