A chronic disease epidemic is currently plaguing the health of Americans. Many of these illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease, can be prevented or alleviated with lifestyle changes.
Colin Zhu, DO, is on a mission to make sure his patients are armed with the knowledge to make those changes. Board-certified in family medicine, lifestyle medicine and osteopathic manipulative medicine, Dr. Zhu is a bold advocate for teaching healthier eating, exercise and stress management to patients.
“It is not hard to counsel patients on healthy eating and living. A 5-minute talk on proper cooking techniques and meal-prepping, for instance, can be done just as fast as writing a prescription for medication,” advises Dr. Zhu.
Dr. Zhu’s training—which includes health-supportive and plant-based culinary arts training at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York as well as health coaching at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition after he finished medical school in 2011—has taught him the benefits of a whole-food plant-based diet (WFPB), an eating pattern that encourages the consumption of unrefined plant foods (such as fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds) and discourages meats, dairy products, eggs and processed foods.
As beneficial as a WFPB diet is, it can be a daunting and extreme option for many patients. That’s why Dr. Zhu advocates the concept of “crowding out” to his patients.
“I advocate eating more plants, but I don’t really subscribe to saying, ‘you need to be on a vegan diet or a vegetarian diet,’ ” says Dr. Zhu. Instead, he advises his patients to “crowd out” the bad food with good food. “I think it works best when they take baby steps because the more they can see results, the more likely they are to continue to eat healthy foods.”
The DO spoke with Dr. Zhu about the myths surrounding WFPB diets, why some of them persist, and what’s really going on with WFPB diets.
Here are five myths of a whole food plant-based diet debunked!
Myth 1: There is no evidence that a WFPB diet is healthier than other diets.
Fact: Evidence suggests a WFPB diet can not only prevent but treat coronary artery disease (CAD), the leading cause of death in the United States in both men and women, and other illnesses.
In a 21-year Cleveland Clinic study led by Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., MD, advanced CAD was stopped and reversed in patients who complied with a plant-based diet and maintained a total cholesterol of less than 150 mg/dL and an LDL-cholesterol of less than 80 mg/dL. In a 2008 study led by Dean Ornish, MD, and colleagues, a plant-based diet combined with exercise and stress reduction was shown to delay the advancement of prostate cancer in some patients.
“Coronary artery disease is virtually absent in cultures that eat plant-based diets, such as the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico, the Papua highlanders of New Guinea, and the inhabitants of rural China and central Africa,” wrote Dr. Esselstyn in Preventive Cardiology. “Hundreds of thousands of rural Chinese go for years without a single documented myocardial infarction.”
Myth 2: I won’t get enough protein on a WFPB diet.
Fact: Though most Americans rely heavily on animal sources for protein, the truth is that we can meet our daily protein needs from vegetarian sources.
“Historically, Americans have associated protein with muscle-building and strength, and considered animals the prime source of it,” says Dr. Zhu. “But we can get all of our necessary nutrient intake from plants, with the exception of vitamin B-12 and vitamin D.”
Myth 3: Plant-based diets are high in carbs.
Fact: All carbs are not created equal, says Dr. Zhu. “Mother Nature created things whole. She didn’t just give us carbohydrates, but whole complex [or intact] carbohydrates—which is what our bodies need for energy—as well as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.” Whole, plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, are also high in fiber, which helps slow the digestion of food so we don’t experience a sudden spike in blood sugar followed by a crash.
Myth 4: There is nothing wrong with lean animal protein that is fried or grilled.
Fact: When you expose animal-derived food that is high in fat and protein to high heat through frying or grilling, it forms AGEs, or advanced glycation end products, which are toxins that accelerate the aging process, causing oxidative stress and inflammation that contributes to cataracts, macular degeneration in the eye, Alzheimer’s disease and damage to the bones, heart, kidney and liver, says Dr. Zhu. “AGEs from this way of cooking can lead to reduced longevity.”
In contrast, vegetables, fruits and whole grains contain relatively few AGEs, also known as glycotoxins, even after cooking.
Myth 5: Eating a plant-based diet will leave you hungry all the time.
Fact: “This is not true,” says Dr. Zhu. “When people think of plant food, they think of eating salads for every meal. But on a WFPB diet, calories can come from tubers, whole grains, and legumes such as peas, lentils and beans.” These foods help load you up with fiber, which is what makes you feel satiated and prevents cravings.
On the other hand, the standard American diet—which is typically rich in processed and artificially sweetened foods, salt, red meat and dairy products—is high in calories and low in nutrients, says Dr. Zhu. “That’s when you’re going to feel hungry and end up eating a lot more calories to quell those hunger pangs.”
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