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Plant-based, whole food diets reduce risks of diseases

Americans are living longer, but our health is not improving, a ccording to the Centers for Disease Control . Its 2011 report, which reflects the most recent data, shows the rates of dying from ailments such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes are increasing, and we as a nation continue to become more obese, across all ages and ethnicities. These are telling statistics.

As medical science has improved, the CDC reports death rates from heart attacks or strokes from uncontrolled hypertension (high blood pressure) have decreased. The report indicates fewer people are smoking, clearly a good trend.

Cancer treatments advance every year, according to the Comprehensive Cancer Center, with multiple locations in Las Vegas. The center participates in cancer research studies with UCLA and other research organizations. Nevada Cancer Center also offers new research in cancer treatment.

Better health is on all our minds. We wear seat belts, go to the gym (or at least intend to), break habits such as smoking and drinking too much, and get regular checkups. But even as we make these healthy lifestyle changes, statistics show we seem to be getting sicker. There is more we can do, and it won’t cost much, if anything.

It will mean change. We put off some things that may affect us in the future. We’re hungry, so we want to eat. We’ve got too much to do to spend much time thinking about what we put into our mouths. But a change in diet may reap rewards for the rest of our lives.

In their book “The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health,” T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., and his son, Thomas M. Campbell II, identified some surprising facts. At the time of the study, most people in China were locked in their home locations because of a lack of ability to travel, so their diets were stable. They ate what was locally available. Many had remarkably low incidences of the diseases we have come to call the “Western” maladies: heart disease, cancer and diabetes. These characteristics made them interesting to the researchers. The Chinese were beating the odds on diseases that plague Americans .

What the researchers found is that when a person’s diet is about 95 percent whole, raw, plant-based foods, the person will have a substantially reduced risk of contracting the diseases mentioned above. In addition, there is a reduced risk of catching colds and flu because of a strengthened immune system. Study participants who were eating higher percentages of animal products were at higher risk for the diseases.

Rats were fed a diet low in animal products and they, too, exhibited a low incidence of disease. Researchers then increased the amount of animal products to 20 percent of some rats’ diets. The risk of disease increased for those rats. Scientists returned animal products in the rats’ diets to 5 percent, and their risk decreased. “It was that simple,” T. Colin Campbell said.

Campbell met Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn Jr. , author of “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.” They realized their research was leading them down the same path, and together they wrote “Forks Over Knives,” the groundbreaking book and the basis of a movie of the same name .

In the movie, several medical patients of other doctors are seen by Campbell and Esselstyn. They are advised to revolutionize their eating habits. What Campbell and Esselstyn recommended for the movie participants is what they recommend to everyone:

You begin by going through cupboards and refrigerator and tossing anything that is not a plant-based whole food. Throwing things out was not financially feasible for one participant , so she gradually ate the food she might have thrown out and then replaced it with food based on the doctors’ recommendations.

At the grocery store, you are directed to spend most of your time in the produce section. Anything that comes in a package, box or can must be evaluated by reading the ingredients label. The doctors don’t care about calories, vitamins, sugars or fiber. The list of ingredients tells whether it is a plant-based whole food.

Campbell and Esselstyn state the journey of the patients in the movie “demonstrates how rapidly health can be restored without drugs, medications and surgical procedures.” The participants in the movie lost weight, felt better and, according to medical testing done by Esselstyn, “halted and even reversed serious diseases.”

With health costs increasing and anxiety over the future of health insurance, it makes sense to take control of what we can. If you aren’t ready to make the change all at once, try a little at a time. Here are some suggestions from “Forks Over Knives: The Plant-Based Way to Health.”

n Eat plants — the more intact, the better. Not just any plants. Eat minimally refined fruit, vegetables, grains and legumes. Chips and diet soda may be plant-based, but they’re obviously not healthy.

n Carry snacks so you’re not tempted to eat junk. Carry an apple, carrots, some nuts and seeds or some homemade granola to keep you on track.

n Get a healthy cookbook or two to get started. “Forks Over Knives: The Plant-Based Way to Health” and “The Engine 2 Diet” are a couple of suggestions.

n Avoid overly processed foods. No bleached flour, refined sugar or extracted oil. Look for whole-grain flour, unrefined sweeteners such as turbinado sugar, local honey and agave syrup, and cold-pressed oils.

n Avoid preservatives and additives. Why load your diet with anything artificial when you can eat whole foods that don’t need additives to make them taste great?

n Eliminate dairy. Casein, the primary protein in cow’s milk, was identified as a carcinogen involved in several cancers in “The China Study.” Cow’s milk has been linked to increased risk for juvenile diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Today, there are many great-tasting options. Try almond, soy or coconut milk and the ice creams from these products as well.

n Don’t worry about carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred energy source. The key is to eat the right carbohydrates. Don’t eat cake and pastries; eat mangoes and broccoli and whole-grain bread.

n Don’t worry about not getting enough protein. One myth of a plant-based diet is that it won’t provide enough protein. Plant foods contain on average 10 percent of total calories, plenty for most people. It is nearly impossible to structure a diet that provides enough calories but doesn’t provide enough protein.

n Don’t worry about omega-3 fatty acids. The reason people are told to take omega-3 supplements is that they don’t consume enough plant-based whole foods.

n Consider a vitamin B12 supplement. We are supposed to get vitamin B12 from soil, which clings to plants that we wash and eat. But plants are so sanitized today that you may not get quite enough if you don’t eat meat, which animals that eat plants get straight from the ground.

When you first visit a grocery store after starting a plant-based whole food diet, frustration will likely be the order of the day unless you keep in mind that you are there for the produce section. Once you have your cart loaded with whole foods, it won’t be as hard to read some labels in the rest of the store. You’ll likely find that most of what is familiar is off-limits.

You’ll be surprised how many store aisles you never go down again. Changing diets is like visiting another country: You have to learn new foods and ways to prepare them, but once you do, you have lots of fun.

If eating a food frequently gives you a headache or stomach pain, consider allergies. An easy way to tell if an allergy is the culprit is to take at least a month off that food. Consider all sources that might contain versions of the food, including sauces, soups and even shampoo. After your month off, expose yourself to a pretty strong dose of the food and see how you react. It’s the cheapest and surest way to know if you have a food allergy.

If you suspect allergies to several foods, do an elimination and challenge, according to WebMD.com. This involves the same process, except you eliminate several common allergens (wheat, dairy, eggs, nuts, seafood) and then challenge (try a strong dose of) each one separately to see which one is causing a problem. You can read more about the elimination and challenge at http://tinyurl.com/cvkru34.

If you’re not into cooking or you’re often on the go, you’ll need to know where you can get healthy food options. The quickest way to sabotage a healthy diet is to run into a fast-food restaurant. Doing it once won’t derail your plan; you can get back on track tomorrow. But hitting fast food every time you need a quick meal is not what you’re about.

So try the many healthy options in Las Vegas, including the Go Raw Café , which has several locations. The cafe takes you right into whole food, raw eating, and you can learn a thing or two . Also try Pure Vida Bakery, a vegan bakery with healthy baked goods that teach you what the consistency should be like if you want to try baking your own. The Veggie House is another healthy eating option.

Rubio’s Mexican Grill will do vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free options. You may not find them on the menu, but most employees are familiar with these options.

You can also find healthy eating at Chipotle Mexican Grill. Chipotle’s entrees can be made with or without meat, but be aware that the black beans are vegan but the pinto beans are cooked with pork. The brown rice is a whole food, and there are many flavorful vegetable options. Don’t go easy on the guacamole; it’s dairy free, and avocado is a healthy fat that helps lower bad cholesterol.

When you plan meals, remember 5 percent of your diet can be animal products; that means you can include a little meat or cheese and still eat healthy. Just make sure you stick to 5 percent of total calories.

Try Whole Foods, which has a large variety of vegan and vegetarian products and a ready-to-eat area with both hot and cold food. Be sure to tell them if you need allergy-friendly options.

It is good to know that you can still enjoy eating on a healthy diet. Michael Pollan, author of “Food Rules,” said his first rule is simple: “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.” His last rule is even more fun: “Break the rules every once in a while.”

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