I just finished reading The Spectrum, a book by Dean Ornish, M.D. In it, he describes his lifestyle medicine program. I was curious about it because whenever I look at Ornish’s recipes, I see eggs and cheese and fish. And yet, his research seems to indicate the same results that we see with a plant-based diet.
The Pritikin diet, which is what Michael Greger’s grandmother followed, also includes these foods and some meats. (Michael Greger is the founder of NutritionFacts.org. You may remember that it was because of her dramatic health turnaround on Pritikin’s diet that he devoted his life to nutrition in medicine.)
And I recently spoke with a doctor who eats a healthy diet (gets 9 to 11 servings of vegetable a day), exercises a lot, and has survived breast cancer (more than 10 years out from treatment), but doesn’t accept that the research lands on lifestyle medicine as the answer.
So what gives? Is a fully plant-based diet the healthier choice or is some meat, dairy and eggs allowed?
I answer this in the WholeBlue Living course. In the last week of the program I tell students, “The extent to which you eat a plant-based diet is the extent to which you are likely to see improvements in your health or energy level.”1
And that is essentially the answer I found in The Spectrum. Ornish offers a phased approach (hence the name spectrum) which he would define as “a scale extending between two points; a range.”
Ornish tells his readers that if they already suffer from diseases like congestive heart failure or diabetes or arthritis, they will want to eat as plant-based as possible, like my doctor friend did, but for those who have no active health issues and whose total cholesterol is in a great place (such as below 150), foods such as bits of cheese, eggs and fish are okay.
But I think he’d agree with my assessment that “The extent to which you eat a plant-based diet is the extent to which you are likely to see improvements in your health or energy level.”
For me, a wholly whole-food, plant-based diet is important because several years ago I was diagnosed with pre-diabetes, and had high cholesterol and blood pressure that were creeping upward, along with other health problems. It is in going fully plant-based in 2013 that I have been able to arrest the development of these disorders.
In addition, high cholesterol and diabetes (and the heart disease and stroke risk that comes with those things) tends to run in my family. I want to increase my chances that I won’t get those things. So I avoid all animal-based foods in my day-to-day life. (I do consume a little for special occasions.)
For someone else, typically for those who are younger, some animal-based foods are okay. I know that Greger’s grandmother was on death’s door and was consuming some animal-based foods along with her mostly plant-based diet, and she got healthy and lived many more years than expected. So it’s possible.
And that doctor I know didn’t eat her copious servings of vegetables and greens until after getting cancer. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t recurred. But maybe her lack before that was part of why she got the cancer in the first place.
The more I read, the more see that what’s most important is to eat mostly plants, but not be so rigid that we take all the enjoyment out of life. Because as Ornish points out in The Spectrum, and is also clear through the Blue Zones work, is that stress and exercise and community are also important components of staying healthy.
So go have fun but eat mostly plants while you’re doing so.