Food Is Medicine

Former President Bill Clinton captured national attention last fall when he announced that the 25 pounds he shed in time for Chelsea’s wedding was the result of following a whole foods, plant-based diet. He admitted that the true intent of following the diet was to stop the progression of his very public battle with heart disease. The weight loss was a bonus.

By speaking out, Clinton has shined light on what experts are coming to understand—our animal-based, processed-food diets are literally, and unnecessarily, killing us. It seems we have come to accept heart disease, diabetes, and cancer as a part of the natural aging process, but there is nothing natural about these illnesses that are destroying our health and bankrupting our medical care system.

Two giants in the plant-based nutrition arena, Drs. T. Colin Campbell and Neal Barnard, were recently in Houston to discuss the role of diet in health. Campbell, cited by Clinton as inspiration for his dietary makeover, is a nutrition research scientist with 50 years of laboratory experience. He also headed up the China Project, the largest study ever undertaken into the causes of diseases within a population. His career findings are detailed in the book, The China Study: Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-Term Health. Sales of the book, published six years ago without fanfare, are skyrocketing and are helping to fuel a growing, grassroots movement away from the traditional, Western diet.

Barnard is author of Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes, and President of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. In 2006 he conducted a study funded by the National Institute of Health comparing a low fat, plant-based diet (vegan) to that recommended by the American Diabetic Association. While participants in both groups improved, the plant-based group experienced significantly greater reductions in A1c (a measure of blood sugar levels over a prolonged period), weight, body mass index, waist circumference, and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

With these types of results, as well as the 20-30 years of similar documented clinical success by doctors such as Caldwell Esselstyn, John McDougall and Dean Ornish in preventing, stopping and reversing heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses through diet, the evidence is mounting. Yet, there is not a single medical school in the country that teaches nutrition as a basic medical science, Campbell points out.

During his long career, Campbell served on many expert panels on food and health policy development and he is frustrated, though not surprised, that this important information is not reaching the public effectively. Barnard, however, is more optimistic saying that there is a slow, but growing consensus among experts as to the benefits of a low fat, plant-based diet. He cites the government’s dietary guidelines committee, as well as entities like the American Cancer Society, which recommends in its 2010 Cancer Facts and Figures report that, “Until more is known about the specific components of diet that influence cancer risk, the best advice is to consume a mostly plant-based diet emphasizing a variety of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, while limiting red and processed meats.”

If we are serious about improving our health this year, we must get serious about improving the quality of the food we eat. Eating is not just satisfying hunger. Its primary purpose is to provide our bodies the necessary nutrients for optimal health, performance and healing.

Whether you are ready to embark on a total dietary makeover, or feel the need to do more research, the bottom line is a call to action. In the last decades we have allowed our taste to be hijacked and our food’s preparation outsourced to entities that do not have our best interest, or health, at heart. It’s time to get back to the kitchen. Food is, afterall, the best medicine for overall health.

There are a multitude of resources available through books (in addition to the ones mentioned above) and via the internet to help you become more knowledgeable on healthy nutrition, including programs, recipes and tips on how to make the switch to a whole foods, plant-based diet. Here are a few:

Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, Caldwell Esselstyn

The Spectrum Diet, Dean Ornish

T. Colin Campbell Foundation:

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine:

Nutrition MD:

John McDougall’s Free Program:

21-Day Vegan Kickstart Program:

Author’s Note: This appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Life is Good Magazine.