The Plant Rx

Your resource for a plant-based diet

Top 5 things our plant-based health study taught this M.D.

Posted by Jenn on March 7, 2011


One truly amazing thing about life is that we have the opportunity to continuously learn new things. Learning new things rocks!  And, while we were pretty sure what the outcomes would be, this was no exception.

We are still 9 days away from the official end of the plant-based health study and approximately 12-14 days from having the final results available to us and published.  That being said, while contemplating the parameters for our next study and reviewing reader submitted ideas on things they would like to see us measure in the future, I got to thinking about all the amazing things that I’ve learned so far in this one.

Here are the top 5!


1. Psoriasis

There are a lot of  anecdotal stories out there on how a plant-based diet can be beneficial in the treatment of medical conditions and disease other than heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and certain cancers.  There is also some scientific research to back up those ascertations but much more needs to be done before it can be said with a great degree of certainty that this is indeed the case.

That being said, I have never seen it first hand.  Until now! Amber, one of the study participants, has struggled with psoriasis for quite some time – experiencing a number of patches on both her arms and legs.  She has tried a number of different things to keep this chronic autoimmune condition at bay, but while some treatments have helped, none have been close to a cure.

After 30 days on a diet completely free of meat and dairy products, Amber has experienced almost 100% resolution of her patches! I’ve seen it first hand and I couldn’t be more happy for her.  It’s one thing to read or hear about these types of things but it’s quite another to see it first-hand.

2. Probiotics

It’s important not to make blanket statements about medicines/treatments especially when there isn’t any substantial clinical evidence or experience to back it up.  When it comes to probiotics there is data out there but none directly pertaining to any benefits they may or may not have when someone is transitioning to  plant-based diet.

As in the situation above, I have heard anecdotal accounts of probiotics being helpful but not much otherwise.  During the course of our study several of the participants had some gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort as a result of moving to a plant-based diet.

Note:  This is common and it is apart of the natural detoxification process.

The participants who experienced the GI upset took probiotics to help with these symptoms.  Everyone who used them said they helped.  The degree to which they helped varied from substantial to adequate.  Thus, I would say I now know that probiotics can be a useful consideration in those experiencing GI issues as the result of a switch from a Standard American Diet (SAD) to a plant-based one.

3. Oil, oil, oil…

While everyone in the plant-based community agrees on the exclusion of meat and dairy products from our diet for prevention and reversal of disease, not everyone agrees on whether or not oils and highly saturated fat laden foods (i.e. nuts & avocados) should be omitted as well.

In fact, two of the foremost thought leaders seem to diverge on this as well: Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and Dr. Dean Ornish. Esselstyn’s mantra  is “moderation kills” and he advocates a plant-based diet that excludes oils, nuts, etc even if they are technically “plant-based”.

Ornish, on the other hand, is much less strict on this issue and allows for their inclusion, although he still emphasizes a diet as low in saturated fat as possible (less than 10% of daily caloric intake).  That doesn’t exactly allow for much oil anyway being that olive oil for example has approximately 120 calories per tablespoon with 2 grams (or 14%) coming from saturated fat, 78% from monounsaturated fat and 8% for polyunsaturated fat. No matter how you looks at it, olive oil is 120 calories of pure fat per tablespoon.

Without delving into the argument of good fats vs. bad fats, etc. and the reason behind why Esselstyn has adopted this stringent mantra and Ornish has not, I wasn’t 100% sure of where I stood on the whole debate other than the obvious observation that less fat is better.

I now can say that this study (in addition to a few other poignant reasons I’ll discuss in an upcoming post) has resulted in me landing on Esselstyn’s side of the fence. The reason is due to the increased triglyceride levels in some of the participants despite the reductions in their total and LDL cholesterol.  I think it is likely that these triglyceride increases seen in some of the participants are the result of increased consumption of oils, nuts and other highly saturated fat laden foods.

Additionally, when first adjusting to the switch to a plant-based diet many opt for pre-packaged processed vegan foods such as vegan cheese, veganaise, and prepared vegan meals which are extremely high in saturated fat.  Further, when eating out at mainstream restaurants the vegetarian and vegan options (which tend to be few) are often cooked in lots of oil to enhance taste. This is done to ensure that these menu items are just as tasty as there SAD counterparts.

It is my expectation that once acclimated more fully to plant-based nutrition people will end up cooking more at home and becoming more astute regarding their choices and their triglyceride levels will eventually decrease as well.

How about this for a visual: Animal fat is a solid at room temperature whereas plant is liquid.  Imagine how well that solid stuff fares in your GI tract.

4. Sugar, sugar, sugar.  Pre-diabetes, and Hemoglobin A1Cs

I love sweet things!  Who doesn’t?  We all know we should do our best to limit our consumption of these items and some of us do better than others.  If you are vegan, most likely you already limit if not exclude the consumption of sugar because the majority of it is processed with animal bone char (charcoal made from animal bones). – –actually the explanation is much more convoluted than this, but this works for our purpose here.

The participants in our study were not restricted with regard to sugar consumption.  The aim of this study was to look at the benefits of a plant-based diet on a macro level and not get lost in the details.  Please note I am not discounting the importance of these details, we simply chose not to focus on these for the sake of study compliance.

The reason this is important is because of the increasing prevalence of  “pre-diabetes” here in the U.S. and the obvious role that large amounts of sugar found in the SAD contribute to this trend. Prior to our study beginning, 4 of the 7 participants had Hemoglobin A1C values that would classify them as pre-diabetic (>5.7).  After only 30 days all 4 of the participants lowered this value by .4!

The first thing that was interesting to me about this was that more than half were pre-diabetic (ages of participants were between 30-46 and did not correlate with incidence).  This shouldn’t have been surprising considering the epidemiological data but I was still surprised nonetheless.

Second, the ability of the participants to lower this value to within normal ranges (no longer pre-diabetic) within 30 days was incredible.

As I mentioned, I knew both of these things prior to the study and  they weren’t unexpected.  It was the “seeing” it for myself that really served to reinforce this knowledge and the implications of  it considerably.

5. The medical community

This study has been a very big part of my life over the past few months.  As a result, when I talk to healthcare professionals I more often than not discuss the study.  And while I am very acutely aware that most of the medical community is oblivious to the irrefutable health benefits of a plant-based diet I was surprised by the lack of interest on their behalf.

I’m not sure why this is exactly.  Perhaps it is because we as a society value what we eat on a daily basis more than we value our own health?  Is the thought of foregoing the consumption of meat and dairy products so extreme that we will continue to do it to our own detriment and to the detriment of our children?

Regardless, I expected there to be some small interest in learning more and some consideration of the scientific data that we were all taught to value so highly.  At the very least, to take a moment to consider the Hippocratic oath of “Do no harm”.  After all, stents, bypass surgery and drugs with all their corresponding risks and potential side effects (as opposed to eating plants) violates that oath.

It is truly disconcerting on many levels and yet another lesson in why we need to be in charge of our own health care rather than blindly relying on our physicians who already face an inordinate number of challenges in an inefficient, broken system. This, has strengthened my resolve  and belief that we need to support individuals and organizations like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) in their efforts to change this at the ground level – in our medical education.

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9 Responses to “Top 5 things our plant-based health study taught this M.D.”

  1. Hi Jenn,

    Great post – I’ve connected with so much of what you’ve shared. I also use probiotics with most of my patients, especially those with GI distress or autoimmune conditions, to help plug leaky gut junctures and to reduce overall inflammation. I find it encouraging that you reached such good results with the psoriasis and pre-diabetes. As you said, it’s one thing to read about it, but it’s another to witness the transformation first-hand!

    I also agree with avoiding processed oils and limiting their use, but my take on whole food fat sources (such as nuts, seeds, nut butters and avocados) is that they are a crucial part of a plant-based diet (in reasonable quantities) to provide essential fatty acids such as EPA and DHA to help promote brain integrity and to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia later in life.

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the lack of interest from the overall medical community in regards to these remarkable outcomes you so wonderfully demonstrated here. My overall conclusion is that many people prefer to be misinformed, because if they are informed and they have a conscience – than that would require them to make some sort of change or adjustment. As we know, people are generally resistant to change.

    • Jenn said

      Thanks, Elisa! There certainly is no substitute for first-hand experience. I’m hoping by having the participants “online” and showing all of their lab work etc– this can be somewhat of a “virtual” first-hand experience for others. 🙂

      Agree with you as well on the oils which has been part of my difficulty adopting Esselstyn’s full view. That being said, I’m afraid most Americans aren’t aware of what “reasonable quantities are”. Our portion sizes are so skewed.

      Yes, totally disheartening — so I guess it’s up to us!!! =)

      • As you know, reasonable quantities vary according to an individual’s weight, health, and activity level (to name a few), which is why it’s a worthwhile investment to work with individuals like ourselves 😉 However, 1-2 ounces of whole food fat sources at most meals is what I meant by “reasonable quantities” for many of us.

  2. Christie said

    So if we don’t eat yogurt, where do the probiotics come from? Are they in pill form?

  3. Great post! It’s unfortunate that other medical professionals aren’t open to at least learning more about the benefits of a plant-based diet. I think even if you’re a doctor, you don’t want to be told that something you love to eat is bad for you. Even they love a slab of meat and dairy products. I even know a doctor who smokes–seems crazy to me. And even if they won’t give up animal products, I think they at least owe it to their patients to do the research and suggest it to them.
    Btw, Christie, Good Belly is a vegan probiotic. It’s like a fruit juice.

    • Christie said

      Thanks!

    • Jenn said

      Couldn’t agree with you more. The same can be said of parents too. Although, I hesitate to go there — after all, if the idea of not consuming meat and dairy is such a hard pill to swallow can you imagine if I went there? I’m not a parent, but if I were, I would at the very least look into it for my children’s well-being.

      • Absolutely! I know so many parents who say “Oh, I’d have myself and my family go vegan, but my kids will hate me for it.” They’re more worried about taking away what their kids and spouse love, rather than seeing what these animal products are doing them! They don’t want their family to be mad at them. So many of my friends tells me this and it’s really sad. I’m so glad that my husband and son love being vegan as much as I do.

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    […]Top 5 things our plant-based health study taught this M.D. « The Plant Rx[…]…

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