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Could eating a plant based diet be the key to lower blood pressure, lower weight and a longer life?

It couldn’t hurt, local experts say.

That was the prescription handed down at a recent lecture at Island Health And Fitness Club by Dr. Donna Sandidge, the Medical Director for the Cayuga Center for Healthy Living, and Natalie Pape, a registered dietician at the center. The topic, following a plant based diet to better health, discussed not only the science behind the benefits of weaning off of a standard American diet, but the feasibility of it as well, slowly working toward a vegan diet or, at the least, one de emphasizing consumption of meat and dairy products.

The main benefit, said Sandidge, was simply stated: a plant based diet can help you live longer and in better health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the leading cause of death in the United States is still heart disease and cancer, of which colon cancer, which accounts for close to 50,000 deaths per year, pancreatic, prostate and breast cancer are all partly related to diet and/or obesity. Risk factors related to heart disease and some cancers can be addressed with a whole food, plant based diet.

This knowledge could have a big impact. According to the CDC, 68 percent of diabetics over 65 years of age die from heart disease. Among those with Type 2 Diabetes, where obesity is a contributing factor, risk of death could be lowered 50 75 percent if they switched to a plant based diet.

In regard to heart disease, the famed cardiologist and vegan Kim A. Williams said in a 2014 article in The New York Times that a vegan diet can not only lower bad cholesterol the type that causes heart disease but it also avoids the type of foods that can be considered the culprit for other unsavory conditions.

“I recommend a plant based diet because I know it’s going to lower their blood pressure, improve their insulin sensitivity and decrease their cholesterol,” Williams told The New York Times. “And so I recommend it in all those conditions. Some patients are able to do it and some are not.”

Coronary artery disease develops when low density lipoproteins, or LDL often referred to as “bad cholesterol” build up in the wall of the artery causing a narrowing or “plaque” that can block blood flow to the heart muscle. A heart attack occurs when a blood clot develops over one of these plaques. The dietary connection comes from the consumption of saturated fats, which is correlated directly with an increase in LDL cholesterol and risk for cardiovascular disease. A plant based diet is naturally low in saturated fat, which is found primarily in meat, poultry and dairy.

According to a 1990 study by Dr. Dean Ornish (who has famously served as medical consultant to the Clintons since 1993) published by the prestigious medical journal Lancet, consumption of a plant based diet as part of an overall lifestyle improvement approach was actually shown to reduce these risk factors tangibly greater than traditional medical methods. According to the study, patients with known coronary artery disease eating low fat, plant based diets who limited vices like smoking, took stress management courses and participated in moderate exercise had a nearly 3 percent improvement in narrowing present in their coronary arteries after five years. This improvement was in comparison to a control group following usual treatment, which saw a decline of narrowing by 11.77 percent over the same time.

But the evidence didn’t stop there. In another example, Sandidge cited something called the Adventist Health Studies, which examined the lifestyle, diet, disease and mortality of Seventh Day Adventists over time. In the study, conducted over the course of several decades in California, the researchers examined the church’s population versus a matched control group of non Adventists and found that, because of a plant based, meatless diet, the group lived 10 years longer on average with a significantly lower risk of colon cancer than the rest of California. Specifically, death rates from all cancers were 40 percent lower for Adventist men and 24 percent lower for Adventist women, among other ailments including colorectal cancer, coronary heart disease and breast cancer. In other Adventist studies, those following a plant based, meatless diet had much lower rates of diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

The primary difference between the two groups? Their diets.

Going Vegan

Where Sandidge covered the science of a plant based diet, Pape herself a vegan for several years discussed the logistics of actually making the jump to a diet light on meats, dairy and processed sugars and fats, if they are consumed at all.

While the diet she suggested was technically a vegan diet, she said she didn’t want people to get caught up in the “V” word: Pape told the audience to “eat the rainbow,” and eat a diet that could be delicious and filled with a number of naturally sweet and savory foods that are not only effective for fighting disease but improving one’s likelihood to be and stay healthy.

Pape said that the more colorful foods were filled with immune system boosting phytonutrients, a blanket term for the thousands of naturally occurring chemicals in plants that can interact with your body chemistry in positive ways. She also talked about a concept called “nutrient density” versus “calorie density,” where lower calorie foods can be consumed in greater quantities than a similar caloric amount of something like oils, cheese or meat. Foods that contain 300 calories per pound or less, theoretically, could be eaten freely without guilt or worry of weight loss while a pound of food totaling more than 800 calories should be consumed with portions controlled.

So how do you adapt to something like this? Pape had a four part series of steps to makeover your recipes, substituting the meat in a meat sauce for beans or tofu instead of eggs. It’s also an easy fix to reduce your use of salts or oils, letting vinegar, lemon juice, or herbs and spices to boost the flavor. And for those worried about losing protein in their diet from lack of meat, never fear, Pape said: in fact, legumes like beans have a) more protein per calorie than meat and b) the average American already consumes, on average, twice as much protein as they actually need. You could either go “cold Tofurkey,” she said, or to implement small changes in your meals or diet each week until, after a month, you’ve grown accustomed to eating a mostly plant based diet. It takes three weeks to make or break a habit, she said, and this was a way to make that happen most feasibly. There are even websites out there to help kick start your new vegan lifestyle.

“Your options are truly endless,” Pape said. “This is a diet of variety and plenty, not one of deprivation As long as you follow the rules, there are so many delicious options you can try.”
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