A healthy, plant-based diet requires planning, reading labels, and discipline. The recommendations for patients who want to follow a plant-based diet may include eating a variety of fruits and vegetables that may include beans, legumes, seeds, nuts, and whole grains and avoiding or limiting animal products, added fats, oils, and refined, processed carbohydrates. The major benefits for patients who decide to start a plant-based diet are the possibility of reducing the number of medications they take to treat a variety of chronic conditions, lower body weight, decreased risk of cancer, and a reduction in their risk of death from ischemic heart disease.
A plant-based diet is not an all-or-nothing program, but a way of life that is tailored to each individual. It may be especially beneficial for those with obesity, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, lipid disorders, or cardiovascular disease. The benefits realized will be relative to the level of adherence and the amount of animal products consumed. Strict forms of plant-based diets with little or no animal products may be needed for individuals with inoperable or severe coronary artery disease. Low-sodium, plant-based diets may be prescribed for individuals with high blood pressure or a family history of coronary artery disease or stroke. A patient with obesity and diabetes will benefit from a plant-based diet that includes a moderate amount of fruits and vegetables and minimal low-fat animal products. Severe obesity may require counseling and initial management with a low-calorie diet or very-low-calorie diet and the supervision of a physician’s team. Patients with kidney disease may need a plant-based diet with special restrictions, for example fruits and vegetables that are high in potassium and phosphorus. Finally, patients with thyroid disease will need to be careful when consuming plants that are mild goitrogens, like soy, raw cruciferous vegetables, sweet potatoes, and corn. These patients should be informed that cooking these vegetables inactivates the goitrogens.
Physicians should advocate that it is time to get away from terms like vegan and vegetarian and start talking about eating healthy, whole, plant-based foods (primarily fruits and vegetables) and minimizing consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products. Physicians should be informed about these concepts so they can teach them to staff and patients.
A registered dietitian should be part of the health care team that designs a plant-based diet for patients with chronic disease, especially if multiple medications are involved. Depending on the underlying conditions, patients with chronic disease who take multiple medications need close monitoring of low blood sugar levels, low blood pressure, or rapid weight loss. If these occur, the physician may need to adjust medications. In some cases, such as the one presented here, the need for certain medications can be eliminated altogether. Although the risk of deficiencies may be low, health care teams need to be aware that a motivated patient on a strict plant-based diet may need monitoring for deficiencies of certain nutrients, as outlined above.
The purpose of this article is to help physicians understand the potential benefits of a plant-based diet, to the end of working together to create a societal shift toward plant-based nutrition. There is at least moderate-quality evidence from the literature that plant-based diets are associated with significant weight loss and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality compared with diets that are not plant based. These data suggest that plant-based diets may be a practical solution to prevent and treat chronic diseases.
Further research is needed to find ways to make plant-based diets the new normal for our patients and employees. We cannot cure chronic diseases, but we may be able to prevent and control them by changing how we eat. With education and monitoring for adherence, we can improve health outcomes. Patterns of families and other colleagues who may be reluctant to support the efforts of individuals who are trying to change are a challenge to be overcome.
We should invite our colleagues, patients, and their families to a shared decision-making process with the goal of adopting a plant-based diet and a regular exercise program. We should invite health care teams to complete a course on healthy eating and active living. We should encourage staff to be knowledgeable about plant-based nutrition. Finally, we should encourage performance-driven measurable outcomes, which may include:
- the percentage of physicians who have completed a course on nutrition that includes a discussion of the benefits of a plant-based diet and exercise;
- the percentage of our hospitals, cafeterias, and physicians’ meeting facilities that serve meals that are consistent with a plant-based diet;
- the percentage of patients on a physician panel who are obese and who have completed a course on weight management and nutrition that emphasizes a plant-based diet; and
- the percentage of patients in a physician panel with high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, or cardiovascular disease who completed a course on nutrition that emphasizes a plant-based diet.
Too often, physicians ignore the potential benefits of good nutrition and quickly prescribe medications instead of giving patients a chance to correct their disease through healthy eating and active living. If we are to slow down the obesity epidemic and reduce the complications of chronic disease, we must consider changing our culture’s mind-set from “live to eat” to “eat to live.” The future of health care will involve an evolution toward a paradigm where the prevention and treatment of disease is centered, not on a pill or surgical procedure, but on another serving of fruits and vegetables.