This disease needs a better treatment and needs it badly. It’s one of those particularly hard-to-treat diseases, but new research shows that a plant-based diet may help quite a bit.
Fibromyalgia is a tough disease to experience. It hurts, it’s exhausting, and it can be depressing. Fibromyalgia, which affects millions of Americans, is a disease of persistent widespread pain, stiffness, fatigue, plus disrupted and unrefreshing sleep. Not surprisingly, those with fibromyalgia have functional impairment of the activities of daily living. Current treatments aren’t especially effective for most patients, so something better is needed.
Since we last reported on the drought in California and how a vegetarian diet could help, the drought has only gotten worse. As Californians cut residential water use by 25 percent under Governor Jerry Brown’s unprecedented mandatory restrictions, pressure on the drought-stricken state’s water resources continues to come from its robust agriculture industry, which accounts for about 80 percent of the state’s total water consumption, with livestock claiming the lion’s share.
Some of the vegetarian naysayers complain that since so much of California’s meat is eaten around the country, it would take a national effort to save California’s water. To this we reply, good idea! Let’s all do our part and go vegetarian to save California from an all-too-thirsty fate. Others point to global warming as the main culprit. Maybe so, but we have a diet for that as well.
While we are happy to get the word out about the environmental benefits of going vegetarian, we really wish the environmental organizations would join us. So far only a very few do. However, since even the government is starting to talk about the environmental impact of animal foods, we have high hopes that this omission will change in the not too distant future.
It’s official. The world’s population now stands at 7 Billion. Over a billion people are living with chronic hunger and malnutrition, and rising food prices are challenging the household budgets of the other 6 billion. What many people don’t know is that it is meat consumption in the developed world, and rapidly rising meat consumption in the developing world, that are the prime driving forces behind rising food prices and global hunger. For years this went unrecognized by even economists and policymakers. However, this has now started to change.
Starvation kills, and it hurts to have to go to bed malnourished and hungry. Hunger and malnutrition are some of the most serious problems facing humanity and it’s getting worse. Global hunger is at an all time high, with about 1 billion people in the world going to bed each night still hungry. In the next year, over 10 million people will actually starve to death. Even worse, it is the children who are the most vulnerable.
To understand how a vegetarian diet can help, let’s start with the agricultural facts of life. Farm animals function, in effect, as food factories in reverse; that is they give us less nutrition than they are fed. For instance, a cow will give us as beef only 10% of the protein and 4% of the calories it consumes. The rest is used by the cow to enable it to live and breathe throughout its lifetime. Here in the U.S., we feed 70% of the crops we grow to farm animals, who then return only a fraction of the nutrition as meat. It’s all so wasteful. Even a third of the fish caught worldwide are used to feed farm animals. With 56 billion farm animals raised globally each year, you can see just how much food is being wasted.
Wasting food by feeding it to farm animals fuels the global hunger crisis. With developing countries quickly changing from their traditional plant-centered diet to a western-style, meat-centered diet, it’s easy to see how hunger and malnutrition can spread. Many of these people live in countries which could feed themselves, but farmers, policymakers, and governments choose to feed crops to farm animals instead of people, so most of the nutrition is wasted. The result is that they often need to import grain to feed their human population. This is expensive and drives up prices. A rising global population makes wasting food this way even more harmful.
The recent shift of using some agricultural products, such as corn, to produce ethanol fuel for automobiles, makes switching to a vegetarian diet even more imperative. Now more than ever, the world’s hungry are counting on us to use available crops directly for food rather than wasting them by feeding them to farm animals.
The drive to produce ever more food has had other consequences as well. Many people are surprised to learn that, except for here in the US, almost all of the suitable farm land is already being used. What’s left is land of marginal quality and using it results in greater amounts of pollution and ecological degradation. It has also led farmers in the developing world to embrace technology whose safety is still not proven, such as GMOs.
For far too long, many would not face the role of raising meat in the global hunger crises. Fortunately, this is now beginning to change. For instance, Nobel Prize winning economist Muhammad Yunis (famous for his program of making microloans to poor people in the developing world) explains, “Unfortunately, meat eating is a relatively inefficient use of natural resources , as the number of nutritious calories delivered by meat is far lower than the calories humans can enjoy through the direct intake of grains. Yet today, more and more grain and other foodstuffs are being used to feed cattle than human beings. And more and more of the planet’s farmlands are being diverted from the production of food for human consumption toward to the growing of grains for animal feed, adding several costly steps to the process. As a result even basic foods are becoming more expensive.” And, no less than Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, says that “As they eat more beef and less grains and so on, the demand for food and energy rise and that’s the primary long-term factor affecting the real price of commodities and food.” A recent feature story in Foreign Policy magazine highlighted meat’s role in rising food prices, and a survey of economists reveal “increased demand for meat” as a leading cause of rising food prices and global hunger.
Don’t get distracted from the agricultural facts of life. Natural catastrophes such as earthquakes and floods grab headlines and are a factor in food shortages. Warfare and political instability grab attention too, and can decrease the food supply. But it’s the day-in and day-out wasting of food, by feeding it to farm animals, that’s driving the massive global hunger and malnutrition problem. Sure food gets wasted and sure there’s poverty. But food has always been wasted, and there’s always been poverty, yet global hunger is getting worse. What’s changed is that meat consumption is sky rocketing in the developing world, which is using up crops that could be used for human consumption. With few exceptions, those countries with chronic hunger and malnutrition problems could feed themselves, if they would only stop taking their crops and feeding them to animals, and make them available for people instead.
Yes, the world’s population is rising quickly, and that puts pressure on global food supplies, but a vegetarian diet could easily support a world population much larger than today’s. With a rising population, the only sustainable way out of the global hunger crisis is by reducing meat consumption and becoming vegetarians.
It may seem that one person can’t make much difference, but one person eats three meals a day, 365 days of the year. If that person eats meat at most meals, then by switching to a vegetarian diet, they would be saving over a thousand meat meals. The grain and other crops used for that meat could be used to produce 12,000 well balanced vegetarian meals, so you can see how it adds up pretty quickly. In fact, according to Professor David Pimentel of Cornell University, “if Americans alone took the food currently fed to farm animals in the United States, we would have enough food to feed the entirety of the world’s hungry, and we could do it without plowing even one extra acre of farmland.”
More than just healthy and delicious, adopting a vegetarian diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and legumes is also an act of charity for those who need it the most. And, as is often the case with charity, those who give also receive. By adopting a vegetarian diet, we would not only potentially make more food available for the world’s hungry, but as nation we would also be taking the single most important step towards improving our own health, as well as the health of the planet. Now that’s a holiday dinner all of us can be truly grateful for.
Dr. Arun Kalyanasundaram (Dr. K) is an interventional cardiologist with practices at Highline Medical Center and Swedish Medical Center. He moved to Seattle in 2011. He strongly believes in a holistic approach to cardiology – with a particular emphasis on preventive cardiology primarily through diet and lifestyle. He will be speaking and answering questions at our next Monthly Dining Event on October 17th. We asked him to tell us more about himself and his approach to cardiology.
Tell us something about yourself. Where are you from originally, how long have you been a doctor, and cardiologist, and what brings you to the Northwest?
I have been a doctor now for about 13 years. I am originally from India. I obtained my MPH at the University of Maryland, and then did my residency and fellowship at Geisinger and Cleveland clinics respectively. I chose to move to the Pacific Northwest because it is unique in terms of scenic beauty, cultural diversity and just an overall great place to raise a family.
How long have you been a vegetarian? What got you interested in it to begin with?
In India, a significant portion of people are vegetarians. I have been a vegetarian life-long. Over the last 3-4 years, I embraced an all plant-based diet primarily for health reasons.
Have you discovered any other reasons and advantages for being veg along the way?
Absolutely! Being a vegetarian offers clear health advantages – reducing the chance of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, to name a few. The effects on the human body are almost all positive – truly astounding. There are few things in life that are good for our health, good for the planet and all its beings, with virtually no side effects.
Do you recommend that your cardiology patients follow a particular diet?
I am convinced that patients with heart disease, especially coronary artery disease, should be on a stringent plant-based diet. I am greatly inspired by the work done by Drs Esselstyn, Ornish, and Barnard to name a few. I have studied their work extensively and my ‘template’ for the diet is based off Dr. Esselstyn’s seminal work.
What reaction do your patients typically have to the suggestion of changing their diet?
Most patients are quite receptive to the idea. Often times, a heart attack serves as a ‘wake-up call’. Several patients of mine have completely transformed their lives. I often use the analogy of a house on fire – opening a clogged vessel in the setting of a heart attack is akin to what the fire brigade does i.e. put out the fire. But then I insist that the onus is on the patient to ensure that the fuel supply feeding the fire is turned off i.e. they make the appropriate lifestyle change.
What advantages to their heart health have you typically observed when a patient switches to a veg diet?
I have some patients who have had decreased angina and improved exercise tolerance. I have also seen significantly improved risk factor profiles i.e. lowered blood pressure, lower cholesterol, better control of diabetes, weight loss and a general sense of well-being.
What other health benefits have your patients experienced as a result of changing their diets?
There have been published studies that have shown that a vegetarian diet can prevent and reverse diabetes, reduce the risk of vascular disease and even some kinds of cancers. Personally, I have had patients with improved glycemic control and some that have been able to get away from their diabetic medications.
What is it about a veg diet that you wish the public/patients would understand better?
1) Vegetarian food does not have to be boring or tasteless. 2) It is perfectly possible to have a balanced and nutritious all-plant based diet for any population – specifically it is possible to get enough protein on a plant-based diet.
Are you optimistic for the increasing popularity of veg diets in both the medical and lay community in the future?
Totally. If you look at the vegetarian movement, it has certainly become mainstream – both in terms of the number of people that are vegetarians and the availability of vegetarian food readily. Obesity, rising healthcare costs, and increasing human population make a plant-based diet the way of the future.
First Congress voted, and now the Supreme Court has spoken, so, as of this writing, a massive overhaul of the health system seems likely. The questions on many people’s minds at this point are: How are we going to pay for it all? and will there be enough medical staff and facilities to go around? The entire debate about health care is driven by the fact that Americans need so much care. Collectively we are sicker than we have ever been. When you think about it, what we really need the most to make things work is a healthier country. This is where helping the country to move towards a vegetarian diet can make a big difference, perhaps the crucial difference between success and failure.
The three leading causes of death in America are heart disease, cancer and stroke – mostly diet-related diseases which can be largely prevented, and often even reversed, by following a healthy vegetarian diet. Adding to the stress on the healthcare system are leading diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure – two of the most common diseases in America– and both of these can also be largely prevented and reversed through a healthy vegetarian diet. Diabetes and pre-diabetes are thought to affect as many as 80 million Americans, and high blood pressure another 75 million people.
As patients line up at pharmacy counters, doctors offices, and hospital registration desks, the cash registers ring up the costs of these diseases—well into the hundreds of billions every year. The money savings potential in moving the country towards a vegetarian diet is profound. For instance, a Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company showed that for every $1 spent in helping heart patients to switch over to a vegetarian diet, $5.55 was saved in treatment. One study found that over 90% of diabetics were able to discontinue or reduce their medication in only six months after adopting a healthy vegetarian diet. Plant-food rich vegetarian diets have been shown to drastically reduce the incidence of diseases such as stroke and hypertension, and even several forms of cancer such as colon and prostate cancer. But even less dramatic but still costly medical expenses would be saved. For instance, every year the meat-centered low-fiber standard diet, and the all-too-common constipation it causes, results in Americans to spend nearly 800 million dollars on laxatives every year. Yet the fiber-rich plant-powered diet would largely save us both the discomfort and the expense.
With all this in mind, you’d think that the government would do everything it could to financially support farmers who grow healthier food, but such is not the case. Sadly, every administration, both Democrat and Republican in recent decades, has been caught up in a system that not only tolerates ill health, but encourages it. For instance, only 3% of farm subsidies go towards healthy plant foods while the other 97% goes to animal products and highly refined and junk food. With this kind of policy, the government promotes an environment that encourages the very diseases for which it now needs to insure against. How much simpler it would be to promote a healthier diet, and save us all the money of so much “disease care,” and in so doing, provide the American people with what we really need, true health care.
While still controversial for some, most Americans feel we need some kind of insurance reform. But even more, we need better health. And that should be front and center in any emerging plan. While financial fixes have their place, and while new technologies can make a significant contribution, the country has largely blinded itself to the simple yet powerful potential of the vegetarian diet. Far from a bitter pill to swallow, a delicious vegetarian diet may just be the miracle drug of the 21st century.
The answer is plenty when it comes to vegetarian food choices.
The most important part of the yoga practice is eating a vegetarian diet. -Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
Yoga has hit the mainstream. With yoga studios popping up all over, offering everything from traditional forms of yoga to new forms aimed at special groups ranging from prenatal moms to airline pilots (there are even new and innovative forms of yoga such as laughter yoga and Christian yoga), more and more people are giving it a try. However, in their drive to become more popular, or perhaps because of a shortage of fully trained instructors, many, if not most, yoga studios have dropped the vegetarian portion of yoga theory and practice. Read more
Maybe we were just naïve, but when we saw that Consumer Reports magazine was focusing this month’s cover story on “Protecting Your Heart”, we thought that there would a major emphasis on healthy vegetarian diets, or at the very least prominent mention of this life-saving solution. Alas, there wasn’t a word. Consumer Reports positions itself as a rater of all things that people across the county need or want to know more about. Given its glaring omission, we thought it just might be high time we gave our rating of this rater.
To be fair, there are a few good points in the article. They do stress that lifestyle changes are the best prevention, and they do emphasize that some procedures such as angioplasties are not effective in preventing heart attacks, under most circumstances, as a front line treatment. They also point out that “people tend to view a heart doctor as some sort of action hero, and think that the more aggressive, the better.”
However, large-scale studies such as the Framingham Heart Study or The China Study, and the interventional studies such those conducted on heart patients by doctors including Dean Ornish, John McDougall and Caldwell Esselstyn, have clearly shown the significant benefits of a healthy vegetarian diet. The new movie, Forks Over Knives, which emphasizes these benefits, has created quite a stir, and there’s been much talk in the media about the great results former president Bill Clinton has achieved in treating his heart disease on a veg diet. So there really is no excuse for their failure to mention the importance of a vegetarian diet, and we can only give Consumer Reports a failing grade for choosing not to give their readers this lifesaving message. How did Consumer Reports miss the study showing that a veg diet was as powerful at lowering cholesterol as the American Heart Association diet and a statin drug combined? How did Consumer Reports miss the insurance industry study showing that for every dollar spent on switching patients over to a veg-diet centered heart disease program, $5.55 were saved in treatment costs? A healthy vegetarian diet, and especially a healthy vegan diet, is the most powerful tool to protect your heart, and in most cases, may even be the most powerful tool to heal your heart once disease has already set in.
The article quotes Dr. Steven Nissen of the Cleveland Clinic, lamenting the failure of most doctors to act on so much of the medical research when it comes to heart disease. He says “It may take years for evidence to trickle down to private practice.” It seems that the same is true of many mass market magazines, such as Consumer Reports.