Benjamin Franklin once wrote that, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” While the saying has wide applicability, it’s especially true when it comes to our health. Most adults in the U.S. are suffering from one or more chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes, obesity, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Even though these conditions are common, they are also largely preventable through a healthy diet and lifestyle.
We can drastically lower our risk of developing these chronic diseases – some as much as 80 to 90% – by incorporating healthy lifestyle behaviors. ₁₋₃ These habits include not smoking, limiting alcohol, regular exercise, social connection, stress management, maintaining a healthy body weight, avoiding excessive sun exposure and eating a healthy diet. When we look specifically at diet, we find that a plant-based diet comprised of whole foods is consistently associated with lower rates of chronic disease. ₄
All of this is great for disease prevention but what about those who already suffer from these conditions? Can a plant-based diet and healthy lifestyle be used to treat them? Well, yes, it can, and there’s scientific evidence to back it up.
The same lifestyle behaviors that can help prevent most chronic diseases can also be used to treat or manage them. Plant-based diets alone appear extremely effective at treating chronic diseases. ₄ So much so that it could be considered unethical if doctors fail to mention plant-based nutrition to their patients. ₅ Beyond disease management, it’s been shown that a plant-based diet, combined with other healthy lifestyle behaviors, can even reverse some of our most common chronic diseases.
Here are three examples of diseases that can be reversed with a healthy diet and lifestyle:
1 | HEART DISEASE
The most common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease (CAD), which is characterized by plaque buildup in the heart’s arteries. As this plaque grows, it inhibits blood flow. At some point, it can completely block the artery, or break off and cause a clot further downstream, which is why CAD is the main cause of heart attacks.
When we address the underlying cause of CAD, we see drastic improvements. A low-fat, whole food, plant-based diet, combined with exercise, smoking cessation, stress management and group support, has been shown to reverse the progression of CAD. ₆ In other words, the plaque that’s causing the narrowing of the arteries can regress, allowing the arteries to open back up. This reversal process occurs over years, but research suggests that the longer we incorporate these behaviors, the more it improves. The diet alone may be enough to allow for these changes, and has been shown to improve blood perfusion in the heart within a matter of weeks. ₇
2 | PROSTATE CANCER
Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer among men (second only to skin cancer). Roughly one in nine men will be diagnosed with this in their lifetime. While a healthy diet and lifestyle can help prevent this disease, we also see that the same lifestyle behaviors that can reverse coronary artery disease also appear capable of reversing early-stage prostate cancer. ₈ The idea that our lifestyle can influence the trajectory of a disease course is very empowering.
3 | TYPE-2 DIABETES
Unlike type-1 diabetes, which is an autoimmune disease, this risk of developing type-2 diabetes is largely determined by lifestyle. A sedentary lifestyle combined with poor diet can lead to excessive body fat accumulation in our muscles and other organs. This is referred to as intramyocellular lipid or “fat within the muscle cells” (think of it like marbling in a steak). The excessive fat in our organs interferes with insulin, the hormone that transfers sugar from the blood into the organs. When this happens, we’ve become “insulin resistant,” which is the hallmark of type-2 diabetes and leads to elevated blood sugars.
The good news is that type-2 diabetes can be prevented, treated and even reversed with a whole food, plant-based diet. ₉₋₁₀ There are various mechanisms to explain why this is the case. Plant-based diets tend to contain more fiber and less saturated/trans fats. They can help people lose weight, specifically intramyocellular lipid. And some plant-based foods, such as cinnamon, berries and beans, appear to contain unique blood sugar-lowering compounds. Adopting a whole food, plant-based diet works so well at improving blood sugars that over time, many people can reduce or discontinue their diabetes medication (under their doctor’s supervision). Once blood sugars normalize and medication is weaned off, it’s as if the person is no longer diabetic.
Chronic diseases reduce the quantity and quality of years we have on this beautiful planet. An overwhelming amount of research suggests that these diseases can be prevented, treated and in some cases, reversed, with a healthy lifestyle and plant-based diet. This offers further proof that it is never too early, or too late, to start living a healthier life, and that you can take control of your health starting with your diet.
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