Heart disease is a leading cause of death in many countries around the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 600,000 Americans die from heart disease annually and over 720,000 Americans suffer a heart attack each year.
The most common response from doctors treating patients with heart disease is prescribing statin drugs. While these drugs are often effective at lowering high cholesterol levels linked with heart disease, they produce potentially harmful side effects ranging from muscle pain, liver damage and neurological problems. Fortunately, some physicians are going the extra mile with people in their care. They are returning to the roots of medicine, literally, by prescribing plant-based foods to combat this high risk disease.
Preventive medicine, and nutrition in particular, is not a significant component of medical school study and residency. Medical doctors simply do not learn enough about nutrition during their school years. The onus is on MDs to research and digest science-based nutritional information during their practice. It is the rare doctor that takes on this challenge but his or her patients will benefit greatly from this dedication.
In a recent article published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), prominent cardiologists discussed the benefits of eating a plant-based diet, including a more stringent vegan diet to prevent or overcome heart disease. Dr. William Roberts, the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Cardiology and a cardiovascular pathologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Dallas, embraces the vegan diet as a way to avoid the high cholesterol, artery-clogging diet that has become the standard in many industrialized countries. He also sees the switch to plant-based eating as inexpensive and safe medicine. In the CBC article, Roberts reports, “If we put everyone on drugs then thousands of people would suffer side effects, so of course a vegan diet is the least expensive and safest means of achieving the plaque preventing goal.”
Switching to a vegan diet may be outside of many peoples’ comfort zones. A gradual shift to more plant-based food choices is a positive first step. Dr. Shane Williams, a community cardiologist in Ontario, Canada, has been holding sessions for patients interested in the benefits of plant-based diets and veganism. Williams, a vegan, says, “What concerns me is that most doctors do not realize the power of food as an alternative to medication.” He also believes that the 10 or 15 minutes doctors spend assessing their patients is inadequate to understand the role poor dietary habits play in heart disease.
Ultimately, the responsibility for health rests with the individual. The greatest role a doctor or any health professional can play for most patients is to pass on practical, evidence-based information that focuses on prevention and education. A sound understanding of food as medicine (or poison as so many processed, packaged and prepared foods should be labeled) is one of the best tools available to a physician. Dr. Williams’ has embraced an anonymously-attributed quote that captures the essence of this philosophy: “Medicine is not healthcare – food is healthcare. Medicine is sickcare. Let’s all get this straight for a change.”
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