A plant-based diet can save your life

IF you are health-conscious, and you have not yet seen the documentary film Forks over Knives, then I highly recommend that you do so.

The film is being screened on the international screen of one of the cinema chains in Kuala Lumpur, and they have promoted it through frequent advertisements.

The title is meant to convey the message that a healthy diet can help you avoid chronic diseases, medical treatments and surgeries. Indeed, the film provides compelling evidence that a whole-food, plant-based diet is able to prevent, control or even reverse obesity, hypertension, hypercholesterolaemia, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases.

In contrast, it is a well-established fact that much of the health problems afflicting affluent modern Western society is due to their diet, which is animal-based, replete with all sorts of processed foods.

The film follows the work of several US doctors, scientists and nutritional experts that prove the effectiveness of the whole-food, plant-based diet in preventing and reversing the chronic diseases.

It is a documentary film filled with facts and real-life testimonies of those who have benefited from following the recommendations, and will be enjoyed only by those who have interest in the subject.

Nutrient-dense, whole-food, plant-based diet

The diet promoted by the film is in line with what I recommend. It is based on whole or minimally processed plants, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, tubers, and legumes.

It excludes or minimises animal-based foods such as meat (including poultry and fish), dairy, and eggs, as well as refined foods like bleached flour, refined sugar, and oil.

However, I disagree with the exclusion of fish. There will always be controversy whether a vegetarian or even a vegan diet would even be better than a plant-based diet that allows some meat intake.

There are many promoters of vegetarianism for various reasons - religious, spiritual, health, eco-sustainability, etc - but I will restrict my discussion only to the health aspects.

It is a fact that vegetarians are generally healthier than meat eaters, as it is also a fact that meat consumption is linked to obesity, high cholesterol, heart disease, cancers and other diseases.

However, vegetarians are not totally free from the "meat-eaters diseases" mentioned above. So it is also important to look into what vegetarians actually eat.

Food provides us water (which we get mostly from our drinks), energy (calories) and nutrients. Most of us have too many calories in store, as evidenced form the high rate (and still increasing) of overweight/obesity in recent health surveys. Our sedentary lifestyle and the hormonal changes that occur as we age have made the majority of us fat and unhealthy. So we need to be conscious of eating excess calories when we eat.

We need lots of nutrients

It is the nutrients that we should concentrate on most when we eat. This is why I recommend the nutrient-dense, whole-food, plant-based (preferably organic) diet. Thousands of nutrients are required for our cells to function, to maintain health, to prevent disease, to fight invaders, and to recover from diseases and injuries.

It is my belief that current nutritional recommendations grossly underestimate the amount of many nutrients we need. Let us take vitamin C for example. Most official health institutions recommend that adults take 60-90mg of vitamin C per day, which is easily achieved in a diet which includes fruits and veggies.

A small orange contains about 50mg of vitamin, and many other fruits contain more vitamin C than oranges. But if you ask around, many health conscious people are taking 1,000mg of it daily. That is more than 10 times the official recommended intake!

Almost all vitamin C supplements for adults come in 1,000mg tablets/capsules, which means it is the "standard" dose for most who take vitamin C as a supplement. This also means that many people do not believe the official recommendation. The same may apply to other nutrients too.

However, it does not mean that you should just increase the doses of whatever supplements you are taking. You need to equip yourself with sufficient knowledge about these nutrients, and make an informed decision on your supplementation programme. Or you can get the advice of an expert you trust. Be aware that studies have shown that taking certain supplements actually increases cancers and death rates.

My aim here is not to promote supplementation, but to promote the nutrient-dense diet, ie getting more health-enhancing nutrients and less calories and "junk" from your diet. It is only when your diet cannot provide the desired amounts of certain nutrients that you should consider supplementation.

The nutrient-dense diet

Leafy veggies, grasses (eg wheat-grass) and sprouts are the basis of the nutrient-dense diet. They provide a whole range of important nutrients without much calories.

For example, you will lose weight when you eat spinach because you will spend more calories eating, digesting and absorbing the spinach than the amount of calories it provides.

I had mentioned previously that organic foods have much more life-force or qi than the non-organic variety, although studies on the nutrient content have so far shown no added advantage.

Unfortunately, when you cook these veggies, you destroy some of the nutrients (and the qi as well). And when you overcook them, you lose most of the nutrients.

The sad reality is this - if you go to most restaurants, you will find that the veggie dishes are mostly overcooked and soaked in unhealthy oils.

It is best to eat the veggies raw, or minimally stir-fried to preserve the nutrients. The only veggie that is better cooked is tomatoes (more lycopene is released if cooked).

Fruits and fleshy veggies are both nutrient-rich and calorie-rich, so while they provide plenty of nutrients, you have to be wary of the calories they contain.

You should go for a wide variety of fruits and veggies, but restrict the amount of each fruit and fleshy veggie.

This applies especially to those who are overweight and/or diabetic. In fact, one of the causes of childhood obesity is regular drinking of fruit juices (even those that are not sweetened) because of the high fruit-sugar content.

Apples, guava, pears and similar fruits that require a lot of munching can be put in a different category because it takes time to eat a lot of them; they are filling; and they contain lots of fibre and lots of nutrients (eg guava has more vitamin C than oranges).

Apples are part of many diet programmes because they can satisfy hunger without giving too many calories.

Avoid empty calories

Our problem lies in the rice, bread, mee, roti canai and other staple foods that bring in too much calories with scant nutrients.

The newly-harvested rice grain is full of nutrients, but the pure white rice that reaches our plate has been "polished" of much of its nutrients.

Likewise, sugar cane juice is full of nutrients and fibre, but the crystalline sugar that reaches our table has been "refined" off most of the nutrients.

In fact, white sugar is pure calories and nothing else. So, if you are health-conscious, you should avoid (or reduce) white sugar, white rice, white bread, white flour and other similar "empty calorie" foods.

They are virtually empty of nutrients, unless the manufacturers fortify them (as many foods are nowadays). Go for the brown varieties, which still have some nutrients in them.

So, even if you are vegetarian, but your diet consists mostly of white rice (or other "white" stuff) and overcooked veggies, and you consumed lots of sugar, you will not be as healthy as you should be.

Healthy and unhealthy fats

The unhealthy fats in our diet are major contributors to our poor health. These are the animal fats that are unavoidable if you consume meat (less if you take lean meats).

Unfortunately, many people actually enjoy eating both meat and fat. Plant fats/oils are generally healthier, but saturated and processed plant fats (eg trans-fats like margarine) are not, as they influence the body's fat production negatively (ie promotes increased levels of "bad" cholesterol and/or triglycerides).

You can get good fats from avocado, olive, oil palm, coconut and many other plants. If you consume commercial products, then the processing method is critical as heat will turn healthy oils unhealthy.

The best are the cold-pressed "virgin" or "extra-virgin" oils, which means that no heat is used and the oils are obtained during the first round of pressing/squeezing (the best quality is obtained this way).

One sad discovery from my research is that most commercially available "extra-virgin" olive oils are not what they claim to be.

Deep-sea fish and krill are the best known sources of health-enhancing omega-3 fatty acids, which are important nutrients if you wish to stay disease-free.

Although plants also provide omega-3 (eg flaxseed oil), there are some differences which make the marine source superior.

Our concern, however, is that even deep-sea fish can be contaminated by heavy-metals. That is why the omega-3 supplements made from them have to be "molecularly-distilled".

For those who are not vegetarian, but who espouse the nutrient-dense, whole-food, plant-based diet, adding deep-sea fish like salmon can provide most of the protein intake instead of chicken or red meats. And whenever you consume meats, make sure you balance it with lots of veggies/salads.

With the craze over burger bakar, and "double" or even "triple" burgers sweeping the country, it looks like only a minority of us chooses plants over meats. But it is definitely the right choice.

Dr Amir Farid Isahak is a medical specialist who practises holistic, aesthetic and anti-ageing medicine. He is a qigong master and founder of SuperQigong. For further information, e-mail starhealth@thestar.com.my. The views expressed are those of the writer and readers are advised to always consult expert advice before undertaking any changes to their lifestyles. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.