Atkins, South Beach, Zone, Vegan, Weight Watchers, Paleo, Ornish, Meta-fast, Mediterranean, Blue zone, Bright side, Trim Healthy Mamma plan, are just to name a few of the diets out there, so how do you know which one is the right one for you? Maybe its your blood type, maybe its the way your Paleolithic ancestors ate millions of years ago, or is there some level of science behind this?
You may have recently seen books like How not to Die by Michael Greger MD (the guy who testified for Operah when sued by the cattle ranchers in 1996 after the height of the mad-cow scare after she “swore to never eat hamburgers”), and Forks Over Knives by Dr Collin Campbell PHD ( author of china study linking certain cancers with protein intake on Netflix) and Caldwell Esselstyn MD ( an Olympic athlete, turned cardiologist who is reversing heart disease with his plant based diet approach at the Cleveland clinic) as you browsed at your local Costco and wondered what is all this hype about. You may be confused about how you should eat, just as I was as I seriously started to look at this topic 8 years ago.
I would love to go back to the time when I ate what my parents put in front of me never questioning what a good diet was, but i cannot deny the evidence in front of me. As a busy college student I had to survive on canned foods and moon pies from Aldies when I used to live on a tight budget in Iowa city with my brothers, we ate seasonal fresh fruits and veggies that was on sale, and definitely never Organic. I had never heard of Kale or an Avocado back in the 1990s.
When I was a resident working long shifts in Philadelphia, I ate mostly hospital food. We would survive on baby food as snack (prunes, banana mix was my favorite), Fruit loop cereal and comfort food that was free, Mac and cheese, fries, Kentucky fried chicken and the other Standard American Diet (SAD Diet). But who can forget the famous 12 inch Philly Cheese Steak sandwiches coming in at 900 calories, 40 grams of fat, 50 grams of protein. For breakfast we would load up on bagels, eggs, cream cheese in morning since we never knew where our next meal would come from given our irregular long hours, and end it with more oily, salty comfort food to clear the stress of our days.
Fast forward to 2010, I had been married over a decade now, and had 2 kids in elementary school along with running a busy practice. My dad had a stroke at age 63, leaving him partially paralyzed he passed away at 66 after a long battle, and i was seeing other family members with colon cancer, diabetes and other chronic conditions that could have been helped by a change in their diet.
Now I was motivated more than ever before to stop and look at my dietary choices. They say you should never ask a doctor advise about diet, since most of us get minimal education during the course of our training. Our approach to healthcare at times is disease management and not so much prevention. But as an Allergist, I wondered why were my patients suffering with so many different conditions? Why were all these kids having asthma, was it more than their allergies and immune system issues, was it the milk, the chocolate milk they drank for free from the school lunch program and then more before bed time with those cookies? Why did so many kids come in with eczema, was it the lack of fruits and veggies or was it too much animal products? was it the ranch dressing? or the recurrent antibiotics, or the lack of adequate sunshine, and play time in a dirty backyard? Why was i seeing so much more complicated lung disease in my adult population, who happened to also fall outside their target Ideal body weight, and had heart burn and reflux. Why was their immune systems acting up, either over active and going into autoimmune, or under active and becoming deficient.
I love PBS, so one night back in 2010 I caught Dr Joel Fuhrman’s special, the famous author of Eat to Live (also written The End of diabetes, Eat for health and many other good books) discuss his approach to health and it really resonated with me. His programs have been hugely successful, raising over $30 million for public television. He was the first doctor I had heard talk about skipping animal products, and pushing his GBOMS- Greens, Beans, Onions, Mushrooms, Seeds to obtain greater health. I just did not know how to do it, how to change my staple foods, how could i cook, what would i say to my hungry family and patients? I needed time to get convinced of what he was saying, so my own search began.
As a kid I grew up with middle eastern food, so a lot of white rice, beef and chicken Kabab’s, but i also recall my mom always giving me whole heads of romaine lettuce to eat as a snack ( my kids do the same now its one of their favorite foods) and tons of fruit. My favorite treat after long trips was oatmeal, she would have a pot on the stove as soon as I would get home, and we always ate plates full of Sabzi (green herbs like cilantro mint, basil, green onions, and radishes) with every meal. Breakfast was butter and Feta cheese, occasional eggs, with walnuts sweetened hot black tea, with whole grain bread bought fresh daily from the local bread store. Not all of that was bad, was it?
Fast forward to 2018, after many hours of my own research (over 8 years now) looking at the best diets to help my family, and my patients, I am now convinced the only ideal diet is the Whole food plant based diet. I know no matter what the disease is, the immune system and all the major organs will be at their best with the support of a plant based diet, and I want to encourage all my patients to consider alternative ways of eating, to prevent and treat disease. Basically “How not to Die” is my approach using plants and micro-nutrients, and it does not have to be complicated or expensive. I realize there is a lot that goes into health, other than diet, like mindfulness, exercise and stress management, and that is where the holistic approach to health care is king.
What I know for sure is that advise will change withe time, the authors and research will change, but just like you do not carry your grandmothers big old land line phone anymore, you should not be eating the way the generations past ate, for the sake of your health, but also the planet.
There are times that what grandma used to eat is the best, but you have to be flexible enough to change the parts that do not make sense anymore. I encourage you to spend 1 hour every week to learn as much as you can, and to make small sustainable changes to your health, and most importantly take responsibility for what goes into your mouth, instead of letting circumstances determine that.
To your good health!
Maryam Zarei MD FAAAAI