Guest blog post by Michael Bummer, MD
Michael Clarke Duncan made the news this month, sadly this time by way of his obituary. At only 54, he suffered a heart attack and never recovered. He was a well-loved actor, and while perhaps best known for his soft and sweet role in The Green Mile, he was sweet off the set too. He even became a spokesperson for PETA, transitioning to a vegetarian diet in 2009. He spoke openly about feeling healthier after making the switch, but some critics point fingers suggesting that the diet change was a waste of time or must not have ‘worked’ because he still had a heart attack anyway. A few months ago, I remember people talking about Davy Jones (from The Monkeys) being a vegetarian and avid runner, dying unexpectedly at age 66. Other critics spoke up then too, pointing out that vegetarians aren’t as healthy as they think they are.
Since learning what I’ve learned over the past 18 months and figuring out what I now believe to be truly “health” in a mostly whole-foods, plant-based diet, I’ve grown to get less excited about the term “vegetarian” from a health perspective. I personally praise and LOVE hearing that people are not participating in the consumption of meat! As more and more people become vegetarian, it will continue to reduce the needless slaughter of animals and all the processes of the United States’ ridiculous meat industry. Not to mention the massive beneficial environmental impact. I feel like the movement toward vegetarianism is a statement on the progress of our culture in general!
When speaking about one’s own health however, the term vegetarian and its varied interpretation does not address consumption of some of the worst things on the planet – ie: dairy, cheese (10x concentrated dairy), oils (100% fat with little health benefit), and all kinds of other processed food-like substances. A strictly health-related criticism of many vegetarians is that many will compensate for their reduction of meat by increasing cheese/dairy/oils/processed non-animal products. A quick glance at restaurant menus reflects this trend. Vegetarian options almost always include things like pasta alfredo, pasta primavera, cheese quesadillas, even grilled cheese sandwiches.
In a lot of ways, increasing the intake of dairy and processed foods could be worse than consuming occasional turkeys or pigs. I don’t know for a fact which is more harmful to health, but from what I’ve seen, it’s increasingly clear that dairy is the devil. Afterall, it’s pumping our human cells full of Super-Calf Growth Formula for 70+ years (if you’re lucky) instead of the 12 months that nature intended for it to nurture a baby calf from 70 lbs to 1000 lbs. That’s right, in a single year, the same stuff we drink as milk, or worse – eat in 10x’s greater concentrations in cheese, grows a cow to 15 times its size! We shrug our shoulders at athletes who take growth hormones and illegal steroids when they get cancer or die from heart attacks, as if they almost had it coming. Their choices determined their fate. Yet our culture doesn’t yet realize that cow’s milk and cheese (and butter, sour cream, ice cream, etc) is generally the same thing. The only difference is that it was never intended for human use – it was formulated for cows! Well that, and you can buy it in the grocery store and hardly anyone will look down their nose.
Even saying ‘vegan’ equates to health wouldn’t be completely fair because there are TONS of junk food vegans who frequently eat french fries potato chips, diet Coke, and absurd amounts of olive oil, sugars, and artificial sweeteners.
“Some have proposed that extra virgin olive oil is heart healthy because it is rich in polyphenols. Polyphenols have antioxidant characteristics and studies show that they reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. However, all plant foods are rich in polyphenols and most deliver much more polyphenols (and far fewer calories) than olive oil. If you rely on olive oil for your polyphenols, good luck getting enough. You’d need to consume 5 tablespoons of olive oil, the equivalent of 600 calories, just to get 150 mg of polyphenols, the same amount in 55 calories of lettuce, not to mention hundreds of other nutrients and documented benefit in greens.”
We know that heart disease and cancer are the two top killers in our country. In the top 10 causes of death and medical disability (ie: stroke, diabetes, dementia, etc), nearly all of them are avoidable with a healthy, whole-foods plant-based diet. This is a FACT. It is a choice whether someone wants to actively promote health and avoid these horrible conditions. And it’s not just avoiding the bad things, it’s about improving DAILY LIFE with increased energy and mood!
In my humble opinion, a common vegetarian lifestyle does not actively avoid most of these conditions because most of these diets still include a fair amount of oil/cheese/processed foods. Even more challenging is making this change after 40-50 years of reckless food consumption. Hoping for great change by reducing or simply stopping meat consumption can be asking a lot. It would make sense that the further someone is down a path of heart disease or cancer promotion, a more drastic change is required to avoid undesirable health effects.
Imagine falling asleep at the wheel, only to wake up suddenly to see a tractor-trailer speeding head-on toward you. You might still have a chance at swerving out-of-the-way and survive, albeit battered and damaged. But wouldn’t it be nice to wake up sooner, see a speeding truck far in the distance, so you could safely pull off the road and avoid danger by a large margin? Or even better, imagine you could make sure your children don’t even get on the highway of health problems in the first place? That’s what a true whole-foods, plant-based diet can offer – an awakening and awareness that leads to tremendous control of your own future.
Crazy, huh? Not really. What’s crazy is how backwards our dietary guidelines and misconceptions are right now. What’s crazy is thinking that it’s too inconvenient to change. Too weird. Too hard. Slamming head-on into that truck sure it fast and easy, but it doesn’t make it the better choice, does it?! What’s exciting is how much progress we are all making, little by little, day by day, one meal at a time. We are waking up.
My intention in writing this is not to point a critical finger at vegetarians for not doing enough nor to blame Michael Clarke Duncan for his own demise. I have no idea how he ate before nor after his change to vegetarianism. Vegetarians are making HUGE improvements for the future of the planet, and unquestionably saving uncounted numbers of animals from a painful life and gruesome death. Just one more tweak in your already commendable diet could help you achieve a level of health that might otherwise remain just out of reach. Well that, and because I can hardly stand the thought of seeing another familiar name in an obituary, only to have wished that I had poked and prodded a little harder when I had the chance to do so. So there. You’ve been poked.