Dietary Diseases

While the causes of coronary heart disease and diabetes may vary, scientific evidence from dietary studies has linked the consumption of animal products to these deadly ailments. Additional research has correlated consuming vegan foods (plant based) with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and a whole host of other chronic and debilitating disorders.[1] For some people, improving their diet can be as simple as deciding to eat healthier foods, but for others it can be much more challenging—especially if they have limited or no access to healthy foods like fresh produce and whole grains in the areas where they live.

More than one-third of US adults have some form of cardiovascular disease, [2] which is the leading cause of death in the US, and 8.3 percent of the population suffers from type 2 diabetes. [3] Adults with diabetes are also at high risk for cardiovascular disease, with 65 percent of diabetes sufferers dying from heart disease or stroke. Unhealthy dietary habits and a lack of physical activity play major roles in the development and progression of both heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

The numbers of those suffering and dying from heart disease and type 2 diabetes are even more staggering among people of color. A national survey taken by the Office of Minority Health, under the auspices of the US Department of Health & Human Services, has shown that, “Mexican Americans are almost twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with diabetes by a physician.” [4] Physician diagnoses of diabetes for African American adults have also been shown to be twice as likely as “non-Hispanic” white adults, and moreover, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are three times more likely. [5][6] Native American, African American and “Hispanic” diabetics also die earlier than white diabetics (with Asians, as a whole, the only group that lives longer than whites). The diabetes death rate for African Americans is 39.5 per 100,000, an incidence that is more than double the diabetes rate for whites. [7] One probable cause of this disparity is that communities of color are more likely to be located in food deserts, which are geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance.

Diet and Heart Disease 

disease1While many types of heart disease are influenced by diet, coronary artery disease is the variety most directly affected by people’s eating habits. High blood cholesterol, excessive dietary cholesterol, saturated fats, high blood pressure, and smoking are all known to damage the arterial lining. When arteries are damaged, the body repairs injuries by patching over the lining, but with chronic damage, cellular debris accumulates and divides as more layers are added. This debris narrows arterial passages, reducing the flow of blood and oxygen to either the heart (resulting in heart attack) or the brain (leading to stroke). [8]

As 25 percent of blood cholesterol comes from diet, people can greatly reduce this damage by eating foods containing no cholesterol. Whereas all animal-based food products contain cholesterol, all plant-based foods are naturally cholesterol-free. The average person in the US eats more than 200 pounds of “meat” each year, which is a major factor in the high incidence of heart diseases.[9] In addition to large amounts of dietary cholesterol, “meat” and other animal products also contain high levels of saturated fats that raise blood cholesterol. According to the American Heart Association, “Saturated fats and trans fats raise blood cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol also raises blood cholesterol. A high level of cholesterol in the blood is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease, which leads to heart attack, and also increases the risk of stroke.” [10]

Because cholesterol cannot be dissolved in the blood, the body must transport excess amounts to and from the cells by lipoproteins. A high HDL count (High Density Lipoprotein) is good because HDL cleans the blood of cholesterol and fats. High levels of LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) can indicate trouble because it signifies an excess of cholesterol in the bloodstream which could potentially clog arteries. Low levels of HDL (less than 40 mg/dL) also increase the risk of arterial blockage. The optimal LDL number varies according to your level of health. Your doctor can perform a routine blood test to determine your cholesterol level. [11]

Some people seem to maintain healthy blood levels no matter what they eat. In any discussion about heart disease, everyone seems to know one of these people who eats whatever they want, is 85 years old, and is still doing their three-mile walk every morning. The explanation for this is that some people’s bodies have a higher capacity for metabolizing saturated fat and cholesterol from food. However, even if you are not one of these people, you can easily control your cholesterol level and radically reduce your risk for heart disease by eating a vegan diet.

Diet and Diabetes 

Lab DetailType 2 diabetes was originally known as “adult-onset diabetes” because it was almost unheard of among people under 40 years old only two decades ago. However, today type 2 diabetes is being diagnosed in adolescents with increasing frequency. [12] Medical experts estimate that type 2 diabetes accounts for 90 to 95 percent of all diagnosed cases of diabetes. [13]

There is a strong correlation between type 2 diabetes and excess body weight, with about 80 percent of people who develop the disease being obese. [14] This is because the body’s ability to balance blood sugar with insulin decreases as weight increases beyond a healthy level, making the cells more resistant to insulin. Higher levels of dietary saturated and trans fats therefore increase the risk for both heart disease and diabetes. In the US, nearly 65 percent of those with diabetes will die from heart disease, and diabetics often suffer serious health complications such as kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage, and reduced blood flow to the lower extremities that can require amputation of the feet or legs. [15][16]

Dietary improvements, weight loss and exercise are all essential to preventing the onset of full-blown diabetes that occurs within 5 years for many diagnosed with prediabetes.[17] The good news is that diabetics and pre-diabetics can effectively avert, manage or even reverse diabetes through diet. [18]This can be done by eliminating highly-refined, processed “white” foods, sugar laden snacks, and trans fats while increasing fiber-rich plant-based foods like whole grains, vegetables, and nuts which are low in saturated fats and naturally cholesterol-free. [19]

Eating for Health 

The official position of the American Dietetic Association (ADA), the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, is that healthy vegan and vegetarian diets “can help prevent and treat chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes.”

According to the ADA, “Vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and have higher levels of dietary fiber, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids and other phytochemicals. These nutritional differences may explain some of the health advantages of those following a varied, balanced vegetarian diet.” The report also stated that plant-based diets are appropriate for people of all ages and activity levels, including pregnant and nursing mothers, infants, children, adolescents, and athletes.[20]

There is a substantial body of scientific evidence supporting the ADA’s endorsement of eating vegan and vegetarian as healthy and disease-fighting. For example, a lead surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, started a study in 1985 that ultimately proved that a low-fat, plant-based diet could significantly lower patients’ blood cholesterol levels—by an average of over 100 mg/dL—and open clogged arteries. [21]

Food for Thought 

However you slice the facts and figures, it is clear that coronary heart disease and diabetes stem from the same risk factors—eating animal products and processed foods, unhealthy weight gain, and lack of exercise. People can significantly reduce their risk factors for these and other diseases by making healthy lifestyle choices.

You may think that changing what you eat will be difficult because it can be tied to your moods, your health or your economic and social circumstances, and living in a food desert can make it even more challenging. However, what you eat can prevent or reduce your risk of dietary diseases and premature death, so choosing plant-based foods can truly be empowering, healing and even life-saving.

References: 

[1] Ogden, Cynthia L., Carroll, Margaret D., et al. “Obesity Among Adults in the United States.” Centers for Disease Control, Division of Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. 2007.http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db01.pdf (4/04/11)

[2] “Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2013 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association.” American Heart Association, Inc. 2012 http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/127/1/e6.full.pdf+html (11/05/13)

[3] “Diabetes Statistics.” American Diabetes Association. http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/diabetes-statistics/?utm_source=WWW&utm_medium=DropDownDB&utm_content=Statistics&utm_campaign=CON#%22(11/05/13)

[4] “Diabetes and Hispanic Americans.” The Office of Minority Health. 2010. https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=63 (11/05/13)

[5] “Diabetes and African Americans.” The Office of Minority Health. 2009. https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/content.aspx?lvl=3&lvlID=5&ID=3017 (11/05/13)

[6] “Diabetes and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders.” The Office of Minority Health. 2012. https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=78 (11/05/13)

[7] “Office of Minority Health.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved 8/23/17 from https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/content.aspx?lvl=3&lvlID=5&ID=3017

[8] Ornish, Dean. Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease: The Only System Scientifically Proven to Reverse Heart Disease Without Drugs or Surgery. Ivy Books: 1995. p. 80. (5/18/11)

[9] Adler, Ben. “Are Cows Worse Than Cars?. “The American Prospect. December 3, 2008http://prospect.org/cs/articles?article=are_cows_worse_than_cars (5/18/11)

[10] “Why Cholesterol Matters.” American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/WhyCholesterolMatters/Why-Cholesterol-Matters_UCM_001212_Article.jsp (4/12/13)

[11] “Good vs. Bad Cholesterol.” American Heart Association. May 2, 2011.http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/AboutCholesterol/Good-vs-Bad-Cholesterol_UCM_305561_Article.jsp (5/18/11)

[12] Reinehr, Thomas. “Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Children and Adolescents.” World Journal of Diabetes. 2013. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3874486/ (8/24/17)

[13] “Fast Facts, Data and Statistics About Diabetes.” American Diabetes Association. 2013. http://professional.diabetes.org/admin/UserFiles/0%20-%20Sean/FastFacts%20March%202013.pdf (11/05/13)

[14] Bloomgarden, Z. “American Diabetes Association Annual Meeting, 1999: diabetes and obesity.” Diabetes Care v. 23, p. 118–124, 2000. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/25/2/358.full#ref-3(5/18/11)

[15] “The Link Between Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease.” National Diabetes Education Program. 2007. Retrieved 3/21/2013 from http://ndep.nih.gov/media/CVD_FactSheet.pdf

[16] “Cardiovascular Disease and Diabetes.” American Heart Association. 2012. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Diabetes/WhyDiabetesMatters/Cardiovascular-Disease-Diabetes_UCM_313865_Article.jsp (11/05/13)

[17] “About Prediabetes & Type 2 Diabetes.” Centers for Disease Control. 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/prevention/prediabetes-type2/index.html (11/9/17)

[18] Barnard, Neal. Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes: The Scientifically Proven System for Reversing Diabetes without Drugs. Rodale Books: 2008. (5/11/11)

[19] “Metabolic syndrome: Insulin resistance syndrome; Syndrome X.” PubMed Health. April 19, 2010. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0004546/ (5/18/11)

[20] “Appropriate Planned Vegetarian Diets Are Healthful, May Help in Disease Prevention and Treatment, American Dietetic Association.” American Dietetic Association. July 01, 2009.http://www.eatright.org/Media/content.aspx?id=1233 (5/11/11)

[21] Esselstyn, Caldwell. Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure. Avery Trade: 2008. (5/11/11)

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