Bill Clinton this week probably did more for the vegan lifestyle than any other single event in the history of dietary controversies. When the former president announced that he has adopted a vegan diet, news media picked up the story with TV specials and coverage over the Internet and YouTube. Of course, Bill’s motivation is to prevent recurrences of his previous heart problems, and more heart surgeries. He has adopted the diet programs of the vegetarian proponents Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn in hopes of actually reversing his heart disease. Ornish’s program of a vegetarian diet, exercise, and meditation has been proven in studies to remove plaque in artery walls.
This brings up the controversies and uncertainties about the best diet to prevent disease. On one hand are the vegetarians with their theory that a plant-based diet prevents and treats heart disease and cancer. Their argument is that cultures where eating meat is the norm have more of these diseases, which are relatively unknown in vegetarian cultures. However, the science to back up this argument, presented in books like The China Study, has been criticized as less than convincing. Nonetheless, the reasoning that raising large mammals for food is not sustainable or healthy for the planet seems cogent. And the conventional meat industry is clearly a horrific nightmare, as presented in several recent documentary films.
On the other side are the Paleolithic diet promoters who assure us that the human body was designed to eat meat and plants in the form of fruits and vegetables, but not grains.
Some cultures also have historically included dairy. Their contention is that a high protein and low carbohydrate diet will prevent diabetes and the various forms of inflammation that contribute to chronic disease. Limiting or eliminating starches and grains is the key to staying fit and lean. Then there is the Weston A Price (Nourishing Traditions) diet that advocates plenty of healthy fats, especially saturated fats and animal products, along with fruits, vegetables, fermented foods, and some soaked grains.
There are some areas where both sides agree. Highly processed foods are not good for you. Eating whole foods as close as possible to their state in nature is best. Corn syrup is terrible. Everyone should stay away from artificial sweeteners, flavors, and colors, and chemicals and preservatives derived from petroleum products. Organic produce is best because pesticides and antibiotics are associated with various disease processes, and because organic produce has more vitamins and antioxidants. Animal products, if consumed at all, should be organic, and the animals raised in healthy and humane conditions, i.e. cage-free birds and grass-fed cattle.
Many studies have shown the benefits of eating a wide range of fruits and vegetables, for example the Mediterranean diet studies. Limiting junk food and fried food has also been shown to reduce disease. Controlling weight, building muscle and reducing body fat prevent heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Obesity is a guarantee that inflammation and chronic disease will strike sooner or later.
Different diets may be more suitable for different folks. Generally, anyone who is immersed in these controversies is probably eating a better diet than most of the population. It is hard to imagine Americans giving up hamburgers and fries altogether, but it is clear that a lifestyle that includes organic eating, exercise, and good health habits is a growing and welcome trend.
If Bill Clinton can shed unwanted pounds and overcome a lifetime of poor food choices, then so can the rest of us.