I watched some of a Netflix video titled “What the Health” with some disappointment. The video focused on diet and its affect on our health. It seems the researchers and doctors in the video wish to blame the rise in heart disease and cancer on “what we eat.” Their conclusions suggested that many of our health issues come from the consumption of meat, dairy and even fish. All our major food sources are potentially contaminated with environmental toxins and hormones, posing unnecessary risks. It is possible, though challenging for children and adults to obtain high quality protein and calcium from plant-based foods alone. It is a fact that health care costs in the U.S. have risen dramatically but much of that is from the rising rates of heart disease and diabetes. The elephant in the room is obesity as the underlying cause of most, if not all of these increases. Americans are larger and fatter than at any time in our history. What we eat is not to blame, it is the amount we eat.
Restaurants and fast food establishments have exploded in our communities. Instead of “eating out” serving as special event, it is becoming an everyday occurrence. Restaurant food typically contains unhealthy amounts of salt and fat. Fat, from any source, provides more than twice the calories of an equal amount of protein or carbohydrate. High fat consumption not only leads to increased stores of body fat, it produces inflammation within artery walls. Inflammation contributes to the accumulation of plaque within arteries and is the trigger for heart attacks and strokes. An often ordered test in hospitals and doctors’ offices is the CRP (C reactive protein). This protein measures inflammation and is an accurate predictor of “cardiac events.” I question whether it is meat itself or the fats found in meat that are the true culprits in causing heart disease. The same can be said for dairy products which are sources of saturated fats. Trans fats, found in processed foods and meats also trigger inflammation.
Cancer rates can’t be blamed completely on environmental toxins and hormones. Cancer rates rise with age as the immune system is less efficient in destroying rogue cells before they become large tumors. Americans are living longer and from that standpoint alone we can expect cancer rates to rise. Obesity is America’s number one health enemy and there is a direct correlation between the rate of obesity and that of diabetes and heart disease. Fat cells, particularly those around the abdominal wall, secrete inflammatory compounds and hormones that are linked with heart disease and cancer. Abdominal obesity leads to “metabolic syndrome” a condition associated with insulin resistance (elevated blood sugar), elevated cholesterol & triglycerides, and hypertension. Excessive calorie intake, not dietary composition, is the critical dietary determinant in controlling our health. Exercise, on the other hand, reduces inflammation and decreases insulin resistance and blood sugar.
In my opinion, a plant-based diet is not necessary to attain good health and prevent chronic diseases. A well-balanced diet that includes adequate sources of protein and other nutrients while avoiding processed food and salt will supply daily requirements. Monitoring calorie intake and including regular exercise are crucial to maintain a healthy weight. Prevention is the best way to limit medical costs and avoid disabling illnesses related to poor lifestyle choices.