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How a Vegetarian Diet Can Combat Chronic Illnesses

How a Vegetarian Diet Can Combat Chronic Illnesses

By Sheetal Parikh, MS, Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Morrison Healthcare

One of my patients – a hospital employee – came to me for help earlier this year.  He was overweight and had type 2 diabetes, and needed insulin shots to control his blood sugar levels. I explained the advantages of a vegetarian diet, encouraged him to start planning meals at home, eat plenty of vegetables and salads and discouraged him from eating red meat.

And, it worked. After seven months on a vegetarian diet, he has lost 45 pounds and is near his ideal body weight. His doctor will examine him in three months and may take him off insulin since it’s no longer needed to control his blood sugar.

For the past 20 months, I’ve taught a diabetes self-management class twice a week at Heart of Florida Regional Medical Center and I’ve seen similar results from other patients. The key to changing their weight, and their health, is changing to a plant-based diet.

I teach them several skills, such as meal planning; how to count and reduce the number of carbohydrates they eat; the importance of reducing sodium and how to substitute vegetables for the food they’ve been eating for years.  To get started, I also give them a 7-Day Meal Plan.

I teach people to “own” their diet. By planning meals and cooking at home instead of eating at restaurants, anyone can improve their own health. We “own” many other significant events in our lives – we plan our education, our vacations – so why not plan our meals? I let all of my patients know that I take 30 minutes every Sunday to map out what I will eat for the week. And I cook every day.

None of these actions are hard, yet it can help people lead much healthier lives. For the patient I just described, he made simple changes. He cut out bread from breakfast, substituting egg whites and an apple. And he began eating soup and salads for lunch in the hospital café, often topping the salad with beans and other vegetables, but no cheese or bacon bits. In the evenings, he stuck to the meal plan, taking meat off the menu.

What is a Vegetarian Diet?

I grew up in India and I never saw meat until I emigrated to the United States in 2001. Vegetarian diets have nourished people since the 6th century BC. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a vegetarian diet contains vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. It omits meat, poultry, wild game and seafood.

Obesity is the leading cause of most chronic illnesses. Yet, these diseases can be treated by therapeutic use of a vegetarian diet and may perform better than other diets, according to the many research studies. The EPIC-Oxford study from researchers at the University of Oxford in England revealed that those who consumed a vegan diet ate the most fiber, the least total fat and saturated fat, and had the healthiest body weights and cholesterols levels compared with non-vegetarians.

As a dietitian, I’ve witnessed many patients who have become vegetarians and achieved a healthy weight, also known as Body Mass Index. This change often has a direct impact on their chronic disease condition and can often eliminate the need for prescription drugs and other medications.

It’s essential to understand how this happens. Vegetarian diets are rich in phytochemicals, such as lycopene and resveratrol, which are found in vegetables, legumes, fruits, spices and whole grains. The phytochemicals are known to interfere with a number of cellular processes involved in the progression of cancer and may protect a person against cancer.

Much like the patient I mentioned earlier, reducing body weight often increases a person’s self-confidence and makes them feel much happier. My patients that lose weight often tell me they are full of energy and have much more motivation to live life and enjoy their good health. As my grandmother told me, there is nothing more important than health. If you have your health, happiness and well-being will follow.

Helping Patients Become Vegetarian

I also provide nutrition counseling for obese people who plan to have sleeve bariatric surgery, which helps a person lose weight by reducing the size of a person’s stomach. However, many insurance companies require people to meet with a nutritionist for seven months before they will approve the surgery.

I recently met with one woman who weighed 302 pounds and wanted bariatric surgery to lose weight. She claimed to be a vegetarian, and while she didn’t eat red meat, she had poor eating habits. She drank four 32-ounce sodas daily and would often eat at fast food restaurants, ordering grilled cheese or fried fish sandwiches. Eating refined food and drinking carbonated beverages is not a healthy lifestyle.

When our counseling began, she had many concerns about a real vegetarian diet – for example, getting enough protein. Many people that eat meat regularly get three times more protein than the body requires.  On a vegetarian diet, protein comes from soy and soy products, eggs, milk and milk products, grains and nuts. Even a cup of kale has 3 grams of protein.

I needed to change her habits, so I gave her my list of 20 habits, which are techniques to change behavior and begin a healthy lifestyle. I asked her to achieve two of the items on the list each month, so at the end of seven months, she was well on her way. After seven months of counseling, she lost 70 pounds!

Working to Change Things

I still remember the first day I stepped into a grocery store in the United States. It was in a Publix Supermarket in Daytona Beach, Florida. I looked at all of the coolers and aisles filled with meat products and asked my husband, “Who eats all of these meats?” That day, I decided to find and join an organization that encourages people to eat vegetarian foods and help them understand its impact on their health and well-being.

I’m now a member of the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetics Practice Group (VN DPG), an arm of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. This group strives to empower members to be the leading authority on evidence-based vegetarian nutrition for food and nutrition professionals, healthcare practitioners and the public.

Many years ago, I started working as a volunteer at local events in Florida and in June this year I became the Florida state coordinator for vegetarian nutrition. In this role, I am able to use my knowledge to help people better understand the power of vegetarian nutrition. I’m also on the Policy and Advocacy Committee for VN DPG, where we’re helping define plant-based diets and working to get these foods included as part of key federal government programs, such as Meals on Wheels.

Because I am a registered dietitian and nutritionist, I have current information on the impact of vegetarian diets to assist the general public better. When discussing diet, I often tell people about “blue zones,” which refers to geographic areas in which people have low rates of chronic disease and live longer than anywhere else. People in these regions around the world primarily eat a plant-based diet.

Because I’ve been a vegetarian since birth, it’s easy for me to help people to spread the word about my passion. I often cook meals for my Morrison colleagues to give them the experience to taste the flavor of the vegetarian foods. And I don’t miss an opportunity to promote its benefits when speaking with other Morrison registered dietitians.

While Morrison’s chefs and dietitians have promoted plant-based diets in recent years to help our patients, we are beginning to see restaurants throughout the U.S. include vegetarian food into their menus.

These kinds of changes show the mass appeal of a vegetarian diet and signals that many people are clamoring for healthier food choices. By changing even just a few habits and planning meals with a focus on fruits, vegetables and grains, anyone can lose weight, improve their health and have an impact on their chronic illness.

Learn more about how dietitians bring the Power of Food to our patients.

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