On September 14-17, 2018 I went to the International Plant-Based Nutrition Healthcare Conference in San Diego, California. I went last year when I was still working in technology and had resolved to go into medicine just a few months prior. I came out of it incredibly inspired. A year later, I’m now working as a medical scribe at My Ethos Health under Dr. Ron Weiss, who spoke at last year’s conference! Who would’ve known (besides God, of course)?! I wanted to share my own personal reflections about the intervening year and my growth, as well as some of the interesting things I learned while I was there. I really enjoyed the experience of sharing the information in real-time via Instagram stories, and based on the response, many of you appreciated learning something new and had a lot of great questions.
Since last year, my understanding of WFPB (whole-food plant-based - fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds) nutrition, lifestyle medicine, fitness, and health have grown significantly. I’ve read more books (like Proteinaholic by Dr. Garth Davis, whose work I was introduced to at the 2017 conference), have engaged with the science more comprehensively, and most importantly, have spent a lot of time zooming out and thinking bigger picture about why this message matters so much. First of all, life expectancy in the US is declining according to the CDC, and heart disease is still the leading cause of death. 2017 was the planet’s 3rd warmest year on record. And based on our continuing obsession with all things weight loss, my perception is that our body image issues aren’t improving. WFPB nutrition has the potential to improve life expectancy by preventing and reversing many of our leading killers, and we can shrink our carbon footprint significantly by eating a plant-based diet. Finally, it’s my belief that in centering our health journeys on what’ll truly heal us, we can positively impact our body image in ways that Losing Ten Pounds in Two Weeks! never will. So I’ve developed a deep sense of purpose associated with spreading this message. My excitement for it started off with feeling better, but it stays burning because it can mean so much more than that - for all of us.
Without further ado, enjoy this quick recap!
Inflammation was a hot topic among many of the presenters. Your body is in a state of chronic inflammation if your tissues can’t recover from some injurious effect. Inflammation as a natural, acute response helps protect our bodies from invaders and insulate us from the dangers of injury, but chronically it can cause illness. Cardiologist Dr. Joel Kahn discussed how processed foods and animal products keep our bodies chronically inflamed, and shared six steps to lower inflammation with plant-based diets: eliminate all animal products, added oils, and processed foods, and add in raw fruits, vegetables, greens, seeds, nuts, water, chia seeds and flaxseeds. Incidentally, in the days following the conference, Dr. Kahn shared this deeply inspiring photo on his Instagram @drjkahn:
How incredible is it that he’s nearing 60 years of age and his arteries look perfectly clear? How many of us have attributed heart disease, plaque build-up and inflammation to aging? How many of us know someone we love who has some degree of heart disease? We need to be more honest with ourselves about where our illnesses stem from, and the sooner the better, because the foundations for them are laid years in advance.
Dr. Monica Aggarwal also touched on inflammation - she was diagnosed with debilitating rheumatoid arthritis (an autoimmune disease), and after adopting a WFPB diet, describes herself as “the healthiest [she’s] ever been.” Read her inspiring story here. She covered a study that traded the diets of African Americans and rural South Africans. African Americans develop colon cancer at much higher rates than their South African counterparts, and researchers wanted to investigate the roles of fat and fiber in this association. In just two weeks, Americans moving to a high-fiber, low-fat African diet saw significant reductions in colon inflammation, while South Africans moving to a Western diet experienced an increase in inflammation. Let that marinate!
the gut microbiome
In the same study, Dr. Monica Aggarwal also pointed out the South Africans’ microbiomes generated more butyrate (a byproduct of fiber metabolism), which can help prevent cancer. This was detected in just two weeks! Your gut is alive and constantly evolving, and depending on what bacteria we feed it, it changes. The better we eat (high-fiber, whole plant foods) the more protective and robust our gut microbiome gets, and it adapts within days to weeks of a diet switch. IBS sufferers take note! Gut bugs can even affect how you feel, noted Dr. Aggarwal. Junk food has a very real effect on mental health via our microbiome, which is why it’s so important to take diet into account when we’re looking to feel better, both physically and mentally. Dr. Saray Stancic also briefly touched on gut bacteria. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis over two decades ago, and though at the time her hopes were bolstered by personal research she did that indicated diet could stave off disability, her doctor responded by saying, “Eat whatever you want.” Resolving to make the switch anyway, today she lives disability-free and is off all medications. She cited a study that concludes: “Specific gut bacteria are associated with a shift toward a pro-inflammatory T cell profile that may exacerbate or perpetuate autoimmune responses, potentially identifying a previously unknown environmental contributor to MS pathogenesis.” Shut the front door! In other words, a specific type of gut bacteria is associated with worsening symptoms in MS patients. This has huge implications for those with autoimmune diseases, and certainly did for Dr. Stancic, who brought the audience to tears when she recalled a personal milestone: healing enough to get to wear heels and dance with her husband at a wedding.
Dr. Anthony Lim received a standing ovation for his presentation on calorie density. He started off with a personal story about growing up overweight and achieving lasting weight loss on a whole-food, plant-based diet. The principle behind his presentation was simple: calorie density is a measure of the calorie content of a food relative to its volume. If we fill ourselves up on whole foods of low calorie density, we can lose weight, get lean, and most importantly, become our healthiest. Although this isn’t the exact table he shared, it demonstrates the idea:
Clearly, the least calorically dense foods are whole/minimally processed plant foods. If you’ve followed me for a while, you know I’m a big advocate of avoiding counting of all kinds: counting calories, macros, and jumping on the scale regularly (except in extreme cases, where it’s necessary to do so for disease recovery/elite athletics). I believe people should eat abundantly and feel good about it. By consuming foods that are low calorie density, we can enjoy as much as we want, feel full, know we’re getting adequate nutrition, and achieve our healthiest body weight. Many of you reached out to me with questions about avocado, nuts, and seeds. You’ll notice that nuts and seeds are highly calorically dense. First of all, nuts (especially walnuts), seeds (especially flaxseeds), and avocado are extremely healthy foods. Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org classifies avocado in particular as a green-light food, which means you can eat as much of it as you want. There is some evidence to suggest that eating nuts does not lead to the expected weight gain, and the Global Burden of Disease Study found that not eating enough nuts and seeds was the third-leading dietary risk factor for death and disability. My personal belief is that if you’re aiming to lose a lot of weight or reverse a disease (do not attempt this unless under medical supervision), it may be best to err on the side of caution and include only a modest amount in your meals until you achieve your goal weight. Otherwise, feel free to eat (raw! not roasted, not salted) nuts, seeds, and avocado.
I want to share a graphic from Dr. Lim’s presentation which really drives the point home:
My hope is that reading this information will impress upon you not how much weight you can lose, but how much you have to gain by switching to a plant-based diet!
Dr. John Kelly, in his presentation on medication management, touched upon gene expression. We all have genetic predispositions, but like Dr. Stancic said during her presentation, “Don’t kid yourself, lifestyle matters most.” Dr. Kelly spoke about how the epigenome, which controls gene expression, is driven by the environment. Drastic gene expression changes were found to have occurred in 30 men with prostate cancer after 90 days on a plant-based diet in a study he cited. He went on to say, “All plant foods support and aid normal physiologic functions to promote health, from gene expression, to improved cognitive function, to a healthier biome…” and the list most certainly goes on.
do your best
I definitely learned a lot, and I hope this recap was helpful to you. I do want to mention that everyone is at a different degree of readiness to change. If this has inspired you at all, don’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking: “If I can’t implement all of this, I won’t implement any of it.” You can wake up tomorrow morning and have oatmeal instead of eggs. You can start off by observing Meatless Mondays. You can even switch out just your snacks. This has been a journey for me, too - I’ve been completely convinced by the information, but we’re wired to seek pleasure, and food is one avenue we take to do that. It’s incredibly tough to work towards changing your habits because we would rather cave into the enjoyment of eating unhealthy food. But that’s how I know you’re brave for making the commitment to try. Growing up, my cholesterol was over 200 and processed/junk food was all I ate. I have a strong family history of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Today, I eat a whole-food, plant-based diet and I’m training for a marathon, but that took years of work, resilience, dips, disappointments, body image troubles and constant recommitment, recommitment, recommitment. Just try!
Thanks for reading! I look forward to hearing your thoughts.