The plant based nurse

My family's excellent adventure to better health!


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Meet Mike: An unintentional self study in health and wellness!

Meet our friend, Mike Vasey! We met Mike and his wife over 30 years ago when my husband was a student at Penn State University. We reconnected recently online and much to our surprise, we had both stumbled upon the news that plant-based eating can not only prevent, but also reverse many chronic illnesses. As a university professor and critical thinker, Mike was attracted to the science behind the positive effects of a plant-based diet.
Hear Mike’s story in his own words:
One problem with the many positive testimonials regarding the health impact of a plant-based diet is that one cannot be completely confident the dietary change was the cause of the improved health. Don’t get me wrong, I find it pretty compelling when longstanding conditions change when diet changes. But one still lacks a hypothetical counter factual – a way of estimating how the person would have done without the dietary change. That’s where controlled experiments come in. One way to add a hypothetical counterfactual is to reverse the change to see if weight, cholesterol, etc. go back to where they were before one started. Then one can re-institute the dietary change and see if things improve again. That is known as an ABAB single-subject research design (A = baseline, B = intervention).
Unintentionally, over the past five years I have done such a reversal study on myself regarding the impact of a plant-based diet with no added oil. Five years ago I chanced upon a local broadcast of a talk by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr. on reversing and preventing heart disease with diet. I have a strong family history of heart disease – my father had at least five heart attacks – so the topic piqued my interest. I found Dr. Esselstyn’s data compelling so I decided to give it a try. At the time my total cholesterol was 200 (it had reached a high of 237 some years earlier, which prompted some improvement in my eating habits [translation: I ate less sausage and similar things]). My weight was about 208. I am about 6′ 2″ so my BMI was 26.7.
With very rare exceptions I was successful in following the Esselstyn diet. It took about six weeks before I found it to no longer be a challenge. By then, I had identified things I liked to eat and had modified recipes to be oil free. It helped that I tend to eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch every day so once I had those two meals figured out (oatmeal with bananas and dried cranberries for breakfast, a big salad for lunch) only supper was an issue. I tended to cook a few one dish meals (e.g., lots of soups) on the weekend and eat them during the week. Between meals I snacked on fruit and veggies.
Based on Esselstyn’s book , I expected things to change fairly quickly and mostly they did. I was on two blood pressure medicines at the time, mostly to control cluster headaches but also due to mild hypertension. Within two weeks of eliminating oil from my diet my blood pressure dropped to the point that I was light headed when I stood up. With my doctor’s consent I dropped the med that was unrelated to cluster headaches and things went back to normal. Simultaneously I started losing weight. After one month my weight was 196 (BMI = 25.2) but my total cholesterol hadn’t changed much, dropping only to 180. After six months I had lost 27 pounds to 181 (BMI = 23.2) so I expected my cholesterol would follow suit. However, when I completed a biometric screening for work at the six month mark, my cholesterol was still 180. That was a bit discouraging since my goal was to get it below 150, the threshold below which nobody in the Framingham Heart Study had a heart attack. But I kept at it and after a year and a half my total cholesterol was 154, which was very near my goal. And my weight was down to 172 (BMI = 22.1). Eventually my weight bottomed out at 170 (BMI = 21.😎) and my total cholesterol stayed below 130.
Then about 18-months ago, I went through a prolonged stressful period and I got lazy regarding my diet. I essentially went back to baseline in terms of my diet. I tended to eat whatever was easiest and that was often something processed and high in fat. Predictably, my weight went up until it was 196 (BMI = 25.2) at my annual biometric screening on 9/12/16 and my total cholesterol was back up to 198. Added to that, my A1C was 6.1, which is borderline diabetic and diabetes is something else that runs in my family. Needless to say, those numbers got my attention. So I immediately went back to the all plant-based, no added oil diet. After nearly five weeks I had my blood work redone by my doctor. My total cholesterol had dropped by 27 points to 171, my weight was 188 (BMI = 24.1), and my A1C was down to 5.5, which is still high but in the normal range.
Between then and now (12/26/16) I spent a week in Belgium and while eating plant-based was mostly possible (hey, beer is plant-based!), forget the no added oil part. We also had Thanksgiving and Christmas and I must admit to straying a bit with all the holiday goodies around the house (my family does not follow my diet and that can be challenging at times). Nevertheless, my weight is now down to 182 (BMI = 23.4) and I expect it to keep dropping. I’m sure my cholesterol and blood sugar will follow suit. I’m glad to be back on a healthy path.
 mike-vasey
Mike with the tallest man skeleton at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia
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“Eat plants. Lose weight. Feel Great.” -Rip Esselstyn

I really should have called this post “Eat MORE. Lose weight. Feel Free!” I still find it absolutely hilarious that I can often eat more than my husband and yet I don’t gain weight. I did not set out when we started this way of life 2 years ago to hit a certain number on the scale, however secretly I was hoping to be fit and trim for the first time in my life. When I was in high school, I always thought 125 lbs would be a perfect weight. I have no idea where I got that number, but when I got to that weight last year and then dropped below, I was flabbergasted. I not only eat until I am full, but at times even eat until I am stuffed, an old throwback to my nervous eating. The only time I notice I gain weight is when I eat something too salty when we go out to eat or when we go on our mission trip in the summer and I’m eating a lot of peanut butter and bread.

The whole idea of eating more and losing weight seemed absurd to me. I had always believed the usual wisdom that the only way to lose weight was to “eat less and move more.” I had learned from my old Weight Watchers days that there were certain zero points foods that I could eat of freely without gaining weight. I used to open a can of green beans and put ketchup and mustard on them and eat the whole can, but I was still always hungry and never felt satisfied on their diet. So, I would go off of the plan and gain the weight back.

According to Dr.John McDougall, the reason I was never satisfied on Weight Watchers is that I had to limit starches or carbohydrates, the foods that give us energy and fuel our bodies. I was constantly distracted by my hunger and despite my success at losing weight, it was not enough to motivate me to stay on the lifetime maintenance program for very long. Besides, I became weary of measuring my portions and counting points and such. It was just a little to fussy and time consuming as far as I was concerned. So, about 8 months after I started my plant based eating journey, I burned my Weight Watchers Lifetime membership card.

Goodbye Weight Watchers!

I now can eat as much as I want, as long as I eat the right foods. The big  “secret” to this way of eating is that the food we eat is much less calorie dense than what I used to eat on the standard American diet. Not only are fruits, veggies, and whole grains less calorie dense, but they also have a lot of fiber, which helps you feel full. Win, win! Who doesn’t love to eat a lot and feel full?! Jeff Novick, RD, wrote a great article called “A common sense approach to sound nutrition,” which explains how to apply the principles of calorie density to weight loss. It can also be applied to help those who find they are losing too much weight and need to add more calorie dense foods to their diet.

Here is Jeff’s explanation of calorie density:

“Calorie density is simply a measure of the amount of calories in a given weight of food, most often expressed as calories per pound.  A food high in calorie density provides a large amount of calories in a small weight of food, whereas a food low in calorie density has much fewer calories for the same weight of food. Therefore, for the same number of calories, one can consume a larger portion of a food lower in calorie density than a food higher in calorie density.  On a day-to-day basis, people generally eat a similar amount of food, by weight.  Therefore, choosing foods with a lower calorie density allows us to consume our usual amount of food (or more) while reducing our caloric intake.” If you check out the full article you can read more about this simple approach and also see a list of food categories and how they rate for calorie density.

According to Dr. T. Colin Campbell, we can’t totally attribute the weight loss experienced by those on a whole food, plant based diet by calorie reduction or restriction alone. He notes studies that show that vegetarians who eat the same or more calories than meat eaters will be slimmer. He also talks about “thermogenesis” , or our production of body heat during metabolism, and he notes  “evidence that low protein diets can shift calories toward the production of body heat (thermogenesis) thus sparing its being used to make body fat.” (http://nutritionstudies.org/obesity-debate-something-new/)

In his studies with feeding animals a low protein diet, which is provided by a plant based diet, Dr. Campbell also found that “These low protein animals also were much more physically active, as shown by their voluntarily turning an exercise wheel attached to their cages.”

Dr. Campbell concludes: “Moreover, our human study in rural China supported this same interpretation. People consumed more calories, yet had lower serum cholesterol, less heart disease, less diabetes, less cancer, lower body weight and almost no obesity.This evidence suggests that a whole food, plant-based diet without added oil/fat minimizes overweight and obesity while simultaneously repressing cancer development and reversing heart disease and type 2 diabetes. This points us to one cause (whole food plant-based diet), one effect (a constellation of diseases and obesity being prevented, even reversed), a long overdue idea that really works.”

We know that a whole foods, plant based diet can improve our health, keep our weight at a healthy level, and is delicious and loaded with great phytonutrients and antioxidants. So why isn’t everyone  in the health and nutrition field beating your door down to convince you to eat this way? Another post for another day!

So, Eat plants. Lose weight. Feel Great! – Rip Esselstyn, chapter 34, “My Beef with Meat”

Rip Esselstyn and me    at  Plantstock 2013

Rip Esselstyn and me
at Plantstock 2013