Kaiser Permanente, with 9 million members and $48 billion in operating revenues, is the nation's largest managed care organization. It recently came out in support of plant-based diets:
Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets (pdf), The Permanente Journal, Spring 2013
Permanente's Special Report seeks to train physicians and elevate the topic of plant-based nutrition to mainstream. It does so with a case study and a literature review. They conclude that whole food plant-based diets should be "a first-line treatment for chronic illnesses."
They defined a whole food plant-based diet:
"A healthy, plant-based diet aims to maximize consumption of nutrient-dense plant foods, in their whole form, while minimizing processed foods, oils, and animal foods (including dairy products and eggs). It encourages lots of vegetables (cooked or raw), fruits, beans, peas, lentils, soybeans, seeds, and nuts (in smaller amounts) and is generally low fat."
"It should be noted that the term plant-based is sometimes used interchangeably with vegetarian or vegan. Vegetarian or vegan diets adopted for ethical or religious reasons may or may not be healthy."
"A 63-year-old man with a history of hypertension presented to his primary care physician with complaints of fatigue, nausea, and muscle cramps."
- Blood glucose (Random, not fasting): 524 mg/dl (Wow!)
- HbA1c (Glycosylated hemoglobin, a measure of plasma glucose over several months): 11.1%
- Total cholesterol: 283 mg/dl
- Blood pressure: 132/66 mmHg (He was on BP meds)
- BMI: 25 (High end of normal)
After 16 weeks of a whole food plant-based diet and "exercising 15 minutes twice a day" his meds were substantially reduced (he was taken off insulin entirely).
- HbA1c: 6.3% (This was quite a drop.)
- Total cholesterol: 138 mg/dl (Holy cow.)
- Blood pressure: Remained below 125/60 mmHg
- BMI: Unchanged, so his improvements were likely related to diet, not weight loss.
Review of Literature
Benefit of plant-based diets was seen in the following areas:
Obesity - "A vegan or vegetarian diet is highly effective for weight loss." ... "There was a positive association between meat consumption and obesity."
Diabetes - "A low-fat, plant-based diet with no or little meat may help prevent and treat diabetes, possibly by improving insulin sensitivity and decreasing insulin resistance."
Heart Disease - "In the Lifestyle Heart Trial, Ornish found that 82% of patients with diagnosed heart disease who followed his program had some level of regression of atherosclerosis." ... "Interestingly, 53% of the control group had progression of atherosclerosis."
High Blood Pressure - "Vegetarian diets were associated with lower systolic blood pressure and lower diastolic blood pressure."
Mortality - "Low meat intake has been associated with longevity."
They addressed health concerns:
Protein - "Patients on a plant-based diet are not at risk for protein deficiency." And this about soy:
"Soybeans and foods made from soybeans are good sources of protein and may help lower levels of low-density lipoprotein in the blood and reduce the risk of hip fractures and some cancers."Iron - "The American Dietetic Association states that iron-deficiency anemia is rare even in individuals who follow a plant-based diet."
"Women with breast cancer who regularly consumed soy products had a 32% lower risk of breast cancer recurrence and a 29% decreased risk of death, compared with women who consumed little or no soy. An analysis of 14 studies showed that increased intake of soy resulted in a 26% reduction in prostate cancer risk."
Vitamin B12 - "Individuals who follow a plant-based diet that includes no animal products may be vulnerable to B12 deficiency and need to supplement their diet with vitamin B12."
Calcium - "Calcium intake ... appears to be irrespective of dietary preferences." They cite tofu and greens such as kale as good sources.
Fatty Acids - "The fatty acids that vegans are most likely to be deficient in are the omega-3 fats (n-3 fats)." They cite ground flax seeds and walnuts as good sources.
Some choice quotes:
"The benefits realized will be relative to the level of adherence and the amount of animal products consumed.
Physicians should advocate that it is time to get away from terms like vegan and vegetarian and start talking about eating healthy, whole, plant-based foods (primarily fruits and vegetables) and minimizing consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products.
Further research is needed to find ways to make plant-based diets the new normal. ... Patterns of families and other colleagues who may be reluctant to support the efforts of individuals who are trying to change are a challenge to be overcome.
Too often, physicians ignore the potential benefits of good nutrition and quickly prescribe medications instead of giving patients a chance to correct their disease through healthy eating and active living. If we are to slow down the obesity epidemic and reduce the complications of chronic disease, we must consider changing our culture’s mind-set from “live to eat” to “eat to live.” The future of health care will involve an evolution toward a paradigm where the prevention and treatment of disease is centered, not on a pill or surgical procedure, but on another serving of fruits and vegetables."
I can't believe they said all this. Forgive my cynicism but I also can't believe it will come to pass, not anytime soon. The reluctance to treat chronic disease with diet - first and foremost - actually starts in the medical community. Drugs are King in this country; cheap processed foods are Queen. The power and influence of those industries will just be too strong to allow disease to be treated with "another serving of fruits and vegetables." If it will ever come to pass, it will be from the bottom up, not the top down. Although this Special Report by a large healthcare organization offers hope.