Updated: Jun 3, 2022
“Some people think a whole-food, plant-based diet is extreme. Half a million people a year will have their chests opened up and a vein taken from their leg and sewn onto their coronary artery. Some people would call that extreme” – Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn
The night my life changed I had just finished eating my mum’s beef mince spaghetti Bolognese with allllll the vomit-smelling Kraft parmesan cheese. I was home in Tassie with my family over the mid-year uni break, my best friend Ella had visited that day. Ella had been vegan since we were kids, she worked at a video shop at the time (remember those?) and bought me around a DVD documentary called Forks over Knives.
She said, “I think you’ll really enjoy this, it's right up your alley”.
As I laid down after dinner and watched it, I heard medical doctors and scientists alike explain the detriment to health associated with meat, dairy and processed food consumption. I was astounded to learn that over several periods in history, when these products have been unavailable due to poverty or eliminated due to wars, mortalities from chronic diseases plummeted. When this trend was discovered it was replicated in one of the largest longitudinal studies of diet and disease in history, the China-Cornell-Oxford Project (affectionately referred to as The China Study). The plant eating populations had significantly lower incidences of disease than their often affluent meat eating counterparts.
I was in my second year of an undergraduate degree in psychology so I was getting pretty good at evaluating information critically and recognising biases in research. The rigor of the research methods and the research integrity within the China study was starting to make my eye twitch. I was also aware that I was experiencing a great deal of cognitive dissonance by this point. Cognitive dissonance is a concept in cognitive psychology that describes the mental discomfort (or psychological stress) experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which an individual’s beliefs clash with new evidence received.
It got worse.
I learnt whilst watching this documentary, that research was finding that proteins found in animal products promoted cancer growth, whilst proteins found in plants stunted and starved cancerous tumours. In addition, I knew the World Heath Organisation recently published similar research about red and processed meats being carcinogenic to humans, that is, causing cancer. Though this finding, of course, was met with fierce opposition by industry.
I felt angry. How could I have been receiving nutritional recommendations through school and in various sources of media that were not based in science? I felt sick. How much damage had I already done to my health? I strictly counted calories, ate red meat for iron and protein, salmon for omega 3, drank milk for calcium and avoided carbs when I wanted to lose weight. I, of course, felt that my adherence to the food pyramid and other culturally sanctioned beliefs about food and weight made me virtuous, but really my relationship with my body and with food was terrible. At the time, I’d recently had a blood test that had revealed my iron was low and my cholesterol was high. Was I already developing some of the chronic diseases mentioned in the documentary? I knew that I had a family history of Heart Disease and Type II Diabetes.
I felt I was being held hostage, my health was the bounty.
“What has happened to us? Despite the most advanced medical technology in the world, we are sicker than ever by nearly every measure” – Forks Over Knives
Our health as a nation really is as dire in Australia as it is in the US. The Australian Bureau of Statistics most comprehensive health survey reported that just 6.8% of the population met the recommended usual intake of vegetables and 62.8% of Australian adults are now overweight or obese, with this figure increasing over the past two decades (up from 56.3% in 1995).
I blame these appalling statistics on the lack of freedom to information available to the public about the preventative and restorative potential of a whole-food plant-based diet. And if you’re not alarmed by this – you should be – least of all because it's your tax that is subsidising these unhealthy foods that are making so many of us sick and costing us millions in extreme surgical interventions.
As I continued to watch Forks over Knives, I learned that cardiovascular diseases, including Coronary Heart Disease, were being successfully treated in hundreds of patients in America, by a handful of doctors prescribing a whole-food plant-based diet. A diet which is naturally low in fat, moderate in protein and high in carbohydrate. Basically, we are literally putting people under the surgical knife, when they could just pick up a fork and eat wholefoods.
When confronted with facts that contradict beliefs, ideals and values, people will try to find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce their psychological discomfort – their cognitive dissonance. I didn’t want to change my lifestyle – I certainly didn’t want to be vegan. I knew they got a hard time on the internet and all, but felt I had no choice. I’d always valued my health and couldn’t ignore the nutritional recommendations based on the foundation of such compelling evidence. I also had anecdotal evidence, my best friend had been vegan for a decade and she is one of the healthiest people I know.
I was naively ambitious in going vegan the very next day.
I’d only just really learned how to cook for myself using animal products and now I had to learn a different way of cooking without animal products. It was confusing at first but the better informed I became the easier and more joyful it got. My cognitive dissonance was soon replaced by empowerment about my health choices and a new vest for life.
I started to actually enjoy cooking, I ate when I was hungry, I ate more and yet I lost all the weight (8kgs) that I’d gained on a recent European meat-heavy holiday, I had a new mental clarity. Just like the sick people on the documentary, I noticed my energy levels become higher than ever, I didn’t need to nap as much, my blood tests revealed my cholesterol levels had gone down and my iron levels had gone up within the first year of eating a mostly-wholefood plant-based diet.
Not bad, huh?
I appreciate that the content of this post could be difficult to stomach and may be accompanied by a side of cognitive dissonance. I strongly encourage you not to just take my word for it, get informed and get empowered within your health choices. The latest dietary veganism documentary is called What the Health.
Thanks for reading,
References and Resources
If you’re interested in the role of processed foods on health, I recently watched That Sugar Film, a highly informative and animated film produced by an Aussie. The film explores the dangers of processed foods with hidden sugars, these are usually dressed up as healthy foods such as breakfast cereal, fruit juice and low fat dairy products. To watch That Sugar Film, on YouTube for $4AUD here
How Not to Die – Micheal Gregor
NUTRITIONFACTS.ORG is a strictly non-commercial, science-based public service provided by Dr. Michael Greger, providing free updates on the latest in nutrition research via bite-sized videos that you can watch here
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2013), Australian Health Survey: Biomedical Results for Chronic Diseases 2011-12. Retrieved from www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/993C0CFE750D8B5FCA257BBB00121491?opendocument
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2013), Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results – Foods and Nutrients 2011-12. Retrieved from www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4364.0.55.007~2011-12~Main%20Features~Key%20Findings~1
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (2015), IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat. Retrieved from www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf