Nurses are integral in the care of patients and their health. Exploring a plant-based diet may be beneficial to patients so they can take back their health. It is time for health care disciplines to be aware of a plant-based diet and to dispel any myths that exist. In fact, a plant-based diet is not a diet—it can be viewed as a way of life. A plant-based diet are foods consumed that is devoid of animal ingredients, such as dairy and meats. A plant-based diet relies on foods that are grown from the ground such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts, and seeds.

People are living longer, but we are also living with more chronic diseases, with heart disease being at the top of the list. Heart disease, diabetes, and hypercholesterolemia are contributors to sickness where medicine is the answer. Health care providers tell patients to lose weight by restricting food intake. While patients may see results initially, they usually do not adhere to this long term as it is not sustainable for them for a variety of reasons. In addition to that, the medications with their side effects usually do not highlight many benefits. One-third of animal products in the American diet are very concentrated in calories and are deficient in antioxidants and vitamins. Needless to say, the vast majority of chronic illness is highly correlated to what we eat. There is a different biological effect of meat versus plant-based protein such as beans. The body can store these amino acids and complete them without overshooting the hormone, Insulin Growth Factor 1 (IGF 1). On the contrary, processed foods and meats produce a lot of IGF1 where insulin ends up storing a lot of fat. It is also attributable to cancer and inflammation.

People have long touted the benefits of a plant-based diet. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams reversed his diabetes Type 2 due to a plant-based diet. He was already suffering from nerve damage as a result of his disease with a hemoglobin A1C of 17 (anything over 6.5% is considered diabetic), so his was very high and the doctor was surprised that he was not in a coma. Adams was placed on medications, but he also sought the help of Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., the same doctor who treated Bill Clinton and author of the book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. He was informed by doctors that he would be on insulin for the rest of his life. He was placed on medicine for his acid reflux, medicine for his high cholesterol, and medicine for his burning and tingling of his hands and feet. His family is diabetic and was told that it runs in his family.

This past August, there was a launch of a plant-based lifestyle program at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Doctors, nurses, dieticians, and life coaches will help at least 100 patients across all five boroughs adopt healthy eating patterns focused on legumes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds while reducing animal products, fried foods, refined grains, and added sugars. Michelle McMacken, director of NYC Health + Hospitals/Bellevue Adult Weight Management Program, is director of the program.

At Montefiore Hospital, Dr. Robert Ostfeld spearheaded the Cardiac Wellness Program where plant-based nutrition is the prescription for management of cardiac disease. The population most affected by these diseases are non-white populations. Dr. Kim Williams, past President of the American College of Cardiology, advocates for a plant-based diet for heart disease prevention. Affronted with a high cholesterol, he decided to take measures into his own hands, and adopt a plant-based diet.

While medical doctors are beginning to advocate this lifestyle, nurses should also set an example of this lifestyle approach. Nurses are part of the health care discipline and minority nurses, especially, need to set an example. We want patients to take control of their lives. We can teach patients eating a plant-based diet instead of a standard American diet, as a form of primary prevention. Like any diet, it may take time to adjust, but this is not just a diet, it is a lifestyle. Patients would need to make an informed decision as to whether they would want to incorporate it into their lifestyle or not. There is enough supportive evidence out there that a patient can access such as documentaries, “Fork Over Knives” and “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead.” There are a variety of resources, including the 21-Day Vegan Kickstart program, to include in dietary prescriptions to help patients treat and prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. This will require support from the patient’s primary provider, and, whether the provider is an advocate of this lifestyle or not, it should be considered. Benefits such as less medication, weight loss, and improvements in mood as well as cholesterol have been shown. Dispel the myths about a plant-based diet and protein.

This is a plea as something to consider to take better care of ourselves and take control of our lives. There have been many initiatives and programs to lose weight. Drastic measures have also occurred due to the outcomes of being overweight, such as drastic surgery and restrictions from carbohydrates. Patients are sometimes misinformed and have to get rid of the idea that medications will solve the problem—it only delays the problem. There is a possibility of reversing diabetes and cardiac disease. This is a decision that the person has to make: continue with their lifestyle with animal protein and processed carbohydrates or see a reduction in their overall weight and health by incorporating a plant-based diet.

A plant-based diet may be considered “extreme” by some people in altering their lifestyle. But given the choice between a plant-based diet or open=heart surgery, it can be posed to the patient which one they consider as extreme. Again, it is a personal choice, an evaluation of familial and cultural values would be assessed to fit the needs of the patient. Surgery can be viewed as a band-aid in that it will manage the symptoms temporarily unless the patient alters their lifestyle. Of course, it helps if the patient has a supportive network to embrace the lifestyle. It can start off as small, simple steps, as little as incorporating a plant-based meal in their day and slowly add these meals to their lifestyle. There are vegan starter kits to kick a healthier you.

Karla Rodriguez, DNP, RN, CNE

Karla Rodriguez, DNP, RN, CNE, is a clinical assistant professor at Rory Meyers New York University College of Nursing.

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