Posted on by Neal Barnard, MD, FACC
The 8th annual International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine was hosted by the Physicians Committee and the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences from August 6-8.
More than 800 health care professionals logged in virtually to attend the International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine to hear the latest research on dietary interventions that can help prevent, manage, and sometimes even reverse chronic diseases – which are now the leading cause of death and disease in the United States. Topics included heart disease, weight loss, type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, cancer, longevity, and the link between diet-related health conditions and COVID-19 outcomes.
Top Takeaways from the International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine
1. Improved diets may improve COVID-19 outcomes.
Dr. Kim Williams, past president of the American College of Cardiology and chief of cardiology at Rush University, opened up the conference by stating that: “We don’t have a single epidemic. We have two: cardiovascular disease and COVID-19.” Dr. Williams pointed out that the same recommendations for reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease – our nation’s top killer – can also help reduce severe COVID-19 outcomes.
That’s because underlying conditions – including obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease itself – have been associated with more severe COVID-19 outcomes. According to Dr. Ted Barnett of Rochester Lifestyle Medicine Group, “chronic disease was already responsible for overwhelming and unnecessary suffering. Then COVID-19 arrived, and those same chronic conditions were responsible for worse outcomes.” To address these underlying conditions, Dr. Williams recommended eating a whole food, plant-based diet, reducing sodium intake, reducing alcohol intake, and exercising.
“If we start today with a plant-based diet, over the next months and years that we may be living with COVID-19, we should be able to decrease the amount of hospitalizations, intubations, ICU stays, and death,” concluded Dr. Williams.
2. Plant-based diets can improve your health, from head to toe.
The world’s leading experts in their fields presented powerful data showing that plant-based diets can help prevent, manage, and sometimes even reverse common health problems throughout the body.
Breast cancer surgeon Dr. Kristi Funk of Pink Lotus Breast Center talked about the link between food and breast cancer risk. She shared data showing that a healthful plant-based diet can improve cancer risk factors, including estrogen levels, inflammation, immune system function, and free radical formation. Dr. Funk also encouraged attendees to eat their fruits and veggies! She shared a study finding that 30 grams of fiber per day is associated with a 50% reduced risk for breast cancer.
Gastroenterologist Dr. Alan Desmond of the Devon Gut Clinic stated that “more plants in your diet may protect you from Crohn’s disease,” and presented research showing that people who eat the most fiber have a 40% reduced risk for Crohn’s disease, while Western diets have been associated with an increased risk. Dr. Desmond also shared research showing that 70% of newly diagnosed Crohn’s disease patients who switched to a diet low in animal foods and rich in fiber experienced remission within 6 weeks!
Cardiologist Dr. Danielle Belardo of the Institute of Plant-Based Medicine shared important information on the links between diet and heart failure: fruits, vegetables, soy proteins, whole grains and legumes were associated with decreased incidence and severity of heart failure, while foods high in saturated fat increased the risk and severity. Dr. Belardo also shared that a plant-based diet is a “low-risk, low-cost” method of seeing meaningful improvements in heart health.
Nephrologist Dr. Shivam Joshi of NYU shared that “the key to halting the progression of kidney disease may be in the produce aisle, not the pharmacy.” Dr. Joshi talked about how diet-related conditions, including type 2 diabetes and hypertension, can lead to chronic kidney disease. He concluded that plant-based diets “prevent and treat lifestyle diseases and the complications of those diseases like chronic kidney disease.”
Obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Christie Cobb of Little Rock Gynecology and Obstetrics and the Physicians Committee’s Dr. Neal Barnard explored the link between foods and sex hormones. They presented research showing that a plant-based diet can help improve menstrual pain, endometriosis, infertility, polycystic ovary syndrome, and other hormone-related conditions.
3. The same foods that are good for our health are good for the planet.
"Eat as if the world depends on it – because it does. It's that simple." Those were the words of Dr. David Katz of Yale University and True Health Initiative, who explained that the world’s growing appetite for animal products – particularly beef – has not only harmed our health, but also the health of the planet.
“Agriculture is a dominant user of natural resources and contributor to environmental impacts,” added the University of Michigan’s Dr. Martin Heller, who explained that agriculture is responsible for 25-30% of human greenhouse gas emissions, 80-90% of global freshwater consumption, and 38% of ice-free land area, while also being a major driver of biodiversity loss and dead zones in waterways. Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health summed it up by saying, "It's hard to imagine that we could have created a more dysfunctional agricultural system than we have today.”
Dr. Heller presented data showing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing a variety of protein sources and determined that plant-based sources, including lentils, beans and tofu, are low on the scale, while beef, cheese, and other animal products are the biggest contributors. Dr. Heller stressed that these same foods that are good for the planet are also good for our health.
As Dr. Barnett said, “There’s no point in being healthy on a planet that can’t support a healthy population.”
4. Plant-based diets are best for achieving long-term and healthy weight loss.
"What appears to be the most effective weight loss diet just so happens to be the only diet ever proven to reverse heart disease in the majority of patients. Only one diet has ever been shown to do all that: a diet centered around whole plant foods." Those were the words of Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org, who presented on evidence-based weight loss. Dr. Greger shared the science behind calorie density and why eating fiber-rich plant-based foods allows you to eat more food, while still losing weight.
Dr. Greger also presented data comparing the average BMI of individuals following a variety of diets. The vegan group was the only group in the “ideal” BMI category, when compared with vegetarian, pescatarian, flexitarian, and non-vegetarian groups.
Dr. Kevin Hall of the National Institutes of Health and the Physicians Committee’s Lee Crosby, RD, both discussed the effects of the ketogenic diet on weight and determined that plant-based diets are most effective for long-term, healthful weight loss. Lee noted that in some cases, keto diets have been associated with short-term weight loss, but that there are often serious side effects. For example, in a small pilot study, participants assigned to a keto diet increased dangerous LDL cholesterol by 40 points, on average, within just 12 weeks.
5. Doctors can be leaders in promoting healthful diets.
About 10 years ago in Rochester, NY, Dr. Ted Barnett developed a course for health care providers called A Plant-Based Diet: Eating for Happiness and Health. Dr. Barnett talked about how the course has created a culture of change: Health care providers test out a healthy diet, experience health improvements of their own, and then are more likely to help their patients do the same! After taking the course, 100% of physicians reported that they began to talk to their patients about nutrition.
In the United Kingdom, Dr. Alan Desmond launched a similar program that helped 150 health care providers test out a plant-based diet. After just 4 weeks, participants saw improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index.
To help health care providers incorporate nutrition into their own practices, Physicians Committee experts, including Dr. Jasmol Sardana, Dr. Caroline Trapp, Dr. Vanita Rahman, Maggie Neola, and Dr. Barnard, led culinary medicine sessions throughout the International conference with information and practical tips for helping patients to embrace healthful foods and to maximize the health benefits of their culinary traditions.
It’s important now more than ever. Dr. Rahman presented data showing that most people are falling short on the healthiest foods: “The average American doesn't consume a single serving of whole fruit a day, just under 2 servings of vegetables, just one serving of whole grains, a tenth of a serving of legumes, and far below the recommended amounts of fiber."
Dr. Barnett summed up the urgency of the situation by saying, “We can’t wait around while people are dying from conditions that we know are preventable and reversible.”
Photo from here, with thanks.
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