The Many Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

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A plant-based diet helps prevent the onset of several chronic diseases. But did you know it positively impacts even more factors — including our mental health and the environment? Dr. William T. Wong explains. 

 William T. Wong, MD

When William T. Wong, MD, a psychiatrist at the Kaiser Permanente Redwood City Medical Center, was in his third year of medical school, he received some alarming news. 

“My father, already disabled from heart disease, had another heart attack,” said Dr. Wong. “And shortly thereafter, my uncle did, too.”

Dr. Wong immediately dove into researching coronary artery disease. “I learned it was a progressive disease. And since my father already had bypass surgery, I wasn’t sure what else could be done,” he said.

So Dr. Wong started to explore another health avenue: diet.

Inspired by Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, he began to learn about the many benefits of plant-based eating — a diet focused on unrefined plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and legumes. It also excludes meat, fish, dairy, and eggs.

“I told my dad and uncle that this sort of diet could not only prevent another heart attack but could possibly reverse the disease,” said Dr. Wong. “My dad, however, followed conventional dietary recommendations and changed his diet only moderately. Unfortunately, he died 6 years later. My uncle, in contrast, started eating a plant-based diet and he’s alive and thriving today, 26 years later — and his angiogram remarkably showed reversal of disease.”

Since then, Dr. Wong has been a passionate advocate for plant-based eating and leads the interregional Lifestyle Medicine Group at Kaiser Permanente, an interdisciplinary group that promotes lifestyle interventions such as plant-based nutrition.

“A plant-based diet is associated with a longer and healthier life span,” said Dr. Wong. “It can help prevent chronic conditions such as heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. There’s also a lower overall risk of cancer — especially colorectal cancer.”

An Impact on the Mind and Spirit

In addition to the many physical benefits of a plant-based diet, studies show there’s a positive impact on mood, too.

“Several studies suggest that depression is related to inflammation in the body,” said Dr. Wong. “A whole food, plant-based diet focuses on foods such as broccoli, green leafy veggies, flax seed, walnuts, and berries. These foods are higher in antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids, which fight inflammation.”

The diet is also rich in fiber, which helps people lose weight — improving energy and confidence.

“Plant-based eating can significantly improves one’s health and help mitigate side effects of medications,” said Dr. Wong. “I often write plant-based, nutrition-related recommendations on a prescription pad like any other medication.”

An Impact on the Environment

Dr. Wong believes that a plant-based diet is also one of the most important choices one can make to help heal the planet.

“It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce just one pound of beef,” said Dr. Wong. “With the amount of water it takes to produce 10 quarter-pound hamburgers, you can shower every day for a year.”

Among many other environmental factors, eating mostly plants helps reduce land overuse, which negatively affects biodiversity, and protects against runoff and waste from animal agriculture.

“We can have a huge impact on how we’re using our resources by the food choices we make,” said Dr. Wong.

How to Get Started

Dr. Wong reminds his patients that it’s never too late to start a plant-based diet.

“The benefits can happen quite quickly — metabolic changes can occur as quickly as just a few days,” he said.

Dr. Wong also recommends watching the movie “Forks Over Knives” and visiting Nutritionfacts.org and Kaiser Permanente’s own Food for Health blog for recipes.

He also shares three easy weeknight recipes of his own: Mac and “Cheese,Mabo Tofu, and Lentil Soup.

“As time goes on, we are learning even more information about the far-reaching benefits of eating mostly plants,” said Dr. Wong. “It’s exciting to see how these sorts of changes to our diet can affect our quality of life in very concrete ways.”

Discussion21 Comments

  1. Anna Fiddler

    Thank you for all of the feedback on the interview. We’ve received a record amount of responses, and hope the below resources will be helpful to many.

    These are Dr. Wong’s recommendations for those who have written in:

    I recommend planning ahead when heading out to eat for social occasions with friends and family. I typically will look into good restaurant options in the area by searching food blogs, yelp, and websites like happycow.net. Fortunately, there are many more food options in the Bay Area these days compared to 20 years ago. Some well-known pizza chains now even offer plant-based cheese options. If a restaurant has already been chosen then I will contact the venue in advance and ask about plant-based options on the menu. More often than not, especially these days, I can either find a good option or the restaurant is willing to modify its recipes or create something special. Eating out may not necessarily be the healthiest experience, but I focus on making the best choices whenever possible.

    For a whole foods plant-based diet to help manage type 2 diabetes, please see http://www.pcrm.org/media/experts/neal-barnard-diabetes-book

    For any other general questions about this diet, please check out Becoming Vegan: The Complete Reference to Plant-Based Nutrition (Comprehensive Edition) Paperback – August 7, 2014 by Brenda Davis (Author), Vesanto Melina (Author).

    I have received questions about how to find a KP provider supportive of plant based nutrition and lifestyle medicine approaches. I would suggest reading your doctor’s online profile to see if they mention interest in this area.

    Thank you again for your interest and I wish you all the best on your journey to better health!

  2. Dr. Wong rocks. Though I am no vegan. there is no meat on my plate since my then seven year old daughter asked that we give it up. I had done this in college already for awhile. I take no Rx now but lots of plant based supplements and vitamins, plus an ayurvedic mood enhancer Ashwagandha which seems to work well. All this and a steady schedule of gym going and weight lifting, help to make me quite a healthy elder, or so it seems.

    • …also trying for more grains and less dairy.
      Looking for tastier recipes for black beans and quinoa!

  3. In May 2016, I had a heart attack, and quintuple bypass surgery. I bought Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s book, “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease” via my phone before even leaving the hospital. The whole food plant-based (WFPB) diet, and the publications of Dr.s Esselstyn, Dean Ornish, John McDougall (drmcdougall.com), and Michael Greger (nutritionfacts.org) have kept me well in the intervening four years. I’m now 70, and ride my bike 100 miles per week. My weight and BP are perfect. Outlook is vigilant. Would love to confer with others trying to augment and maintain their health in this way.

  4. … I’ve been diagnosed with 2 types of cancer. The breast cancer is probably under control, 3 years now. But, the Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia is… forever. Scary thought. This past winter I finally had time to do some reading. I second… third… fourth… lol “How Not to Die” by Michael Greger, MD, lame title but excellent book. That book is for anyone with diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc. It’s a big fat book but you only have to read the last half and whichever sections pertain to you in the first half. He has lots of references about what he is basing his recommendations on and why. I’ve been using his “Daily Dozen” app to help me transition. I’ve lost around 10 lbs, lots more to go.

    Also “Life Over Cancer” by Keith L Block, MD, is a really good book. It’s a much thinner book but I found it much slower reading…

  5. Michael Andrews

    How about a whole foods plant-based diet for diabetes? I’m type 2 diabetic and have recently changed my ways through eating healthier and exercising. I’ve got my HbA1c down to 6.4, but I want to do even better. The hardest part for me is cutting out eggs and seafood.

  6. Richard Hernandez

    I want to spread the word to the people who are suffering from eczema. I cured my eczema in one week, which I had on my neck and hands by incorporating 5 tablespoons of shelled raw hemp seeds per day into my regular meals. My Kaiser Permanente doctor who examined me was amazed. I also told my dentist how I cured my eczema; she was very interested because her son has had eczema all his life, all over his body (he is now in high school). She was looking for a natural way to treat her son’s eczema because the long-term use of hydrocortisone creams has bad side effects. She told me she cried many nights from her son scratching himself until he bleed. Well, the same day I told her about raw hemp seeds, she went to the health food store and bought some for her son. After 10 days of incorporating 5 tablespoons of raw hemp seeds per day into her son’s meals, the eczema was 60% to 70% cured with no itchiness and his skin became softer. After one month, she told me her son was 80% cured, with new skin growing. She thinks because her son’s eczema was severely systematic from childhood is the reason why it’s taking longer to heal than my eczema, which was acute. But my dentist is a believer in raw hemp seeds now and has thanked me over and over.

  7. There are plant based patient hand outs available in the Clinical Library.

    The BEST on is in the SOUTHERN CAL Clinical Library.
    Clinical Library>Change Region in top right>search for “plant based”
    The first item in the search titled “Plant Based Diet: A Healthier Way to Eat”

    This one lists videos, websites, and books but could be updated with new books like Dr Greger’s “How Not to Die” and Dr McDougall’s “The Healthiest Diet on the Planet.”

    This handout is specifically mentioned by Dr Greger: https://nutritionfacts.org/video/what-diet-should-physicians-recommend/ (or just go to nutritionfacts.org and search “kaiser”

    • Thank for the comments on resources for providers to give to patients.
      Does anyone know if there is a dot phrase we can use in the AVS for patients? It would save time over going to Clinical Library.
      Dr Wong, how can we get involved in the interregional Lifestyle Medicine Group?

  8. Elena Villanueva

    Excellent article, Dr. Wong. Thank you for sharing an inspiring story about your dad and uncle. I switched to a new protocol of eating 100% raw plant-based diet about 6 weeks ago, for the purpose of cancer prevention (cancer runs in my family.) I also wanted to shed that last 5 lbs. Like what Dr. Wong stated, the metabolic changes will happen very fast. And that was exactly what happened to me. I lost 5 lbs during the first week and lost a total of 13 lbs after 6 weeks. My left knee joint pain gone, bloating gone, energy level increased. I also went back to juicing veggies and fruits for breakfast and this also helped me lose those unwanted lbs. I don’t want to ever go back to eating meat again!

  9. Adelaida Guerrero

    Thank you, Dr. Wong, for affirming once more the importance of a plant-based diet. As a new Nurse Navigator it is nice to hear from the experts who have actually done the research. We review survivorship care plans with our patients and a plant-based diet is a vital part of it. We are eager to receive all the evidence-based reasearch in this area so we can pass it on to your patients and hopefully make a difference. Please feel free to send us all the educational/resources you might have on this topic.

  10. Please add more articles like this! The plant-based nutrition committee that Dr. Wong runs is full of physicians and allied health professionals who are utilizing this nutrition research to help patients, with very successful results! Dr. Linda Shiue, MD, internal medicine and director of culinary medicine, and Raymond Liu, MD, oncology-hematology and part of the commission for cancer and using plant-based nutrition in cancer survivorship, would be great article topics. Also, Michael Greger, MD, is speaking to the San Francisco cardiology group with broadcasts to the lifestyle committee on 4/6/17. A report on this lecture before or after would also be great. Michael Greger has links to his annual lectures online, so it could be offered as a link after the fact!

  11. Whole foods plant-based with low to no oil is the way to a better health profile and weight control. Thank you to Dr. Wong for sharing this. For those interested, you can also watch the movie (on Netflix) “Forks Over Knives” which talks about the work of T. Colin Campbell and the China Study as well as Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s research on reversal of heart disease through a whole fods plant-based diet.

  12. I became a Pesca-vegan ( eat fish) over 3 years ago after being diagnosed with breast cancer that spread to my lymph nodes and had a double mastectomy and all my lymph nodes removed from left armpit. My cancer was estrogen positive so I was advised by Dr. Bodai and a nutritionist that I should not put any more hormones in my body as a preventative. I changed my eating habits that same day and haven’t looked back.

      • Thank you for all of the feedback on the interview. These are my recommendations for those who have written in:

        I recommend planning ahead when heading out to eat for social occasions with friends and family. I typically will look into good restaurant options in the area by searching food blogs, yelp, and websites like happycow.net. Fortunately, there are many more food options in the Bay Area these days compared to 20 years ago. Some well-known pizza chains now even offer plant-based cheese options. If a restaurant has already been chosen then I will contact the venue in advance and ask about plant-based options on the menu. More often than not, especially these days, I can either find a good option or the restaurant is willing to modify its recipes or create something special. Eating out may not necessarily be the healthiest experience, but I focus on making the best choices whenever possible.

  13. Jaspreet Baveja

    We switched to a plant-based diet back in December, and have felt healthier, more energetic, and more satisfied after eating fully balanced, nutrient-rich, and well-balanced meals! Lost over 10.5 lbs in three months, while eating the amount of food on a daily basis, just no meat, dairy, eggs, fish, etc… Thanks to my wife for being dedicated enough to shop and cook us these meals, and the kids are loving it, too!

  14. Great article! The story about his father and uncle and the choices they made were very inspiring. I appreciate the additional information about the amount of water it takes to produce one pound of beef. Nice overview that I hope inspires more people to further explore food options and environmental impact.

    The article is great to stimulate interest and investigation about plant based living. This is a good beginning—do your research!

  15. Excellent article. Thank you Dr Wong for spreading the information about a plant-based diet. I work in KP mental health services (PHF) and am hopeful this information can be shared in our setting!

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