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The Many Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

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.”