Dr. “MedMike” is a well-rounded and highly knowledgeable medical professional and also a long time friend. I was so excited to have the opportunity to interview him on subjects that interest me most– how we eat and how that effects our overall health. Trust me, you’ll learn a lot from this article. I know I did!
What is your medical background?
I’m a medical student in my final year at the Perelman School of Medicine at The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. With degrees in Biomedical and Electrical Engineering from Northwestern University, I began my career designing solutions to improve the quality of healthcare delivery. During medical school I sought to broaden my medical education, so I took time off to work for the US Department of Health & Human Services in Washington, DC to help solve healthcare system problems at the policy level. I also worked for The Dr. Oz Show in New York, where I cultivated further experience in simple disease prevention. These experiences have shaped my more balanced, patient-centered approach to medicine.
What are some things people should be aware of if they would like to switch to a less-traditional style of eating like vegan, paleo, or vegetarian, for instance?
The first question you should ask yourself (and that I ask my patients) is, why? You’ve just chosen to make a lifestyle change, and you need that inner fire to make new eating habits part of the essential you. Many people approach dieting as a temporary gig, only to be frustrated later. Set some milestone goals to stay on track, but maintain the underlying lifestyle change indefinitely.
Eating the so-called Standard American Diet (SAD) is linked to chronic illness including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune conditions. This calorie-dense conundrum is nutritionally-depleted, highly processed, and it’s hard on the body. After years of poor eating habits, a harmful inflammatory environment is maintained in the body, fueling the wrong kind of fire. Doctors call this metabolic syndrome, and it’s deadly. However, with lifestyle changes damage can be reversed, and a long healthy life can be achieved.
Vegetarianism generally means you choose to primarily eat plants. This includes vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains, and legumes. Body parts of any animal and products derived from animal carcasses are avoided. Science shows that ‘going veg’ is associated with a number of perks.
In addition to feeling full sooner and eating less, vegetarians have lower heart disease risk, body mass index (BMI), cholesterol, and blood pressure on average.
Substances uniquely found in plants, especially the thousands of phytochemicals in raw green leafy vegetables are incredibly nutritious. The pigments, antioxidants and micronutrients that make up colorful veggie cuisine mop up free radicals that lead to inflammation and chronic disease.
VEGANISMBecoming a strict vegetarian (vegan) takes a plant-based diet up a notch and means eliminating all animal protein, including eggs and dairy. Some people with existing inflammatory conditions may benefit from eating vegan. Certain animal proteins have been linked to allergies and excess inflammation, so eliminating all animal products is certainly something to try especially if there is a family history of heart disease or other inflammatory conditions.
Plants are chock-full of macronutrients such as protein and essential fatty acids, so vegetarians and vegans are not necessarily protein deficient. Just look at some of the world’s largest herbivores: giraffes, hippos and rhinos—all with powerful muscles. Per calorie, broccoli actually contains more protein than a steak! It is only when vegetarian diets are based on high amounts of white flours, refined grains and simple sugars that protein, B12, vitamin D and calcium intake may become a concern. Even pregnant women and athletes can thrive on vegetarian diets so long as their caloric needs are being met with nutrient-dense foods. Adults generally need 10 to 35 percent of their total daily calories to come from protein. Based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, this amounts to about 50 to 175 grams a day.
But wait, aren’t we supposed to eat meat? After all, our genome appeared in its current form during the Paleolithic Period, about 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago. Based on what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, going Paleo means eating a large amount of fruits and vegetables, some meat and fish but no whole grains, legumes or dairy. The Paleo diet is a controversial one. Although its low-glycemic index is hard to argue with, many nutritionists are concerned about eliminating whole grains and dairy.
Research shows that both can help decrease the risk of certain cancers and heart disease. Also note that cavemen tended to be much shorter than modern people and often died in their 40s, before most modern-day chronic diseases set in.
I recommend a plant-based diet to everyone. From there diet can be personalized based on personal preference and body responses to food types (Check with your doctor). As with anything, animal products should be consumed in moderation, and processed foods should be avoided completely. Remember that white flour, processed foods and sugars will make it difficult to lose weight and can lead to nutrient deficiencies. Stick to your lifestyle change plan.
Do you recommend taking multivitamins?
Scientists may never be able to extract the exact symphony of nutrients naturally contained in plants and make it into a pill. Most of the beneficial “secret sauce” health ingredients in plants are the combinations of phytochemicals. These can’t be duplicated in a comprehensive way. Therefore a multivitamin can never make up for a poor diet.
I recommend a smart selection of supplements, but I don’t recommend blanketing everyone with a multivitamin just because we can. Keep in mind supplements are not regulated by FDA, so without this oversight, labeling can sometimes be an issue. Consumerlab did a test recently finding that 25% of supplements have issues, sometimes with too much Vitamin A, which can be toxic. In general avoid supplements containing high levels of vitamin A, beta carotene or folate.
Nutritional needs vary based on diet, activity level, age and gender. Strict vegetarians are recommended to take multivitamins. When in doubt ask your doctor to have your blood levels checked. This test may not be covered by your insurance.