While nutritious foods have long been encouraged as part of established dietary guidelines in the United States, most Americans do not consume the recommended intakes of nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Foods high in saturated fat, processed sugar, and sodium remain significant components of the Standard American Diet. Unfortunately, dietary patterns, including frequent consumption of meat, dairy, refined grains, and sugars, raise the risk of some of the leading causes of mortality in the United States.
The major cardiometabolic diseases—heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes are not only found on the top ten list of causes of death in the US, but they are also all undeniably linked to the dietary habits of our population. According to the National Institutes of Health, the highest percentage of these illnesses are related to excess intake of sodium paired with inadequate consumption of whole plant foods. Drinking too many sugary beverages, consuming processed lunch meat, and eating too much red meat also made up the list of major contributors. Many other causes of death on the top ten list can be either attributed to our food system or complicated by it, such as diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. These facts are widely accepted in medical science, yet the situation doesn’t seem to improve. In fact, the life expectancy of someone born in the US is 76.4 years, lower than it has been in nearly two decades.
How does the food we eat lead to chronic disease and death in so many Americans each year? While each condition’s details vary, there is a common thread among them: inflammation. The WHO ranks inflammatory diseases as the greatest threat to human health and predicts that these diseases’ prevalence will only increase over the next 30 years. Diets rich in saturated fats, trans fats, and sugars are directly associated with a higher production of inflammatory molecules. The body has an acute reaction to foods such as refined carbohydrates, red and processed meats, fried foods, and sodas. These foods cause an alteration of bacteria in the gut that then interacts with the immune system and leads to an inflammatory response throughout the body. This inflammation can then promote the growth of plaques in arteries and cause blood clots leading to heart attack or stroke. It can also cause DNA damage, leading to the development of certain cancers. This chronic inflammation has a widespread deleterious effect on the body and is a key factor causing almost all chronic degenerative diseases.
Fortunately, individuals may significantly reduce inflammation levels through a number of lifestyle habits, including the consumption of a diet high in anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich foods. According to Harvard Health, “A moderate change in your diet, such as lowering your animal food intake by one to two servings per day and replacing it with legumes or nuts as your protein source can have a lasting positive impact on your health.” Furthermore, basing meals around fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains, is a verified method to include anti-inflammatory foods that can reduce inflammation levels in the body, and reduce the risk of some of these most common diseases.
Plant foods are rich in anti-inflammatory substances, including dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and omega-3 fatty acids. Even certain teas and spices, also derived from plants and rich in antioxidants, have been recognized by researchers for their ability to combat inflammation. These powerful antioxidants improve the body’s inflammatory pathways, helping prevent or delay cell damage and some chronic diseases. In fact, a significant study on the antioxidant values of different food groups revealed that plant foods averaged greater than 1,000 units of antioxidant power each. In contrast, the highest antioxidant value from meat topped out at only 100.
The benefits of a diet rich in plant foods have compound benefits for overall health. Plant foods are also high in fiber, said by the Mayo Clinic, to reduce cancer risk and moderate insulin levels. Many fruits and vegetables are also high in provitamins called alpha and gamma carotene. When consumed, these vitamins can be converted to vitamin A, which is essential to vision, growth, cell division, reproduction, and immunity. In addition, highly pigmented natural foods such as carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, and leafy greens contain carotenoids. These have been linked to reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, macular degeneration, and cataracts.
Studies and publications pointing to the power of nutrition and, more specifically, plant-forward diets to prevent chronic diseases have been published by the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, NCBI, MC Anderson Cancer Center, Stanford Health Care, Harvard Health, and more. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association states, “Plant‐based diets, diets that emphasize higher intakes of plant foods and lower intakes of animal foods, are associated with a lower risk of incident cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular disease mortality, and all‐cause mortality in a
general US adult population.” So why is this still an issue for our population? Why is this not widely known and shared far and wide?
The answer is a complicated one that includes inadequate training for many healthcare professionals in the areas of modern nutrition science combined with marketing campaigns designed to keep Americans in the “comfort zone” of relying on convenient processed foods that they are accustomed to. Often those highly processed and nutrient-lacking foods are even labeled as “healthy.” It is a confusing landscape for individuals to navigate. While they are most likely doing what they feel is best for themselves and their families, they often fall victim to a broken food system that doesn’t necessarily have their best interests in mind.
So how do food service professionals and healthcare professionals help their communities fight the battle against chronic disease by way of plant-forward diets? This answer isn’t as complicated. It is the duty of healthcare professionals and food service providers within healthcare facilities, above all others, to provide delicious anti-inflammatory, nutrient-rich, meat-free menu options that support good health. These offerings should outnumber those that aren’t proven to increase our ability to live longer and healthier lives.
Providing convenient food options that are high in fiber and low in saturated fat, sodium and sugar is half the battle in itself. Convenience plays a significant role in individual dietary choices, so it is the job of those who provide food in the places people are seeking to improve their health to ensure that the options available do just that. It is also imperative that these choices aren’t the exceptions but instead the rules. Plant-forward options based on whole grains, legumes, and vegetables are not only adaptive to many culinary styles but also cost-effective and can easily allow for multiple menu options to be offered using many of the same core ingredients. Making healthy foods the standard in a facility truly supports the health of those served.
The American Medical Association (AMA) has passed a resolution encouraging healthy food options in hospitals to support this initiative. They have called on U.S. hospitals to improve the health of patients, staff, and visitors by (a) providing a variety of healthy food, including plant-based meals and meals that are low in fat, sodium, and added sugars; (b) eliminating processed meats from menus; and (c) providing and promoting healthy beverages.
Thankfully, hospitals across the country are listening! The state of California mandated the availability of plant-based meals for patients. NYC Health + Hospitals now offers plant-based dishes as the primary dinner option for inpatients at all 11 public hospitals. In addition, there are hospitals in Florida and Denver offering plant-based meals to their patients along with printed materials educating them on the role of diet and plant-forward nutrition in chronic disease prevention. This is a trend that society desperately needs to continue and expand. After all, if communities can’t rely on their hospitals, senior care facilities, healthcare groups, and fitness facilities to teach them about the impact of their food choices and serve them food that won’t endanger their health, then who can they rely on?
To dive deeper into the impacts of food on our health and the power of a plant-forward diet to prevent chronic disease, check out “The Power of Nutrition in Disease Prevention,” created by the Educated Choices Program in partnership with the Physicians Association for Nutrition USA. To learn more about this presentation and other free education programs for your staff, patients, and customers, visit ecprogram.org.