Contributed by Racheal L. Whitaker, M.D, excerpted from Rethink Food: 100+ Doctors Can't Be Wrong.* My gastric reflux was so bad it would wake me at night. I had been having episodes of reflux off and on for years, and accepted it as par for the course. As a doctor specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, I knew the rules—typical foods to avoid (coffee, citrus foods, alcohol) as well as the medications to take. However, despite following these guidelines my discomfort and symptoms only worsened.
As I knew the consequences of long-term irritation of my esophagus by gastric acid, such as difficulty swallowing, irreversible changes in my voice, and even cancer of my esophagus, the doctor finally had to see a doctor. An upper GI scope (light-guided examination of the upper gastrointestinal—GI— tract) revealed that the entire lining of my esophagus and stomach was very irritated and inflamed. I was placed on Nexium (an expensive medication that inhibits stomach acid) twice daily, and given information on foods to avoid (all of which I was well aware).
After listening to the Forks Over Knives* documentary, about food and health, I cleared my refrigerator of eggs, cheese, and meats, and went shopping for vegetables and fruit to start my vegan journey. Within 7 to 10 days, I was able to decrease my Nexium to once daily and was no longer waking up in the middle of the night searching for my apple cider vinegar. After another week, I was no longer requiring Nexium at all. Quite, honestly, I was in disbelief. For years, I had been speaking to patients about proper diet to control/cure their diabetes, stop obesity, and decrease blood pressure, but dairy and meat had always been okay on my list of options.
The Connection Between Diet and Obesity
Meat and dairy products are leading contributors to obesity as they are calorie-dense foods that are low in nutrients and high in fat. When we fill up on fiber-rich, plant-based foods, we become full and satisfied with a high amount of nutrients and a low amount of calories. We are also satiated longer because the digestion is slower and steady. When we eat, stretch receptors in our stomach tell us when we are full. It takes approximately 20 minutes for these receptors to communicate to our brain that the stomach is full, and our brain then tells us to stop eating.
When we eat calorie-dense foods that are low in nutrients and high in fat, simple carbohydrates and sugar, it takes much more food to become satiated. Simple carbohydrates and sugars also result in the release of insulin. Excess insulin causes resistance in its ability to control blood sugar levels and results in storage of fat around our waistlines. Excess fat anywhere on our bodies is not good for our health, but fat storage at our midsections is the worst. The fat is essentially surrounding our vital organs (heart, lungs, liver, pancreas) and is associated with higher risks of heart disease, fatty liver disease, diabetes, and visceral cancers (e.g. cancers of the stomach and pancreas). By eating plant-based foods, we don’t getunhealthy cravings, we maintain healthy insulin levels, reduce our cancer risks, and maintain healthy weights.
The Connection Between Obesity and Cancer in Women
For women, obesity also increases the risk for benign conditions such as uterine fibroids, urinary incontinence, and pelvic organ prolapsed, and the more serious conditions such as breast and uterine cancers. These cancers are often associated with hormones, and excess fat cells increase the amounts of circulating hormones.
Breast Cancer: 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer in her lifetime. While there are some contributing factors that we can’t control such as genes and the environment we are exposed to, we can control our diet and weight.
One of the main female hormones is estrogen. Estrogen is good for us in moderation and at normal levels. In women who are normal weight, estrogen levels are low. In overweight women, fat cells are a source of higher levels of estrogen. In particular, the breasts have a large number of estrogen receptors. With the combination of higher amounts of circulating estrogen and a dense amount of estrogen receptors in the breast, the risk for breast cancer in obese patients increases.
What About Protein?
We have been taught we have to get our protein from animal products, but rarely hear about the carcinogenic amines and nitrates that are emitted into the environment when they are prepared; then, ingested by us. We have also failed to realize the amount of protein that comes from foods like spinach, kale and other green leafy vegetables are more than adequate. After all, where do the animals get their protein?
Endometrial Cancer: Cancer of the lining of the uterus also results from the effects of high amounts of circulating estrogen. It is the fourth most common cancer in women and one of the
biggest risk factors is obesity. Endometrial cancer is 2 to 4 times more likely in overweight and obese women, despite menopausal status. Because overweight women have excess hormones from fat cells, the normal menstrual cycle often becomes disrupted, and these women tend to stop ovulating regularly.
When irregular shedding of the endometrial lining occurs, the lining becomes thick and menstrual periods become erratic and heavy. Eventually the thickened lining becomes disorganized and precancerous changes occur that turn into cancer if not addressed. Since endometrial cancer is almost always seen in women who are overweight, losing and maintaining a healthy weight greatly decreases uterine cancer incidents. Unfortunately, fad diets and pills get more attention than the easy, healthy, and less expensive way.
Although the time that we spend on this earth is increasing, many of us merely exist instead of living, simply due to our diet choices. When we load up on raw vegetables and fruit, we get the nutrition we need and the satisfaction of being satiated without the calorie load.
Racheal L. Whitaker, MD, is a Board Certified Obstetrician/Gynecologist. Dr. Whitaker has served as Assistant Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. Dr. Whitaker is a women’s health lecturer, and believes in empowering the total woman— mind, body and soul.
- For more tips on plant-based nutrition, make sure to browse VegKitchen’s Nutrition page.
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