On the evidence favoring the consumption of a plant-based diet for good health, where do we go from here?
Many would argue that we still do not have enough evidence. I am not one of these. I believe that the evidence is overwhelming and that it is primarily a matter of articulation. Yet I have a question. Why do I and a few other researchers and clinicians working in this field have so much enthusiasm for this evidence while so many people in the public remain skeptical? My confidence in this evidence has mostly come from my research, my teaching, and my participation in policy development, while working with some very bright students and colleagues. I keep looking for effective ways to share this evidence that will shake this public skepticism and promote healthy plant-based eating.
My research experience has ranged from coordination of a nationwide nutrition program for malnourished and starving children in the Philippines, a 19-year series of NIH funded basic laboratory studies and direction of a nationwide study on diet, lifestyle and disease mortality in China. Through my policy development experience, there have been numerous opportunities to participate as an organizer, as an author and as a reviewer of several national and international reports on diet and health—and what an education that has been! These have been extremely rewarding experiences.
Simplify the Message, Create Policies, and Promote the Evidence
Although many specific lessons come to mind from these experiences, a few general observations seem much more important. First, the underlying biological events of health and disease are very complex, although this complexity can now be reduced to some very simple and practical messages. For example, choosing an active, plant based lifestyle and avoiding destructive behaviors such as tobacco use and over-consumption of alcohol will go a long way to improving health and avoiding disease. Second, we now have enough research information, both contemporary and historical, to make reliable and useful policy, such as setting appropriate RDA’s and providing dietary guidelines that will promote worldwide health. And third, the information most familiar to me that which promotes the health benefits of a plant-based eating style is supported by a wide variety of evidence from many different kinds of studies, both recent and in the distant past.
Even though this information is so impressive in its health implications and is so convincing, I often wonder, as do my colleagues, why it is that so many people are so confused about health and nutritional messages so often. And for those who seem to understand and believe in the benefits of a healthy, active, plant-based lifestyle, why is it so hard for them to modify their behavior to their benefit?
Two reasons seem prominent. One is that the information is simply not being adequately explained, thus it is not fully understood. The other is that the information, however good it may be, is so impersonal. If we accept this view, what should be done?
Individuals Can Become Their Own Health Advocates
Why not make it possible for individuals to store their OWN personal medical data, their OWN numbers, then make it possible for them to understand what these numbers might say for their future health? Then, if their numbers are tracking in the wrong direction, why not provide for these same individuals high quality, scientifically based information that they can use to put things right?
A highly personalized system of tracking and managing these numbers should empower individuals to take more control of their own health. When a person’s numbers are headed in the wrong direction, if there is readily available access to some high quality health information, it then becomes possible to use this information to promote healthy changes. If we could quantitatively assess a person’s disease risk, each person could then experiment with themselves over time to see what behaviors or actions most effectively reduce their own personal risk of disease. This is an important concept. A technology that will allow us to test the effectiveness of health promoting behaviors or medical treatments will improve the credibility of health promotion as part of an overall prescription for better health.