Broke Engelbrektsson, University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing

A trend rising in popularity in the United States and around the world has the animals, environment, and healthcare providers shouting for joy. This trend? Plant-based eating, or veganism for short. In only three years, the number of U.S. consumers identifying as vegan increased 600% (Forgrieve, 2018). As a result, the food industry has been forced to meet the growing demand for plant-based alternatives to animal-based foods. And while food trends such as the South Beach Diet and the Atkins Diet have come and gone, there is a long list of reasons why I hope the plant-based diet is here to stay.

People primarily switch to a plant-based diet for one of three reasons: the animals, personal health, or the environment (Forgrieve, 2018). I wish to discuss the value of eating a plant-based diet for ones personal health, approaching it as a form of self-care for people with or at risk for chronic disease.

When you think of food as a form of self care, you may think of indulgence in sugary or fried foods after an emotional break up or a bad day at work. We’ve all been there before: popping in a McDonalds and picking up a juicy hamburger, milkshake, and fries. Consuming these fatty, sugary foods are an instant and cheap coping mechanism that makes us feel satiated and comforted.

But for a person with chronic disease, utilizing nutrition as a form of self-care looks different from the aforementioned run to McDonalds. The self-care that I am referring to is “the process of maintaining health through health promoting practices and managing illness” (Riegel & Stromberg, 2012). A burger and shake would not be ‘health-promoting’ in any way to a patient with Coronary Artery Disease. What would be health-promoting, however, is adopting a plant-based, whole food (PBWF) diet. There is a growing body of evidence connecting a PBWF diet with prevention, management, and treatment of chronic disease (Debret, 2019). Prescribing patients this diet, as opposed to continuously handing out antihypertensives and statins prescriptions, may be the solution to the United States’ growing incidence of chronic disease and the best form of self-care for these patients.

Top clinicians, researchers, and politicians have admitted that today’s model of healthcare in the United States should be more appropriately named “sick care” (Marvasti & Stafford, 2012).  Although we spend more than any other country in the world on medical care, our country experiences worsening health outcomes and a decreasing life expectancy (Marvasti, Stafford). Cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes account for the majority of deaths and health expenditures. While certain genes can put an individual more at risk for these diseases, diet and behavior, specifically the Standard American Diet and sedentary American lifestyle, hold the most weight in determining if someone will actually develop the disease (Marvasti & Stafford, 2012). The effects aren’t seen only in the adult population; chronic disease risk factors, such as hypertension and hypercholesterolemia, are increasingly seen in younger age groups (HHS Office, & Council on Sports, 2017).

Nurses are constantly encouraging their patients to take an active role in the treatment and management of their diseases. With the growing body of evidence supporting PBWF diet, I can confidently say that this encouragement can and should go far beyond medication adherence.  

Eating whole, nutrient dense foods takes a proactive stance against disease. There are always going to be instances in which patients will need to stay on medication no matter what diet they follow. Type 1 Diabetics, for example, will always need to take insulin. However, I truly believe that if more people adopt PBWF diets, we could slash the amount of money spent on reactive procedures and medications, as well as reduce the number of children and adults diagnosed with chronic diseases.

Some may argue that vegan diets aren’t inherently healthy. All it takes is one look at the packaging of an Impossible Burger or Oreos to see that vegan foods can still be packed full of artificial ingredients, unhealthy fats, and innutritious calories. That is why I specifically advocate for people with or at risk for chronic disease to follow a WFPB diet, which does not include processed ingredients that are found in many vegan alternatives.

The link between diet and chronic disease is undeniable, yet nutrition is a vastly underused treatment in our country. Following a WFPB diet is the epitome of a proper self-care regimen, because it has the power to give patients suffering from a chronic disease the opportunity to take back their own health.

References 

Debret, C. (2019, June 17). How to Practice Self-Care Through Nutrition. Retrieved from https://www.onegreenplanet.org/natural-health/practice-self-care-through-nutrition/

Forgrieve, J. (2018, November 2). The Growing Acceptance Of Veganism. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/janetforgrieve/2018/11/02/picturing-a-kindler-gentler-world-vegan-month/#5bdfa88a2f2b

HHS Office, & Council on Sports. (2017, January 26). Importance of Good Nutrition. Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/fitness/eat-healthy/importance-of-good-nutrition/index.html

Marvasti, F. F., & Stafford, R. S. (2012). From Sick Care to Health Care — Reengineering Prevention into the U.S. System. New England Journal of Medicine367(10), 889–891. doi: 10.1056/nejmp1206230

Riegel, B., Jaarsma, T., & Strömberg, A. (2012). A Middle-Range Theory of Self-Care of Chronic Illness. Advances in Nursing Science35(3), 194–204. doi: 10.1097/ans.0b013e318261b1ba