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Vegan 101 Navigating the Doctor’s Office

Vegan 101 Navigating the Doctor’s Office

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  • by Cathy Carter

I want to say up front that there are some wonderful doctors out there, many of whom have not only embraced the whole food, plant-based lifestyle but want to share their knowledge with the rest of the world. Likewise, there have been countless lives saved by doctors who are passionate about their calling, regardless of their personal lifestyles. My doctor falls into this last category; whole food, plant-based doctors are hard to come by in a small town, especially in Texas where beef is king. I am, in no way, advocating that anyone should ignore a qualified health practitioner or give up/refuse any medical treatment without the consent of a doctor. You and your doctor have to make decisions about what is best for you. This is a story about my experiences with my own doctor.

No doubt about it, as I turned 60 and looked forward to a new decade in my life, I realized I was somewhat overweight. “How did this happen?” I asked myself. I was in denial about just how much weight I had gained over the years, but I came face to face with reality when I had a checkup with my doctor.

“Do you know that according to your BMI, you are obese?” he informed me as he scanned over my chart. “Whoa! I know I’m a little overweight, but obese? No way!” I retorted. Of course, I knew virtually nothing about the BMI chart; I was on a learning curve that day. I couldn’t have been more upset if my doctor had doubled up his fist and hit me between the eyes. I had NEVER been obese in my entire life (or so I thought). Furthermore, blood work indicated I was pre-diabetic. Time for a change.

Needless to say, Alicia Silverstone caught my attention when she was promoting her book, The Kind Diet, on a morning talk-show, so I read it. To my surprise, a good portion of the book centered on factory farming— as an animal lover, I was so disgusted that I haven’t eaten a piece of meat since. Dairy, which is very addictive, was a little harder, especially cheese. Next, I read Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and by August, 2011, I was attending my first Immersion Weekend where I listened to Rip Esselstyn, along with his dad Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Douglas Lisle, who wrote The Pleasure Trap, the nutritionist Jeff Novick and many more renowned plant-based advocates. By then, I was a full-fledged vegetarian—I knew I was on the right path, but still couldn’t give up the cheese. The following January, I attended the first Healthfest in my hometown of Marshall, Texas, and vowed to adopt a whole food, plant-based lifestyle—no more cheese! By then, I had lost around 20 pounds or so but that was just the icing on the cake, the “cake” being good health.  

I waltzed into my doctor’s office for my next checkup, exhilarated when I saw the look on his face. He, of course, wanted to know what I had done to lose weight. I delightfully explained my lifestyle change: no more unhealthy processed foods, meat, dairy, eggs or animal products of any kind for me, proceeding to tell him about my new whole food, plant-based diet. As a shadow ever so slightly passed across his face, I braced myself for the inevitable question that I knew was coming: Where do you get your protein? But instead, he surprised me and said, “Where do you get your calcium?” At that point, I knew “the game was on.” I patiently explained that foods like dark leafy greens (like kale, bok choy, turnip greens, collards), broccoli, chickpeas, tofu and oatmeal with soy milk (or other fortified plant-based milks) provide me with my daily calcium requirement. He harrumphed and said, “Well, some of the ‘Get Healthy Marshall’ folks are a little osteoporotic” and scheduled me for my first bone scan. Results: osteopenia, the precursor to osteoporosis. He had an almost gleeful tone to his voice when he informed me as if my “vegan” diet resulted in weakened bones. I responded, “Instead of my plant-based diet, do you think the cause could possibly be the 50+ years of drinking sodas, especially the daily 2-liters of diet coke for oh, say the last 20 years?” No argument there; sodas are terrible for your bones.

So, seven years later, 40 pounds lighter, with normal blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, here’s how my doctor visits generally go:

  • The nurse weighs me. My weight is always within a 5-pound range of the initial 40 pounds lost.
  • She takes my blood pressure. Last visit, it was 106/68 (almost unheard of in women my age who eat the Sad American Diet).
  • She gathers information about my current health status.

“Any problems?”

“No.”

“Are you constipated?”

“No.” Are you kidding me? Do you have any idea how much daily fiber I eat?

“What meds are you taking?”

“None.” (At this point, she always stops typing on her computer, looks pointedly at me, and states, “You’re not taking any meds?”)

“No. None.” (She then rolls her eyes, shrugs her shoulders and types the response—like she just can’t fathom that a person my age would not be taking prescription drugs).

At this point, the doctor joins us—always searching for something “wrong” with me. Fortunately, the search thus far has been unfruitful, although he did look into my eyes one time, threw down his “whatchamacallit” (ophthalmoscope?) and said, “Well, you have beginning cataracts!” There’s no guarantee that I will always be this healthy, but eating a whole food, plant-based diet certainly makes my risks for heart disease, cancer¸ type 2 diabetes, and other “old age” ailments much lower, and that’s all I can hope for. He listens to my heart, and then we generally spend the rest of my visit discussing my husband’s health.

A few visits back, my doctor was excited to tell me that he’s using a “new” cholesterol screening test: one that provides a detailed breakdown of particle sizes, in addition to the standard measurements of HDL, LDL and triglycerides. “I can’t wait to see your results since you get your cholesterol from plants,” he exclaimed. Moment of silence. I quietly informed him, “Plants don’t have cholesterol, only animals.”

“WHAT???” he said. I repeated myself and added, “But that’s okay; I forgive you. I know they don’t teach you nutrition in medical school.” He laughed and said, “True.” The total cholesterol on my last test was 152.

Nevertheless, I value my doctor’s opinions, knowledge, expertise and experience, and we’ve developed an enjoyable relationship. Often sparring and joking with each other, we trade information back and forth. I keep trying to convince him, himself, to adopt a plant-based diet. It’s a slow go, but I won’t give up. This is a man who sold gifted books on plant-based eating at a garage sale. Last visit, when I remarked that he’s obviously lost some weight, he told me he had given up breakfast burritos. “They’re crap,” were his exact words. Maybe, just maybe, we are making some progress.

If you are new to the whole food, plant-based eating scene, just know that as your health improves, the visits to your doctor will take on a new slant. Here are some tips:

  • Keep your doctor informed about your dietary changes. Your vitals and any medications you are currently taking need to be monitored by a healthcare professional and adjusted, if needed.  
  • Don’t let your doctor intimidate you. Do some research and be informed so that you can ask meaningful questions and interact in informative discussions.  
  • Remember that doctors receive little to no nutrition training in medical school. If that’s the case with your doctor, strive to educate him or her in that area. Know the answers to questions like “Where do you get your protein?” and “Where do you get your calcium?”
  • Rather than address underlying causes, most doctors treat symptoms by pulling out a prescription pad. The push (and money) involved in the Big Pharma industry doesn’t help. That’s where your nutritional savvy plays a key role: The two of you can decide together your best treatment plans.     
  • If your doctor is not open to a plant-based diet and unwilling to work with you, consider finding a health practitioner who will. Check out the link in Shoshona Chaim’s article, “Let Them Grow,” on page XX of this VegWorld issue. You may be able to find a plant-based health professional near you.

Because my doctor was never able to resolve my “mystery” ailments such as chronic fatigue, allergies, weight gain, skin conditions and other issues, I used to dread visiting him, but no longer. My scheduled appointments now serve as a motivation to stay the course on my journey to excellent health. And even better, they provide me with a sense of adventure as I contemplate the future conversations in which he and I will engage. I hope that you, too, can find a doctor with whom you can relate and share your journey to good health. 

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