March 28, 2016

The power of plants: Why I eat a plant-based diet

Plant-based diets: more than just a fad? Benjamin Ha, MD, thinks so.

Dr. Ha, a family physician and assistant medical director for Kaiser Permanente in Bakersfield, California, saw a dramatic improvement in his own health after adopting a predominately plant-based diet. He has since used his personal experience to inspire his family and patients to take control of their health.

We sat down with Dr. Ha recently to chat with him about his transformation and his thoughts on the connection between food and health.

Food For Health: What prompted you to adopt a plant-based diet? 

Benjamin Ha: Within the first three years of joining Kaiser Permanente after residency, I gained 15 pounds. I didn’t exercise regularly and my eating habits were terrible. Along with work and starting a family, I paid very little attention to the quantity or quality of the food I was eating. Fast food, take-out and junk food washed down with diet soda were the norm for me. To top it all off, I began experiencing excruciating attacks of gout.

A patient whose husband died of pancreatic cancer recommended that I read  Eat to Live by Joel Fuhrman, MD. It was an eye opener, and for the first time in my medical career, I realized how little I understood the connection between food and health. From there, I also read  The China Study and watched the documentary “ Forks Over Knives.” I felt empowered by this new knowledge and slowly transitioned to a whole food, plant-based diet centered around vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans. I also minimized my intake of processed sugar, dairy and animal protein including eggs and seafood.

Over the next year, I lost 20 pounds, cured myself of gout, and have never felt better.

FFH:  What does a typical meal look like for you? 

BH: A typical day of meals for me consists of steel cut oatmeal or a green smoothie for breakfast, a large kale salad or quinoa bowl with beans and salsa for lunch, and then for dinner, brown rice, steamed vegetables and grilled tofu or beans.

I consider myself a flexible vegetarian, or “flexitarian,” and try to limit my intake of animal protein and dairy to no more than two meals a week, primarily choosing a small serving of organic eggs, free-range chicken or wild salmon.

I don’t consider any foods to be completely forbidden or off-limits. I’ll occasionally allow myself to indulge in old favorites like pizza or barbecue. Improving my health and eating habits is all about progress, not perfection.

FFH: How did you introduce the plant-based lifestyle to your family? 

BH: As parents of two young children, ages 8 and 10, my wife Nina and I encourage them to eat healthier by being good role models. We don't keep junk food such as cookies and processed snacks at home and we always make sure we have fruit such as oranges, apples and berries washed and ready to be eaten. My kids also love fruit smoothies and often enjoy them for breakfast or as a snack. Sometimes, we even sneak a handful of spinach into their smoothies and they can’t even taste the difference!

We now spend more time shopping for ingredients at local farmer's markets and in the produce section of grocery stores to use in meals we cook at home together as a family. When dining out, we make sure to choose restaurants with menus that include healthier options. Nina and I are now more mindful than ever of the quality and types of foods we choose to eat and feed our children each day.

FFH: What would you like more people to understand about plant-based diets? 

BH: I am convinced that a whole food, plant-based diet is the most powerful prescription I can prescribe my patients for optimal health and wellness. The scientific evidence supporting this recommendation is irrefutable.

FFH: What advice would you give someone who’s interested in trying a plant-based diet? What can s/he expect? 

BH: If you have chronic medical issues such as high blood pressure, diabetes or are taking medications such as warfarin, it’s important to meet with your primary care physician prior to making these changes and let him or her know about your plans. Depending on how big a change you make to your eating habits, you may need to decrease or eliminate many of your prescription medications. Remember, the bigger the changes you make, the greater the results you will see.

Take the time to understand the evidence supporting plant-based diets by doing your research. Watch documentaries like “Forks over Knives” and read The China Study or other books promoting plant-based diets. Once you’re ready to give it a try, ask for support from your family and friends to help you with this change in lifestyle. Consider trying the Kaiser Permanente 21-Day Plant Power Challenge where you minimize or completely eliminate all animal protein and dairy products. Taking the first step is always the most difficult, but a plant-based diet can truly change your life — it changed mine!