The Power of Plants

If you know me, you likely know my passion for plant-based eating and how the food in which we fuel our body drastically affects our overall health and wellness.  I was very lucky to get some time this month with our local neighbor, Dr. Beth Motley, MD, to tell us more about the actual health benefits to this lifestyle, from her professional, medical perspective.   

- Tell us a little bit about yourself, what type of medicine you practice, and why you chose to focus on treating food as medicine?

I am a Family Medicine physician (MD) and Lifestyle Medicine is my subspecialty.  Lifestyle Medicine is the science-basedapproach to preventing, treating, and even reversing chronic disease by replacing unhealthy lifestyle behaviors with positive ones, such as a plant-based eating style, regular physical activity, managing stress, sleeping well, and avoiding risky substance use.  The focus is not on detailed lab work or fancy supplements, but on our day to day habits. I first became interested in nutrition when I was a competitive figure skater growing up in the Boston area. Food was something that I had within my control to help optimize my performance.  Food is fuel! What started as a side interest soon became my main focus as I entered medical school and residency. I spent my elective time working with various physicians around the U.S. that focus on using nutrition to help make their patients well. It was an incredible experience, to actually see physicians making patients healthier!  While the entirety of our lifestyle is important, I focus the most on nutrition, as this is foundational to our health and a common area of confusion for people.

- Plant based eating has becoming a much more widespread topic in the past couple of years, whether for the health benefits, animal rights, or environmental impact.  How do you define it, for those who don't know what that means?

In its broadest sense, a plant-based diet refers to an eating style that is at least 95 percent based in plants. That means fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes in their unprocessed or minimally processed form. On a 2000 calorie diet, that would mean less than 100 calories per day are coming from animal-based foods. The civilizations with the longest lived people, labeled the “Blue Zones”, all followed some variation of this eating style. It is important to note that this is not a vegetable-based diet; grains and beans are important to keep us satisfied.  “Vegan” is also not an appropriate term here. After all, Oreos and Mountain Dew are vegan!

- From your medical experience, what are the biggest health benefits for eating a plant based diet?

When people think about diets, they think about weight loss.  And weight loss is the goal of most diets, whether it’s ketogenic, Weight Watchers, Whole 30, etc.  Diets are also typically short-term. A plant-based diet is different in that the goal is longevity and prevention and reversal of chronic disease. (Yes, it’s also associated with weight loss - bonus!)  It’s also a lifestyle change, not just a short-term diet.  Plant-based is the only eating style that has been shown to reverseheart disease.  It is also the recommended eating style by the American Cancer Society and American Institute for Cancer Research.  And further, this way of eating can reverse the insulin resistance that is at the root of diabetes (watch my YouTube on this!).

- Does it have to be an "all or nothing" type of lifestyle, or do you see any benefits with patients who might only eat 50% plant based?

Moderation is great if you’re good with moderate diabetes.  “Moderation” seems to be an excuse to eat junk food more often… a cookie on Monday, slice of pie on Tuesday, and a few bites of ice cream on Wednesday.  No one seems to be moderating eggplant, cauliflower, and radishes. When I work with patients on disease reversal, I recommend going 100 percent plant-based until health goals are met, as many will find that complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.  While it may seem effortful up front, individuals who put in the effort will quickly see results, and these results are positively reinforcing. Those who do not put in the effort up front will likely not see results and then believe that this eating style did not work for them.  I will always ask my patients about their goals and we will discuss the best way to achieve them. They, then, can decide how to proceed.

- What are some of the most dramatic health results that you have seen with your patients, who ate a standard American diet, and then moved to plant based?

Diabetes is my favorite, because we can see massive improvement in just 90 days!  We also see LDL drop by about one third when someone switches to plant-based. I had my first patient last week that got his erections back after following this eating style for 8 months (expert opinion states that it typically takes about a year).  Erectile dysfunction and heart disease go hand in hand; it’s the same disease process, just in different places. Overall, we often see improvements in complexion, energy levels, and sleep, in addition to weight loss.

- For those who aren't ready to commit 100% to this type of lifestyle, what is the number one thing you would recommend for someone to make the first step in that direction? 

Think about your goals.  Check out the “Forks over Knives” documentary for a general introduction to the subject or “The Game Changers” if you are interested in diet and performance (both on Netflix).  If you are not ready to jump in, then perhaps start with changing just one meal per day to plant-based, such as lunch.

- Adhering to this type of diet can make eating out and going to parties difficult. What are some of your suggestions on local places to eat, or any party tips at big gatherings where food is a central part?

It may be difficult at first, but you will quickly get the hang of it.  For social events, I always bring a side dish to share. Most restaurants are accommodating if you call ahead.  Some of our favorites in town are Sun Belly Cafe, Kairos, Asada, Pita House, Mekong, and SWAD. Table 301 is great also.  Mexican, Thai, and veggie sushi are other favorites.

-You have two young children.  What advice would you give to other parents who want to feed their kids a plant based diet, but are stuck with picky eaters who want hotdogs and macaroni and cheese?

Parents choose when and what children may eat.  Children decide if and how much they will eat. Keep introducing these foods and kids will learn to enjoy them.  Keep the hot dogs out of the house!

- Where can people find you, if they'd like to learn more?

Check out my Facebook group “Food is Medicine Greenville” for interesting articles, recipes, and local events.  (My website is in the works!) I practice locally at Greenville Family Medicine.

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