September 27, 2005
By Dr. Mark Carney, ND, LAc
That fateful day began quietly enough, but soon I would never look at food the same way again. The year was 2001, and I was a naturopathic physician in my family medicine residency. All residents were presented with a golden opportunity: take a one-month elective rotation, all expenses paid, anywhere in the world. One of my co-residents traveled to India, another went to Peru, and another to England. I, however, chose a more exotic locale…New Jersey, at the fasting house of Joel Fuhrman, MD.
Indeed, I was hoping for a life-changing experience but never had imagined that Joel would become a mentor to me. I observed in his family practice clinic, watching the master at work. Patients suffered from diabetes, autoimmune conditions, obesity, hypertension, and more. His approach was unwavering—motivate patients to eat a diet of nutritional excellence. I learned that Joel was a voracious reader of the medical literature, particularly as it pertained to nutrition. He brilliantly devised a simple equation that summarizes over 60,000 medical studies: health equals nutrients divided by calories. “Most Americans are overfed yet undernourished,” he explained. “People get plenty of calories, but not enough nutrients.”
Based on his equation, Joel scientifically places any food item on the nutrient-density continuum. In order from most to least nutrient-dense are the raw leafy and solid green vegetables, non-starchy non-green vegetables, legumes, fruit, starchy vegetables, whole grains, raw seeds and nuts, fish, non-fat dairy, eggs, wild game, poultry, beef, cheese, refined grains, refined oils, and refined sugars.
When we look at population studies, diet predicts disease. Populations that eat primarily from refined sugars to fish on Joel’s scale have the highest rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and strokes. Conversely, cultures that mostly eat from raw seeds and nuts to the leafy greens have the lowest amounts of those diseases. T. Colin Campbell’s ongoing study, the largest ever conducted on human nutrition, proved this and recently was published in China Study.
I became a believer of Joel’s approach. His patients consistently improved, many decreasing or even discontinuing their medications. Whereas I previously had never witnessed someone’s type 2 diabetes reverse or disappear, I routinely saw this at Joel’s clinic. After just one week at the fasting house, my body was cleansing and I started feeling dizzy as a result of eating a higher volume of plant-based foods. I had to get out. I went to Manhattan to explore. With a slice of Ray’s New York pizza in one hand, and a ticket to the Broadway production of Lion King in the other, I was on my way. Next, I journeyed to the top of the Empire State Building. Then, while walking toward Central Park, I spotted the mother load…Carnegie Deli.
If I were going to completely adopt Joel’s way of eating, my old habits weren’t leaving without a bang. Moments later, instead of a bang, there was a loud thud as my waitress set down before me the largest plate of corned beef I had ever seen. To top it off, there was a pile of melted Swiss cheese of monolithic proportions. The beef and cheese formed a conspiracy and started clogging my arteries the very second my fork made first contact. Despite my best efforts, I only ate one-third of my meal, so I had her box the rest for later.
Upon returning to the fasting house, my body began to vehemently protest my gluttonous act. What had I done? I called Joel the following morning to cancel my clinic observations. I decided to eat only fruits and veggies that day. Later, I noticed the refrigerated box of leftovers had an oily film around it. In disgust, I tossed it out.
While flying back to Portland, I questioned everything I had previously been taught about nutrition. Why weren’t these concepts mainstream? Why were so many of my respected colleagues espousing diets laden with animal-based foods? No wonder there were so many unhealthy meat-eaters and vegetarians alike; they were “carbivores,” eating junk-food diets devoid of nutrients instead of eating enough fruits, beans, and greens.
I embarked on a mission to see how long I could go without partaking of animal foods. I sought out vegan-friendly restaurants, collected vegan cookbooks, and familiarized myself with the works of scholars like John Robbins and Michael Klaper, MD. I learned that veganism conserves precious resources such as water, land, and energy, while minimizing erosion and pollution. I discovered that approximately 20 pounds of grain produces only 1 pound of meat. If we all ate a vegan diet, there would be enough food for the hundreds of millions of people in the world who unnecessarily go hungry. Sooner or later, the future of our food supply will depend on this.
Six months into my “experiment,” I noticed a subtle but significant shift inside. I felt lighter (it wasn’t just my weight). A spiritual transformation was emerging. I felt more compassionate for animals. I began to understand how a plant-based lifestyle not only improved my health, but also was a tool to promote a more caring and humane world. I vowed to take action about the mistreatment of animals and our planet. This forged the foundation in the way I currently practice medicine.
Now I wake up looking forward to sharing these ideas with patients who are hearing them for the first time. I see countless patients reclaiming their health by embracing a vegan lifestyle. I believe the entry point for most people is their personal health, the centerpiece of which is their diet. I have them watch the video Diet For a New America. I tell them about Joel’s equation, and inspire them to eat more greens on a daily basis. My patients learn the importance of creating a sustainable way of life through a vegan kitchen.
My first patient who made the change was Rebecca, a 48-year-old opera singer. She had a 10-year history of color blindness due to blisters that had formed on her retina. After just 7 days of eating a vegan diet of nutritional excellence, she already experienced a 75% return of seeing blues and yellows.
Geoff, a 37-year-old computer engineer, was experiencing severe abdominal cramps, fatigue, and depression. He followed my nutritional advice, and in less than one month, was virtually symptom-free. Furthermore, his wife and two children had also adopted these lifestyle changes and felt an increase in their health as well.
I also think about Jack, who is a 52-year-old pilot. He has bought books for dozens of his friends and colleagues because he has experienced the rewards of switching to a vegan way of life. His cholesterol dramatically lowered, his libido improved, and his medical status has changed from pre-diabetes to healthy blood sugar levels.
There are many other examples. Patients with intestinal polyps disappearing, allergies improving, type 2 diabetes reversing, constipation resolving, energy increasing, cholesterol lowering, blood pressure normalizing, skin conditions clearing up, hormones balancing, and so much more. What’s especially exciting to me is to observe how this information is spreading. My patients are teaching what they’ve learned to their family and friends. And because I’ve shared this knowledge with my colleagues, they are passing it on to their patients, who are in turn telling it to their family and friends. There is enough support now in my community that a new vegan/raw food restaurant just opened up.
I am truly in awe of what a plant-based diet can do for our personal health as well as our planetary health. Since my first encounter with veganism five years ago, I am now even more acutely aware of the power of change: what is happening in my community, on a smaller scale, is most likely an indicator of what will be happening soon on the larger, global scale. And we will all reap the benefits from this shift in consciousness.