The benefits of a plant-based diet: A cardiothoracic anesthesiologist weighs in

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Dr. Travis Schisler, his wife and three children have been eating a predominantly plant-based diet since 2015. At the time they were living in Pittsburgh while Dr. Schisler completed his fellowship in cardiothoracic anesthesia.

“I changed my diet to a whole food plant-based pattern because I am convinced it is the healthiest dietary pattern in our Western food environment,” he said. “Day in and day out I look after patients who to a certain degree are battling chronic illness because of poor dietary quality. In my opinion, which is supported by science, I believe a whole foods plant-based diet is giving me and my family the best shot at avoiding the chronic ailments that trouble a large proportion of our population.”

Dr. Schisler also recognizes that dietary choices affect our carbon footprint. The Eat-Lancet Commission indicates that beef and dairy products are the third leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions behind the US and China. Plant-based diets produce roughly 25 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions compared to a standard Western diet. Plant-based diets also reduce water consumption and free up land for farming and forests.

Challenges transitioning to plant-based diets

“As a family we gradually transitioned away from meat and dairy,” recalled Dr. Schisler, “with cheese probably the last animal product we gave up. Our children were two, four, and seven at that time so we diluted their palates of dairy products by slowly substituting plant-based options. For instance, cow milk to vanilla soy milk, then just plain unsweetened soy milk. We felt this was the most sustainable solution for us rather than going ‘cold turkey’.”

Dr. Schisler notes that he and his wife wanted to ensure they maintained all the nutrients that the family needed to thrive. This included B-12 supplements and daily legumes for iron and calcium needs.

“The question everyone always asks about is protein,” he said. “This is easy if your diet is based around whole grains, legumes, soy products like tofu and plenty of different fruits and vegetables. The misconception that you can’t thrive and perform on a plant-based diet is simply wrong. Some of the world’s best athletes follow a vegan diet. The Game Changers movie did a good job of dispelling this myth. I cycle and hike 10 to 12 hours a week and I am only getting stronger and fitter as I age so needless to say my diet is not holding me back.”

Food preparation and cooking takes more time now in his household, but Dr. Schisler believes this is worth the investment as healthy diets have a profound impact on your health. Learning new recipes, modifying existing favorites, and learning how to shop efficiently were all new skills he and his wife learned over time.

He notes that a major challenge is living in a society based around animal products.

“Attending work dinners, celebrations, birthday parties and other social gatherings can be tricky. Even the hospital cafeteria and work lunches often lack a variety of healthy options.”

Advice to those considering taking the plunge

Dr. Schisler recommends colleagues follow Canada’s Food Guide. It emphasizes whole grains, prioritizes plant-based protein sources (over animal sources), plenty of fruits and vegetables with all meals, and water for thirst.

“If you choose to eat animal products, do so sparingly or only on special occasions,” he suggested. “This is the dietary pattern of the world’s healthiest populations. The Mediterranean diet is ranked every year as one of the healthiest diets.”

Dr. Schisler also recommends building an arsenal of recipes and strategies to plan your meals. He contributed the Sweet Potato, Chickpea and Spinach Coconut Curry recipe to the vegan recipe collection we are building on VPSA’s website.

“Prepare to invest more of your time in the kitchen. Plan a healthy breakfast that is quick and easy to prepare every day. Think oatmeal with nuts and berries and a plant-based milk or whole grain bread with a nut butter. Lunch can often be leftovers from the previous evening or make a sandwich/wrap with hummus, thinly sliced tofu, greens, and other veggies. Pack lots of fruit and nuts for snacks. Dinners can be quick and easy, focusing on curries, chilis, stir frys, and pasta dishes. Think of your favorite international meals like Mexican (beans and rice), Asian (stir frys), Indian (curries), Japanese (rice and tofu bowls with yams or edamame), Mediterranean dishes, etc.”

Ways to reduce your environmental footprint

Dr. Schisler’s family does their best to adhere to three concepts to limit their impact on our planet:

  1. Eat a plant-based diet, especially avoiding red meat and dairy. Support local farmers and participate in a community garden or grow a garden at home if you have the resources.
  2. Consume less. Buy high quality items that you won’t need to replace or replace less frequently. The less we consume, the lower our carbon footprint.
  3. Commute and perform errands with a green mode of transportation. Dr. Schisler rides his bike to work at least 50 per cent of the time (he lives 20 kilometres away from VGH).

The last word

“I am passionate about the role of healthy diets on our health and our planet. I would like to see our medical schools and other health professional schools have mandatory nutrition curriculums that focus on our new and improved Canada Food Guide. Physicians ought to understand the scientific evidence that supports plant-based or healthy vegan diets. They should be equipped with strategies to counsel their patients on making changes towards healthier dietary patterns.”

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