At the age of 18, Dr. Randall White read Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. It was a life-changing book for him and he has been following a plant-based, whole foods diet ever since. He found the environmental and social justice reasons for being vegetarian outlined by Lappé compelling, as well as the health reasons. Dr. White also notes works by Michael Pollan, Dan Buettner’s Blue Zone series, and Dr. Dean Ornish have influenced his dietary choices.
“I was vegan from about age 35 to 40, but—for various reasons—I didn’t find that sustainable,” said Dr. White. “I now follow a plant-based Mediterranean diet that emphasizes fresh whole foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and sources of healthy fat—traditionally olive oil. It can also include small amounts of seafood, poultry, and even red meat in very small quantities. I don’t eat poultry or red meat; I do eat local, sustainably sourced seafood a couple of times a week.”
Dr. Randall also eats cheese occasionally and makes his own yogurt, using local organic milk. He does this to make sure he gets enough protein and calcium.
Roadblocks to a fully plant-based diet
Dr. White found there was pushback from friends and family to his following a vegan diet. They thought his choices too rigid when it came to meeting at restaurants or serving home-cooked meals, and his family was concerned about how thin he became.
“It was social more than anything,” he recalled. “I got feedback that it didn’t seem to mesh with my social network.”
Dr. White also points to evidence for the Mediterranean diet that allows for small amounts of seafood that contain essential fatty acids like Omega 3s. (The Mediterranean diet recently scored top spot in the U.S. News and World Report’s annual ranking of best diets for the seventh year in a row.)
“People are concerned about not getting enough protein and vitamins if they follow Mediterranean or plant-based diets,” said Dr. White. “When I was vegan, I took supplements for vitamin B-12 and calcium.”
He feels that, beyond the nutritional aspects, another misconception can be the amount of time it can take to prepare whole-food meals.
“It does take more time than buying prepared foods, convenience foods, and fast foods, but those foods are questionable nutritionally and their environmental impacts are massive,” he said. “My partner and I spend time preparing foods, but it reduces the amount of packaging we’re dealing with. You can eliminate a lot of waste by making things at home.”
Dr. White is a psychiatrist and the medical director for Vancouver Community Mental Health and Substance Use Services as well as the clinical director for the BC Psychosis Program at UBC Hospital.
“I’m not sure that the jobs I hold now necessarily influence my eating choices, but being a doctor has made me aware of how to evaluate medical research and evidence in making decisions about what I eat. The Mediterranean diet particularly has been studied and it’s well recognized to reduce the risk of heart disease. There’s similar evidence evolving for mental health and for neuropsychiatric disease. The risk for Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s seems to be inversely associated with degree of adherence to a Mediterranean diet. There’s also evidence related to depression. There’s a prospective trial going on in Spain looking at the Mediterranean diet and people who have had an episode of depression. They’re looking at recurrence rates over two years and they’re supplying extra virgin olive oil to some of the participants to see if it impacts the occurrence of major depression. The improved health of the gut microbiome and the polyphenol content of the foods may be beneficial factors.”
Advice to colleagues
“The evidence seems pretty strong that reducing meat consumption and focussing on whole foods can make a big difference in the things that tend to kill North Americans, like heart disease and cancer. We should seldom or never eat processed foods,” said Dr. White. “Once you get used to a plant-based, whole foods diet, it’s delicious and rewarding. If you learn to do a few things like bake bread or make pizza crust, it’s also a fun way to spend time with friends and family.”