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Exploring the disease-fighting benefits of a whole-food plant-based diet

Last Modified: June 21, 2024

Diseases & Disorders, Nutrition & Recipes

healthy diet

This post was written based on a Powered by Plants presentation hosted by Kristin Gerhardstein, MD, PPG – Family Medicine and Primary Care, Lydia Hall, RDN, Center for Healthy Living, and Kathy Wehrle, RDN, community outreach dietitian, Parkview Health.

We increasingly see overwhelming recommendations for a shift toward a whole-food plant-based (WFPB) diet. As one study on the impact of a WFPB nutrition approach explained, “Research indicates that 80% of chronic diseases are preventable with simple lifestyle changes, such as tobacco cessation, improved diet, moderate exercise, and maintenance of a healthy weight. Given that 6 of 10 adults in the United States have at least 1 chronic condition and at least 40% have 2 or more, the benefits of lifestyle changes are encouraging. In particular, diet plays a central role in our current chronic disease crisis. The whole-foods, plant-based (WFPB) dietary pattern has been shown to prevent and reverse multiple chronic medical conditions.”

The power to fight disease

Adopting a WFPB diet can reduce the risk of many chronic conditions, including:

What is WFPB?

At its core, WFPB eating is about reducing the amount of processed foods and animal products you’re consuming and prioritizing nourishing, more natural foods instead. This means optimizing your intake of vitamins, minerals and fiber, which the body needs to stay healthy.

More specifically, a WFPB menu might include:

  • Fruit: bananas, grapes, strawberries, blueberries, oranges, cherries, etc.
  • Vegetables: lettuce, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, carrots, etc.
  • Tubers and starchy vegetables: potatoes, yams, yucca, winter squash, corn, green peas, etc.
  • Whole grains: millet, quinoa, barley, farro, rice, whole wheat, oats, etc.
  • Legumes: kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, lima beans, cannellini beans, black beans, etc.
  • Nuts and seeds: Walnuts, almonds, flaxseed, chia seed, hemp seeds, etc.
  • Herbs and spices

What is not included in a WFPB diet?

Some of the common food items that you wouldn’t find on a WFPB menu might include:

  • Red meat
  • Chicken, turkey, pork
  • Processed meats
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Oil, butter, margarine
  • Processed foods
  • Refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, white pasta, crackers made with white/enriched flour, white sugar)

The impact of WFPB eating on Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, affecting 5.8 million people in the U.S. One in ten people age 65 and older has Alzheimer’s disease, and the prevalence increases up to 50% for those 85 and older. One in six women and one in 11 men will have the disease in their lifetime.

You might be shocked to learn that a significant percentage of Alzheimer’s cases can be avoided! How? By addressing the lifestyle habits that contribute to acquired risk factors. This means managing or preventing issues like:

  • Obesity – The 20-49-year-old population has about twice the risk of dementia later in life
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Strokes/brain aneurysms
  • Altered glucose metabolism
  • Brain trauma

Alzheimer’s disease often presents initially as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Individuals have memory problems but can still complete the activities of daily living. Remarkably, MCI can be reversed in some cases through lifestyle behaviors, such as:  

  • Meditation – Slows down the shrinkage of the hippocampus (center of the brain involved in short-term memory) in those with MCI.
  • Exercise + DASH diet – A Duke study looked at those with MCI and found that exercise slows the rate of cognitive decline, but the DASH diet alone had no effect. When participants combined exercise and the DASH diet, they had the greatest improvement in slowing the cognitive decline.  

While we know there aren’t currently any medications that can stop Alzheimer’s disease, the news isn’t all bad. Research is demonstrating that there are some measures that can provide some protection.  

As more pieces of the puzzle come together, we start to see that the ideal diet for the brain emphasizes a WFPB diet and eliminates sugars, meats, coconut oil, cheese, pastries and sweets.

Additionally, a daily brisk walk reduces the risk by 40%. Learning something new, like a musical instrument or language can be beneficial. And experts highly recommend addressing sleep apnea, which increases the risk of Alzheimer’s by 70%.  

And new information is coming out all the time. Dr. Dean Ornish is currently doing a study on reversing the progression of Alzheimer’s using saffron (30mg/day), with promising results.

For those already experiencing Alzheimer’s disease (cognitive decline is present) other supplements could be helpful, including:

  • Microalgae-based DHA (250mg per day)
  • Vitamin B12 (5,000 mcg per week or 500 mcg per day)
  • Turmeric
  • Vitamin D3 (2,000 IU daily)

Resources to get started

If you’re ready to start introducing a more WFPB approach, we can help!

Many restaurants have plant-forward offerings regularly, but if they don’t:

  • Combine WFPB sides to make a meal.
  • Opt for a restaurant with an open kitchen, where you can make requests. 
  • Look at ingredients in other dishes and ask for a “bowl” – a combination of grains and veggies.
  • Ask the chef for recommendations.

More Parkview Dashboard posts to check out:

Transitioning to a plant-based diet – tips and tricks

Try varying your protein sources for improved healt

Ten weeks to plant-powered eating – Week 10

Soy sources and suggestions

Don’t forget to visit our Pinterest profile for recipe inspiration!



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