Two years ago, Dorothy Greet and her husband, David Greer, were regular diners at a popular local steakhouse.
The couple thought they were eating a healthy diet, choosing lean meats and salads, until Greet suffered a heart attack. As she recovered, she vowed to find out what she could do to prevent another attack.
She learned about "The China Study," in which Cornell University researchers found people in rural China who ate no oils or animal protein and never get diabetes or heart disease. From there she learned about the plant-based diet. At that point, she announced the couple would change their eating habits.
They have shunned oils, meat, cheese, eggs and fish for the past two years, instead filling their plates with whole grains, fruits and salads with vinegar-based dressings. Greet has lost 45 pounds and found a new mission.
She took online courses through Cornell and is now a certified plant-based educator.
“I felt like I had to get out there and tell everyone I could about how diet affects our health,” Greet said. She teaches classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Lewes and through integrative health at Beebe, but she couldn't get over the fact that while she was a heart attack patient, no one at the hospital had mentioned changing her diet as a way to live a healthier life.
Now Greet and nearly 60 other local residents are urging Beebe to educate doctors, nurses, employees and patients on the benefits of a plant-based diet.
“No one at Beebe Medical Center informed me of the damage that animal protein and oil were doing to my cardiovascular system,” Greet said. “No one hinted that animal-based and refined foods cause disease and that plant-based foods--vegetables, fruit, beans and whole grains--are the key to restored health.”
Greet said Beebe's high rating as a quality hospital, coupled with its Healthier Sussex County initiative, which aims to make Sussex the healthiest county in the nation, are key reasons why the healthcare organization should make strides to discuss diet and nutrition with patients.
Small changes for life
Beebe President and CEO Jeff Fried attended one of Greet's classes and is enthusiastic about her findings.
“I think anytime we can get people from the community engaged with the hospital it's great,” Fried said. “I think there are things we can offer through our integrative health program, but we haven't gotten into a level of detail on how we will take that information to the patients.”
Fried said he was impressed with Greet's results on the plant-based diet, but noted not all residents would accept such a restrictive diet.
Fried said the key is getting residents to make small changes that they can live with, starting with such changes as choosing to eat less fat and sugar on a daily basis.
He said doctors at the hospital and in private practice are adding nurse practitioners to educate patients about nutrition. The hospital also has dieticians and nutrition experts available to talk to patients and to speak at community events and health fairs.
Kathi Fryling, a registered dietician nutritionist at Beebe, said the hospital cafeteria is promoting healthier food choices by such measures as increasing prices on unhealthy foods like cheeseburgers while reducing costs for salads and fruit. For patients staying at the hospital, they are also allowed to choose a cardiac diet of healthy whole grains and low saturated fat.
“The message we want to get out is not to wait until you end up in the hospital,” Fried said. “Make changes now to prevent hospitalization. Talk to your doctor about nutrition and changes you can make.”
After her heart attack, Greet said, she had to learn about plant-based nutrition on her own, but now she hopes the hospital will make more of an effort to educate patients.
“Our hope is that Beebe Medical Center would shine the spotlight on the dramatic impact of diet on health,” Greet said. “For example, dietary change can enable some diabetic patients to go off medications, and heart disease can be reversed with diet alone.”
“It was [Greet's] story that started this local movement,” said Caryl Williams of Lewes, who with husband George attended a class with Greet. Both have signed the letter to Beebe. “Since going plant-based, my doctor asked me what I was doing because my [test] numbers were so good.”
Williams said she always thought she was doing the best for her body by eating yogurt, but now she says it was actually taking calcium away from her body.
Greet said yogurt and milk are not the best ways to get calcium. Much of the calcium in dairy products is expelled through urine, while calcium in leafy greens like kale and spinach are better absorbed by the body.
“It's all research-based,” Greet said. “This is not a fad diet. Western culture has so much animal protein – it's more than the body can handle.”
Rachel Grier-Reynolds of Lewes was more than happy to sign the letter.
Grier-Reynolds was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and doctors said she had only months to live. That was 2008. She has been fighting her cancer ever since and credits much of her recovery to plant-based eating.
“People in integrative health at the hospital could teach patients about eating and about diet. It could be free to the patients,” she said.
Grier-Reynolds said she knows first-hand how diet can strengthen a body. Besides heart disease and diabetes, she advocates Beebe work with cancer patients as well.
“I think Beebe has an amazing opportunity here,” she said. “When you go to Beebe, you should be clued into this exciting information about plant-based food.”
For those interested in considering a plant-based diet, Greet recommends watching the documentary “Forks over Knives.” Those new to the diet can also consider taking a class such as those Greet offers at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. For more information, go to www.lifelonglearning.udel.edu/lewes or go to Greet's blog at Greenplantbased.blogspot.com.
To learn more about “The China Study” and plant-based nutrition, go to www.choose-healthy-eating-for-life.com/T-Colin-Campbell.html.
Basics of plant-based eating
Plant-based nutrition is different from vegetarianism because it cuts out all animal products, including fish and seafood and dairy products including eggs and cheese. It also differs from veganism, in that the plant-based diet uses no oils, including plant-based oils or soy-based processed foods.
Greet said being plant-based means eating foods without a mother and without a face. Some vegans eat oils, while Greet and those on a plant-based diet avoid them, opting for vinegars instead.
Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and his wife Ann are experts in plant-based eating for cardiac health. They define the basics of going plant-based as:
• Eat oats made with water or alternative milk such as almond milk
• Eat greens such as kale and spinach
• Eat beans and lentils
• Drink lots of water
• Eliminate oil
• Avoid processed fake soy meats and vegan cheeses, which often have high oil contents
• Never eat cheese
• Limit sugar and salt