Clinton says he was inspired to follow a low-fat, plant-based diet by several doctors, including Dean Ornish, author of Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease. The former president, known for his love of burgers, barbecue and junk food, has gone from a meat lover to a vegan, the strictest form of a vegetarian diet.
He says he eats fruits, vegetables and beans, but no red meat, chicken or dairy. Clinton, 65, who had quadruple bypass surgery in 2004 and then stent surgery in 2010, is following this eating plan to improve his heart health. He talked about his plant-based diet last year, saying he lost 24 pounds on it for his daughter Chelsea’s wedding, and he chatted about it again recently on TV, drawing national attention to the potential health benefits of this type of diet.
“Veganism is the most extreme type of vegetarianism,” says Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University.
Types of vegetarians:
- Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian: Does not eat meat, fish or fowl. Eats dairy and egg products.
- Ovo Vegetarian: Does not eat meat, fish, fowl or dairy products. Eats egg products.
- Lacto Vegetarian: Does not eat meat, fish, fowl or eggs. Eats dairy products.
- Vegan: Does not eat any animal products including meat, fish, fowl, eggs, dairy, honey, etc.
About 3% of U.S. adults are considered full-fledged vegetarians because they never eat meat, poultry, fish or seafood, and about 1% of people are vegans because they also never eat dairy, eggs or honey, says the Vegetarian Resource Group. “The percentage of vegetarians has doubled since 1994,” says John Cunningham, consumer research manager for the organization. Elizabeth Turner, editor in chief of Vegetarian Times, says, “A much larger number of people — 22 million based on a poll the magazine did in 2008 — are what I’d describe as vegetarian-inclined. These are the people who might have the occasional chicken or fish. They’re interested in vegetarianism and moving in a veg direction, but they aren’t all the way there yet. “What the science shows is that people who are vegetarians have a lower risk of heart disease and cancer, especially colon cancer, and they tend to live longer,” Turner says. “They’re also less likely to be overweight.” But, “a vegetarian diet is not by definition a healthy one. You can’t just replace meat with French fries,” she says. “What makes a great vegetarian diet is eating whole foods that come from the earth like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans and nuts. Beans are the ultimate source of protein, and they are loaded with fiber.”
Clinton says he was inspired to follow a low-fat, plant-based diet by several doctors, including Dean Ornish, author of Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease. Ornish has been working with Clinton as one of his consulting physicians since 1993. After Clinton’s angioplasty and stents in 2010, Ornish says he contacted the former president “and I indicated that the moderate diet and lifestyle changes he’d made didn’t go far enough to prevent his heart disease from progressing, but our research proved that more intensive changes could actually reverse it,” he says.
“Heart disease is a food-borne illness,” says Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. He’s in a documentary about the benefits of a plant-based diet, Forks Over Knives, out next week on DVD. He advocates going “cold turkey from the typical fatty, meat-laden, dairy-rich Western diet” to this kind of plan. Gina Lundberg, a preventive cardiologist in Atlanta, says a vegan diet is wonderful if people can follow it. “But it’s so limited in variety and taste that people get sick of it, and they don’t stick to it.”
Nestle says that the vegan diet “is probably good for President Clinton, but whether it is good for everybody is a subject of much debate. “Whatever they (vegans) do personally is fine, but I don’t want them telling me that if I eat a little meat, there is something wrong with my diet. I think animal foods can have a place in a healthful diet.”
Eating a vegan diet can be unhealthy if…
A vegetarian diet can be a healthy one if people avoid certain pitfalls, says registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, author of The Flexitarian Diet and a blogger at food.usatoday.com. Here are some common mistakes vegetarians make:
- Eating usual meals minus meat.
Just opting out of meat will lead to a diet low in protein, iron and zinc, Blatner says. So instead, you need to swap in plant proteins, such as beans and legumes, that can provide the essential nutrients and help keep hunger at bay, she says.
- No-veggie vegetarian.
“This mistake is also known as the ‘beige diet,’ with a focus on dull-colored carbohydrate foods such as bread, pasta, rice.” Each meal and snack should have colorful, disease-fighting produce to get optimal health benefits and to keep calories in check, she says.
- Faux-meat fixation.
“You know you are guilty of this if you look in your fridge and see too many veggie burgers, ‘chicken’ nuggets and veggie lunchmeats,” she says. These are fine in a pinch, but indulging regularly in these veggie conveniences results in too much processed food that is too high in sodium.
- Vegan health halo.
The word “vegan” or “vegetarian” on a package is not a synonym for healthy, Blatner says. Even if a cookie, cake or fries are veggie-friendly, these are still junk foods that should be enjoyed in moderation, she says.
- Some vegetarians rely only on cheese to get protein, eating foods such as cheese sandwiches, cheese on pasta and cheese and crackers for a snack, Blatner says. Overdoing it on cheese ends up being too high in calories and saturated fat, she says.