Want to hear from health professionals that promote a whole foods plant-based diet? So do we! That's why we spoke to Heleen, a qualified paediatrician, in the first of our "Plant-Based Doctor" interview series.
Dr T. Colin Campbell. Dr John McDougall. Dr Caldwell Esselstyn. Dr Neal Barnard. You've probably heard these names before, and for a good reason! These are prominent figures in the whole foods, plant-based health movement. They have all published books, appeared in documentaries, and speak at nutrition and health conferences around the world each year.
You may be pleasantly surprised to learn that in addition to these "big names", there are plenty of other qualified health professionals around the world who recognise the health benefits of a whole foods plant-based diet. Not only do these professionals follow this diet themselves, many also work to promote diet and lifestyle changes to their patients as a method of disease prevention and treatment.
I wanted to speak to some of these doctors about their views on nutrition, in order to provide our readers with a greater sense of knowledge and understanding. In the first of my interviews with plant-based health professionals, I spoke to Heleen. A former paeditrician, Heleen now works with her husband to advocate and spread the word about whole foods plant-based eating, both within the medical community and with the public.
Hi Heleen! Can you tell us a little about yourself and what you do?
Thanks for the invitation Emma to tell my plant-based nutrition story. I was born and lived for nearly 48 years in the Netherlands. My profession there was a paediatrician. After some years I stopped working in this area in order to raise our 3 children, and then in 2000 we moved to Australia.
In October 2011, I obtained a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition (from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies / Cornell University) and, in June 2014, I completed the Food for Life Instructor training with The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (based in Washington DC.) I am now equipped to conduct classes providing information on plant-based nutrition in relation to health, in combination with cooking demonstrations.
How long have you been following a plant-based diet? What was your inspiration?
In October 2010, while surfing the internet, I came across a story on CNN about Bill Clinton and his change of diet. It was combined with an interview with his two doctors: Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn. This interview provoked a life-changing 'aha-moment'. All of a sudden I came to realise that not only can you live perfectly well on a plant-based diet, but that it is even healthier! Almost overnight I switched to a vegan diet along with my husband (an Obstetrician/Gynaecologist). Our children, who were by then young adults, changed their diets as well. Over the past 4 years, my husband and I have been researching the scientific literature and have become more and more convinced that a whole food plant-based diet is the pathway to health.
During your medical training, how much time was dedicated to to nutrition education?
During our medical training there was no special time dedicated to nutrition. Still nowadays in medical school, little if any information is given on nutrition and if it is, it goes along the lines of: "to treat iron deficiency anaemia, red meat is your best friend." There is much to be gained if there was proper nutrition education at schools, especially the universities.
Many people only become concerned with healthy eating as they get older. How important is healthy eating for children?
As a paediatrician, I can see the enormous health benefits of a plant-based diet on children. Many common childhood illnesses can diminish or even vanish, e.g. upper respiratory tract problems, ear problems, and allergies such as asthma. Moreover, many chronic adult diseases find their roots in childhood. By the age of 10, most children already have fatty streaks in their coronary arteries, the precursor to coronary artery disease.
Animal products and processed foods contribute to this inflammation in the lining of our arteries (the endothelial cells.) This leads to the formation of arterial plaque, and eventually, the hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis.) A healthy plant-based diet is rich in anti-inflammatory anti-oxidants and will also change the composition of our gut flora helping to strengthen our immune system resulting in less allergies and infections, at any stage of life.
Do you think a healthy plant-based diet is nutritionally adequate? Don't children have different needs than adults?
In my opinion, a whole food plant-based diet is healthy for all age groups, including children. Whilst children on a plant-based diet can obtain all the necessary nutrients, special attention should be given to calcium and, as per in adults, to vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
Calcium is found in many plants and especially in dark leafy green vegetables, beans, tofu and nuts. Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria in the soil. Animals ingesting these bacteria can now produce B12 which then can be found in their flesh. Because many humans don’t consume soil contaminated food anymore, those following a strict plant-based diet will generally have to supplement B12. Vitamin D is produced by our bodies under the influence of sunlight on our skin. Just around the 20 minutes of midday sunlight on the unprotected face and forearms, every 2-3 days, is enough for sufficient vitamin D production in most people; otherwise supplementation is recommended. Bottom line is that when we eat sufficient calories through starch based foods and a varied assortment of fruit and vegetables, we can easily get adequate amounts of almost all nutrients.
If there is any doubt in regard to sufficient intake for children, fortified foods and supplements can help you reach the recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals. Great information on this topic can be found at KidsGetHealthy.org.
Thanks for the info! So, what are some of your favourite health promoting foods? And how can people include them in their diet daily?
One of my favourite health promoting foods are legumes, which I usually add to my cooked vegetables, salads and to most soups. They are very versatile, adding starches for energy, proteins, iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, B-group vitamins, folate, anti-oxidants and lots of fibre!
What future endeavours do you have planned, regarding what you've learned about whole food plant-based eating?
We (my husband and I) have developed a presentation on the importance of sound research in relation to nutrition and health, and what that research tells us. So far we have presented this to the medical staff of the Lyell McEwin Hospital in Adelaide, the Australian medical students at their annual medical conference, and the staff of Animals Australia. At the end of September we will also present to the medical staff of the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Just prior to this, we will be attending the second International Conference on Plant-based Nutrition and Healthcare in San Diego, California.
An exciting future endeavour for us will be the carrying out of our own research on the benefits of a plant-based diet in pregnant women. This is still in the early stages of development.
Ultimately, our main goal is to inform and educate as many people as possible on the health benefits of a whole food plant-based diet.
We definitely have that goal in common! I'd like to thank Heleen for participating in our interview series. For more information on the health benefits of a plant based diet, check out the guide and resources sections.
The information on this website is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice or care for adults or children. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat health problems or illnesses without first consulting your doctor.