A UVA Heart & Vascular Center Initiative

Going Vegan

Posted July 10, 2014

Popular vegan food blogs and trends like “Meatless Mondays” have made vegan diets pretty common nowadays. After reading through plenty of well-documented research on the heart-healthy benefits of adopting a vegan diet, clinical staff in the UVA Diabetes and Cardiovascular Clinic wanted to try it, too. But they didn’t do it for their own personal interests; they wanted to know if a vegan diet could help cardiology patients improve their biometric numbers.

For years, UVA cardiology patients have been prescribed a Mediterranean diet to help improve their numbers – cholesterol, body mass index, blood pressure, blood glucose, triglycerides, etc. Yet, despite the healthy nature of the Mediterranean diet, some patients weren’t getting the results they needed.

“We felt so frustrated for our patients, because they were putting in the effort and changing their diets but they just weren’t seeing great results,” says Anne Hedelt, a nurse practitioner in the UVA Diabetes and Cardiovascular Clinic. “And what’s worse, they didn’t feel well. They would come to us and say, ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ We knew we needed to change something, but we also knew that if we were going to ask our patients to adopt a vegan lifestyle, we had to know it inside-out in order to teach them how to do it successfully.”

Test Run

For 90 days, Hedelt and her colleagues – dietitian Mary Lou Perry and nurse practitioner Cherie Chaney – went vegan. They shopped around at all of the grocery stores in Charlottesville to see what vegan options were available and how prices compared. They planned meals and snacks, took turns cooking for each other and shared new recipes. They read labels, compared ingredients and developed recommendations based on nutritional value and affordability.

“We didn’t want cost to get in the way of our patients’ success, so we worked really hard to find items that were affordable and also met our nutritional standards,” Hedelt explains.

At the end of the test run, the group agreed: a vegan lifestyle is healthy, affordable, achievable and even enjoyable. The next step was to introduce patients to the idea of going vegan.

“When you explain the science behind food, patients really get it,” Hedelt says. “Animal products are more calorie-dense than non-animal foods. One gram of fat has nine calories, so just by eliminating all sources of animal fat from your diet, you eliminate a lot of calories.”

The Real Deal

To date, about 20 patients in the Diabetes and Cardiovascular Clinic have adopted a vegan lifestyle – and they are ecstatic with the results. In less than six months, they’ve experienced:

  • Weight loss
  • Improved blood glucose (blood sugar) levels
  • Lowered LDL (the bad cholesterol)
  • Improved mood
  • More energy
  • Better sleep
  • Regulation of bowel habits

“Our patients have been so open and positive about this way of living,” says Hedelt. “They’re seeing great results, they feel better than they ever have and they’re having fun with it. One couple has said that this process has brought them closer together, and that their marriage has never been better. The positive feedback we’re getting just goes on and on.”

Educate Yourself

Living a vegan lifestyle can seem overwhelming at first, but with the right knowledge you can incorporate simple but powerful changes into your daily routine.

  • Watch the documentary Forks Over Knives for an in-depth look at how a plant-based diet can improve your health.
  • Check out this 21-day Vegan Kickstart program from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) for recipes and helpful tips on how to get adequate protein.
  • It’s important to buy organic fruits and vegetables to avoid harmful pesticides. Read through the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides to learn which fruits and vegetables are the most heavily sprayed with toxic chemicals.

Be Prepared

When hunger strikes, it’s easy to reach for that piece of string cheese or hit up the nearest drive-through for a chicken sandwich. Keep healthy snacks on-hand to avoid temptations. Carrots and hummus, fruit, nuts and whole-grain crackers (like Kashi ® brand) are great choices.

Stay Away from Processed Foods

Just because something is labeled as vegan does not mean it’s healthy. Read labels and stay away from processed foods. If you read the label and you don’t know what something is or you can’t pronounce it, chances are you should stay away from it. Stick with whole foods in their natural state.

Be Realistic, and Go Easy on Yourself

If you slip up and eat a slice of cheese or an egg every now and then, don’t get down on yourself. The important thing is to incorporate more plant-based foods into your daily meals. Small changes can add up to powerful results. Start slow, stay positive and remember that you can do this.

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