An interview with Dr Anthony Hadj: why a whole-food, plant-based diet is best for our health and the planet

Dr Anthony HadjThe food we eat has long been used to prevent and manage health problems, and now there is a growing movement of medical people who believe wholefood, plant-based diets not only prevent but can sometimes reverse a lot of the chronic illnesses associated with western lifestyles. They believe a change of diet can treat ailments such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease as well as, if not better than, daily drugs that control symptoms rather than offer a cure.

We spoke to Dr Anthony Hadj, pictured, a vegan GP with a special interest in management of chronic diseases (eg obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease) using a combination of modern medicine and nutrition/education. The Australian medic is passionate about the subject and spends some of his time promoting veganism as the best choice for a healthy lifestyle.

You’re clearly 100 per cent sold on the benefits of plant-based diets. I’m interested in your own path as a medical practitioner to that conclusion; at what point in your practise/training did the power of a vegan diet start to become clear to you?
I have always had a strong interest in animal welfare and, like many, loved animals. In 2013 I began to realise the horrific practices that occur in the animal agriculture industry and I made the conscious decision to be vegan from then on. There was a video that Paul McCartney made called Glass Walls, which had a strong impact on me. As I explored veganism, I was made aware of medical practitioners like Dr John McDougall, Dr Caldwell Esselstyn and Neal Barnard and the work they were doing with nutrition and disease. I was amazed that diet could play such a large role in not only the causation but cure of disease. From then on, I chose to include it in my practice and encourage many people to pursue this.

Did the notion of a strong link between nutrition and illness always make sense to you?
It didn’t become clear until I researched and understood the science. That was in 2013/14. Once I started to read the pioneering studies from people like Dean Ornish who were able to reverse our number one killer, heart disease, I was sold on the power of plant-based nutrition.

What we put into our bodies has always been linked to certain ailments. Having seen the benefits first hand in your patients over a number of years, you now have your own experience to draw on when it comes to using nutrition to cure western society ailments like diabetes type 2 and hypertension. What research/studies did you initially consult to guide you into your current thinking?
I read the book The Starch Solution, by John McDougall. He brilliantly covers the science of plant-based health and references many papers through his book. The pioneering studies from Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn that showed a radiographical reversal of heart disease were very convincing. The Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine website also has a great deal of links to studies that have shown the impact plant-based health has in treating type 2 diabetes.

Do your patients always follow your ‘go to the fruit and veg section of the supermarket’ prescription? Would some just prefer to take the tablet and eat the cheese?
Many patients of mine are very keen to follow the prescription. They are often seeing me because they have had a ‘wake-up call’ or a diagnosis that is life changing – heart disease, mini heart attack/stroke, diabetes etc. It’s at this point that many feel incapacitated but also energised to do whatever they can. When you are able to showcase the power of plant-based nutrition to them, it is very enticing. Many patients are prepared to do whatever it takes to live longer. Some people do just prefer a tablet and cheese; however, even with these patients, I have noticed that they do come around eventually.

How could I, a layperson, explain simply to a fellow layperson what the health benefits of a plant-based diet are?
Consuming plants is our natural diet. We are designed to eat plants and specifically carbohydrates. Many large civilizations have spread and prospered because of starchy (high complex carbohydrate) foods. We have a lot of evidence that populations who are mostly plant based live the longest and happiest of all. It is now beyond doubt that consuming a whole foods, plant-based diet lowers blood pressure, heart disease risk and keeps us trim and healthy looking. Websites like the John MacDougall’s, plus the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and NutritionFacts.org provide a great place for people to start.

Do you believe that the meat and dairy industries are now involved in a collusion to keep the health benefits of not eating their produce quiet which rivals that of, for example, the tobacco industry in the 1960s (and potentially the alcohol industry, though that’s another story entirely)?
I don’t think there is a collusion or conspiracy. I do believe that it is just about money. They are seeing a movement like veganism take root and thrive, and it is a threat to their bottom line. They will always be able to find a study that supports their work; however, it is almost impossible to suppress the benefits of this programme. They use mass marketing to try and keep the public confused.

You’ve been vegan for three years. Before that what was your own diet like?
My diet was very poor, with a preference for high-fat foods of an animal nature.

How would you counter the suggestion that plant-based is the current fad. I grew up in the 70s and saw my mother try high fibre, low fat, high fat and highly restrictive calorie-controlled diets among others, all in the space of a decade. What makes this different?
It is a very sustainable diet. We will feel full when we consume a vegan diet (generally) because it is high in fibre. We thrive and feel better because it is a diet focused around antioxidants, macro/micro nutrients that helps to keep our body healthy and well. Many fad diets in the past have failed because they are difficult to keep at, and they are often calorie dilute so a mild starvation takes place, which often makes us feel awful. No one likes to feel hungry.

How do you counter the ‘humans are omnivores’ (look at those canines) argument?
We don’t have canine teeth. Our “canine” teeth are much smaller than a cat’s. Our dentition and jaw physiology are not designed to shred flesh, but to crush plant material.

At the moment there’s a massive surge in the world of veganism. What do you make of the explosion in vegan products such as sausages, burgers, tofu, etc? Does the fact that they are processed detract from their health benefits? Having heard you speak about the effects on the human body of a spoon of olive oil versus 40 olives, is the key plant-based, or plant-based and unprocessed?
Ethically, consuming vegan food is important. It is of benefit to the environment and of course, the animals. However, I have seen some studies that have suggested the highly processed vegan foods (which are high in fat, low in fibre and devoid of much antioxidant/nutritional benefit) have been just as damaging to our health as processed animal foods. The diet needs to be centred on whole foods as much as possible.

And vegan “treats” like cake? Is this just another way of getting people to eat rubbish, vegan or otherwise? Or is it, by sheer dint of having no dairy or meat, not as bad as it might be? Sometimes this stuff seems too nice to be true…
Similar to above. It is okay in small amounts but it shouldn’t be the focus of one’s diet.

Which I guess leads on to fat and sugar. Where do you stand on the use of processed sugar? And indeed unprocessed sugar as found in fruit?
The sugars found naturally within the foods are fine – that’s why we are consuming them! They taste great. But adding sugar to our food and drinks than would otherwise normally be found is not good for our body. It causes a spike in insulin (a hormone that drives fat into cells) and also makes our taste buds focus on these foods (which are low in fibre and often high in fat) in place of the more filling and healthier plant-based foods.

Do you consider veganism to be a developed world luxury? We can afford to make food choices that poorer countries simply can’t.
I think a lot of third world countries actually survive well off starch/plants. I do feel that we have a responsibility to be economical with our food production. The amount of land here in Australia that is devoted to animal agriculture is enormous. Yet, if we were to use part of that land just for plants then I am sure we could feed many nations. Whether it is cheap or not, we should always be aware of our footprint on the planet and what we can do to lessen this. Poorer countries should be supported as much as possible.

I’ve heard you speak about the fact that plant-based diets have massive positive effects beyond our own health. Compassion for our fellow creatures and the benefits to the environment are huge issues. We all have roads that lead us to this way of life; was yours initially driven by the link between health and diet or was it always part of a bigger picture?
As mentioned above, it was part of a bigger picture. I was drawn to veganism through ethics. After seeing footage of abattoirs and learning about the dairy industry, I could never consume animal products again. It was from this foundation that I then learnt how powerful plant-based health was and chose to use it not only for my own health benefits but also for my patients too.

And on a personal level, how could I convince a family member (and lifelong vegetarian) with type 2 diabetes that a plant-based lifestyle could change this?
I am certain that a plant-based diet could help him. A major source of fat for these patients is dairy (milk and cheese) and often when patients ditch this, they are able to lose weight, which correlates with an improvement in their sugar management. We know that type 2 diabetes is a pathway that almost always leads to vascular disease and severe morbidity, so anything that can be done in the early stages to reduce this likelihood should be embraced. You could also refer him to some YouTube speeches by Dr John McDougall , who I think is a very convincing speaker.

You can find out more about Dr Anthony Hadj and his work at his website here. His address at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, is also worth a look.

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