Updated: Aug 21
Hi there. My name is Martyn Williamson and I’m a plant-based doctor. I work as a part time rural GP at Health Central in Alexandra, Central Otago and I also work as a senior lecturer at the department of General Practice and Rural Health at Dunedin Medical School. I became a plant-based doctor about 5 years ago. In this article I’m going to share my story with you, and what I’ve discovered about the power of whole food plant-based nutrition to improve health and cure chronic disease.
My journey started one day in the late 1950s when I was born at home in a terraced house in North East England, close to the River Tyne, which technically makes me a Geordie. My parents were both professional people and had come from working class homes. They had experienced the deprivations of the war and post war years as their parents had experienced the same in the Great War and the depression. In those days the big nutritional challenge was getting adequate calorie intake and a range of nutritious foods. I was brought up to always clear my plate, and any other leftovers plus eating a sweet pudding for energy.
I was a very active boy fortunately and was able to run off the vast quantity of food I consumed. Meat was expensive and regarded as a luxury for the well off. While greens were promoted as healthy, the consumption of milk and eggs was encouraged for good health. When the low-fat message was released my mum, made sure we ate in a healthy fashion, minimising fatty foods. As we became better off we started to eat more meat. Only poor people couldn’t afford this, and it was important to mum and dad that they left the diet of their childhoods behind as they moved up in the world.
I retained these habits throughout my adult life, still trying to eat low fat healthy foods, having plenty of low fat milk and yoghurt as part of my diet, and now processed foods had crept in, and from time to time, I would binge on potato chips, or chocolate chip cookies. I definitely sported an extra kilo or two, despite maintaining an interest in competitive sport and being active for my age.
Then one day my wife Liz, suggested that we stop eating meat, added sugars, dairy, eggs and fish! Whoa! She was interested in added sugars and their effects on teeth and had watched 2 documentaries “That Sugar Film” and “Forks over Knives”. Since she did most of the cooking and shopping, I really had to agree to try this, or risk it happening anyway. I watched the documentaries. Firstly, I was astounded at the amount of sugar which was in lots of the foods I was consuming! I was easily having between 9 and 10 extra teaspoons of sugar daily over what I thought I was eating, which considering I didn’t use sugar at all was both eye opening and annoying. It was stuffed into everything, breakfast cereals, sauces, dressings and a whole host of foods which didn’t taste sweet and those which did such as yoghurt. Milk of course contains plenty of its own sugar. Food companies had been adding sugars to their products gradually over time and you could only tell if you actually read the small print on the labels and understood what the figures meant. 4g of sugar is the equivalent of a teaspoon. Have a look for yourself and see how much sugar is in your favourite foods per 100g. I aligned myself with ridding our diets of this particular hidden addition! Then I watched ‘Forks over Knives’. In this documentary I learned about the China study and its impressive database of associations of disease rates with high animal food consumption. I also learnt about the remarkable power of whole food plant-based nutrition to reverse even advanced heart disease in ways which I would have said were impossible.
I was gobsmacked at the results. I couldn’t understand why this information hadn’t been circulated more widely amongst the medical profession. Incredibly most doctors are completely unaware of the evidence. (So much for the evidence-based medicine we are supposed to practice)
“Ethically I believed patients had the right to know that this way of eating had the power to dramatically improve their health. If they didn’t want to change that was their choice, but there should be no need to suffer or die in ignorance. ”
So I started looking up the studies in the medical literature, assisted by my ability to access the University library. I was able to verify the impact on heart disease and dismayed to find out that one researcher Dean Ornish had published his results in the Lancet a major medical journal in the 1990s. He had performed a randomised controlled trial which is the highest quality of evidence. Patients on his lifestyle intervention of diet and meditation improved the blood flow in their heart arteries without medication. While those who were on standard medical treatment deteriorated slowly in the fashion I had grown to assume was normal. Dr Esselstyn published on a series of heart disease patients who achieved amazing results by using WFPB nutrition in addition to their normal care. Results way past any possible influence of placebo effect or any other conceivable mechanism.
Enthusiasm whetted, I searched the literature around other disease states, to discover similar results with type 2 diabetes, cancer prevention, (breast bowel and prostate) even reduction in cancer cells in prostate cancer- courtesy of Ornish again and a sizeable literature linking higher consumption of fruits and vegetables with improved cancer survival rates. Autoimmune diseases, where we blithely say the body’s immune system attacks itself without really knowing why, are also amenable to improvement and cure through nutrition, which was completely the opposite of what I had believed and was taught. The list went on, glue ear and asthma in childhood, depression, polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, fertility, even Crohns disease and Ulcerative colitis, reduced risk of osteoporosis without consuming milk! and protection against dementia. I came across the Broad study which is one of the few trials of WFPB nutrition conducted outside the USA and was performed in Gisborne NZ. The Broad study confirmed that NZ patients could lose weight through eating an unrestricted WFPB diet (so no going hungry) and improved their diabetes often being able to reduce insulin requirements. I contacted Dr Nick Wright one of the researchers to find out his background in plant-based nutrition, to discover he had gone over to the USA while at Otago medical school to work with some of the major plant based doctors in the USA who were developing the field. Nick and his partner Morgen ,who assisted in the research ,also organised a conference in Gisborne which has been held for the last 2 years now, where we were able to hear powerful stories from patients whose lives and health had been turned around by eating plants! Needless to say I had agreed with Liz a while back that we should try this for ourselves.
The other evidence I sought out was on the safety of WFPB nutrition, and to my pleasant surprise discovered that indeed this totally plant based diet, minus processed foods was completely safe for any stage and age of the human lifecycle. Totally contrary to my prior beliefs and medical school teaching! All you need is a vitamin B12 supplement and to eat a calories sufficient wide range of fruits and vegetables, all different colours of the rainbow. Do this and you get all the protein, calcium iron and nutrients you need for a healthy life. You nurture your healthy gut bacteria through the extra fibre you consume, and you protect your arteries from the ravages of fat build up.
So, an incredibly effective medical treatment was now at my disposal and importantly one which was completely safe, and much safer than any of the pharmaceuticals I was prescribing. Next step was to assess side effects. These turned out to be quite pleasant. Weight loss, a feeling of energy, feeling good after meals, reduction in aches and pains, and the main drawback an increase in wind, usually a result of increased consumption of beans and legumes and importantly this settled over time as your gut bacteria adjust. Cholesterol and blood pressure also almost always improve.
It turns out there are a few tricks in transitioning to WFPB nutrition with particular disease states when you are looking for cure, which any plant-based doctor do should be able to help you with.
So why wouldn’t you give it a try, and why wouldn’t you let your friends and love ones know about this?
My tips for starting are to seek support from a plant-based health professional if you have a disease to cure and to also seek support from your family.
> Let family know why it’s important to you to change and ask what way they can help you.
> Give them space to make their own minds up about what they want to do. Check out recipes and try them out so you know what you will like, and then get started.
> Remove non compliant foods from the house and pantry to avoid slip ups. The meals are so tasty and attractive that family members often start to enjoying them as much, or even more, than their usual fare!
“I now enjoy eating even more than I used to! And I didn’t know that was possible! Oh, and by the way you’ll help save the planet at the same time as saving yourself and your family. Harmony for the cells in your body from plant-based nutrition, goes hand in hand with harmony between us and our environment. Isn’t that just beautiful!.”