White Coat, Black Art

Food as medicine: How this Newfoundland community got 'hooked' on plant-based eating

A growing number of people have moved away from eating meat after attending workshops in the Burin Peninsula run by two local doctors who champion a plant-based diet.

'We are seeing a large number of people ... suffering from preventable diseases,' says doctor

Dr. Arjun Rayapudi, Beverly Legge and Dr. Shobha Rayapudi at the doctors' home where people from the community gather for their monthly plant-based potluck. (Martine Blue)
Listen to the full episode26:28

Beverly Legge credits plant-based eating for the "dramatic change" in her health.

The Marystown, N.L., school teacher had struggled with medical and mobility issues.

"I used up all my sick leave as a teacher and then because of that I had to go on long-term disability for a while."

Standing at five-foot-one, Legge previously weighed as much as 251 pounds. She's now back to work full-time after losing 75 pounds and can move around without much pain.

Beverly Legge has been on the plant-based diet for more than two years. After struggling with her health, she's now back to work full-time and has lost 75 pounds. (Submitted by Beverly Legge)

Legge, 50, is one of 300 people who have switched away from eating meat after attending workshops in the Burin Peninsula run by two local doctors who champion a plant-based diet.

Known for its moose, salt beef and cod dishes, rural Newfoundland may seem like an unexpected locale for a growing number of plant-based food converts.

Enter Dr. Arjun Rayapudi and his partner Dr. Shobha Rayapudi, co-founders of the Gift of Health organization that runs the workshops.

'Burden of disease'

In 2011, the Rayapudis moved to Burin, a town of about 2,500 people, where Arjun started working as a general surgeon at the local hospital.

He said he was "surprised and shocked" at how busy his clinical practice was from the beginning. He also learned that the province ranked highest in the country in terms of heart disease, hypertension, obesity and diabetes.

"So there is a huge burden of disease here," he told White Coat, Black Art's Dr. Brian Goldman.

What they have here, they call it … [a] health-care system, but it's basically a sickness care model.- Dr. Shobha Rayapudi

Shobha Rayapudi, an epidemiologist, found that there were not many existing resources to reduce this burden.

"What they have here, they call it … [a] health-care system, but it's basically a sickness care model," she said.

The Rayapudis found that 80 per cent of the diseases they were seeing in patients were related to diet and lifestyle — and changing these two factors was more effective and safe than treating chronic diseases with drugs and surgery.

"We are seeing a large number of people in our practices that are suffering — people suffering from preventable diseases," said Arjun.

They decided to run regular workshops for patients with a variety of health problems to teach them how to follow a plant-based diet.

The Rayapudis found that 80 per cent of the diseases they were seeing in patients were related to diet and lifestyle. (Martine Blue)

Plant-based food hits mainstream

Plant-based eating has become big business with Beyond Meat targeting Canadian grocery shelves with its vegetarian burgers.

At A&W Restaurants, same-store sales increased 10 per cent in the first quarter in 2019. Analysts credit the rise, in part, to its Beyond Meat Burger patties, according to The Canadian Press.

In this country, 7.1 per cent of Canadians consider themselves vegetarians, and 2.3 per cent vegans, according to a 2018 poll conducted for Dalhousie University.

Studies have cited the benefits of a plant-based diet, and Canada's revamped food guide recommends eating "plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grain foods and protein foods. Choose protein foods that come from plants more often."

Back in Newfoundland, the Rayapudis took local cuisine and "plantified it instead of introducing any new kind of food" for their patients. They found showing their patients they could continue to eat familiar foods was key to helping them give up animal products completely.

For example, Shobha said plant alternatives like seasoned rice paper could replace bacon, "which exactly tastes the same."

In their workshops, the two doctors present studies "to show that the more animal-based foods we eat, the more chronic disease we have."

'Plant-based medicine'

Arjun pointed to a study by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn that suggested when people with severe heart disease switched to a plant-based diet, there was 0.6 per cent recurrence rate of heart disease symptoms. That's about 99 per cent reversal of heart disease, said Arjun.

"Even with the best of the medical care can offer — the stents or the bypass surgery which are pretty risky procedures — still we can't even get close to what plant-based medicine can do for chronic disease," he said.

We're giving them skills that they need to make ... a sustained change.- Dr. Arjun Rayapudi

The three-day workshops allow the doctors to clear "the confusion about what is healthy" and show participants how to cook, shop and eat at restaurants.

"We're giving them skills that they need to make ... a sustained change," said Arjun.

The Rayapudis recommend no animal products — no meat, chicken, fish, seafood, dairy — plus no oil (animal or vegetable) and minimal use of processed plant foods.

Shobha, who is also a clinical researcher, is tracking workshop participants in a study to be published later this year. She said they saw "stark difference" in health with many patients eliminating or cutting down on medications for conditions, such as acid reflux, hypertension and diabetes.

For workshop patients, the support system comes in the form of a Facebook group where people share recipes and stories of struggles, as well as a monthly potluck at the doctors' home. (Martine Blue)

For Legge, the weekend workshop course was enough to convince her to change her eating habits.

"It just clicked with me … ever since then I've been hooked."

She said symptoms from her irritable bowel syndrome and heartburn improved, and her weight loss helped with osteoarthritis in her knee and mobility issues.

'Sustainable' change

Changing eating habits requires three ingredients, said Shobha. If one ingredient is missing, "the change is not going to happen in a sustainable manner."

"First, you have to have the knowledge, like why certain foods are harmful.… Similarly, you have to have the skills of how you can put that knowledge into place. And the third one is you have to have the support."

For workshop patients, the support system comes in the form of a Facebook group where people share recipes and stories of struggles, as well as a monthly potluck at the doctors' home.

Photo gallery: Plant-based potluck

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      At this month's get-together, Legge brought her black bean and oat burgers.

      Legge has been on the diet for more than two years and says the most challenging part of switching was cooking. She had rarely cooked and would often eat out at fast-food restaurants or heat frozen dinners. The workshop was an "eye-opener" and taught her how to cook without oil and use various spices.

      Also at the potluck was Jim Cluett, who has been eating plant-based food since 2016.

      "I'm only on one medication now — down from 19 or 20 — plus all my diabetic needles are gone," said Cluett.

      "The sugars are coming down, down, down, and the weight is coming down. Everything [is] going in the right direction now."

      Arjun Rayapudi with Jim Cluett who says he's down to 'only one medication now ... plus all my diabetic needles are gone.' (Martine Blue)

      The growing number of residents eating a plant-based diet has had a ripple effect in the community with local businesses offering more plant-based options.

      Even the local Tim Hortons now offers soy milk or almond milk for their customers' coffee, said Arjun.

      Diet confusion

      The doctors are skeptical about those who tout popular low-carb, high-fat regimens such as the ketogenic and paleo diet, saying there is not enough long-term evidence to support their effectiveness.

      "There is a lot of short-term data but we don't have any long-term data," said Arjun.

      For her part, Legge said the move to plant-based eating, along with the support she gets from others in her community and her doctors, has changed her life.

      "It's dramatic change, I would say, within four or five months.… I could manage to do what I wanted to do in life."


      Written by Ruby Buiza. Produced by Sujata Berry

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