By Wendy Sarubbi | June 8, 2023 8:51 pm

Medical experts gathered at lunch Wednesday to answer FAQs about the health benefits of switching to a plant-based diet as part Lake Nona’s Lifestyle Medicine Week.

The goal of their presentation, said organizer Dr. Sharon Wasserstrom, a lifestyle medicine expert at UCF Health, was to help the community understand how a plant-based diet can prevent, treat and even reverse chronic illnesses like hypertension, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer.

Plant-based eating can prevent and help manage many chronic diseases.

The event was moderated by Dr. Dexter Shurney, president of the Blue Zones Wellbeing Institute at Adventist Health. The group focuses on population health research and has investigated why people in specific parts of the world live vibrantly into their 100s. The reason, he said, is that their diet is mostly from plants.

Here are some of the FAQs and the expert’s answers:

What happens to my body when I change from the typical American diet of meat, fried foods, sugar and salt to a more plant-based approach?

After a 50-year career as a primary care physician, Dr. Michael Klaper, a member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, now focuses on sharing with fellow health professionals the science of how health-promoting food and lifestyle choices can arrest and reverse chronic disease.

He said a switch to a plant-based diet has “profound” effects on the human body by stopping the “chaotic red tide of toxins” that hit your system every time you eat a meal heavy on meats, fried foods, sugar and salt.

Swapping a traditional American meal for colorful salads, oatmeal and fruit, beans, seeds and roasted vegetables increases your water intake because plant-based foods contain high levels of water. Your blood is less viscous and therefore flows more freely, he said, and you eliminate many inflammatory byproducts, including chemicals used in processed foods. This results in reducing inflammatory ailments like joint pain, asthma and eczema.  “It’s like taking your body to the car wash,” he said.

Does eating soy help breast cancer patients?

Dr. Amber Orman is a radiation oncologist and lifestyle medicine specialist focusing on breast cancer treatment and prevention. She is the Chief Wellness Officer of AdventHealth Medical Group, and co-founder of the HEAL (Healthy Eating and Active Lifestyle) group at AdventHealth in Orlando. The program educates and inspires cancer patients to make positive changes to improve health. 

Yes, scientific research shows that a diet heavy in organic, unprocessed soy foods can prevent breast cancer and recurrence of the disease in diagnosed patients. It’s important that the soy you eat be as close to the original soybean as possible – not foods like processed soy protein. Choose edamame, unsweetened soy milk, tempeh, tofu and miso. Some breast cancer patients worry about eating soy because it contains estrogen, which can encourage cancer cells. But the estrogen in soy has a different chemical structure, and actually can turn cancer cells “off.”

Will a plant-based diet help chronic kidney disease?

Dr. Shivam Joshi is a kidney specialist at the Orlando VA Medical Center and has authored or co-authored more than 50 scientific articles on plant-based diets in kidney disease. He is the youngest nephrologist to receive the highest award in renal nutrition, the National Kidney Foundation’s Joel D. Kopple Award.

Chronic kidney disease is on the rise, in part because of the increasing rates of hypertension and diabetes. Dr. Joshi said the best foods for kidney health are the same as the best foods for overall health – high-quality, high-nutrient, whole foods that are not processed and don’t contain added sugar. Foods like beans, vegetables, seeds and fruit not only help the kidneys, they help fight diabetes and high blood pressure that harm the kidneys.

What about cooking oils? Is olive oil the cure to chronic conditions?

Dr. Monica Aggarwal is a cardiologist and an adjunct clinical associate professor of medicine in the University of Florida’s Division of Cardiovascular Medicine.

Dr Sharon Wasserstrom is an internist and lifestyle medicine specialist at the UCF College of Medicine

We eat too much oil in our diet, and oil is calorie-dense: A pound of broccoli has about 150 alories while a pound of oil has 4,000. So there is no reason to add oil to your food, especially if you’re fighting obesity, Dr. Aggarwal said. If you need a little oil for cooking, choose a very small amount of olive or avocado oil. Better yet, use soup, vinegar or wine to cook. Don’t ruin a perfectly healthy salad which is low in calories by adding calorie dense oil.

Should I be taking fish oil pills for Omega 3 fatty acids?

Dr. Monica Aggarwal

Scientific research is inconclusive on the impact of fish oil pills for heart health, and many of the pills on the market are not pure enough in Omega 3s to provide benefits. Dr. Aggarwal suggests getting Omega 3s in the food you eat. Yes, you can get it in fish like salmon and tuna (not tilapia). But environmental factors can increase contaminants in fish. A better choice, she said, are plants with high Omega 3s – including chia, flax, walnuts and almonds.

Is the keto diet healthy?

Dr. Shivam Joshi

Keto works for some patients and is very popular among its supporters. But Dr. Joshi warned that it is difficult to adhere to – especially long-term – so patients may gain back the weight they lost. He is also concerned about the side effects of the diet that relies so much on protein. These include high cholesterol, and a lack of fiber in the diet, that can cause kidney stones. He has urged many of his patients to consider a plant-based keto diet instead. 

How do I get my family, especially kids, to eat a plant-based diet?

Dr. Amber Orman

Dr. Orman has three teens who eat a plant-based diet. The most important factor in getting family members to embrace the idea, she said, is making plant-based food that tastes great. Talk to your family members about how they feel after eating different foods. Are your kids involved in sports? How do they perform after a plant-based meal compared to a burger and fries? How is their skin? Their hair? Their sleep? Their energy? Their mood? By identifying what’s important to your kids, you can better show them the benefits of a healthy diet – while at the same time showing them that healthy foods taste great.

For a calendar of Lake Nona Lifestyle Wellness Week events, visit

For more nutritional information about plant-based diets, visit

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