“It’s going to be a little bumpy because we’re disturbing our culture, what we’re used to. When I was young, we used to save the bacon grease in a can. The thing I say is, be easy with each other. Be gentle. Give yourself some room ... The gentler you are with yourself, the more likely you are to get the benefit.”
— Kenosha cardiologist Dr. Kevin Fullin, on converting to a plant-based diet, which he advocates for reducing obesity, controlling coronary heart disease and other conditions, including diabetes
Local cardiologist Dr. Kevin Fullin, like a growing number of healthcare professionals, lists obesity as one of the “diseases of excess.”
So, it stands to reason he not only would have steered away from fatty, high cholesterol foods in his diet and would all along have advised patients to do so as well.
But it wasn’t until a little more than a year ago that Fullin decided to change his lifestyle as well as change the way he practices medicine. These days, he takes a wholistic approach, asking people about what they eat, what they do in their lives that may be affecting their medical conditions.
In the process, Fullin became a vegan or, in less ideologically and politically loaded terms, a plant-based diet devoteé, eating what he describes as food “without eyes.”
Since November 2012, when he started, he has shed more than 60 pounds, and he enthusiastically promotes plant-based diets not only to lay people, but to fellow practitioners as well.
His conversion began after watching Lee Fulkerson’s 2011 documentary “Forks Over Knives.” That led him to reread T. Colin Campbell’s “The China Study,” which purports to analyze the effects of protein heavy, meat-and-dairy diets on rural Chinese populations. He then took a six-week nutrition course through the Campbell Foundation and Cornell University.
“The documentary interested me because it became clear to me that by modification of diet you could change the course of coronary artery disease, blockages in the coronaries,” Fullin said. “Because, by not eating animal fats, protein and (vegetable, seed and nut) oils, patients no longer needed bypass surgeries, and most of the patients no longer needed their (heart medications) anymore. That’s what made me see ... whether I could eat this way, and what it could do for my patients. So far, the experience has been very good.”
Campbell, professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell, published The China Study in 2005 with his son, Thomas M. Campbell II, a physician. It analyzes the connection between eating animal products and the effects on a variety of chronic illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancers of the breast, prostate and bowel. As of January, the book has sold 750,000 copies and remains among the best-selling books on nutrition.
Campbell, one of the directors of the 20-year study begun in 1983 and conducted jointly by the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, Cornell and the University of Oxford, looked at mortality rates from 48 forms of cancer and other chronic diseases from 1973-75, correlating the data from 1983-84 dietary surveys and bloodwork from 6,500 people.
The study’s conclusion: Those with high consumption of animal-based foods were more likely to have higher death rates from so-called “Western” diseases versus those with plant-heavy diets. The authors further concluded people who follow plant-based/vegan diets will avoid, reduce or reverse development of chronic diseases.
There are those who call findings and conclusions in Campbell’s book and Fulkerson’s film to question. (See, for example, “Forks Over Knives: Is the science legit?” at http://rawfoodsos.com/2011/09/22/forks-over-knives-is-the-science-legit-a-review-and-critique.)
Still, the film introduced or reintroduced Fullin to the idea of treating illness and disease not solely through drugs and surgery but by way of nutrition as championed by Drs. Dean Ornish, Caldwell Esselstyn, Neal D. Barnard and John A. MacDougall.
After delving more deeply into their work, Fullin began advising his patients to switch from diets heavy on animal products to plant-based alternatives, but not before he accepted the challenge himself and committing to the necessary lifestyle change. “If I’m going to recommend it to my patients, I figured I should go on it myself,” Fullin said.
Fourteen months later, a significantly slimmer Fullin says he feels much better and has greater energy than he did on the diet he’d followed since childhood. With considerable help from his friend, contractor/carpenter Brian Rippon, Fullin now grows much of the fare he consumes, producing it in his own garden.
That’s something else he strongly advocates, when, one night in early May, still clad in pale blue doctor scrubs, he makes his second pitch in three weeks on the subjects to an audience at Kenosha Medical Center, 6308 Eighth Ave., in a conference room just across from the hospital cafeteria.
First up, a sample buffet prepared by the hospital’s food service staff from recipes Fullin supplied. Included are a raw veggie tray, fresh fruit, toasted pita wedges, fresh hummus, a white bean and red sweet pepper spread, black bean salsa with mango. Admittedly it doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of vegan possibilities, but it’s enough to introduce some of the flavors in a light and colorful way.
Next, Fullin intersperses commentary with a slide show, some of which features shots of his own dish creations, his garden and the plants grown there in various stages of development. Oh, and there is kale. Lots and lots of kale. Fullin, it seems, can’t sing praises enough about the nutritional value of the dark, leafy green plant and its seemingly miraculous health benefits.
“Anyone who knows me knows I love to eat,” Fullin said, projecting a photo of a former favorite, a whopping concoction of some sort oozing bacon, other meat and cheese. But, alongside it, he projects a list of “diseases of excess” topped by obesity and its related health complications: diabetes, heart disease, cancers, osteoporosis and more.
Later, he acknowledges changing to the diet/lifestyle he now advocates requires that foods be pleasing to the palate. He ticks off a lengthy list of veggies, grains and plants as heart and weight healthy can-do’s. He shows numerous slides of vegan meals that appear to appeal to the audience. Then, he pauses.
“Are you starting to see that eating plants is not a doomsday scenario?” Fullin asks. “In order to change things, you have to change your pantry. You have to change your refrigerator.”
He offers numerous tips to get from point A to point B, whether eating at home with others not prone to giving up meats and dairy or dining out and going to house parties. For example, bring your own dish to a get-together. Steam cook instead of frying in oil. Substitute various types of vinegar in place of cooking oils. Eat fresh whenever possible versus downing pre-processed foods.
“By the way, mushrooms have more protein than meat. Mushrooms are 54 percent protein. Your protein needs are so low you get all the protein you need from plants,” Fullin assures the audience. “You’re going to get plenty of nutrients. A plant-based diet is nutrient dense.”
In 36 years as a cardiologist, Fullin adds, he has never admitted a patient for protein deficiency who wasn’t also deprived calorically.
Health wise, switching from ingesting animal products to eating plants is where it’s at, Fullin tells his audience, not a few of whom started out eyeing him more than a bit skeptically when he began with: “What’s meat? Anything that has a mother and a father.”
He urges restricting dairy and limiting oils and oil-producing nuts/seeds to 10 percent of dietary intake. Doing so, he says, citing several studies, helps prevent and reverse coronary disease, “what we treat with stints, surgery and medicine.”
“The primary treatment,” Fullin advises, “actually is diet. It’s better treatment than anything we can do medically.”