Dr. Mary Clifton admits she didn't know much about nutrition until a routine blood test taken six years ago showed that she was borderline diabetic.
In her late 30s and consuming what she believed was a healthy diet, Clifton was shocked to learn that her blood-sugar level was 125. "With a reading of 126, we make a diagnosis for diabetes," said Clifton. "I was well on my way to being a diabetic."
In addition to her blood-sugar level, Clifton's cholesterol was 211.
Dr. MARY CLIFTON, “Ready to get waisted?”
She diligently began to explore her options, including her diet.
"It was the first time I read about nutrition," said the North Michigan-based medical doctor and author during a Vegetarian Society of Hawaii-sponsored presentation June 13 at the Cameron Center in Wailuku. "I didn't know much about it."
Two weeks into her research, Clifton had a "vegan day" by accident. Strictly through circumstance and no intention of her own, she ended up forgoing her usual dairy-based breakfast because the milk was sour. She forgot to bring her yogurt and cheese snack to work, had a vegan meal served to her at lunch and skipped her planned steak dinner because the restaurant didn't have the cut of meat she liked. She ate pasta instead.
Following this high-carbohydrate day, Clifton was surprised to discover she had a blood sugar level approaching 100 the next morning.
"I switched gears right then," she said.
Clifton said her drastic switch is not advisable. Her book, "Waist Away: How to Joyfully Lose Weight & Supercharge Your Life," gives sensible steps for a smoother transition.
Today, her blood sugar is 85 and her cholesterol is 133.
Clifton's former eating habits are representative of the majority of people in the United States, who subsist on the meat- and dairy-laden Western diet. She offers a fresh, realistic view for those who think switching to a plant-based diet is impossible.
To support her thesis of the damage done to the human body by excessive ingestion of animal products, Clifton launched into a technical PowerPoint presentation to illustrate how "fat wraps around every cell in your body," hampering the transfer of proteins into cells.
This can be an issue for cells in the brain that contributes to memory loss, she said.
"Brains rely on healthy fat (omega 3) as opposed to omega 6."
Other health issues related to bad fats are inflammation (arthritis) and leaky gut syndrome, according to Clifton.
These are reactions of the body to bacteria and animal proteins, she said.
"The drug companies know this," she said in reference for the plethora of drugs routinely prescribed to deal with such ailments. "People aren't being told."
Switching to a low-fat vegan diet reduces heart problems and the risk of cancer, Clifton said. She said it is especially important to forgo dairy, which she equates to "liquid meat."
"Dairy is a disaster for a man's prostrate," she told the crowd, which was nearly half middle-aged men. She pointed to a study of 200 men in Japan and the U.S. Biopsies of their prostrates showed a "more advanced foothold of abnormal cells" in the U.S. men.
Clifton addressed the common conception that vegans don't get enough protein by pointing out that 500 calories of spinach has as much protein as the same amount of meat - not that someone would consume that much spinach in one sitting.
According to the World Health Organization, humans need only 22 grams - less than an ounce - of protein a day, according to Clifton. She said Americans consume 4- to 6-ounce servings of meat, whereas Europeans consume 2- to 3-ounce servings, people in Africa consume 1-ounce servings, and people in Asia consume less than 1-ounce servings.
"It's OK to go veg," Clifton told the crowd. "You can modify your favorites to be vegan."
To illustrate how much meat she believes would be acceptable to consume on a daily basis, Clifton said it should be about the size of your thumb.
"You can get 95 percent of your calories from plants."
Another thing to keep in mind when trying to pursue a healthy vegan diet is the amount of fat found in free-flowing oils.
"Olive oil has more calories per pound than butter," said Clifton. "It is one of the most fattening, calorically dense foods."
She said using oils during the transition to a plant-based diet may help people who are accustomed to the fatty Western diet adjust. "Use it in your transition," she advised - lessening the amount of oil as one progresses.
"Change your diet, even if small," Clifton said. "The average vegan is 40 percent lighter."
During the first two weeks of a vegan diet, people may see a dip in energy, she said.
"Cells turn over," she said to explain the exhaustion people may feel. But she said that after the two weeks, energy will improve.
"Are you ready to get waisted?" said Clifton, alluding to the title of her book, "Waist Away."
* Rich Van Scoy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.