What Are the Benefits of Plant-Based Nutrition?

An interview with cooking and wellness coach Caryn Dugan, Part Two

Today SevenPonds concludes our interview with Caryn Dugan, founder of the website STL Veg Girl and an expert on plant-based nutrition. (Read part one here.) Caryn began researching the benefits of a plant-based diet after a cancer scare in 2008. She later went on to study nutrition and health at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Roxube School of Cooking. Caryn has also trained at the Wellcoaches School of Coaching.

Caryn Dugan, plant based nutrition expertKathleen: Can you speak a bit about some of the specific health benefits of a plant-based diet?

Caryn: Certainly. One of the biggest benefits of many plants is that they fight inflammation, which in turn can help fight diseases like cancer and rheumatoid arthritis, to name just two. I’ve seen it myself many times.

Kathleen: Can you give me an example?

 Caryn: Sure. One of the most dramatic examples I can recall is the story of this 90-year-old woman who came to a class I was teaching on plant-based nutrition. She had severe rheumatoid arthritis. Her hands were like claws, and they were so painful and stiff that she couldn’t drive. She came to the class with her friend, who was also 90 at the time.

After listening to me speak about the benefits of a plant-based diet and learning how delicious it could be, the women decided to try it for a while. Over a remarkably short period of time, the woman with arthritis saw such an improvement in her symptoms that she was able to drive herself to class. It was the first time she’d driven in years.

Kathleen: That’s remarkable! But some people might say the fact that she got better isn’t proof the change in diet was the cause. Do you know of any studies that have shown that a plant-based diet actually reverses chronic inflammatory disease?

Caryn: There are many, many studies available that show this is more than just correlation. Rather than go into them here, though, I’d like to suggest that you and your readers take a look at the website, NutritionFacts.org. Its founder is Dr. Michael Gregor, a medical doctor who has been researching the connection between nutrition and health for years. The site has over 2,000 short videos and articles that discuss the latest findings in nutrition science. There’s no agenda. No one is trying to sell anything. The organization is a donor-supported 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and Dr. Gregor provides the information as a public service to help get the word out.

Kathleen: Sounds interesting! I’ll certainly check it out. Do you have any other suggestions for our readers who might want to learn more about the science behind plant-based nutrition before taking the plunge?

Vegan stew shows plant-based nutrition isn't boring

Vegan meals don’t need to be boring. 
Credit: seriouseats.com

Caryn: As a matter of fact, I do. The Plantrician Project is another 501(3)(c) nonprofit that provides lots of information about plant-based nutrition. It was co-founded by a physician, Dr. Scott Stoll, who initially designed it as an educational resource for healthcare providers. But the information is presented in a very understandable way. I would suggest your readers start with the Plant-Based Nutrition Portal. They can look up information by topic or just click through the sections and browse what’s there.

And, of course, there’s also the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. Their website has a large section on nutrition and health too.

Kathleen: Thanks for that information, Caryn. So, let’s say that I’ve read all the science and I’m ready to commit to a plant-based diet. Any tips on where to start?

Caryn: Well, most people try to tip-toe into it. Like anything else in life, it usually seems easier to go slowly and see where it takes you — like “Meatless Mondays” or “Meatless Fridays,” which were a staple of my Catholic upbringing as a kid. But if you want to really see a change in your health, it’s better to commit 100 percent.

As to tips, I would definitely recommend these for the first 30 to 60 days:

  1. Pick one or two plant-based cookbooks and stick with them until you feel comfortable with the recipes. Then you can branch out.
  2. Use the same ingredients over and over. It will help you adapt faster to your new cooking style.
  3. Spice things up! You can get lots of wonderful flavors using herbs and spices rather than sugar and salt.
  4. Buy frozen fruits and vegetables if you can’t find fresh produce. They’re really very nutritious, sometimes even more so than the produce you buy in the grocery store because they’re flash frozen shortly after they’re picked. The veggies at the produce counter might be several days (or weeks) old.
  5. Stay away from processed foods. If you need to buy something you can’t make yourself (like bread) look for items that have USDA Organic or Certified Organic on the label.

Kathleen: Thanks so much, Caryn. I’m sure our readers will appreciate this information and your valuable insights!

Caryn: You’re welcome!

Did you miss Part One of Caryn’s interview with SevenPonds? If so, you can catch up here.

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Older Transplant Patients Rely Heavily on Organ Donors Over the Age of 65

When it comes to organ donation, biological and chronological age aren't the same
One elderly woman and one middle-aged woman stand next to a sign that says yes I am an organ donor

Credit: wikimedia.org

How old is your liver? Your heart? Your kidneys? Many people believe that they’re all the same age, and that as these organs get older, they become less desirable to patients waiting on transplant lists. However, new studies are finding that organ donors can and should stay on the eligible donor list, even after the age of 65. In fact, older transplant patients often rely on elderly donors to get the transplants they need.

According to the University of Glasgow, an organ’s biological age actually matters more than its chronological one. Researchers at the university studied how well kidneys worked after they were transplanted, and they found that the donor’s chronological age didn’t always make a difference in the kidney’s overall functionality.

Instead, the study found that kidneys worked about as effectively in their new hosts as they did in their donors’ bodies. They found that kidneys with a healthy level of microRNAs (a molecule that is essential for cell function) were more likely to function without complications than kidneys that lacked these essential molecules.

A question written on a piece of paper asking whether the patient would like to become an organ donor

Credit: flickr.com

In many cases, elderly organ donors have a relatively healthy level of microRNAs present, and as a result, their organs are perfectly suited for donation. Likewise, some young donors could have abnormally low levels of microRNAs in their organs, which means their recipients will be more prone to complications post-surgery.

What this tells current and prospective organ donors is that there is no need to change your organ donor status as you age. As long as your organs function normally and aren’t damaged, you are eligible for donation, whether you’re 22 or 82.

These findings are potentially lifesaving for elderly patients who are on organ transplant waiting lists. It often takes years for patients to clear the waiting list, and for patients over age of 65, this is usually time that they don’t have. Having a list of eligible donors over the age of 65 helps recipients of the same age receive the care they need.

However, although it’s true that you are eligible to donate at any age, and that your levels of microRNA could be healthy relative to your age, your organs still lose functionality over time. A doctor would never transplant a 75-year-old’s liver into an 18-year-old’s body. Even the healthiest 75-year-old liver will show some signs of aging, and will fail much more quickly than an organ taken from a younger donor.

A photocopy of an organ donor card listing what the owner is willing to donate

Credit: wikimedia.org

Instead, donors over the age of 65 give people their own age a chance at a longer, higher-quality life. Although doctors wouldn’t transplant a 75-year-old’s liver into a young patient, they would be willing to perform that transplant on a patient of a similar age who is, for instance, 70 years old.

Only about seven percent of all organ donors are over the age of 65. Doctors say that this isn’t nearly enough to cover all of the elderly patients currently awaiting transplants. People over the age of 65 who die from natural causes often have at least one organ that would be an excellent candidate for donation, however, many people aren’t aware that they’re able to donate past a certain age.

Even if disease has impacted some or most of a person’s organ’s, they could still donate any remaining healthy organs. My own grandfather kept his organ donor card until his death last year, and despite having severe lung damage and organ failure from COPD, he was able to donate his healthy corneas to a patient in need. Without my grandfather’s donation, his recipient might never have received the life-changing operation that allowed that patient to live a better-quality life.


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Film Review: “Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story” By Director Scot Barbour

Revisiting a touching Andrew Wood documentary in the wake of Chris Cornell's death
The cover of Malfunkshun, the documentary about Andrew Wood, featuring a portrait of the singer

Credit: IMDb.com

A brilliant young musician dies of a drug overdose, just one year before he would have reached international stardom. If this sounds like a tired trope, then you haven’t heard Andrew Wood’s full story. The Seattle musician was so much more than a talented young man cut off in the prime of his life — he had a rare genius that made him a magnetic figure in what would later be deemed the “Seattle grunge scene.” His life and sudden death made ripples in the world of music that linger even today.

Director Scot Barbour attempts to capture Wood’s vibrant, sometimes tragic, life in his documentary, “Malfunkshun: The Andrew Wood Story.”

A Bright Future

For those unfamiliar with the history of Andrew Wood, he gained notoriety in the early 1980s as the enigmatic, outgoing frontman of seminal Seattle rock band, Malfunkshun. At the time, the term “grunge” hadn’t yet been coined by the international press, and Seattle was still a small port town without much going for it outside of Boeing. Although Wood got his start with Malfunkshun, his later band, Mother Love Bone, proved to be his golden ticket. The band was the prequel to a grunge supergroup, featuring guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament, both of whom would go on to form Pearl Jam after Wood’s death.

The album cover for Mother Love Bone's last album

Credit: wikimedia.org

And that’s where Andrew Wood’s story changes from one of stratospheric success into a Greek tragedy. In March 1990, one year after signing a major record deal with PolyGram, and just months before Mother Love Bone’s next album would be released, Andrew Wood died of an aneurysm after overdosing on heroin. He was just 24 years old.

Picking Up the Pieces 

But like a flower blooming from a grave, his death sparked a renewed fervor in his friends and fellow Seattle musicians. Although their grief was primal and palpable, they channeled it into an incredible collection of music. The most popular of those tributes was the band Temple of the Dog, formed by Wood’s best friend and roommate Chris Cornell (lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave).

Album cover for Temple of the Dog

Credit: wikimedia.org

Scot Barbour decided to make the film after he heard Temple of the Dog’s first and only album. He wanted to answer the question, “What sort of incredible person could have inspired such beautiful, grief-stricken songs?”

In this sense, Barbour succeeded. Through intimate interviews with Wood’s friends and family, including Chris Cornell, Wood’s girlfriend Xana La Fuente, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, we begin to understand how an impish, cherubic singer could have influenced so many artists who would later go on to become megastars.

This isn’t just a documentary for fans of these bands. Although the documentary is a must-see for anyone who loves Mother Love Bone and the early Seattle scene, it goes beyond tiny little details that superfans can gobble up and treasure. It reminds us that even the brightest stars can suffer an internal struggle that few of us see. Listening to Andrew Wood’s music and hearing his friends describe their immense love for him reminds us how precious and fragile life can be, even when you’re 24 years old and have your entire, shining life ahead of you.

A Film Takes On New Meaning 

Rewatching Barbour’s 2005 documentary today, the film takes on renewed meaning following the recent death of Chris Cornell. In some ways, it seems like Cornell’s entire career was dedicated to Wood’s memory. It feels like he picked up where Wood left off, and continued carrying his torch long after he was gone.

A screenshot of Chris Cornell sitting on a couch talking about Andrew Wood for the documentary

Chris Cornell being interviewed for Malfunkshun:
The Andrew Wood Story
Credit: Scot Barbour

There’s an unfortunate parallel to both of their lives, and not only due to their public struggles with addiction. Cornell’s fans were shocked to learn about his death last week; he seemed like he had everything going for him. He had a beautiful family, a successful career and an undeniable talent. But we can never know the internal struggles of others, even those we feel we know best.

When we mourn the loss of people like Wood and Cornell, we’re often coming to terms with our own mortality. The fact that two people with such talent and promise died under tragic circumstances reminds us that death, addiction and depression spare no one.

Yet Barbour’s documentary also reminds us that there’s hope, even in the midst of tragedy. The love Wood shared with his friends and family is evident in every tear in their eyes and playful smirk on their faces. Barbour perfectly captured on film how it feels to lose someone, but also how it feels to have loved them so deeply in the first place. Those memories remain long after Andrew Wood’s death.

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Tangihanga: A Look Into a Traditional Maori Funeral

How one of the world's most remarkable cultures approaches expected and unexpected loss
Maori Dance

Traditional Maori dance
Credit: fourcorners.co.nz

The Maori people are an indigenous group of Polynesian New Zealanders whose ancestry can be traced all the way back to the 13th century. Due to centuries of isolation, the Maori have established a distinct society of characteristic art, language and mythology.

While common defining aspects of Maori traditional culture include their tattoos, dances, and legends, the Maori community approach the subject of death in a dissimilar way from Americans. A traditional Maori funeral, also called a Tangihanga, is an elaborate practice with designated stages and customs in which the entire community takes part.

Maori Funeral

A traditional Maori funeral
Credit: smh.com.au

Although Tangihanga is the name distinguished for general Maori mourning, there is a difference in custom between expected and unexpected deaths. The expected passing of a loved one is prepared for in advance with a ceremony known as Ohaki, or Final Words. This involves the gathering of family and friends to the home of the sick or disabled as an attempt to fulfill the dying person’s wishes, making for an easier transition into the afterlife. The Ohaki especially value food and drink, as the dying person’s intakes are regarded as signs of their chances of survival. During this time, any words that are spoken to the dying person are received with great seriousness and sacredness.

The Ohaki is followed by a Tuku Wairua, or Spirit Leaving Ceremony. The procedure is performed in order to permit the spirit’s smooth departure from the body and into the afterlife without restlessness. During this ceremony, those acknowledged as spiritual shepherds in the community will conduct daily services of religious significance to those gathered. These usually include prayers or blessings appropriate to their faith which, today, tends to be Presbyterianism.

Maori Burial

Credit: smh.com.au

The unexpected death of a loved one is handled in a different manner. There are no final words or transition times dedicated to the deceased. Instead, the Maori move right to the ceremony of Ko Mate, or death. This ceremony is experienced in four stages, or changes, both for expected and unexpected deaths, although each might be handled differently depending on the situation. The first change involves the spirit. At the moment of death, the Maori believe the spirit leaves the body and travels to its old haunts before transitioning to the afterlife. The spirits of the unexpectedly deceased are believed to linger longer than those who die of natural causes.

The second change deals with the body. Even while alive, the body is considered sacred, so after the spirit has passed, certain activities like eating are not allowed near the body, and those who touch the body must immediately wash their hands. All sudden deaths require an autopsy, however, they are normally performed with expected deaths as well. The body is kept out and admired by guests like many American wakes, but incantations and prayers are often recited while simultaneously removing putrefying elements out of the body.

Credit: plus.google.com

The third change deals with a change in the status of the family left behind. With expected deaths, the family is usually allowed more free reign. They are accorded an extra respect and relieved of any responsibility to speak during the funeral. After an unexpected death, however, the family is bombarded with forensic responsibilities, and the coroner, police, pathologist and mortician are involved by right of law. The family is only involved if the professionals allow them to be.

Finally, the fourth step involves the place of death. The building or place of death during an expected death is blessed and treated as sacred, and many remember and visit this spot to mourn. The place of an unexpected death ultimately becomes a scene of investigation, and earns little to no acknowledgement.

After these ceremonial services, the tradition continues for many days, consisting of many concluding ceremonies during which the body is placed in the ground and the Maori follow certain diet and performance restrictions. The Hakari, or the Thanksgiving Meal, is one of the last ceremonies of a Maori funeral, and is a very important feast that removes the last vestiges of restrictions imposed by death.

Maori girl and grandmother

Credit: kiwiagogoland.wordpress.com

Although the Maori people may have different traditions than Americans or other cultures, their acknowledgement of death is similar in that a community comes together to remember and celebrate the life of the deceased loved one. By understanding the different funeral practices that exist around the world, a more inclusive vision of death can be achieved.

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Research Panel Suggests Physical Activity Can Help Prevent and Manage Alzheimer’s Disease

An extensive review of numerous studies led to their conclusion

A panel of researchers and non-government organizational leaders has determined that physical activity is associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Being physically active can also help manage symptoms of the disease, according to researchers. The study, published by BMC Public Health, was led by the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus.

The study was initiated by a non-government organization in Canada. They wanted to work with scientists to create evidence-based awareness regarding physical activity and its potential to prevent and manage Alzheimer’s disease. The panel conducted systematic reviews of more than 150 previously-published materials related to Alzheimer’s disease, other forms of dementia and physical activity.

Older man running along a road symbolizing physical activity

Credit: pixabay.com

The panel found that regular physical activity improves daily living and mobility in older adults with Alzheimer’s.

“As there is no current cure for Alzheimer’s, there is an urgent need for interventions to reduce the risk of developing it and to help manage the symptoms,” writes the study’s author, Kathleen Martin Ginis, professor at UBC Okanagan’s School of Health and Exercise Sciences. “After evaluating all the research available, our panel agrees that physical activity is a practical, economical and accessible intervention for both the prevention and management of Alzheimer’s disease and other [forms of] dementia.”

The researchers write that a lack of evidence-based guidelines regarding the use of physical activity to prevent and manage Alzheimer’s disease may create a missed opportunity. Essentially, they believe that many older adults could be motivated to become physically active if they were shown evidence-based materials related to the matter.

Final Statement and Discussion

The panel’s final consensus statement reads as follows:

Regular participation in physical activity is associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Among older adults with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, regular physical activity can improve performance of activities of daily living and mobility, and may improve general cognition and balance.

Although the experts do mention that the first sentence of the statement is based exclusively on observational data, they also discuss its scientific possibility. They write, “It is also biologically plausible and consistent with emerging evidence that physical activity can change the structure and function of the brain. In particular, physical activity may mitigate age-related atrophy of the hippocampus, a key brain structure affected by Alzheimer’s disease that is critical for memory function.”

Elderly woman staring down to symbolize dementia

Credit: pixabay.com

The one drawback to the panel’s findings is that they do not specify the different types or amount of physical activity that are necessary to achieve the intended outcomes, particularly for people already suffering from the disease. They mention that further research needs to be conducted on the specifics in order to develop Alzheimer’s-specific physical activity guidelines. This is important because a majority of clinicians are not necessarily confident in Alzheimer’s patients’ ability to meet general physical guidelines for older adults.

However, now that there is a peer-reviewed study advocating the benefits of physicality and its relationship to Alzheimer’s, hopefully older adults will be motivated to positively change their lifestyles, should they desire to.

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“And if you don’t believe the sun will rise, stand alone and greet the coming night in the last remaining light.”

- Chris Cornell
A photo of a lake in the evening, as the sun sets behind a set of hills in the distance

Credit: maxpixel.com

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