Food=Medicine Conference in Atlanta puts spotlight on plant-based diet

A couple of years ago, Benji Kurtz was perusing movie choices during a long Memorial Day weekend when he settled on the documentary “Forks Over Knives.”

At 5 feet 5 inches tall, the Atlanta man was 36 years old and weighed 258 pounds despite many diet attempts. Still, Kurtz turned to the film for entertainment, not weight loss.

But something clicked when Kurtz, an entrepreneur who has started Web development and marketing companies, watched the powerful documentary. The film makes a persuasive argument that many health issues, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes, can be prevented (and even in some cases reversed) by following a plant-based diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts and seeds.

Since its creation in 2011, the documentary has been described as a “vegan maker.”

Not only did Kurtz become one of them, losing more than 100 pounds within a year, and then going on to drop 30 more pounds, but he worked to bring a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle into mainstream health care conversations. Last year, Kurtz started a nonprofit, Alliance to Repair the American Diet, to hold events and launch community programs to encourage people to change the way they nourish their bodies.

And this weekend, his organization will host its first Food=Medicine Conference at the Emory Conference Center Hotel in Atlanta, bringing together leaders in the whole-food, plant-based movement — doctors, researchers, chefs, many of whom were featured in “Forks Over Knives.” The conference is being sponsored by Arden’s Garden, the Georgia Farmers Market Association and Kaiser Permanente.

Dr. Rachel Kornrich, an assistant professor for the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, who plans to attend the conference, said she recommends plant-based eating patterns for the basis of any healthy diet.

While there is a growing interest in the medical community and the general public about eating a plant-based diet, she recognized there are still skeptics. She said she believes it’s important to emphasize the elements of eating a plant-based diet where there is little debate, such as the importance of eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

Only 27 percent of people eat the recommended three or more servings of vegetables daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thirty-three percent of adults meet the recommendation for fruit consumption (two or more daily servings).

A recent report from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reported hot dogs, bacon, cold cuts and other processed meats raise the risk of colon, stomach and other cancers. Not only was the announcement bad news for bacon and other meat lovers, but it has put what we eat under a spotlight. Many experts say the key is balance and moderation, as well as how the meat is processed.

At the same time, a growing body of research has found a diet rich in healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, many types of cancer and Type 2 diabetes. The goodness lies in the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Phytochemicals can help in different ways, with some being antioxidants, which protect cells against damage.

“We believe that we can help unhealthy Americans take their health into their own hands — and in doing so, get off some or all of their medications, feel great, and live a vibrant, healthy life,” Kurtz said. “We want the health care industry to be able to focus on bleeding, broken bones, true illnesses and groundbreaking research instead of being clogged up with patients who could prevent their chronic conditions simply by changing what’s on the end of their forks.”

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