Plants as the Prescription: Dr. John McDougall and the Globalization of Health
Dr. John McDougall arrived on the sugar plantations of Honokaa, Hawaii in 1973 with all the expertise of a student fresh out of medical school. He readied himself to begin his career as a resident general practitioner, a plethora of drug prescriptions at his disposal. Yet the education he received at Michigan State University was soon overshadowed on the island, as his patients became his teachers, and he eagerly absorbed Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Filipino wisdom on the merits of a plant-based diet. The elders, subsisting on mainly rice and vegetables, seemed in the best physical condition, while their less healthy grandchildren indulged in the meats, cheeses and processed foods of the mainland. “The first generation never had heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis,” McDougall recalls. “They were very fit people.”
The doctor quickly figured out the ills of a Western diet. “I was a very frustrated doctor trying to help people get well by pushing medicine,” says McDougall, “But I found that not only could you prevent but you could cure with a plant-based diet.” By the time he completed his degree as a board certified internist in 1978, plants had become his prescription of choice.
Today, more than 200,000 people follow McDougall’s “healthy vegetarian diet,” preparing their meals based on starches, vegetables and fruits and avoiding oils, processed foods, dairy products, alcohol or cigarettes. While he stands steadfast behind his plant-based prescriptions, he acknowledges that these lifestyle changes can be difficult for many people who grew up in the United States.
“So often we know what is right, but it is so hard to actually do it, whether it is morally, physically, intellectually,” says Roberta Joiner. “Our impulses just take over and seem to control us.” Joiner followed the McDougall plan and now teaches lifestyle cooking classes as part of the plan’s ten-day wellness retreat in California. People sign up for “ten days of brainwashing,” quips Dr. McDougall about the intensive retreat meant to ease them off any regular medicines and into a pure vegetarian diet. It’s anything but ascetic, though, as guests have access to an athletic club and spa, tennis courts, a swimming pool, and fine dining along with the educational materials and lectures by McDougall. Two chefs—trained by partner Mary McDougall and daughter Heather McDougall—cook hearty, international dishes including vegan enchiladas, lasagne, and vegetable mu shu.
The doctor boasts a 90 percent success rate, measured by the number of attendees who successfully lower their cholesterol, decrease their blood pressure and weight where desired, and maintain a plant-based diet after they leave. Zena Alam has shed 70 pounds, and has been weaned from cholesterol-lowering drugs and two blood pressure medications. “It’s not an inexpensive thing to do,” notes Alam, “But it’s definitely worth it, and it’s a way of life for me now.” 
Alam’s family and friends have not jumped on the bandwagon. “Over the last four years, business has increased; but there has also been a lot of resistance,” says McDougall. While the doctor’s immediate and extended families follow his regimen as a preventative measure, most people who come to the diet do so because they have major risk factors threatening their lives. Alam, at 40 years of age, had struggled with back pain so excruciating she could barely walk her dog. For Joiner, the catalyst was a heart attack while scuba-diving the Blue Hole in Belize.
Only about one percent of those actually following McDougall’s diet invest in the $4,000 retreat. Some insurance companies cover such a visit, but they aren’t required to do so. In contrast, most states require companies to cover procedures such as bariatric surgery—an obesity treatment in which doctors close off the stomach to reduce the amount of food one can eat, and rearrange the intestine to reduce the amount of calories the small intestine can absorb. “People are getting wise to the drug companies and quack surgeries,” says Dr. McDougall. “I think the day is coming when this will be common medicine and easily reimbursed.” The doctor compares the future of a plant-based diet with the turning of the public tide against smoking.
A World of Wellness
Although dieticians have acknowledged the healthful qualities of vegetarianism for years now, and despite Dr. McDougall’s findings and those of other reputable vegan doctors, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to describe a “healthy diet” as one that “emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products; includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts; and is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars.” Moreover, the government dispenses large subsidies to maintain animal agribusiness and to put milk in U.S. public schools.
The eating habits we form early in life are hard to break. Dr. McDougall writes, “Westerners are completely addicted to their steaks, cheeses, and pies. Attempts at moderation guarantee continued dependence and continued failure. The only effective means to overcome these destructive habits is to remove the powerful substance from a person’s life.” McDougall is not only up against a government agency but also faces proponents of trends such as the Atkins Diet, with its emphasis on flesh foods and low carbohydrate content, and the decidedly non-vegetarian South Beach Diet.
McDougall observes that where people have high-carbohydrate diets—Africa, the Middle East, and Asia—one finds relatively low rates of heart disease, breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer. Unfortunately, more often than not, these societies are looking to the United States for dietary trends. According to Dr. Dean Ornish, the author of Eat More, Weigh Less, “There’s a globalization of illness that’s occurring as people begin to …see the United States as a superpower. They want to live like us and now they’re starting to die like us...” But Ornish insists that activism such as McDougall’s and his own can have an effect “ I think we can get a globalization of health instead of a globalization of illness.”
McDougall is working hard to get the message across. His activism includes ten national best-selling books. His forthcoming work, Dr. McDougall’s Digestive Tune Up, will tell the story of a couple with common digestive ailments, and how they’re solved with a plant-based diet.
Ann Wheat, co-owner of the world-renowned Millennium Restaurant in San Francisco, met McDougall in Hawaii while looking for a doctor interested in preventative medicine for arthritis. “Other doctors just wanted to put me on low dosages of medication for the rest of my life,” said Wheat, who is no longer on any medications, and has been following McDougall’s diet for 25 years, and supports environmental and animal advocacy.
“For me,” says Wheat, “It’s not only a diet. It’s a lifestyle.”
Most people following the McDougall diet use materials from its special website, www.drmcdougall.com. Alternatively, people can telephone 800.570.1654.
- Roberta Joiner, e-mail interview by FoA Staff Writer (15 Mar. 2006). Classes are held at the Flamingo Hotel and Resort in Santa Rosa.
- FoA Staff Writer interviewed Zena Alam by telephone (16 Mar. 2006).
- Strong Health (University of Rochester Hospital), "Bariatric Surgery Center at Highlands Hospital: Is Bariatric Surgery Right for You? Insurance Coverage"; Anne Collins, "Introduction to Beriatric Weight Loss Surgery" (copyright 2000-2005
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" (2005).
- John McDougall, M.D., "Moderation is Impossible for Passionate People" (Feb. 2006).
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Millenium Lecture Series, Symposium on the Great Nutritional Debate, moderated by Carolyn O’Neil (24 Feb. 2000).
- FoA Staff Writer interviewed Ann Wheat by telephone on 15 Mar. 2006.