Nana Kwaku Opare, MD, MPH, CA is a long time vegetarian, trained as a dietitian, and focuses in part on proper nutrition in his integrative medicine approach to healing. He regularly speaks about diet and lifestyle choices for natural healing. He is the author of The Rule Book And User Guide For Healthy Living, available on his website and in Kindle edition. In this interview Dr. Opare shares why he became a vegan and how his mostly raw diet has impacted his health and his medical practice.
Ama: How long have you been a vegetarian?
Nana Kwaku: The question as to how long I have been a vegetarian is a question of what is a vegetarian. I started transitioning out of a standard American diet around 1975. At that time I started cutting back on burgers and beef and pork. Around the mid 80s I stopped dairy and poultry and stayed on fish but I was really seriously mostly vegan except for fish once a week or so. The last several years of eating fish, between 95 and 97 I was eating fish once a month or so. Then I became completely vegan in 97. So I guess now it's like 16 or 17 years now.
Ama: When did you start eating raw food?
Nana Kwaku: I got into raw food in 2003. I have had periods where I have eaten 100% raw. Maybe three 1 ½ year periods at this point. But in between I was high raw. I would say 70-80% raw, sometime even more. So I guess it's now about 9 years.
Ama: Why did you become vegetarian, vegan or raw?
Nana Kwaku: You mean why did I stop eating a Standard American Diet? Well my first motivation came from early in college I studied biology and it became clear to me that what you ate had an effect on your health. Through reading stuff like Dick Gregory's work, everybody goes back to Dick Gregory, and Jethro Kloss's work, and Francis Moore Lappe's work and then my roommate — he was eating a lot differently than the average American. He ate a lot more vegetables and grains and beans.
I really got interested in nutrition and figured nutrition was where it was at, because it made a lot of sense to prevent disease if it could possibly be prevented as opposed to trying to fix disease. So I changed my major to food, nutrition, and dietetics and transferred to Berkley, and that's when I started transitioning my diet.
A big motivation however was because there is a lot of diabetes in both sides of my family. My Aunt Mary whom I never met died in her 20s of diabetes. I knew that I wasn't going to become diabetic. I refused to be diabetic. So I started my quest in the mid 70s studying about nutrition and the nutritional origins of diabetes and nutritional treatment of diabetes.
As I gradually changed my diet, early on I reasoned that if I ate fish or chicken once or twice a month that wasn't going to make a difference ultimately. With all the pollution in the environment you do that once a week or once a month and eat vegan or organic the rest of the time I figured that wouldn't make a big difference.
And all that time I was in healthy. All my blood tests came back great, my cholesterol was in the 130s despite the fact that I ate fish irregularly; my blood pressure has always been good. But it wasn't until I started looking at things ethically and morally and spiritually that I ultimately made my decision to become vegan. I couldn't morally or spiritually or ethically justify eating animals just for taste when I had no nutritional need for them. And it was that spiritual commitment is what it took for me to actually become vegan
Ama: What was your experience having been trained as a dietitian in medical school and as a doctor?
Nana Kwaku: In medical school it really didn't come up too much. You kind of move around a lot. I reasoned my job was to get in there and get out and not try to convince anybody of anything. I was there to learn. Today for most physicians, nutrition isn't an issue at all. I think they think I'm strange, those that know what I eat, and food is not on the radar for most physicians period. They don't seem to be thinking about it.
Ama: What role does nutrition play in your practice?
Nana Kwaku: I think proper nutrition is the key to being healthy. My motivation for being in medicine is number one, keep people healthy and number two, to help you heal once you have lost your health. I realize that the old adages of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and the words of Imhotep who said "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." made the most sense. Given that I did my undergraduate work in nutrition I have a better understanding of the role nutrition has in the etiology of disease.
So it's foremost, it’s central in my clinical practice. For people who have any type of internal medical problems, I'd say 90+ percent I'm doing some sort of nutritional work. In any setting I feel morally and ethically to let people know, whether they're interested in making any changes in their diet or not, let them know the nutritional origin of their illness. When you look at all of the causes of death and disability in the United States (outside of physicians themselves) all the killers are due to improper patterns of food consumption. There is just no way that I can practice ethically and not spend a huge portion of my clinical time talking about food.
Ama: That's very different from most physicians
Nana Kwaku: Yes, of course it's different. Most physicians don't know anything about nutrition. Nor is standard allopathic medicine about prevention anyway. I always quote this study that says that only 25% of physicians have any training in nutrition what so ever, and of those that do, most do not believe that if you told somebody to eat differently that they would change anyway, so they don't bother. And also we have to realize that the vast majority of us are addicted to our pattern of food consumption, are addicted to what we eat. It's very unusual for anybody to tell anybody else not to do something that they are actively addicted to. If you're addicted to and committed to eating meat it's really difficult for you to tell someone else not to. And it comes off as hypocritical, so I think to expect or even imagine that you would get from your standard MD or even DO, any intelligent discussion about nutrition is misguided. It's just not going to happen.
Ama: What changes did you see for yourself as you changed your diet?
Nana Kwaku: First off, because I started changing my diet while young when I was already healthy, I've stayed healthy; I've never really developed disease. Except, I did develop some allergies back in the late 80s. I took dairy out of my diet and that completely wiped them out immediately. I never had allergies after that.
But it wasn't until I started eating raw that I noticed some differences in how I feel and other things. For example, when I am eating 100% raw as opposed to vegan (high raw) I need less sleep. And I tend to sleep better. Probably a half hour less need for sleep a night. And that's just the difference from eating vegan. I can't even imagine the difference from eating animal.
I notice that my digestion is better. I feel great, no digestive issues at all when I am eating raw. How my body responds to athletics or physical activity is different when I am eating raw. I warm up faster, I cool down faster and I recover faster. That was a big surprise.
My sexual potency is different. I've never had issues with sexual functioning but I find that when I am eating raw, I have stronger erections and better libido. I think it's all-good actually. I feel great when I am eating raw.
Ama: In terms of your patients what do you see when they change their diets?
Nana Kwaku: First off let's get clear. If you want to get rid of a disease or disease problem you've got to get rid of the cause. Most of the time it's what you eat that is the biggest part of the cause of the problem.
So for people who actually change the way they eat, they get rid of the problems that they came for overall. In other words, they heal from the problem. They don't have the problem anymore. That's a big deal for some people. Especially when your problem is cancer or diabetes or heart disease or other types of chronic inflammatory conditions. It changes their life. It's the most amazing and remarkable thing to see that happen. It's what I went into medicine for. It's a joy.
As oppose to the flip side, most physicians are very disillusioned and cynical, and myself too, I became very disillusioned at one point. The clinical setting in which I was working there was absolutely no reinforcement or motivation or discussion from anyone other than myself concerning diet. I had no resources and no one else ever even mentioned changing diet. So basically people came to get their pills and they didn't get better. They just got gradually worse the whole time, when I knew that if they were actually about making some changes and removing the causes of their problem then they would heal, the problem goes away.
It's just remarkable that, to me, if I came to see you and you told me, "Hey this is the cause of the problem and if you remove the cause, the problem goes away." I’d say, "Ok, let's get rid of the cause." If the problem was bad enough where it bothered me enough I would make that change.
That’s a big issue for most people, because most people are just so chronically tired and chronically sick that don't really know what it feels like to feel good. So to tell them you won't have that anymore most say, "So what! I like eating the way I eat." They don't realize "I'm going to FEEL a lot better when I don't have the problem anymore."
Ama: How is eating vegan relate to us as Afrikan people?
Nana Kwaku: I think fundamentally it is a crucial and central issue because we as Afrikan people are people who traditionally are one with the environment, we are one with nature and we are a people who believe in doing the right thing. We see the relationship of how we live with what happens in the world and if you are eating animal products you are actually contributing to the destruction of the environment. You are contributing to the suffering of animals that don't need to suffer otherwise. And that's not what we are about. We're about harmony, we're about peace, and we’re about respecting mother earth. If you are eating animals habitually, it’s disregarding, it's disrespectful to the environment, and it’s disrespectful to the animals. Eating vegan is probably the most important thing you can do on an individual basis to help the environment and that’s fundamental to who we are as Afrikan people
Ama: What advice do you have for folks wanting to become vegan, tips on transition?
Nana Kwaku: First off, I tell people you are going to enjoy eating more than you ever used to. You are going to open up new realms of recipes and genres of food in the vegan cuisine than you would otherwise. I think most people who eat animals are content on eating their burgers, their chicken, their fried fish, and that's it. There some variations to that don't get me wrong, there is Mexican or Pizza, or Chinese, but when you start looking into eating vegan, you start looking at what other types of recipes there are.
Second, it's not that hard, you can eat vegan pretty easily in most restaurants, in most cities in the country and do just fine. It's not like you are going to be deprived. You can find food to eat if you know how to look for it.
The next thing is you need to do your homework. You need to educate yourself because if you don't understand why and how to build yourself a pattern of food consumption that is vegan, then it's going to be difficult for you to make the changes away from the patterns that you are addicted to.
So what I am saying is that we're addicted to eating cooked food and we are addicted to eating animals. If you don't have a good positive way of living otherwise, if you just say I going to just stop eating meat and I am just going to eat salads, that's not going to work. You're not going to be happy eating just salads and brown rice. You're going to need to expand your repertoire even more. Read some good books. Contact some other people. Get involved in support groups. Join Food For the Soul. Do other things that will help you see that you are not as peculiar as you think you'll be if you become vegan. Especially among Afrikan people because it seems as we are twice as likely to be vegetarian as Europeans. So if you seek out and look for support you can find it. It's not that hard.
Ama: Any thing else?
Nana Kwaku: If you are about trying to change how you eat, realize that it's most important to develop your own moral, spiritual and ethical reasons for changing and not just selfish reasons for better health. That may be enough in itself, but it's easy to convince yourself that eating this burger once or twice won't hurt. When you have that idea that it's ok to cheat every now and then it's really hard to stay on your path of veganism. It's even more significant when you are eating raw.
Ama: Where can people find out more about you and your practice?