Veggies In Cattle Country: Leading Texas Hospital Now Promoting Plant-Based Diet

By Lorne Matalon
April 28, 2016
Lorne Matalon
This dish, an African stew, consists of vegetables and legumes, the essence of a plant-based diet. A leading hospital has become the first in historically beef-loving Texas to formally promote plant-based and vegetarian food for patients and visitors.

MIDLAND, Texas — A leading hospital in Texas is making a name for itself by taking on the ranching industry, an iconic fixture in the history of the Lone Star State. The hospital is now promoting a plant-based diet rich in vegetables and whole grains for patients and visitors.

First, here's a definition. "Plant-based" diet means ingestion of fruits, vegetables, legumes like alfalfa, peas, beans and peanuts, but no meat.

Nurturing cattle, sending them to the feed lot and then onto the slaughterhouse is a part of the culture here, burnished into a big part of what makes Texas, Texas. Now, Midland Memorial Hospital, a major medical player in the heart of cattle country, has become the first in the state to buck that culture.

Let's begin this story with Terry Drummer, a retired professor. Last summer he had a heart attack. Doctors put a book in his hands, a book about plants, and they said, "You have to make a choice."

"And I'm sitting there sweating. I say, 'OK, I'm going to die,'" he said.

The choice was stark and uneqivocal; undergo heart surgery, perhaps several surgeries, or learn about the medicinal qualities of plants and maybe give that a try instead.

"Do I want my chest ripped open? Or do I want to read a book?" he asked rhetorically.

The book was blunt. It told Drummer to give up beef, chicken, sausage, bacon, salt, sugar and fast food, items he said he once loved but now loathes. He met the challenge.

"I lose about three to four pounds a month. I eat all want. And it's all vegetarian," he said.

Drummer is still recovering. He has lost weight and the need for so much medicine.

“I’ve gone from 15 pills to four," he continued.

In the end, Drummer’s cardiac surgeon Dr. Staton Awtrey did not need to perform surgery. And Awtrey gives credit for that to Drummer's diet and the will to become healthier.

"We decided to embark on offering plant-based meals first for the patients as a prescribed diet," Awtrey said. "And then to roll that out and offer that to staff and visitors."

The hospital has company in the land of fried chicken and barbecue. University of North Texas has an all plant-based dining commons.

"They might change their diet to not have a heart attack. But they have all these collateral benefits they never anticipated," Awtrey said.

Awtrey also claimed a plant-based diet will mitigate or reverse and ultimately cure arthritis, diabetes and hypertension. And pointing to Drummer as an example, Awtrey said plant-based food promotes weight loss and the ability to get off certain kinds of medications.

“It is becoming mainstream and to deny it is just a fallacy. This is coming. We just want to be at the head of the pack," he said.

The United States government issues food guidelines every five years. Its latest, in January, says low-fat dairy — milk, yogurt, cheese — and lean meat and chicken are part of a balanced diet.

But it gives a nod to plant-based diets, saying you should also consume the essence of a plant-based diet — legumes like beans and soy products.

Drummer said he doesn't need a study to support his move to jettison meat.

"I tell you what. When death looks you in the face and you laugh at it, well I'm proud that I could do the vegetation, ‘cause I love it," he said beaming a Texas-sized smile.

That will almost certainly be hard pitch in this state for a long time. Ranchers are resilient in the face of up-and-down cattle prices, changing tastes and now, a hospital urging people to eat their vegetables.