More than an Apple a Day: Combating Common Diseases - NutritionFacts.org
I found all this information from Dr. Michael Greger, MD on his website called NutritionFacts.org. It's not a quick read but it has a lot of good information in it. I also read his book "How Not To Die". I read a few books before changing to a vegan diet and this was one that I particularly liked.
Transcript: More than an Apple a Day: Combating Common Diseases
For those of you unfamiliar with my work, every year I read through every issue of every English-language nutrition journal in the world—so you don’t have to. Every year, my presentations are brand new, because every year the science is brand new.
I then compile all the most interesting, the most groundbreaking, the most practical findings, and create videos, for my website: NutritionFacts.org.
Everything on the website is free. There are no ads, no corporate sponsorship. It’s strictly noncommercial. I’m not selling anything. I just put it up as a public service. New videos and articles every day, on the latest in nutritional science.
In my annual presentation last year, I ran through the 15 leading causes of death—exploring the latest science on the role diet may play in preventing, arresting, and even reversing the progression of some of our top 15 killers. (Or, if you recall, actually the top 16 killers). Since side effects from prescription drugs kill an estimated 106,000 Americans a year, the sixth leading cause of death, may actually be doctors.
And, that’s just from adverse drug reactions. Add in medical mistakes, which the Institute of Medicine estimates kills at least 44,000 Americans every year, and that brings doctors up to here. Throw in some hospital-acquired infections, and we’re talking maybe 187,000 Americans dead every year, and millions injured by medical care.
The best way to avoid the adverse effects of medical and surgical tests and treatments is not to avoid doctors, but to avoid getting sick in the first place. So, this year, I thought I’d run through the top dozen reasons people visit their doctors, to highlight some of the latest research in hopes of moving me lower down the list of common killers.
The #1 primary disease diagnosis at office visits is a respiratory disease, like the common cold. Most Americans report between two and three colds annually. This year, I featured evidence suggesting that simple water gargling is effective to prevent upper respiratory tract infections. This virtually cost-free modality would appreciably benefit people.
But that’s the problem: it’s “cost-free.” Nobody makes any money off it. That’s why you’ve probably never heard of this research. Whenever there’s a new drug or surgical procedure, you can be assured people will know about it, because there’s a profit motive—a corporate budget driving the promotion. That’s why you’ll never see an ad on TV for broccoli.
Same with exercise—can also improve immunity, and decreases illness rates from respiratory infections. We’re talking a 25 to 50% reduction in sick days. Name one drug or supplement that can do that.
And, it doesn’t take much. Let kids run around for just six minutes, and you can boost the number of immune cells in their bloodstream by more than a third. In just six minutes!
At the other end of the life cycle, exercise may help prevent age-related immune decline. Sedentary women in their 70s have about a 50% chance of getting an upper respiratory illness every fall season. But, walk a half-hour a day, you may cut your risk down to 20%. And, the runners in the group got it under 10. Looks like exercise can make our immune system like five times more effective.
Who wouldn’t want a boosted immune system? Well, millions of people suffer from autoimmune diseases, whose immune systems may already be a bit too active. So, might a healthy lifestyle make things worse, by boosting immune function further? No. Those who eat healthy appear protected from autoimmune diseases—given the extraordinary rarity of most autoimmune diseases among those following a traditional plant-based diet, for example. Before they Westernized their diet, not a single case of multiple sclerosis was diagnosed among 15 million people.
What about treating autoimmune diseases with a plant-based diet? Well, even a semi-vegetarian diet was found to successfully treat Crohn’s disease—better than any other intervention. The “best result in relapse prevention.” And, Crohn’s is an autoimmune disease. So, what about treating MS with diet?
The most frequently prescribed drug for multiple sclerosis is beta interferon, which can make you feel lousy, and cost $30,000 a year. But hey, it might be worthwhile if it actually worked. We learned last year that it does not seem to prevent or delay long-term disability.
That leaves chemo drugs like mitoxantrone, that causes irreversible heart damage in one out of every eight people who go on the drug, and treatment-related acute leukemia. It causes leukemia in nearly 1% of people who take it. But hey, MS is no walk in the park. If only there was a cheap, simple, safe, side effect-free solution that also just so happened to be the most effective treatment for MS ever described.
Dr. Roy Swank, who we lost at age 99, was a distinguished neurologist whose research culminated in over 170 scientific papers. But, I’ll just cut to the chase. He found that “in all probability, MS is caused largely by consumption of saturated animal fat.” He thought it was the sludging of the blood caused by even a single meal high in saturated fat that may clog tiny capillaries that feed our nerves. But, now we know animal fats can have all sorts of other adverse effects, such as inflammation—so, who knows what the actual mechanism may be.
Regardless, the results Dr. Swank published remain “the most effective treatment of multiple sclerosis ever reported in the peer review [medical] literature. In patients with early stage MS, 95% were without progression of their disease 34 years later after adopting his low saturated fat dietary program.” To date, no medication or invasive procedure has ever even come close to demonstrating such success. Doesn’t cost $30,000; doesn’t give you leukemia, and works—better!
Neurological problems are second on the list, but tend to be more common conditions, like headaches. Feel free to check out my videos on treating migraine headaches with lavender oil rubbed on the upper lip. And, hot sauce in the nose for cluster headaches? Believe me, it’s better than having cluster headaches.
I’ve talked about both preventing and treating Parkinson’s with a plant-based diet, since it’s a leading killer. But, the most common movement disorder isn’t Parkinson’s; it’s what’s called “essential tremor”—affecting 1 in 25 adults over 40, and up to 1 in 5 of those in their 90s, making it one of the most common neurological diseases. In addition to the potentially debilitating hand tremor, there can be other neuropsychiatric manifestations of the disease, including difficulty walking, and various levels of cognitive impairment.
What causes it? Well, there’s a group of neurotoxins that produce tremor, called beta carboline alkaloids. Harmane is one of the most potent of these tremor-producing neurotoxins. You expose people to these chemicals, and they develop a tremor. You take it away; the tremor disappears. What if we’re exposed long-term? Well, this recent study found those with essential tremor have much higher levels of this toxin in their bloodstream compared to those without tremor.
How did they get exposed to it? Primarily through meat: beef, chicken, and pork—and fish, actually. So, if this potent, tremor-producing neurotoxin is concentrated in cooked muscle foods, is meat consumption associated with a higher risk of essential tremor? Men who ate the most meat in this study had 21 times the odds of essential tremor. Just to put that in context, you go back to the original studies on smoking and lung cancer, smoking was only linked to, at most, 14 times the odds—not 21. That’s like a 2,000% increase in odds for this disabling brain disease.
Next on the list is circulatory diseases, the #1 killer of men and women. Among populations eating plant-based diets, MS was almost non-existent. What about heart disease?
Last year, the International Journal of Epidemiology reprinted this landmark article from the 50s that started out with a shocking statement: “In the African population of Uganda, coronary heart disease is almost non-existent.” Our #1 cause of death, almost nonexistent? What were they eating? Plantains and sweet potatoes, other vegetables, corn, millet, pumpkins, tomatoes, and, “green leafy vegetables are taken by all.” And, their protein almost entirely from plant sources. And, they had the cholesterol levels to prove it—similar to modern day plant-eaters.
Maybe the Africans were just dying early of other diseases, and so, never lived long enough to have a heart attack? No; here’s age-matched heart attack rates in Uganda versus St. Louis. Out of 632 autopsies in Uganda, one myocardial infarction. Out of 632 Missourians—same age and gender distribution—136 myocardial infarctions. More than a hundred times the rate of our #1 killer. In fact, they were so blown away, they did another 800 autopsies in Uganda, and still, just that one small healed infarct (meaning it wasn’t even the cause of death) out of 1,427 patients.. Less than one in a thousand. Whereas in the U.S., it’s an epidemic.
This is a list of diseases commonly found here (and in populations that eat and live like the U.S.), but were rare, or even nonexistent, in populations eating diets centered around whole plant foods. These are among our most common diseases, like obesity. Hiatal hernia—one of the most common stomach problems; hemorrhoids and varicose veins—the most common venous disorders; colorectal cancer—the #2 cause of cancer death; diverticulosis—the #1 disease of the intestine; appendicitis—the #1 cause for emergency abdominal surgery; gallbladder disease—the #1 cause for nonemergency abdominal surgery; and ischemic heart disease—the commonest cause of death here, but a rarity in plant-based populations.
Heart disease is a choice. It’s like cavities. If you look at the teeth of people who lived over 10,000 years before the invention of the toothbrush, they pretty much had no cavities. Didn’t brush a day in their lives, never flossed. No Listerine, no Waterpik, yet no cavities. That’s because candy bars hadn’t been invented yet. Why do people continue to get cavities when we know they’re preventable though diet? Simple. Because the pleasure people derive from dessert may outweigh the cost and discomfort of the dentist. And, that’s fine!
Look, as long as people understand the consequences of their actions, as a physician, what more can I do? If you’re an adult, and decide the benefits outweigh the risks for you and your family, then go for it. I certainly enjoy the occasional indulgence (I’ve got a good dental plan). But, what if, instead of the plaque on your teeth, we’re talking about the plaque building up in your arteries? Another disease that can be prevented, by changing your diet.
Then, what are the consequences for you and your family? Now, we’re not just talking about scraping tartar. Now we’re talking life, and death. The most likely reason most of our loved ones will die is heart disease. It’s still up to each of us to make our own decisions as to what to eat and how to live. But, we should make our choices consciously, educating ourselves about the predictable consequences of our actions.
Atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries, begins in childhood. By age ten, the arteries of nearly all kids have fatty streaks—the first stage of the disease. Then, the plaques start forming in our 20s, get worse in our 30s, and then can start killing us off. In our hearts, it’s a heart attack. In our brains, it’s a stroke. In our extremities, it can mean gangrene. And, in our aorta, an aneurism. If there is anyone in this audience that is older than ten years of age, then the choice isn’t whether or not to eat healthy to prevent heart disease—it’s whether or not you want to reverse the heart disease you already have.
As Drs. Ornish and Esselstyn proved, you can reverse heart disease with a plant-based diet. But, we don’t have to wait for our first heart attack to unclog our arteries. We can start reversing our heart disease right now. We can start reversing heart disease in our kids—tonight.
How do we do it? According to the Editor-in-Chief of the American Journal of Cardiology this year, the only risk factor required for these atherosclerotic plaques—our #1 killer—is cholesterol. Elevated LDL or “bad” cholesterol in our blood. To drop our LDL cholesterol, we need to drop our intake of three things: trans fat, saturated fat, and dietary cholesterol.
Trans fats increase our risk of heart disease, sudden death, and diabetes, and are basically found only one place in nature: animal fat. The food industry, however, found a way to synthetically create these toxic fats by hardening vegetable oil in a process called hydrogenation, which rearranges their atoms to make them behave more like animal fats. Currently, nearly half of America’s trans fat intake comes from animal products.
According to the USDA, cheese, milk, yogurt, burgers, chicken fat, turkey meat, bologna, and hot dogs contain up to about 1 to 5% trans fats naturally. They also found small amounts of trans fats in non-hydrogenated vegetable oils, due to the refining process.
Is getting a few percent trans fats a problem, though? The most prestigious scientific body in the United States, the National Academies of Science, concluded that the only safe intake of trans fat is zero, because any incremental increase in trans fatty acid intake increases coronary heart disease risk. Trans fat intake, irrespective of source—hydrogenated junk food or animal fat—may increase cardiovascular disease risk.
Because trans fats are unavoidable in ordinary non-vegan diets, getting down to zero percent trans fats would require significant changes in patterns of dietary intake for most Americans. One of the authors of the report, the Director of Harvard’s Cardiovascular Epidemiology Program, famously explained why, despite this, they didn’t recommend a plant-based diet: “We can’t tell people to stop eating all meat and all dairy products,” he said. “Well, we could tell people to become vegetarians,” he added. “If we were truly basing this only on science, we would, but it is a bit extreme.”
Wouldn’t want scientists basing anything on science, now. Would we? No.
Avoiding saturated fat means basically avoiding dairy, chicken, cake, and pork. And avoiding cholesterol means avoiding animal products in general—especially eggs. The American Egg Board, a promotional marketing board appointed by the U.S. government, whose mission works “to increase demand for egg and egg products, on behalf of U.S. egg producers.” Because the board is overseen by the federal government, if an egg corporation wants to dip into the $10 million the Egg Board sets aside every year for advertising, they’re not allowed to break the law with those funds—what a concept. This leads to quite revealing exchanges between egg corporations and the USDA, on what the egg industry can and cannot say about eggs.
Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to get my hands on some of those emails. Do ya wanna see ’em? Of course, a lot of what I got looked like this… (entire page filled with censored [redacted] text) “Please note a number of items” about our salmonella crisis module—”any questions?” Or, even better, entire sheets of paper that literally just said this. That was the whole sheet of paper. Our tax dollars, hard at work.
But, check this out. This is some egg company trying to put out a brochure on healthy snacking for kids. But, because of existing laws against false and misleading advertising, the head of the USDA’s poultry Research and Promotion Programs reminds them that you can’t couch eggs or egg products as being healthy or nutritious. See, the words nutritious and healthy carry certain connotations (you know that a food is actually good for you), but, because eggs have the amount of cholesterol they do (plus all the saturated fat), the words healthy and nutritious are problematic when it comes to eggs. This is the USDA saying this!
Since you can’t say eggs are a healthy start to the day, the USDA suggests eggs are a “satisfying” start. Can’t call eggs a healthy ingredient, but you can call eggs a “recognizable” ingredient. Can’t truthfully say eggs are good for you. By law, the egg industry needs to steer clear of words like “healthy” or “nutritious.” For a food to be labeled “healthy” under FDA rules, it has to be low in saturated fat—eggs fail that test—and, less than 90mg of cholesterol per serving. Even half an egg fails that.
Not only is the industry barred from saying eggs are healthy, they can’t even refer to eggs as safe: “all references to safety must be removed.” Remember, this is the USDA talking. Why? Because more than 100,000 Americans are salmonella-poisoned, by eggs—every year.
Instead of “safe,” you can call eggs “fresh,” the USDA marketing service suggests. But, you can’t call eggs safe. You cannot say eggs are safe to eat. Can’t say they’re safe; can’t even mention safety. Can’t say they’re healthful. All “references to healthfulness must be deleted,” as well.
Wait a second. Not only can eggs not be called healthy, they can’t even be called safe? Says who? Says the United States Department of Agriculture. I love the Freedom of Information Act.
Musculoskeletal and connective tissue disorders are next. I always assumed cholesterol drugs were the top class of drugs prescribed. But, it’s actually painkillers, for conditions like fibromyalgia, a syndrome suffered by millions, that can be dramatically improved with a variety of plant-based diets—in fact, producing some of the “most impressive results” to date.
I already covered both diabetes, and, depression, as two of our leading causes of death, last year.
Pap smears—for early detection of cervical cancer—are a common reason for a doctor’s visit. Cervical cancer is now considered a sexually transmitted disease, caused by a sexually transmitted virus, HPV.
Most young women these days contract HPV, but most don’t get cervical cancer, because their immune systems are able to clear the virus away. 70% of women clear the infection within one year, and more than 90% within two years—before the virus can cause cancer, unless you’re immunocompromised or something.
Well, if that’s the case, maybe those with particularly strong immune systems might clear the virus even faster. That’s what may be behind this new study, that found women eating vegetarian also appeared to have significantly lower infection rates with HPV—one of many studies reporting lower risk of HPV infection among those eating plant-based diets.
So, for example, if you take a bunch of women with cancer-causing strains of HPV infecting their cervix, and retest at three months, then nine months—while analyzing their diets, what do you find? Higher levels of vegetable consumption may cut the risk of HPV persistence in half, doubling one’s likelihood of clearing this cancer-causing infection. And, “higher” levels meant just like two or more servings a day.
This may help explain these important new findings this year. Vegan woman have significantly lower rates of all female cancers combined, including cancer of the cervix. So, even though it’s a virus that’s causing the cancer, a healthy diet may still reduce the risk.
In the same way, fermented pickles, kimchi, and sauerkraut foster the growth of good bacteria by maintaining an acidic environment, so does the human vagina. The normal pH of one’s vagina is that of tomato juice.
Once it starts creeping up to that of coffee, though, an overgrowth of bad bacteria can take hold, and cause bacterial vaginosis, which affects an astounding 29% of American women—making it the most frequent cause of vaginal complaints. It’s commonly diagnosed with the so-called whiff test, where the doctor takes a whiff of the vaginal discharge, smelling for the characteristic fishy odor.
Why’s it so common? Well, it’s thought that “High fat intake, particularly saturated fat [remember—dairy, chicken, cake, and pork], may increase vaginal pH, thereby increasing the risk of bacterial vaginosis.” So, now that we know, “The next steps ahead include sharing these findings with OB/GYNS, and general practitioners, as well as increasing the awareness of the general community to the importance of optimal nutrition, to prevent infections of the genital tract, reduce associated disease, and maintain reproductive health.”
What might saturated fat do to the reproductive health of men? A recent Harvard study found that increasing saturated fat intake just 5% was associated with a 38% lower sperm count. But why? I’ve talked about the role of xenoestrogens—endocrine-disrupting industrial pollutants that build up in animal fat. But, male fertility is not just about sperm count (the number of sperm), but also how well the sperm cells work. More about that in my video on Male Fertility and Diet.
When it comes to male reproductive health, though, here is what doctors hear about the most. Erectile dysfunction is present in up to 30 million men in the U.S., and approximately 100 million men worldwide. Wait a second. The U.S. only has around 5% of the world’s population, yet up to 30% of the impotence? We’re #1!
Who cares, though? We’ve got red white and blue pills, like Viagra. The problem is, pills just cover up the symptoms of vascular disease, and don’t do anything for the underlying pathology. Erectile dysfunction and coronary artery disease can be thought of as two manifestations of the same disease—inflamed, clogged, and crippled arteries.
In fact, 40% of men over 40 have erectile dysfunction—40 over 40. Placing them at nearly 50 times the risk of having a cardiac event—like sudden death. Nearly a 5,000% increase in risk, leading the latest review to ask, “Is there any risk greater?”
And, we used to think of erectile dysfunction in younger men, in their 20s and 30s, as “psychogenic in origin”—meaning it’s all in their heads. But, now were realizing it’s more likely the early signs of vascular disease. A man with erectile dysfunction (even if they have no cardiac symptoms) should be considered a cardiac patient, until proved otherwise.
The reason even young men should care about their cholesterol level is that hardening of the arteries can lead to softening of the penis later in life. Your cholesterol level now can predict your sexual functioning later.
Just going to keep eating crap because you can pop some pills? All the Viagra in the world may not help your sex life after a stroke. The take-home message is a simple equation: ED stands for early death. It’s survival of the firmest.
The enzyme that Viagra-like drugs muck with is found primarily in two places in the body: the erectile tissue of the penis, and the retinas of the eyes. That’s why the FDA encourages people to stop taking drugs like Viagra, and call a doctor right away if you experience sudden loss of vision, (if, of course, you can still find your phone).
Which brings up the next group of primary diagnoses—injury and poisoning—which includes adverse drug side effects.
Next comes skin complaints. Any hope for those with cellulite? Check out the video, but basically, researchers compared a meat-free, egg-free diet of mostly vegetables, grains, beans, fruits, and nuts to the conventional diabetic diet. The veg group lost more weight, even though they were made to eat the exact same number of calories—yet still lost more weight. Lost more waist; got slimmer; lost more cholesterol; more subcutaneous fat, and more belly fat. And the subcutaneous fat is what makes up cellulite.
And those with sensitive skin should give flax seeds a try.
Next up is digestive issues. Though, there is an International Prune Association, keeping us all apprised of the latest prune news from around the world. In the U.S., the California prune board successfully pressured the FDA to change the name from prunes to dried plums, which evidently evokes more of a positive, fresh fruit goodness image, in hopes of attracting their target audience—women. (Of course, it might help if they actually included one or two on their board.)
The name change was in hopes of “de-emphasizing” its connections to digestive regularity issues. Why sell yourself short, though!? Randomized clinical trial: prunes vs. Metamucil. Nearly 60 million Americans suffer from chronic constipation. Here’s the study subjects at baseline. Each dot is a complete spontaneous bowel movement. Note how many people had zero bowel movements— per week—at baseline, but how many had an average of 1.7 a week, which went up to 3.5 on prunes—a bowel movement every other day, at least. Better than Metamucil. They conclude that dried plums should be considered as a first-line therapy for chronic constipation.
But, if that’s what adding one plant can do, what if all you ate was plants? Off the charts. Vegans, it turns out, are just regular people.
Elsewhere on my website, I also cover other common digestive conditions, such as irritable bowel and chronic indigestion.
But, what about cancer?
A half-million Americans are expected to die this year from cancer—equal to five jumbo jets crashing every day. The number of Americans who die from cancer each year is more than all those who have died in all U.S. wars combined. And, this happens every single year.
A tumor cannot grow, though, without a blood supply. Currently, it is believed that a tumor can’t get much bigger than the ball at the tip of a pen without a blood supply, which indicates that angiogenesis (angio means vessel; so genesis is the creation of new blood vessels) is critical to tumor growth.
Each one of us has cancer cells in our bodies right now. But, they can’t grow without getting hooked up to a blood supply. So, tumors diabolically release angiogenic factors—chemicals that cause new blood vessels to sprout into the tumor. The most important one is called VEGF—vascular endothelial growth factor. But, we can suppress VEGF with veggies.
Many of the phytonutrients we know and love in tea, and spices, and fruit, and berries, and broccoli, and beans, can block cancer’s stimulation of new blood vessels. Given the power of plants, one might speculate that the foundation of an anti-angiogenic approach to cancer might be a whole food vegan diet.
How else can we starve cancer? Forty years ago, a landmark paper was published showing that many human cancers have what’s called absolute methionine dependency—meaning “normal cells thrive without the amino acid methionine, but cancer cells need it (and must get it), or they die.”
What does cancer do with the methionine? Tumors use methionine to generate gaseous sulphur-containing compounds that specially trained diagnostic dogs actually can detect. There are mole-sniffing dogs that can pick out skin cancer. There are breath-sniffing dogs that can pick out people with lung cancer. Pee-sniffing dogs that can diagnose bladder cancer. And, yes, you guessed it—fart-sniffing dogs for colorectal cancer. Doctors can now bring their Lab to the lab. A whole new meaning to the term PET scan.
Chemo companies are fighting to be the first to come out with a methionine-depleting drug. But, since methionine is sourced mainly from food, a better strategy may be to lower methionine levels by lowering methionine intake—eliminating high-methionine foods for both cancer growth control as well as lifespan extension.
So, where is methionine found? Particularly in chicken, and fish, milk, red meat, and eggs (which have less). But, if you really want to stick with lower methionine foods, stick with plants—fruits, nuts, veggies, grains, and beans. In other words, “In humans, methionine restriction may be achieved using a predominately vegan diet,” making methionine restriction “feasible, as a life extension strategy.”
So, do people who choose beans live longer? Legumes– beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils— may be the single most important dietary predictor of survival in older people from around the globe, whereas a bean-free diet may increase the risk of death.
It is now eight years since the famous Ornish study was published, suggesting that 12 months on a strictly plant-based diet could reverse the progression of prostate cancer.
Wait a second. How were they able to get a group of older men to go vegan for a year? They home-delivered prepared meals to their door, figuring men are so lazy, they’ll just eat whatever’s put in front of them.
But, what about out in the real world? Realizing that you can’t get most men with cancer to eat even a measly five servings of fruits and veggies, researchers settled on just trying to change their A-to-V ratio—the ratio of animal to vegetable proteins. And, indeed, were successful in cutting this ratio in half at least—from about two to one animal to plant, to kinda half-vegan, one to one.
How’d they do? A part-time plant-based diet appeared to slow down cancer progression. What Ornish got, though, was an apparent reversal in cancer growth. The cancer biomarker PSA didn’t just rise slower; thanks to eating healthier, it trended down—which could be an indication of tumor shrinkage. So, the ideal animal-to-plant ratio may be closer to zero.
But if there’s just no way grandpa’s going vegan, and we just have half-measures, what might be the worst A, and the best V? Eggs and poultry may be the worst, respectively doubling, and potentially quadrupling, the risk of cancer progression. Harvard researchers found eating less than a single egg a day doubles the risk—and, eating less than a single serving of chicken or turkey quadruples the risk.
And, if you could only add one thing to your diet? Cruciferous vegetables. Less than a single serving a day of either broccoli or Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, or kale may cut the risk of cancer progression more than half. A similar result was found for breast cancer survivors—less than a single serving a day may cut the risk in half of the cancer coming back.
This Women’s Healthy Eating and Living Study was undertaken in 3,000 breast cancer survivors to determine whether a plant-based, low-fat, high-fiber diet could influence breast cancer recurrence rates and survival.
Imagine you have been diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, an estrogen receptor negative tumor, which normally means twice the death rate—unless you eat five servings of fruits and veggies a day, and walk 30 minutes, six days a week. The “high” vegetable, fruit, and physical activity should really be in quotes. I mean, you could eat five servings in a single meal, and certainly walk more than, like, two miles a day.
But, imagine, for a second, you have just been diagnosed. Imagine sitting in that chair, in the doctor’s office, as your doctor breaks the news. Imagine how you’d feel, at that moment. Let it sink in. But, your doctor says there’s also a new experimental treatment that can cut your chances of dying in the next few years from over 16%, down to just 4%. To quadruple their survival rate, many women would remortgage their homes to fly to some quack clinic in Mexico; would lose all their hair to chemo. But most, apparently, couldn’t stand the thought of eating broccoli, and cutting down on meat.
Maybe someone should start cooking meals for the women, too!
The only reason Ornish and colleagues could get away with treating prostate cancer with a vegan diet alone—with no chemo, surgery or radiation—is because prostate’s such a slow-growing cancer, that patients with early disease can be placed in a holding pattern. So, if you’re not going to do anything but watch-and-wait, might as well test out a dietary intervention. Are there other cancers like that we can try plants on?
Esophageal cancer, for example, which is not the cancer to get. Most die within months of diagnosis. But, the development of esophageal cancer is a multistage process. You start out with a normal esophagus—the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach. Starts out fine, then precancerous changes start to take place. Then, localized cancer starts to grow. Then, eventually it spreads, and you die.
Because of the well-defined, stepwise progression of the cancer, researchers jumped on it as a way to test the ability of berries—the healthiest of fruits—to reverse this process. A randomized Phase Two clinical trial of powdered strawberries. Six months eating the equivalent of a pound of fresh strawberries a day, and the progression of disease was reversed in 80% of the patients.
At the beginning of the study, none had a normal esophagus. But, by the end of the study, most lesions either regressed from moderate to mild, or disappeared completely. From moderate to mild. Or, from mild to gone. By the end of the study, half of those on the high-dose strawberry treatment walked away disease-free. 52.7% cured.
A drop in tumor markers: before and after. All because of just strawberries. Cellular proliferation before, and none after, strawberry treatment. Same story with black raspberries and oral cancer; most of the patients’ lesions improved, including complete clinical regression. Now, you see it; now, you don’t. A turning back on, of tumor-suppressor genes. So, even though it may have been something like tobacco that caused the cancer, diet may still affect progression. But, this kind of treasure remains “berried”—no pun intended—because nobody profits. Nobody, that is, except the hundreds of thousands of people that otherwise would die every year from these horrific cancers.
And, finally, infections. After the common cold, the most common infection is of the urinary tract. We’ve known for decades that it’s bacteria creeping up from the rectum that cause bladder infections. But, only recently did we figure out where that rectal reservoir of bladder-infecting E.coli was coming from: chicken.
We now have “proof of a direct link” between farm animals, meat, and bladder infections—solid evidence that urinary tract infections can be a zoonosis, that is, bladder infections as an animal-to-human disease. The best way to prevent bladder infections is the same way you best prevent any type of infections—by not getting infected in the first place.
Can’t you just use a meat thermometer, and cook the chicken thoroughly? No, because of cross-contamination. We’ve known for decades that if you give someone a frozen chicken to prepare and cook in their own kitchen as they normally would, a multitude of antibiotic-resistant E. coli jump from the chicken into the gut of the volunteer—even before eating it! This jump happens after the bird is prepared, but before any meat was eaten.
So, not only did it not matter how well the chicken was cooked; it doesn’t even matter if you eat any! It’s bringing it into the home, and handling it. Within days, the drug-resistant chicken bacteria had multiplied to the point of becoming a major part of the person’s gut flora. The chicken bacteria was taking over.
What if you’re really careful in the kitchen, though? “The effectiveness of hygiene procedures for prevention of cross-contamination from chicken carcasses in the domestic kitchen.” They went into five dozen homes, gave them each a chicken, and asked them to cook it. After they were done cooking, there was bacteria from chicken feces—salmonella, campylobacter, both serious human pathogens—everywhere. On the cutting board, utensils, on their hands, on the fridge handle, cupboard, oven handle doorknob. But this was before they cleaned up.
What about after cleaning? Still, pathogenic fecal bacterial everywhere. And, this was just regular retail chicken bought at the store. The researchers didn’t, like, inoculate the birds with bacteria— they came prepackaged with pathogens. Obviously, people don’t know what they’re doing in the kitchen. So, they took another group of people, and gave them specific instructions. After you cook the chicken you have to wash everything with hot water and detergent. They were told, specifically: wash the cutting board, knobs on the sink, the faucet, the fridge, the doorknobs, everything. Okay, and, the researchers still found disease-causing fecal matter chicken bugs everywhere.
Fine. Last group. This time, they were going to insist that people bleach everything. The dishcloth, immersed in bleach disinfectant, and then they spray the bleach on all those surfaces. Let the bleach disinfectant sit there for five minutes. And, still they found campylobacter and salmonella on some utensils, a dishcloth, the counter around the sink, and the cupboard. Definitely better, but still. Unless our kitchen is like some biohazard lab, the only way to guarantee we’re not going to leave infection around the kitchen is to not bring it into the house in the first place.
The good news is that it’s not like you eat chicken once, and you’re colonized for life. In this study, the chicken bacteria only seemed to last about ten days before our good bacteria was able to muscle it out of the way. The problem is that most families eat chicken more than once every ten days, so they may be constantly reintroducing these chicken bugs into their systems.
Anyways, there we have it—the top dozen reasons people seek medical care. Mostly, for diseases that could have been prevented. And then, rather than treating the underlying causes of the disease, typically doctors treat risk factors for disease—such as giving a lifetime’s worth of medications to lower high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol.
But, think about it. High blood pressure is just a symptom of diseased, dysfunctional arteries. Yes, you can artificially lower blood pressure with drugs, but that’s not treating the root cause. Disregarding the underlying causes, and treating only risk factors is somewhat like mopping up the floor around an overflowing sink, instead of just turning off the faucet. But, drug companies are more than happy to sell people a new roll of paper towels, every day, for the rest of their lives.
When the underlying lifestyle causes are addressed, patients often are able to stop taking medication, or avoid surgery. We spend billions cracking people’s chests open, but only rarely does it actually prolong anyone’s life.
In contrast, how about wiping out at least 90% of heart disease? Think about it. Heart disease accounts for more premature deaths than any other illness, and is almost completely preventable by simply changing diet and lifestyle. And, those same changes can prevent, or reverse, many other chronic diseases as well—the same dietary changes!
So, why don’t more doctors do it?
Well, one reason is doctors don’t get paid for it. No one profits from lifestyle medicine, so it is not part of medical education or practice. Presently, physicians lack training and financial incentives. So, they continue to do what they know how to do—prescribe medication, and perform surgery.
After Dean Ornish proved you could reverse our #1 cause of death—heart disease; open up arteries without drugs, without surgery—just with a plant-based diet and other healthy changes, he thought that his studies would have a meaningful effect on the practice of mainstream cardiology. After all, a cure for our #1 killler? But, he admits, he was mistaken. He realized physician “reimbursement is a much more powerful determinant of medical practice than research.”
Reimbursement over research. Not a very flattering portrayal of the healing profession. But hey, if docs won’t do it without getting paid, let’s get them paid. So, Dr. Ornish went to Washington arguing that, look, “If we train and pay for doctors to learn how to help patients address the real causes of disease with lifestyle medicine and not just treat disease risk-factors, we could save trillions,”—and, that’s just talking heart disease, diabetes, prostate, and breast cancer.
The “Take Back Your Health Act” was introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2009 to induce doctors to learn and practice lifestyle medicine—not only because it works better, but (and here’s the critical factor) physicians will be paid to do it. The bill died—just like millions of Americans will continue to do, with reversible chronic diseases.
We have known for at least a decade that the leading causes of both premature death and persistent misery in our society are chronic diseases. These diseases are attributable to the use of our feet (exercise), forks (diet), and fingers (smoking). Feet, forks, and fingers are the master levers of medical destiny, for not just thousands of people on any one occasion—like a tsunami or earthquake—but the medical destiny of millions upon millions, year after year.
We, as doctors, as a medical profession, have known all this. Ornish published 23 years ago. But, “we have not managed to care,” writes the Director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center. “At least, not care deeply enough to turn what we know into what we routinely do. Were we to do so, we might be able to eliminate” most heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and cancer.
But saving millions of lives is just a number. He asks doctors to forget the bland statistics of public health, and ask yourself if you love someone who has suffered a heart attack, stroke, cancer, or diabetes. “Now, imagine their faces, whisper their names. Recall what it felt like to get the news. And, while [you’re] at it, imagine the faces of others…like you and me imagining beloved faces.” Look around the room.
“Now imagine if eight of 10 of us wistfully reflecting on intimate love and loss, on personal anguish, never got that dreadful news because it never happened. Mom did not get cancer; dad did not have a heart attack; grandpa did not have a stroke; sister, brother, aunt, and uncle did not lose a limb or kidney or eyes to diabetes. We are all intimately linked, in a network of personal tragedy, that need never have occurred.”
Which leads to what he is asking doctors to do about it—to “put a face on public health every chance you get. When talking about heart disease and its prevention—or cancer or diabetes—ask your audience to see in their mind’s eye the face of a loved one affected by that condition. Then, imagine that loved one…among the 80% who need never have succumbed if what we knew [as doctors] were what we do.”