The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers – A Book by Dr. Michael Greger
The book “How Not To Die” is a reminder that lifestyle matters. As Dr. Michael Greger takes the reader through the 15 most likely causes of death in America, it becomes clear that something is wrong with what most of us were taught about how to live a long and healthy life.
For those not familiar with Dr. Michael Greger, you will find him to be an excellent source of information amount nutrition and to some degree, lifestyle in general. Each year Dr. Greger’s mission is to review every new research report about nutrition and discover its importance or lack thereof. That’s an amazing feat and one which I appreciate since there are not enough hours in a day for me to take that job on top of running a medical practice. What distinguishes Dr. Greger is his mission to educate the public with easy to understand information on a website that is free to use and free of commercial influences. While Dr. Greger does offer his books and videos, the same information is free to anyone interested in browsing his website. Now back to the book.
The book begins with a personal story about the author’s Grandmother, who had been diagnosed with a terminal heart condition. She had received bypass operations and finally reached a point where no further surgeries could help and was sent home to die at age 65. After changing to a plant-based diet, she recovered, began walking 10 miles a day and went on to live another 31 years.
The amazing recovery would have seemed a miracle except that it wasn’t a new story. Actually, missionaries in Africa had long before noticed the positive effect of diet on heart disease. What they had observed was rates of heart disease 100 times less than in the United States. They had also noticed far fewer cancers of the colon, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, hiatal hernias, obesity, diverticulitis, appendicitis, and gallbladder disease.
Learning about this amazing effect of diet on health, a young engineer, Nathan Pritikin, chose to try the diet as a cure for his own heart disease. His success in treating himself led to establishing a clinic and ultimately to the Pritikin Diet. At first, he hoped to slow the progression of his disease or perhaps stop the disease. Instead, something unexpected happened. His heart disease began to reverse. When he stopped eating an artery-clogging diet, his arteries started opening up. As he would later learn, even some cases of severe triple-vessel heart disease could respond well. For many, their bodies had wanted to be healthy all along but had never before had a chance.
While Dr. Greger has a compelling story with science on his side, he also realizes that it’s up to each of us to make our own decisions about what to eat and how to live. Educating us about the consequences of our actions is his mission. Dr. Greger reminds us that on the Standard American Diet (SAD), coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis begin in childhood. By age 10, the arteries of nearly all children raised on the standard American diet already have fatty streaks, the first stage of the disease. The plaques that continue to form in our 20s, 30s, and 40s then start picking us off. When a blockage happens in our heart, we call it a heart attack. In our brains, the same disease is called a stroke. As Dr. Greger explains, if over the age of 10 and not on a heart-healthy diet, best to reconsider and be sure you have made the life choice you prefer. While not all cardiovascular disease can be reversed, with a strict diet, improvements in blood flow are sometimes seen after only three weeks of eating healthy.
To explain why what we eat makes a difference, Dr. Greger offers the example of a man that whacks himself on the shin three times a day. Of course, the man’s shin becomes inflamed, sore, and never completely heals. Similarly, eating foods that have an inflammatory effect three times a day will never allow our gut to heal. Call it the best-kept secret in medicine if you like – given the right conditions, our body often heals itself. Just as the man whacking himself on the shin could have healed just fine by stopping the whacks, we usually begin healing internally when we stop the three SAD meals a day that is causing the inflammation.
Far too often, inflammation is treated as an acute condition with analgesics or other medications that suppress symptoms. Had the man whacking himself gone to a doctor, he might have explained, “Oh, my shin hurts so bad.” From the doctor, “No problem, an Rx for painkillers can get you going.” Thanks to modern medicine, the man could now continue to whack his shin three times a day while feeling so much better. Thank heavens for modern medicine. It’s like taking nitroglycerine for crushing chest pain. There is a tremendous relief, but you’re not actually treating the underlying cause or the disease. Stopping smoking is another opportunity for healing. Within 15 years of quitting smoking, a person’s lung cancer risk approaches that of a lifelong non-smoker. The body’s ability to heal when we stop whacking it is amazing. In 15 years, the lungs can clear out all the tar and eventually it’s almost as if the person never smoked. Unfortunately, for the smoker, every puff is just another whack at the lungs.
In an age of amazing scientific discoveries, you may wonder why you can’t count on science to make amends for all of your habits. In some cases you can, in most, you can’t. Take the case of a man with severe angina (chest pains), that couldn’t walk to the mailbox. With the aid of expensive anti-angina drugs that cost thousands of dollars a year he could prolong exercise duration as long as 33.5 seconds. In contrast, by eating a strict diet for a few months, he might not need the medicine and be ready for active living. Dealing with the root cause of the disease is usually safer, less expensive, and provides better long term outcomes.
So, what about cancer? What happens if you put a person with cancer on a plant-based diet? Dr. Dean Ornish and colleagues found that in the case of the prostate, progression of cancer could often be reversed with a plant-based diet and other healthy lifestyle behaviors. In women, they found similar results for breast cancer. It seems that our immune system has an ability to reprogram cancer cells and force them into early retirement. Even better results were found when the diet was combined with exercise. Of course, this approach has not been proven for all cancers, and for more aggressive cancers traditional treatments still have remarkable value. Fortunately, most cancers grow very slowly and if not given a lifestyle environment that encourages growth may remain small enough to never be a significant concern.
As previously mentioned, strokes are another reason people die prematurely. As Dr. Greger points out, strokes are the fourth most likely reason you or your loved ones will die. And yet, reducing the risk for strokes may require no more than eating more potassium-rich plant foods. Unfortunately, 98% of Americans don’t reach the recommended minimum daily intake. If that thought made you reach for a banana, be aware that all plant foods have potassium and that while bananas have potassium, many common foods have more per serving. In fact, of all foods commonly eaten bananas come in at 1,611, right after Reese’s Pieces. Among the most concentrated whole food sources of potassium in the American diet are beans, greens, and dates.
As Dr. Greger continues his assessment of the 15 most common reasons people die prematurely, he discusses the preponderance of evidence implicating lifestyle as a cause for Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, kidneys disease, mood disorders, mental health, infections, hypertension, Parkinson’s disease, osteoporosis, and more.
In closing, Dr. Greger offers a thought experiment. If you were a smoker in the 1950’s, would you stop smoking or wait? Even if living in the early 1960s and waiting for unassailable scientific proof, you would have continued to smoke another 15 years and would have likely died from cancer. If on the other hand you had carefully considered the epidemiological data indicating that you had a 10 times higher risk of lung cancer than non-smokers, you might have stopped smoking and never had lung cancer. Today, we have a similar situation. Proof that diet is linked to heart disease and cancer is quite compelling but still lacks the level of cause and effect proof that would remove a specific food from the market. However, epidemiological studies show a greatly increased risk. So what is a person to do? Would you stop eating foods that have a high probability of causing disease or wait another 15 years for definitive proof?
From the first research showing that smoking was implicated as a cause for lung cancer, it took 25 years before the Surgeon General’s report was released to the public. During those years over 7,000 studies demonstrated the likely link between tobacco and cancer. As Dr. Greger likes to point out, “You’d think maybe after a couple of thousand studies the Government would have given a little heads up.” Unfortunately, powerful industries had the ability to dilute and suppress information.
If considering changes in how you live, I recommend Dr. Greger’s book, “How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.” If not sure whether this book is for you, consider watching the YouTube video by the same name as the book. In this one-hour video, Dr. Greger provides what you might call the “Cliff Notes” for how not to die prematurely and not have it be your own fault.
Nancy Neighbors, MD
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