|"We Are What We Eat" by Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, President & CEO|
We Are What We Eat
March 1, 2014 - The benefits of a healthy lifestyle are legion. Helping folks in southwest Florida live longer, happier, and healthier lives has always been a commitment for NCH. We are now being joined in this noble pursuit by many organizations including the Chamber of Commerce and Public Health Department, just to name a few of the leaders.
Integral to this effort is individual responsibility. Daily pursuit of healthy activities and behaviors needs to be ingrained into our core values. In addition to daily exercise and avoiding tobacco, what we eat has a huge influence on the quality and length of our lives.
In the very interesting 2006 book “The China Study,” father and son authors, T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell, describe many long, complicated and sophisticated demographic studies that point to the benefits of a plant-based diet. These benefits include living longer, feeling younger, being more energetic, and controlling weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. Plant-based diets can also decrease the risks of suffering from many diseases including cancer, heart disease and mental deterioration.
Eight interrelated principles have been shared which, in general, are just good common sense.
#1 Nutrition represents the combined activities of countless food substances, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. By combining foods you achieve “a biochemical bonanza” according to “The China Study,” all of which interact to be beneficial.
#2 Vitamin supplements are not a panacea for good health. Isolated nutrients do not make up for a healthy, varied diet. Over the past decades more money has been spent on vitamins, based on marketing rather than evidence. Very few people who have a reasonable diet benefit from any vitamin supplement. In fact, the amount of vitamin spilled over into the urine equals what is ingested when folks already have a reasonable diet. The message is to consume vitamins in food, not as supplements.
#3 Virtually no nutrients in animal-based foods are better than those found in plant-based foods. Eating animal-based foods is markedly different than plant-based foods in terms of the excess cholesterol found in animal foods, versus appropriate amounts of beta-carotene, fiber, folate, Vitamin C, and some of the minerals that are bountiful in plant-based diets. Maintaining a low protein diet has been shown to be beneficial. There is one exception and that is Vitamin B12 which is necessary and not found in abundance in plants. As man evolved we lost the ability to make Vitamin B12 in our bodies, though some other mammals still can.
#4 Genes do not determine disease on their own. Genes activated by environmental factors such as poor diet, tobacco use, or lack of exercise, can cause disease. However, if genes are not activated, even though these genes may predispose to disease, there may not be any harm. There are huge variations in the incidence of disease in people with essentially the same genes. Environment – including diet – plays a large role.
#5 Nutrition can substantially control the adverse effects of noxious chemicals. We understand that a good diet can ameliorate some of the effects of noxious forces around our surroundings. Obviously, a better solution is to remove the noxious environment. For example, trying to make a “healthy potato chip” is not nearly as effective as avoiding potato chips.
#6 The same nutrition which prevents disease in its early stages can help slow down disease in later stages. Diabetics can improve at any stage of their illness with good diet control. Heart disease at any stage can be helped by a diet low in salt and cholesterol. Don’t give up because you got a late start.
#7 Nutrition which is beneficial in slowing down one disease is usually good for preventing other diseases. There are many commonalities among illnesses. Typically, what is good for one condition is good for others. The China Study’s emphasis on plant-based diets seems to be good in a multitude of ways.
#8 Good nutrition and good health are inexorably intertwined. Food and nutrition are essential for good health. Healthy life styles are essential for emotional and mental well-being. Physical activity is also essential but is not a substitute for good nutrition. And vice-versa, good nutrition cannot make up for lack of exercise or tobacco use.
The eight principles above are becoming more and more accepted since they are based on evidence. As a nation, we are still consuming way too much animal-based food. People who live to be 100, and those who thrive in the five “Blue Zones” around the world, average only about four servings of meat per month. Thus, a plant-based diet seems to add years to their lives.
We are not going to change overnight but we should be aware, as we strive for prevention, that a plant- based diet has objective merits. It is difficult to do as we have all been accustomed to one type of diet, but we are making progress with exercise and tobacco avoidance. By first understanding the advantages listed above, followed by gradual implementation, success will result and move us into a virtuous cycle. We have had success with lowering the prevalence of smoking; we can do the same with our diets.
Past Health Advice Articles
Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.