How Diet Can Treat and Beat Society’s Leading Diseases
By Michael Greger, MD
A landmark article from the 1950s was recently reprinted in the International Journal of Epidemiology, and it started out with a shocking statement: In the African population of Uganda, coronary heart disease is almost nonexistent.
Wait a second—our most prevalent modern-day cause of death almost nonexistent? What were they eating back then? Do a little research, and you’ll find this population ate lots of plantains, sweet potatoes, and vegetables. Their protein came almost exclusively from plant sources, and they had the cholesterol levels to prove it. They ate a diet very similar to what you see in today’s plant eaters.
Reasoning and Research
Maybe the Africans were just dying earlier—of some other causes—before they ever had a chance to develop heart disease. Could that be the reasoning behind this shocking statistic? Recent research analysis says no.
When analyzing aged-matched heart attack rates in Uganda vs. St. Louis, Missouri, researchers discovered that out of 632 autopsies in Uganda, there was only one instance of a heart attack; but out of 632 aged and gender matched autopsies in Missouri, there were 136 heart attacks.
That’s more than a hundred times the rate of our No. 1 killer.
In fact, researchers were so blown away by these numbers that they did another 800 autopsies in Uganda, yet still just that one heart attack remained. In total, that means that less than 1 in 1,000 Ugandan people had died as a result of a heart attack; in contrast, heart disease here in the US is an epidemic.
There is a lengthy list of diseases commonly found in the US and in places that eat a Western diet—diseases that are rare or even nonexistent in populations with diets centered on plant foods. These include obesity; hiatal hernia, one of the most common stomach problems; hemorrhoids and varicose veins, two of the most common venous problems; colorectal cancer, the number two cause of cancer death; diverticular disease, the most common disease of the intestines; appendicitis, the most common cause of emergency abdominal surgery; gallbladder disease, the most common cause of non-emergency abdominal surgery; and, of course, heart disease, the most common cause of death in the US, but a rarity among plant-based populations. This suggests that heart disease may be a choice—much like cavities.
If you look at the teeth of people who lived more than 10,000 years before the invention of the toothbrush, you won’t find many cavities. These people didn’t brush a day in their lives—not to mention the absence of floss or mouthwash—so why didn’t they develop cavities?
The plainest answer is because candy bars hadn’t been invented yet. Their diet wasn’t polluted with excess processed sugar. So why do people today continue to get cavities when we know they’re preventable through diet? It’s simple: The pleasure people derive from dessert may outweigh the cost and discomfort of the dentist chair.
As long as people understand the consequences of their actions, that decision is fine, right? Adults who believe the benefits outweigh the risks for them and their families should be able to make those dietary decisions without judgment. I’m a physician, and I, too, certainly enjoy the occasional indulgence. I’ve got a good dental plan.
But what if instead of talking about the plaque on our teeth, we’re talking about the plaque building up inside of our arteries—another disease that can be prevented through diet? Then, what are the consequences? We’re not talking about scraping tartar anymore—now, we’re talking about life or death. It’s still up to each one of us to determine what to eat and how to live, but we should make these choices consciously, educating ourselves about the predictable consequences of our actions.
Reversing Heart Disease
Atherosclerosis—a hardening of the arteries as a result of plaque buildup—is a disease that begins in childhood. By age 10, the arteries in nearly all kids have what are called “fatty streaks,” the first sign of the disease. Plaque starts to form throughout our 20s and 30s, leading to the development of atherosclerosis. In our heart, it’s a heart attack; in our brains, it’s a stroke; in our extremities, it can mean gangrene; in our aorta, an aneurysm. If there is anyone alive today who is older than age 10, then the question is not whether or not to eat healthy to prevent heart disease—it’s whether or not you want to reverse the heart disease you likely already have.
When researchers took patients with heart disease and put them on the same kind of plant-based diet that populations like the Ugandan were eating, their hope was that it would stop the disease progression from getting any worse. Instead, something miraculous happened: The disease started to reverse. As soon as the patients stopped eating artery clogging diets, their bodies were able to dissolve some of the plaque away, even in cases of severe triple-vessel heart disease. Arteries opened up naturally, without the use of drugs or surgery. This suggests that their arteries and their bodies wanted to heal all along, but were simply never given the chance.
The best kept secret in medicine is that under the right conditions, the body will heal itself. For example, if we whack our shin on the coffee table it becomes red, hot, painful, and swollen. Instinct tells us that it will heal naturally if we just stand back and let our body work its magic. But what if we whacked our shin in the same place three times each day, before breakfast, lunch, and dinner? It would never heal!
It’s like smoking. One of the most amazing things I learned during my medical training was that within 10 years of quitting, your lung cancer risk approaches that of a lifelong non-smoker. Isn’t that amazing? Your body and lungs can clear out all that tar, and eventually it’s almost as if you never started smoking at all. Our bodies want to be healthy, but every morning of a smoker’s life, that healing process is interrupted by the day’s first cigarette. That first cigarette re-injures the lungs with every puff, just like we can re-injure our arteries with every bite of processed, fatty food.
There’s only one diet ever proven to reverse heart disease in the majority of patients: a plant-based diet. If a plant-based diet can cure our No. 1 killer, shouldn’t that be the default diet until proven otherwise? And if it can also help prevent, treat, and reverse other leading killers (like diabetes and hypertension), that only strengthens the case for plant-based eating.
Treating the Root Cause
Rather than treating the underlying causes of disease, doctors typically treat risk factors. They prescribe a lifetime’s worth of medications to control blood pressure, blood sugar, or cholesterol. But high blood pressure is merely a symptom of the underlying cause: diseased, dysfunctional, crippled arteries. Yes, we can artificially lower blood pressure, and maybe prevent some end-organ damage, but that’s not doing anything to treat the underlying cause. Disregarding the underlying causes and treating only the risk factors is somewhat like mopping up the floor below an overflowing sink instead of just turning off the faucet.
We spend billions cracking people’s chests open, and rarely does it actually prolong anyone’s life. But when the underlying lifestyle causes are addressed, patients are often able to stop taking medications and avoid surgery. So why don’t more allopathic doctors subscribe to these thoughts? One reason is those doctors don’t get paid to do it. No one profits from lifestyle medicine, so it’s not part of medical education or practice. Physicians lack financial incentives, so they continue to do what they do—and what they know how to do is prescribe drugs and perform surgery.
Plant-based diets are great for people that don’t like taking drugs. Compared with vegetarians, non-vegetarians are twice as likely to take aspirin, sleeping pills, tranquilizers, antacids, painkillers, blood pressure medications, laxatives, and insulin. For people who don’t like taking drugs—whether because of cost, side effects, or ethics—diet may be the best way to go.
The study did show that there are side effects of plant-based diets—but these include things like less chronic disease, fewer allergies, and fewer surgeries. Vegetarians have fewer issues with varicose veins and even fewer hysterectomies, not to mention lower rates of rheumatoid arthritis, diverticulosis, and cataracts. In fact, plant-based eaters enjoy fewer diseases overall.
Despite the strong body of evidence favoring a plant-based diet, there are many physicians who do not stress the importance of this diet as a first line treatment for chronic illnesses. This could be because of a lack of physician awareness or a lack of patient education resources. Of course, vying to be back on top in terms of heart disease deaths isn’t easy. We’re getting there but still have a long road ahead. Hopefully as you move forward on your dietary journey, you will feel more informed to make better choices surrounding your health today and the potential it has in the future.
About the Author:
Michael Greger, MD, is a physician, author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Visit him online at nutritionfacts.org.