There’s an old saying: If you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.
That’s not exactly true. There are a lot of healthy people living in unfortunate circumstances.
But the reverse is certainly true: If you’re in poor health, it’s hard to live a rich life, regardless of the size of your bank account.
There is no genuine wealth without health.
Scientists tell us that good health rests on four pillars: a sensible diet, regular exercise, sufficient sleep and close human connections.
I’ll tackle each of them over the next few columns, starting today with the most important: a healthy diet.
Millions of Americans eat in a way that is literally killing them.
Smoking used to be the leading cause of death in the U.S., but it’s moved to No. 2.
The No. 1 killer, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study, is what we eat.
Smoking kills nearly half a million Americans every year. The standard American diet (SAD) – rich in sugar, refined carbs and processed meats – kills hundreds of thousands more.
The worst part is these deaths are entirely preventable.
Longtime readers know that one of my closest friends is John Mackey, founder and former CEO of Whole Foods and author of The Whole Foods Diet: The Lifesaving Plan for Health and Longevity, a book well worth reading.
Over the years, John has taught me a lot about healthy living. But I’ve also learned a lot from his go-to guy on nutrition, Dr. Michael Greger.
Greger, a physician and internationally recognized nutrition expert, is the author of How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease.
Has he discovered the secret of immortality? No.
But Greger has made it his mission to help Americans prevent, treat and even reverse 15 leading causes of death.
Those are heart disease, lung diseases, brain diseases, digestive cancers, infections, diabetes, high blood pressure, liver diseases, blood cancers, kidney disease, breast cancer, suicidal depression, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease and iatrogenic causes.
(Iatrogenic means “caused by diagnosis or treatment by a physician.” Medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in this country.)
Greger argues that these deaths are preventable because they are related, at least in part, to how we eat.
Some folks believe that premature death is just a matter of bad luck or bad genes. Not so. The evidence shows that only 10% to 20% of the risk of these diseases is related to genetics. Most of the rest is due to a poor diet.
Unfortunately, most people don’t get the advice they need on this important topic from their doctor.
Only a quarter of medical schools offer a single course in nutrition. And 6 out of 7 graduating doctors recently surveyed felt they were not adequately trained to counsel patients about their diets.
When it comes to the profound connection between diet and disease, most of us are on our own.
So let’s start with the basics…
Four simple, healthy lifestyle factors have a strong impact on the prevention of chronic diseases. They are…
- Not smoking
- Not being obese
- Exercising at least a half-hour a day
- Eating a healthy diet.
If you can check off all four, Greger says you’ve reduced your cancer risk by more than a third, your risk of stroke by 50%, your risk of a heart attack by 80% and your risk of developing diabetes by 90%.
The first three lifestyle factors are straightforward. But healthy eating is a contentious subject. Even nutrition experts disagree on what constitutes the optimal human diet.
However, there is a broad consensus about one thing: You need to maximize your intake of whole plant foods – primarily fruits and vegetables – and minimize your intake of processed junk.
To increase your chances of spending more time with your grandkids and great-grandkids, consider heeding Greger’s Daily Dozen. He recommends that every day you consume…
- Three servings of beans. The most comprehensive analysis of diet and cancer ever performed – a review of more than a half-million studies – was published in 2007 by the American Institute for Cancer Research. One summary recommendation was to eat whole grains and/or beans (legumes) with every meal. Not every week or every day. Every meal.
- Two servings of greens. That may include kale, arugula, sorrel, spinach, Swiss chard, mustard greens or turnip greens. Dark green leafy vegetables are the healthiest foods on the planet, offering the highest nutrient density per calorie.
- Two servings of other vegetables, including asparagus, artichokes, beets, carrots, peppers, corn, onions, potatoes, snap peas, squash, tomatoes or zucchini. A wide diversity of vegetables provides you with the greatest health benefits.
- At least one serving of berries. Strawberries, blueberries and blackberries are the healthiest fruits – and loaded with anti-aging, anti-cancer antioxidants.
- Three servings a day of other fruits: oranges, apricots, bananas, grapefruit, peaches, pears, pomegranates, mangoes, etc. (Greger says people who claim they don’t have time to eat healthfully have never met an apple.)
- One tablespoon of ground flaxseed. You can sprinkle it on yogurt, salads, whatever. Flaxseed averages 100 times more lignans than any other food and may even reduce tumor-proliferation rates.
- Three servings of whole grains. These include brown or wild rice, barley, oats (or oatmeal), quinoa, millet, rye, whole-wheat pasta and popcorn.
- At least one serving of cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, cabbage, collards, kale or Brussels sprouts. Greger calls this the single most important change you can make to your diet. Cruciferous vegetables may cut the risk of cancer progression by 50%.
- One serving of nuts or seeds, including almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, chia seeds, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and walnuts. No food is more highly correlated with human longevity than nuts.
- One-quarter teaspoon of ground turmeric. Research shows that curcumin – the bright yellow chemical found in turmeric – may play a role in preventing lung disease, brain disease and a variety of cancers, including multiple myeloma, colon cancer and pancreatic cancer. Greger calls turmeric the closest thing he knows to “a magic pill.”
- Five glasses of water. You can get some of that through coffee or – better still – green tea.
- One serving of exercise, ideally either 45 minutes of vigorous exercise (like running) or 90 minutes of moderate exercise (like brisk walking). In addition to helping you maintain a healthy body weight, exercise can ward off mild cognitive decline, boost your immune system, prevent high blood pressure, bolster your memory, enhance your mood and improve your sleep quality.
This checklist may seem overly prescriptive for some. But too many Americans eat like the future doesn’t matter.
Warren Buffett is one of them. He has battled prostate cancer and other health issues. Yet his beloved hamburgers and Dairy Queen sundaes are loaded with fat. His daily Cokes are chock-full of high fructose corn syrup, a substance linked to more health problems than sugar. And he insisted at a Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting that there is no evidence broccoli would help him live to 100.
He might visit NutritionFacts.org, Greger’s informative, entertaining and commercial-free website offering the latest nutritional science.
Greger scours the world’s scientific literature to uncover the evidence-based diet that best prevents – and even reverses – the leading causes of death and disability.
No one need eat like a saint or obsess over his or her food choices. That’s not necessary. Your health is not determined by a particular treat or a special occasion. It’s about how you eat day in and day out.
There are hundreds of diets out there, of course, each claiming to be the best. So why use Greger’s approach?
He answers that vital question in How Not to Die:
Anytime anyone tries to sell you on some new diet, ask just one simple question: “Has it been proven to reverse heart disease?”… If it hasn’t, why would you even consider it?
If that’s all a whole-food, plant-based diet could do – reverse our No. 1 killer – then shouldn’t that be the default position until proven otherwise?
And the fact that it can also be effective in preventing, treating and arresting other leading killers would seem to make the case for eating this way overwhelming.
It’s never too early – or too late – to start eating healthier.
It’s a matter of life… or premature death.