America’s health care system is one of the hottest topics debated today. We as a society are concerned about skyrocketing costs, reductions in services, and burdens placed on the system to cover emergency needs of the uninsured.
We spend incredible amounts of money annually to get the best health care we can afford. With all the money we throw at it, we should expect to be some of the healthiest people in the world. Sadly, that is not the case. We keep spending more money, only to find ourselves getting sicker. It feels at times like we are paying to become ill.
Chronic illnesses, and acute illnesses for that matter, are primarily due to biochemical and physiological imbalances. Studies have shown that chronic illnesses are the direct result of our poor lifestyle choices, the most damaging of which is our food choices. We eat too many unnatural, processed foods that are toxic to our bodies, in place of foods that are natural and supply what our bodies need.
We need a paradigm shift in our approach to healthcare. Our efforts need to start with removing unnatural foods from our diet, and replacing those foods with ones that are “natural,” as a way of reversing illness and facilitating health. This new approach would be a shift away from the standard approach of using medical and surgical interventions as our primary protocols.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the major risk factors influencing mortality today are our patterns of living and consumption. In countries like the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, people die from complications related to the fact that we simply eat too much, drink too much, and exercise too little1. Despite our overconsumption of food, our poor health is primarily because of what we eat more than how much we eat.
Being overweight or obese has reached epidemic proportions globally. WHO estimated in 2005 that 1.6 billion adults, age 15 or older, were overweight, and at least 400 million were obese. The organization projects that by the year 2015, 2.5 billion adults globally will be overweight, and another 700 million will be obese2. In February 2010, WHO reported that at least 2.6 million people die each year as a result of being overweight or obese3.
In 2005, WHO estimated there were at least 20 million overweight children under the age of 5, globally. This has to date not been an issue, but now demands the creation of global weight standards that can be used to diagnose unhealthy conditions more quickly. In April 2006, WHO released new child growth standards that included BMI (body mass index) charts for infants and children under the age of five.
This sobering evidence should serve as a wakeup call to the potential broad impacts of our eating habits. We have to realize that poor eating habits do not just impact our health. We are in fact poisoning our children with the standard American diet, turning a blind eye to the problem of childhood obesity, and as a result, subjecting the ones we love to a ripple effect of health and social consequences.
The WHO estimates that physical inactivity is responsible for 1.9 million annual deaths, globally, and accounts for 10-16% of the world’s cases of breast cancer, colon and rectal cancers, and diabetes. Our failure to get adequate exercise accounts for 22% of cases of ischemic heart disease.
It’s possible that our poor diets are contributing to our sedentary lifestyle. One study based on research of animal behavior suggests a diet low in animal protein results in more voluntary exercise4. In addition, an unhealthy diet that causes obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease would not support regular exercise. Hence, our poor exercise habits may actually be the result of our poor diets!
The leading causes of death in this country might not come as a surprise, but the fact that these causes are the result of choices largely within our control may be new information for some. The following chart shows the leading causes of death in the United States in the year 20075.
Heart Disease in America6
Cardiovascular disease statistics from the American Heart Association, based on 2007 data, show some interesting facts:
- Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the leading cause of death in the U.S.
- 1.26 million Americans are estimated to suffer an initial or recurrent heart attack each year.
- About 452 million people die each year from CHD.
- Over 10 million people suffer from angina pectoris—symptoms caused by poor blood circulation to the heart.
- It is estimated that 500,000 new cases of stable angina occur each year.
- 17.6 million people alive today have a history of heart attack, angina pectoris, or both.
- Approximately 7.9 million Americans, age 20 and older have experienced a prior heart attack.
The irony of chronic diseases is that they are the most common and most costly of all health problems in America, while at the same time being the most preventable. The CDC identifies four common habits that are damaging but modifiable behaviors that influence chronic diseases. These behaviors are:
- Tobacco use
- Excessive alcohol use
- Insufficient physical activity
- Poor eating habits
We need to face the reality that while 50% of American adults suffer from at least one chronic illness, we also hold in our hands the key to avoiding this outcome! We need to take ownership for making better choices to help ourselves and the people we love.
We have come to accept the first two causes of chronic disease—tobacco use and excessive drinking— to be the most damaging lifestyle choices. Certainly, these habits are tied to life-threatening diseases, like lung cancer, emphysema, cirrhosis of the liver, and more. Nevertheless, data from the CDC showing the extent of these habits falls short of fully explaining widespread nature of chronic illnesses in this country.
In general, people who suffer from high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and hypertension often maintain these chronic disorders despite getting regular exercise. It is only when they nourish their bodies properly that they get significant results. Therefore, poor nutrition trumps tobacco, alcohol, and sedentary lifestyles as the primary cause for the development of chronic illnesses. We cannot ignore the reality that what we eat is totally within our control, and our choices are what determine the level of risk we have of becoming ill.
Nearly 100% of my patients and wellness clients agree in theory that following a diet based on good nutrition is important and has a significant influence over their health and well-being. Unfortunately, too many do not recognize what a nutritionally sound diet consists of. They have bought into the ageless perception that anything taken in moderation is okay.
As a cardiologist, I know that moderation is inadequate at best, and potentially even deadly. Furthermore, achieving optimal nutrition goes beyond keeping track of calories, protein, fats, carbohydrates, and portion sizes. Although these are important aspects of how we nourish our bodies, our nutritional health is based on factors that are more fundamental.
Food, by definition, is a material substance that consists of essential body nutrients. These nutrients are commonly known as carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, water, phytonutrients, and minerals. They are ingested and assimilated by the body to produce energy, stimulate growth, and carry out many other functions to maintain life.
Nutrients have various chemical properties. Some are mostly structural in nature, while others are more functional.
There are six known types of nutrients:
Carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids are digested by protein structures, known as enzymes. This primarily occurs in the gastrointestinal tract. The end products of these molecular compounds as they reach our cells in their various molecular types form the building blocks of different body parts.
Although we commonly think of nutritional substances as sources of energy, they serve a large variety of other needs for the body. Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for the human body; however, fats and proteins can also be used for energy. Amino acids on the other hand are the structural in nature and are the building blocks of protein that exist in various tissues, cells, and organs. Other types of nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients allow the body to facilitate numerous other complex functions such as DNA repair, cell regeneration, immune system maintenance, and much more.
What is important to understand is that food consists of a variety of complex chemical substances that the body utilizes to maintain its structural integrity, as well as its delicate biochemical and physiological balances. Therefore, nutrients must have similar basic properties as the human body itself, and these properties must be complementary to the body.
Eat Your Fruit and Veggies
Epidemiological data strongly shows that individuals can live on diets consisting of plant-based foods alone7. Furthermore, scientific studies have strongly indicated that individuals who live either solely or predominantly on plant-based diets are actually healthier than individuals who live on mostly animal flesh diets8.
Much media attention has been given to the pursuit of low-carb diets. Two studies were done to track the long-term impact of low-carb diets. A total of close to 130,000 adults, ranging in age from 34 to 75 were tracked for an average of 23 years. Participants all ate low-carb diets, with some choosing animal-based sources of protein and fat, while others chose vegetable-based sources of these same nutrients. None who participated in the study started with any clinical evidence of heart disease, cancer, or diabetes. The results showed that those who chose animal-based low-carb diets had higher mortality from all causes than those participants who chose vegetable-based low-carb diets. This was true for both men and women participants in these studies9.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study10 , clearly defines the importance of plant-based nutrition over animal-based nutrition. There is strong scientific evidence showing associations with chronic diseases, such as an increase in cholesterol11 , elevation of blood pressure12, osteoporosis, and type 2 diabetes with the consumption of animal flesh in any form, whether it is beef, chicken, turkey, or even fish13.
When it comes to heart healthy eating, fresh fruit and vegetables are essential. A natural plant based diet can not only help prevent heart disease and other chronic illnesses, but help to reverse it, even in its most advanced forms.
Baxter D. Montgomery, MD, FACC
Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
Director of Houston Cardiac Association and Montgomery Heart and Wellness Center
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3. World Health Organization. 10 Facts on Obesity. February 2010. http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/obesity/en/. Accessed 10/14/10.
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Betzaida Tejada-Vera, B.S.; CDC—Division of Vital Statistics. Deaths: Final Data for 2007. National Vital Statistics Reports. Vol. 58, No. 19. Pg 13-14.May 2010. www.cdc.gov/NCHS/data/nvsr/nvsr58/nvsr58_19.pdf. Accessed 09/01/10.
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