A Letter to my Grandchildren:
How To Save Our Health and the Health of the World!
With Earth Day approaching I have been giving a lot of thought to how I can contribute to making this world a healthier and safer place for you. We have a number of issues that may be stressful for you… but I would like to share some of my thoughts on why the food choices we make can be powerful factors in improving the health and safety in your life as well as the health of the world.
What are some of the problems we face?
- Global warming leading to extreme weather (storms, floods, tornadoes, droughts, etc.)
- Species extinction due to loss of habitat
- Crime and violence
- Pandemic issues
- Obesity and increase in chronic illnesses (like diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, etc.)
What is one of the most effective ways to reduce these problems? It’s Food!
Why? When you look around the world…you will discover that certain populations live longer (into their 90’s and 100’s) and are healthier than others. The book, The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner, documents the five regions of the world that have a number of similarities—a whole plant food diet, movement throughout the day, and good social support from family and friends.There are two sources of food available in our world—plants and animals. In the Americas, raising animals for our main food source contributes more to global warming than all the transportation we use. It uses more water and land than using plants for our main food source. And raising animals in close quarters has led to spreading diseases to humans and has contributed to antibiotic resistance. Animal foods are high in saturated fats, which leads to inflammation and clogging of our arteries. Saturated fats also are an underlying cause of obesity, diabetes, and many other chronic illnesses. Also, the processing of our foods to increase shelf life and to make food choices more attractive has increased the fat, salt, and sugar content, and at the same time, made them highly addictive. Addiction leads to anxiety, depression, and a lower quality of life. It may lead to mental illness and potentially to increased crime and violence. All in all, raising animals for our food is not only contributing in a huge way to making our health worse but it is also making our planet sick.
So what is the solution? The one thing we can all do is to start asking ourselves questions like: “Are the food choices I am making now because of my habits or will they help me reach my goals and help improve the health of our planet?” Greta Thunberg’s answer is to just eat plant-based foods. And eating plants as they have grown in nature (with only minimal processing) is the healthiest choice we can make.
What gets in the way of us making healthier choices?
- Family and friends
- Our culture
- Myths we live with…
Let’s look at some of the myths we live with.
Myth# 1. Our Genes Determine Our Health
We used to believe that our genes were the main determinants of our health. We now know that genetics account for about 20% of our health. 80% of our health is determined by our lifestyle (what we eat, how we move throughout the day, the chemicals we use, and how we deal with stress). A good analogy is this… If you put a bullet in a gun, no one gets hurt unless the trigger gets pulled. Our genes are like the bullet. If we choose unhealthy foods, live a sedentary lifestyle, use tobacco or alcohol, or do not learn how to handle stress, then our trigger gets pulled and we can develop the diseases that hurt us. So if you want to be the healthiest, do not stress out too much about your family history, but instead concentrate on the lifestyle choices you make. And eat healthy foods regularly to achieve your best health.
Myth# 2. The Best Source of Protein Is Animal Foods
The building blocks for protein are called amino acids. All of these building blocks are made by and found in plants—greens, beans, legumes, grains, roots and tubers, seeds, fruits, and nuts, etc. Animals are like a middleman. They eat plants and plant products to make protein. Our teeth and long digestive tracts are meant to grind up plants and make our own protein, just like the strongest animals on Earth—elephants and gorillas. We have no need to eat other animals. When we eat protein from animals we decrease the fiber content of our diet. Dietary fiber is the main deficiency in the American diet—the Standard American Diet (SAD).
Myth# 3. Protein Is Deficient in our Diet
If you eat enough calories and a variety of foods in the day, you will get enough protein. Do not focus your attention on getting enough protein, but do focus on how you are going to get enough fiber. Why is fiber so important? Fiber provides bulk and makes us full so we do not overeat. Fiber hooks up with excess cholesterol, other excess hormones, and toxins and wheelbarrows it out quickly through our intestines. For every 10 grams of fiber you add to your daily diet, you decrease your colon cancer risk by 10% because the toxins pass through the intestine so quickly they do not have time to do as much damage to the cells lining your colon. Fiber is the food for the good bacteria in your colon. These bacteria are called your microbiome. When you feed these bacteria they feed you back with chemicals like butyrate and serotonin. Butyrate is an anti-inflammatory chemical which helps heal the body. Serotonin is a hormone that prevents anxiety and depression. Remember… more fiber from whole plant foods leads to better health.
Myth# 4. Carbohydrates Are the Enemy
Many of us are confused about this issue. We all know that eating more fruits and vegetables is healthy. But we are told not to eat carbohydrates. Yet fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates plus fiber. So, why wouldn’t we be confused?
Carbohydrates packaged with their usual fiber are healthy and not harmful. That is why eating whole plant foods as grown in nature is healthy, but processing these same plant foods by stripping away their fiber leads to inflammation and spiking blood sugars that lead to disease. So avoid all processed foods like white sugar, white bread, sugary drinks and sodas, and artificial foods that are not grown in nature.
Myth# 5. Willpower Is the Main Factor in Obesity
Willpower is not the main factor in the epidemic of obesity in the Western world. Our foods have been altered (processed) in such a way as to make them highly addictive. Like any other addiction, high calorie density foods light up the pleasure centers in our brains and keep us wanting to eat more…even though we know this is harming our health. Transition your food choices to low calorie density and you will not have to worry about your weight. It may take several weeks for your body to adjust to eating low calorie density foods rather than the high calorie density foods that you are used to eating.
Myth# 6. Milk Does the Body Good!
Milk has been promoted for its calcium. However, science shows that milk drinkers do not have lower rates of bone fracture. In fact, sometimes they have higher rates of bone fracture. Get your calcium from the beans and greens in your diet. 75% of the world population lacks the enzymes to metabolize lactose (the sugar in milk). This lactose intolerance leads to bloating, increased gas, and a lot of unnecessary abdominal pain. Milk has IGF-1 (a hormone that promotes growth). That is good when you are a baby…but it is not so good if you are older and happen to have some cancer cells whose growth might be stimulated by the Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 hormone.
Myth# 7. You Can Trust your Doctor or Health Care System for Nutrition Advice
Currently there are very few medical schools that share the science of ‘food as medicine’ in the curriculum. So do not be surprised if your doctor or healthcare provider actually learns from you. If you look around and see the number of people who are overweight, have diabetes, or other chronic illnesses, you might ask yourself, “Do I really want to trust the information (nutritional advice) that my healthcare system has been promoting for many years?” or “Do I want to do some research and find a better way?”
Myth# 8. Animals that We Eat are Well Cared for
This might be one of the biggest myths. Big Ag (agriculture) has taken over how animals are raised and killed for our food. Animals are kept in very crowded conditions (I think of these conditions like concentration camps) that require the use of antibiotics to prevent spreading disease in these animals. This use of antibiotics has led to antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance is an important issue because if a person gets an infection that our antibiotics no longer can treat…it could result in increased rates of disability and death. The way we treat others (and that includes animals) will influence how kind or compassionate we become as human beings. The way we have been treating our animals is not an example of how I wish to be treated. My choice is to not support an industry that treats animals inhumanely—as is currently practiced in the meat and poultry industry.
It took over 30 years for the United States to understand that smoking causes cancer and death. Food has become our new tobacco. Promote transitioning to a whole food, plant based diet and watch the reduction in deaths from most of our chronic diseases as we eliminate calorie-rich and processed (CRAP) foods from our diet. We will feel healthier as we replace these with greens, beans, legumes, grains, roots and tubers, seeds, fruits, and nuts in our daily diet. Some of these can be eaten raw while others can be soaked and cooked—boiled or baked to make them digestible and palatable. Minimizing salt, oils (fats) and refined sugars and using whole grains (rather than white flour, white rice, etc.) in preparing meals, and fresh fruits rather than fruit juices ensures that we get that important dietary fiber in our digestive system.
The time is right to transition what we eat…let’s be thoughtful about the science of healthy food choices…not only for our individual health but also for the health of our planet!
By Dr. Charles “Charlie” Ross. Doctor Ross is a practicing osteopathic physician for over 45 years and a part-time Assistant Professor at Western University of Health Sciences in Oregon. He wants to change the practice of medicine from treating symptoms to treating the root causes of disease. He practices Lifestyle Medicine and co-teaches free community classes on the science of nutrition and food as medicine.