“Our country is facing a nutrition crisis,” states Dr. Mozaffarian, Dean of Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy. “Few other challenges cause more deaths, disability, and associated preventable health costs. Congress is actively debating how to improve health and reduce costs – fixing our food system is among the most essential priorities, a win-win for all.” [Reported in Medscape Medical News, March 9, 2017]
Ten Pivotal Dietary Factors
Researchers from Tufts found convincing evidence that 10 dietary factors were associated with nearly half of 702,308 deaths due to heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes in the United States in 2012. Leading dietary factors included: too much salt, processed meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages, but not enough veggies, fruits, nuts, and whole grains. Nearly 320,000 deaths were associated with these major nutritional defects. [Research published March 7, 2017 in JAMA, Journal of the American Medical Association]
The significance of this study is huge. It suggests that over 300,000 deaths a year in the United States are preventable by better dietary choices. Over the span of a decade, this would save the lives of millions of patients. It would also reduce the heavy load of critically ill patients that our health care system carries every year. In addition to clear benefits for patients and their families, this would do much to help resolve the health care crisis that our nation is struggling with today.
Dr. Noel Mueller from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health summarized the importance of this research study when he said, “On a policy level, these findings emphasize the need to view diet as a cornerstone of prevention policy.” [Medscape Medical News, March 9, 2017.]
Hippocrates recognized the healing value of food 2,500 years ago, but his insight was lost by mainstream medicine. Instead, modern medicine put most of its focus on disease diagnosis and management by high-tech medicine and surgery. A few prophetic physicians have understood the healing value of food over the past 50 years, but they have been mostly ignored. Now, academic medicine is starting to look at food’s impact on health more seriously. The publication of this research in JAMA is the first time I’ve seen such clear emphasis on the importance of diet for health in the medical literature over the last 50 years.
The Challenge Ahead
The challenge ahead will be for people to apply our growing dietary knowledge to their everyday eating habits. In my health workshops over the past few years, I’ve found that most people have a fairly clear idea that veggies and fruit are good for health and that most fast foods are not so good for health. Even though they know this, most of them find it challenging to change their daily eating habits. (Fast foods are so convenient and taste so great.)
Strength of Motivation
Gaining life-saving information should help people change unhealthy habits. Unfortunately, simply having valuable information isn’t enough to generate change. (A classic example of this is the fat doctor.) What’s needed is strong motivation to bring about real change in one’s life. So how does one become strongly motivated? The answer involves many factors – cultural, emotional, economic, familial and psychological. It’s much easier to make no change. Yet we know that real change is feasible.
Dr. Dean Ornish proved over 20 years ago that severe coronary artery disease could be reversed. His program helped people make positive lifestyle changes in a carefully supervised program. Patients with advanced coronary disease had reversal of their symptoms, and Ornish proved with coronary angiograms that their arterial disease was being reversed. Today, many thousands of patients have experienced this kind of benefit by following his program. In his book, Love & Survival, Ornish says the mutual support groups that his patients participated in turned out to be a major factor in their healing process.
Real change is feasible when the motivation to make change is strong enough. Having good support from family and the community is a major help.
A Positive Mindset is Key
How long will it take for the United States to adopt enough dietary change to benefit its national health? Most individuals who adopt wiser food choices benefit from these choices quickly. In medical practices with healthy lifestyle programs, patients often become symptom-free within weeks. Dr. Dean Ornish and others who conduct such programs report this kind of improvement routinely.
It’s harder to predict what will happen on a national scale because countervailing forces will work hard to maintain the status quo. In the case of tobacco use, after the Surgeon General of the United States sounded the alarm about cigarette smoking, the tobacco industry mounted fierce disinformation campaigns to cast doubt on research studies showing poor health outcomes related to smoking.
Today the beverage industry tries to discredit research on adverse effects of excess sugar intake. Many food producers use similar tactics. Attorney Michele Simon reveals these kinds of maneuvers by big food corporations in her book, Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back. (Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition at New York University, calls this book,”Brilliant.”)
Despite vigorous promotion of questionable foods by the food industry, I believe the United States will ultimately become a healthier nation. As solid information about the benefits of eating healthy foods becomes more widespread, more and more people will decide in favor of good health. The key to success is a positive mindset. When people become so strongly motivated to adopt a healthy lifestyle that nothing will stand in their way, success will follow.
Ed Dodge, MD, MPH
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This post was published first in Dr. Ed Dodge’s Wellness Newsletter, Volume IX, No. 2 (Bonus Issue) • April 8, 2017.