Michael Greger is a physician, author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues.
Below is the full text of Dr. Greger ‘s TEDx Talk titled “Food as Medicine” at TEDxSedona conference. This event occurred on October 14, 2017.
On a personal note, this is a picture of me taken around the time that my grandmother was diagnosed with end-stage heart disease and sent home to die.
She already had so many bypass surgeries, basically run out of plumbing, confined to a wheel chair, crushing chest pain. Her life was over at age 65.
But then she heard about this guy, Nathan Pritikin, one of our early lifestyle medicine pioneers, and what happened next is actually detailed in Pritikin’s biography.
My grandma was one of the “death’s door” people. Frances Greger, my grandmother, arrived in a wheel chair. Mrs Greger had heart disease, angina, claudication. Her condition is so bad, she could no longer walk without great pain in her chest and legs.
Within three weeks, though, she was not only out of her wheelchair, she was walking 10 miles a day!
Here’s a picture of my grandma at her grandson’s wedding, 15 years after doctors abandoned her to die. She was given a medical death sentence at age 65, but thanks to a healthy diet, she was able to enjoy another 31 years on this planet until age 96 to enjoy her six grand kids, including me. That’s why I went into medicine.
Years later, when Dr Dean Ornish published his landmark lifestyle heart trial, proving with something called quantitative angiography, that indeed heart disease could be reversed, arteries opened up, without drugs, without surgery, just a plant-based diet and lifestyle program, I assumed this was going to be the game changer.
My family had seen it with their own eyes, but here it was in black and white, published in some of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, yet nothing happened.
I said, “Wait a second. If effectively the cure to our number one killer could get lost down some rabbit hole and ignored, what else might there be in the medical literature that could help my patients, but just didn’t have a corporate budget driving its promotion?”
Well, I made it my life’s mission to find out. For those who are not familiar with my work, every year I read through every issue of every English language nutrition journal in the world so busy folks like you don’t have to.
I then compile the most interesting, ground-breaking, and practical findings in new videos and articles I upload daily to my nonprofit site, NutritionFacts.org.
Everything on the website is free. There are no ads and no corporate sponsorships. Strictly non-commercial. Not selling anything. Just put it up as a public service, as a labor of love, as a tribute to my grandmother.
New videos and articles every day on the latest in evidence-based nutrition. What a concept!
So where did Pritikin get his evidence from?
A network of missionary hospitals set up throughout sub-Saharan Africa uncovered what may be one of the most important medical advance — according to one of our best medical figures of the last century, Dr Denis Burkit — the fact that many of our major and commonest diseases were universally rare, like heart disease.
In the African population of Uganda, for example, coronary heart disease was almost non-existent. Wait a second, our number one killer almost non-existent? What were they eating?
Well, they’re eating lots of vegetables and grains and greens, and their protein almost entirely from plant sources, and they had the cholesterol levels to prove it, very similar to what one sees in kind of a modern day plant eater.
You say, “Wait a second. Maybe they were just dying early, never lived long enough to get heart disease.” No.
Here’s age-matched heart attack rates in Uganda versus St Louis. Out of 632 autopsies in Uganda, only one myocardial infarction. Out of 632 age and gender matched autopsies in Missouri, 136 myocardial infarctions — more than 100 times the rate of our leading killer.
They were so blown away, went back, did another 800 autopsies in Uganda. Still just that one small healed infarct; it wasn’t even the cause of death.
Out of 1,427 patients, less than 1/1,000, whereas here our disease is an epidemic. Atherosclerosis, hardening of arteries, is a disease that begins in childhood.
By age 10, nearly all the kids raised on the standard American diet already have fatty streaks building up inside of their arteries — the first stage of the disease.
These streaks then turn into plaques in our 20s, get worse in our 30s, and then can start killing us off. In the heart, it’s called a heart attack; in the brain, the same disease can cause a stroke.
So if there’s anyone here today older than age 10, then the question isn’t whether or not to eat healthy to prevent heart disease; it’s whether you want to reverse the heart disease you likely already have, whether you know it or not.
But is that even possible? When researchers took people with heart disease, put them on the plant-based diet eaten by populations that didn’t get epidemic heart disease, their hope was that we could slow the disease down a bit, maybe even stop it.
But instead something miraculous happened. As soon as people stopped eating artery-clogging diets, their bodies were able to dissolve some of the plaque away, opening arteries, only without drugs, without surgery, suggesting the bodies wanted to be healthy all along, but weren’t never given the chance.
That remarkable improvement in blood flow to the heart muscle itself was after just three weeks of plant-based nutrition. The human body is a self-healing machine, unless you’re sticking it with a fork three times a day.
Now sure, you can use moderation and hit yourself with a smaller hammer — but why beat yourself up at all? This is nothing new. American Heart Journal, 1977, cases like Mr FW here. His heart disease was so bad, that he couldn’t even make it to the mail box. He started eating healthier, and a few months later, he was climbing mountains, with no pain.
Now there are these fancy new classes of anti-angina drugs on the market now. They cost thousands of dollars a year, but at the highest dose, may be able to extend exercise duration as long as 335 seconds.
It doesn’t look like those choosing the drugs are going to be climbing mountains anytime soon. Plant-based diets aren’t just safer and cheaper. They can work better since you’re treating the underlying cause of the disease.
Normally I’d go on to cancer and talk about the other 15 leading causes of death, talk about how diet may be playing a role in preventing, arresting, and reversing each of our top 15 killers, but what more do you need to know?
There’s only one diet ever been proven to reverse heart disease in the majority of patients: a plant-based diet.
So any time someone tries to sell you on some new diet, do me a favor. Ask them one simple question: “Has this diet been proven to reverse heart disease, the number one reason me and my loved ones will die?”
I mean, if the answer is, “No,” why would you even consider it? If that’s all a plant-based diet could do, reverse the number one killer of men and women, shouldn’t that kind of be default diet until proven otherwise?
The fact it can also be useful to prevent, arrest, and reverse other top killers like type II diabetes and hypertension would seem to make the case for plant-based eating simply overwhelming.
Most deaths in the United States are preventable and related to nutrition. According to the Global Burden of Disease study, the largest study of human disease risk factors in history, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the number one cause of death in these United States: it’s our diet.
The number one cause of disability in the United States: it’s our diet.
Now bumping tobacco smoking to number two, cigarettes now only kill about a half a million Americans every year, whereas our diet kills hundreds of thousands more.
So if most deaths are preventable, related to nutrition, then obviously nutrition is the number one thing taught in medical school, right? I mean, I mean, obviously it’s the number one thing your doctor talks to you about every single visit, right?
How could there be this disconnect between the science and the practice of medicine? Let’s do a thought experiment.
Imagine yourself a smoker back in the 1950s. Back in the 1950s, the average per capita cigarette consumption was 4,000 cigarettes a year, meaning the average person walking around smoked half a pack a day, on average.
The media was telling people to smoke. Famous athletes agreed, even Santa Claus wanted you to smoke. I mean, look, you want to keep fit and stay slender? So, make sure to smoke and eat lots of hot dogs to stay trim, and lots of sugar to stay slim and trim.
A lot better than that apple there. I mean, sheesh, right? “Though apples do connote goodness and freshness,” reads one internal tobacco industry memo, bringing up “many possibilities for youth-oriented cigarettes,” they wanted to make apple-flavored cigarettes for kids Shameless. “For digestion’s sake, you smoke.”
No curative powers claimed by Philip Morris, but hey, better to be safe than sorry and smoke. “Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere!”
“No woman ever says no.” They’re “so round, so firm, so fully packed.” After all, John Wayne smoked them until he got lung cancer and died. You know, back then even the paleo folks were smoking. And so were the doctors.
Now this is not to say there wasn’t controversy within the medical profession. Sure, you know, some doctors smoked Camels, but others preferred Lucky’s, so there was a little disagreement there.
The leader of the U.S. Senate agreed, who would want to give their throat a break? “Not a single case of throat irritation.” How could there be when “cigarettes are just as pure as the water you drink.” Maybe up in Flint, Michigan.
But don’t worry, if you do get irritated, your doctor can just write you a prescription for cigarettes. This is in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
So when the AMA is saying smoking, on balance, is good for you; when the American Medical Association is saying that, where could you turn back then if you just wanted the facts? What’s the new data advanced by science?
Well, she was too tired for fun, and “then she smoked a Camel.” Babe Ruth spoke of proof-positive medical science, that is when he still could speak before he died of throat cancer.
You know, if by some miracle back then there was a SmokingFacts.org website that could deliver the science directly, bypassing commercially corruptible institutional filters, you would have known of studies like this.
This is an Adventist study out of California and published in 1958, showing that non-smokers had at least 90% less lung cancer than smokers, right? But this wasn’t the first.
When famed surgeon Michael DeBakey was asked why studies back in the ’30s linking lung cancer and smoking were simply ignored, he had to remind people what it was like back then. We were a smoking society.
It was everywhere. It was in the movies, airplanes; medical meetings were one heavy haze of smoke. Smoking was, in a word, normal. OK.
So back to our thought experiment. If you’re a smoker in the ’50s in the know, what do you do? I mean with access to the science, you realize the best available balance of evidence suggests your smoking habit — not so good for you.
So do you change or do you wait? If you wait until your doc says, between puffs, to quit, you’d have cancer by then. If you wait until the powers that be officially recognize it, like the Surgeon General did in the subsequent decade, you’d be dead by then.
It took more than 7,000 studies and the deaths of countless smokers before the first Surgeon General’s report against smoking came out. You’d think maybe after the first 6,000 studies, could give people a little heads up or something? Powerful industry.
Maybe we should have stopped smoking after the 700th study, like this. As a smoker in the ’50s, one on hand, you had society, the government, the medical profession itself telling you to smoke.
And on the other hand, all you had was the science, if you’re even aware of studies like this.
All right, let’s fast forward 55 years. There’s a new Adventist study out of California warning Americans about something else they may be putting in their mouths.
Of course, it’s not just one study; put all the studies together. The mortality from all causes together, many of our dreaded diseases, significantly lower among those eating more plant-based diets.
So, instead of someone going along with America’s smoking habits in the ’50s, imagine you or someone you know going along with America’s eating habits today. What would you do?
With access to the science, you realize the best available balance of evidence suggests your eating habits are not so good. So do you change, or do you wait? If you wait until your doctor tells you, between bites, to change, it’ll be too late.
In fact, even after the Surgeon General’s report came out, the American Medical Association went on record refusing to endorse it.
Why? Could it have been because they were just handed the $10 million check from the tobacco industry? Maybe.
We know why the tobacco industry was sucking up, why the AMA was sucking up to the tobacco industry, but why weren’t more and more individual doctors speaking up?
There were a few gallant souls ahead of their time, speaking up against industries killing millions, but why not more? Maybe it’s because the majority of physicians themselves smoked cigarettes.
Just like most physicians today continue to eat foods that are contributing to our epidemics of dietary disease. What was the AMA’s rallying cry back then? Everything in moderation.
Extensive scientific studies have proven smoking in moderation, oh, that’s fine. Sound familiar? The food industry used the same tobacco industry tactics, twisting the science, misinformation. The same scientists were hired, paid to downplay the risks of cigarettes and toxic chemicals, are the same paid for by the National Confectioners Association to downplay the risks of candy, and the same paid for by the meat industry to downplay the risks of meat, whereas animal foods and processed foods, you’re killing off at least 14 million people every year.
So those of us involved in this kind of evidence-based nutrition revolution, we’re talking about 14 million lives in the balance. Maybe, plant-based nutrition should be considered as the nutritional equivalent of quitting smoking, but how long do we have to wait before the CDC says don’t wait for open heart surgery; to start eating healthier as well.
Until the system changes, we need to take personal responsibility for our health, for our family’s health. We can’t wait until society catches up to the science again because it’s a matter of life and death.
A few years ago Dr Kim Williams became President of the American College of Cardiology. He was asked in an interview why he follows the same diet he recommends to all of his patients, a strictly plant-based diet.
“I don’t mind dying,” Dr Williams replied. “I just don’t want it to be my own fault.”