Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death by Michael Greger (Transcript)

In past years, I’ve addressed the most pressing dietary issues of our time, like what’s the healthiest variety of apple, or what’s the most nutritious nut or dried fruit, or what’s the best bean, what’s the best berry? What’s the best bowel movement?

We had fun. People got to vote. You know, some folks came away all huffy, especially the New Yorkers back there. But this year, I thought I’d lighten it up, and answer what’s the best way to prevent death?

Every year the CDC updates the latest leading causes of death in the United States. So let’s start at the top and go down the list — see what’s new in each category.

Heart disease, #1. The 35-year follow-up of the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, just published, now the most definitive long-term study on older women’s health we have. Since the study started thousands of participants died, but that allowed them to study the risk factors for mortality. Because heart disease was the leading cause of death, it comes as no surprise that dietary cholesterol intake was a significant risk factor for dying.

The second leading cause was smoking-related cancer deaths. But what’s so neat about this study is that it’s a competing risks analysis, so it allowed them to compare different risks to one another. So consuming the amount of cholesterol found in just a single egg a day appears to cut a woman’s life short as much as smoking five cigarettes a day for 15 years.

The most protective behavior they found was fiber consumption. Eating just a cup of oatmeal’s worth of fiber a day appears to extend a woman’s life as much as four hours of jogging a week. Though you can do both.

And so it’s worth noting that, look, the intake of cholesterol, only found in animal foods, was associated with living a shorter life. And the intake of fiber, only found in plant foods, was associated with living a longer life.

The one specific food most tied to longevity was nuts. You also appear to get four hours of weekly jogging benefit eating just two handfuls of nuts a week. Yeah, heart disease is the #1 cause of death, but what if your cholesterol’s normal?

I hear that all the time from patients. Have to break it to them: look, having a normal cholesterol in a society where it’s normal to drop dead of a heart attack — not necessarily a good thing. And remember, it’s our #1 killer.

In a huge study last year, most heart attack patients fell within recommended targets for cholesterol, demonstrating that the current guidelines are just not low enough to cut heart attack risk. Close to half of heart attack victims had cholesterol levels classified in the guidelines as optimal, though I’m not sure their grieving spouses and orphaned children will take much comfort in that fact.

What is considered optimal is still way too high. Yeah, having a below average cholesterol reduces your risk, but, as the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Cardiology wrote more than a decade ago, it’s time to shift from just decreasing risk to actually preventing and reversing, arresting atherosclerosis. We don’t want low risk; we want no risk. How do you do it?

Well, for the build-up of plaque in our arteries to cease, it appears that we have to get our total cholesterol down to be about 150. In other words, the cholesterol must be lowered to that of your average pure vegetarian.

Now but because relatively few persons are willing to abide by the vegetarian lifestyle, you know, drugs are required to get down to similar levels. So it’s our choice.

Now notice though, even though the average vegan has a cholesterol of 150, it doesn’t mean that all vegans have 150. That’s why I do free cholesterol screenings here at Summerfest. Stop by my table. A little drop of blood. Just will take a couple of minutes. I’ll be happy to do that for you.

All right, so it’s our choice: diet or drugs.

Why not just choose the drugs?

Well, that’s a good question. As the good doctor noted last night, the FDA just announced newly mandated safety labeling by law to cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. So this is Lipitor, Mevacor, Crestor, Zocor, Vytorin, and that kind of thing.

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The FDA issued new side effect warning labels this year regarding the increased risk, brain-related risks, and associated memory loss and confusion, an increase in blood sugar levels, as well as new onset diabetes.

One prominent cardiologist described this kind of Faustian bargain: yes, fewer heart attacks, but more diabetes.

With all the memory loss and confusion caused by these drugs, folks may forget there’s actually way to lower the risk of heart attacks and diabetes at the same time, called the plant-based diet.

All right, now cholesterol is just half of the heart disease story. The other half is inflammation.

We’ve known for 15 years that a single meal high in animal fat — a sausage and egg McMuffin was used in the original study — can paralyze our arteries, cutting their ability to relax normally in half within hours of eating animal products. The whole lining of our vascular tree gets inflamed and stiffened.

And just as that inflammation — so here’s hours, right: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,5 6 — just as that inflammation, just as that crippling of our arteries starts to finally calm down after 5 or 6 hours — lunch time! Right?

And then we may whack our arteries with another load of meat, eggs, or dairy. And so most people are in this chronic state of low-grade inflammation, increasing risk for these inflammation-related diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes one meal at a time.

Does the same thing to our lungs — again within hours, inflammation in our airways. A single meal causing internal damage, not just years down the road, but literally right then and there, that day, within hours of it going into your mouth. And just this year, we finally figured out, we finally solved the mystery as to why.

And it doesn’t appear to be the animal fat itself. And it’s apparently not the animal protein, which is what’s implicated in the inflammation from arthritis.

So if it’s not the animal fat, and it’s not the animal protein, what is it?

The whole thing is a crazy cool detective story that I’ll be putting in a series of videos, next week actually: July 4th, July 5th, July 6th. But I’ll just cut to the chase. Spoiler alert!

After a meal of animal products, people suffer from endotoxemia. Their bloodstream becomes awash with bacterial toxins, known as endotoxins that are present in the animal products. So, I mean, no wonder our body goes crazy! These dead meat bacteria toxins aren’t destroyed by stomach acid, aren’t destroyed by pancreatic enzymes, aren’t destroyed by cooking. They tried boiling meat for hours. It still didn’t work.

So these bacterial toxins were found to be highly resistant to cooking and our bodies’ best attempts at acid and enzyme digestion. Now the animal fat actually does play a profound role in this whole process by ferrying the bacterial toxins present in the meat, through the gut, into our system. So the reason animal products trigger immediate inflammation appears to be because they’re so loaded with bacteria that can trigger inflammation, dead or alive, even if they’re fully cooked.

And then saturated animal fat then boosts the absorption of these toxins into our bloodstream. So now that we know what’s going on, what do we have to do?

Well, from a 2012 follow-up: while the obvious, most obvious solution to this metabolic endotoxemia — well, we can reduce saturated fat intake, which in this country comes mostly cheese and chicken. But the Western diet is not conducive to this mode of action, and it is difficult for patients to comply with this request.

So what? Let’s not even tell them? Right, I mean…This patronizing attitude in the medical profession of “Oh, patients won’t change their diet or stop smoking, even if it’s going to kill them, you know, so why bother?”

That attitude may be one of the real leading causes of death. But let’s get back to the official list and take on cancer next.

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What’s the latest? Well, we know from the largest forward-looking study on diet and cancer ever performed by humanity: the incidence of all cancers combined, lower among vegetarians to meat eaters, especially some of the fastest growing tumors, like lymphomas and leukemias. And for that the worst meat was actually poultry, chicken.

Up to triple the rates for every 50 grams of poultry consumption. A quarter of a chicken breast: triple your risk. Normally this entire presentation would be in kind of a quiz show format, but there was a scheduling mix-up. I was supposed to be the last speaker of the night, at night, and so I could go long and not interfere with the schedule.

But anyway, it won’t happen again, and so next year be back to the quiz show format. And I apologize. I had to cut this short.

But the link between meat and cancer is such that even the Journal of Meat Science last year asked, “Should we become vegetarians?” Or they said, “Can we make meat safer?” There’s a bunch of additives, for example, you know, that can suppress the toxic effects of the blood-based iron, the heme iron found in meat. Now the additives are still under study, but “could provide an acceptable way to prevent colon cancer,” because avoiding meat is obviously completely out of the question.

They fear that if the National Cancer Institute recommendations to reduce meat consumption were adhered to, sure, cancer incidence may be reduced, but farmers and the meat industry would suffer important economical problems.

Now for those of us more concerned about the suffering caused by the meat industry, rather than the suffering of the meat industry, what happens if you put cancer on a vegan diet?

Well, the Pritikin Research Foundation just completed this elegant series of experiments, which I want to spend a bit of time on. Simple experiments. They put people on different diets, draw their blood, and then dripped their blood on cancer cells growing in Petri dish, and just stood back to see whose blood was better at suppressing cancer growth.

They were the ones that published that study showing that the blood of those on a vegan diet was dramatically less hospitable to cancer. Now even the blood of those on a standard American diet fights cancer. I mean if it didn’t, everybody would be dead.

It’s just that the blood of those eating vegan fights about eight times better. The blood of those on the standard American diet suppresses cancer growth by about 9%. You put people on a plant-based diet for a year though and their blood just tears it up. The blood circulating through the bodies of vegans has nearly eight times the stopping power when it comes to cancer cell growth.

Now this was for prostate cancer, the most common cancer among men; for women, it’s breast cancer. So the Pritikin researchers tried duplicating the study with women using breast cancer cells instead. Now they didn’t want to wait a whole year to get the results. So they figured they’d try to see what a plant-based diet could do in just two weeks against three different types of human breast cancer. This is the before, cancer growth rates powering away at 100%. And then this is after eating a plant-based diet for just 14 days. Now slowing down cancer growth is great, but getting rid of them, getting rid of cancer cells is even better.

This is the before and after, measuring cancer cell death. This is the before. And this is the after. Pre and post plants.

The same blood, now coursing through these women’s bodies, gained the power to significantly slow down and stop breast cancer growth thanks to just two weeks of eating a plant-based diet.

What kind of blood do we want in our body, what kind of immune system? Do we want blood that’s just kind of going to roll over when new cancer cells pop up? Or do we want blood circulating to every nook and cranny within our bodies with the power to slow down and stop them?

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