Combating the new global killers

The UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) has just announced that heart and lung disease, cancer, and diabetes are responsible for 63% of deaths globally. That surpasses the former number one killer, infectious diseases. WHO attributes the high mortality to largely preventable sources such as smoking, sedentary living, and faulty diet. In the West, Australia ranks first in heart and cancer mortality (35% heart; 20% cancer). 17 % of Australians smoke and a shocking 64% are obese. Unfortunately, Americans top the obesity scale, with some 71% of us overweight.  Global Burden Chart

One noticeable observation is that even third world countries are experiencing rising heart and cancer mortality, as their diets increasingly incorporate meat and daily products. Back in the 80s when noted Cornell nutritionist T. Colin Campbell made his blockbuster study of rural Chinese diets, heart disease and cancer were rare among those consuming an entirely plant based diet. The study’s empirical evidence has been confirmed in analyses differentiating Chinese immigrants and their offspring in the U. S. Americanized Chinese exhibit the same high incident rate for heart disease and cancer as the general population.

The real culprit here is animal protein, not fat per se. To avoid these chronic diseases the world needs to shift to a plant based diet. Studies give convincing evidence that doing so not only lessens the occurrence of heart disease, but often reverses it. Cancer incidence also decreases.

Ironically, our current health system contributes to our declining health with its continuing endorsement of a daily 30 gram fat content, low fat meat, fish, poultry, and dairy foods. Some doctors are downright defiant of plant diet research. Dr. Eduardo Azap, president of the Union For International Cancer Control, debunks the notion that “cancer is a problem of rich countries” as “a misconception” (Chronic Killers).  And yet when you look at WHO’s own listing, Ethiopia, for example, has a 4% cancer mortality rate; India, 6%. Contrast this with the U.S. 23% cancer mortality rate. It isn’t that we eat too much; it’s that we eat the wrong food.

Consider Harvard’s School of Public Health recently released alternative to the USDA’s MY Plate diet. Harvard’s plate seeks to offer more specific nutritional guidelines under the same USDA categories: fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins. Nonetheless, the Harvard plate still recommends poultry and fish as good food sources, albeit, Harvard does make some helpful suggestions, for example, recommending whole grains in place of refined grains found in foods such as white bread and while rice, which contribute to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It also makes a bold breakthrough in recommending water over milk.

Concurrently, an independent panel of 22 health experts (nutritionists, dieticians, cardiologists among them) reviewed 20 popular diets, with the Dash and Ornish diets finishing 1 and 3 respectively under Best Heart-Healthy Diets. Dr. Ornish advocates a virtual vegan diet that strongly resembles those proposed by Drs. Campbell, Mcdougall, Esselstyn and Fuhrman, stalwart pioneers with convincing empirical data behind their advocacy of a plant based diet in combating heart disease and cancer.

The truth about the Mediterranean diet

Diets come and go. Some are better than others. Some are downright dangerous. One such diet, still highly popular, and the basis for several others, is the Mediterranean diet, which draws upon French research (Lyon Diet Heart Study) centered in Cretan eating habits in the 1950s. Cretans were virtually free of heart attacks and obesity rare, despite more than 40% of their diet deriving from fat, or mostly olive oil. Otherwise, they consumed mostly fruits, veggies, beans and fish. They also worked very hard in the fields. Unfortunately, Americans got hung-up on the olive oil rather than the preponderancy of vegetables, concluding the oil was good for you.

French scientists experimented with the Cretan diet. Those on the Mediterranean diet suffered 50 to 70% fewer cardiac incidents. Now that’s pretty impressive, enough certainly to foster enthusiasm for the diet.

Today’s Mediterranean Diet, however, has little resemblance to the Cretan diet that formed the basis of the Lyon study. For many of us, it conjures up images of pasta and Italian bread, staples not friendly to your colon. There is more meat and poultry.

As for the experimental group in the study, four years after it began, 25% on the diet had died or experienced a cardiac event. As often happens, media coverage can be as shallow as it is volatile. So much for the success of the Mediterranean diet. The truth is that olive oil is one of the most calorically dense and fattening foods you can consume. On a pound for pounds basis, it’s worse than butter (3200 calories) vs olive oil (4,020). Moreover, 14 percent of olive oil is saturated fat. Since it can lead to weight increase, it can also increase LDL (the bad kind of cholesterol).

There is evidence that monounsaturated fat, found in olive oil, gives some protection from strokes. Nevertheless, because of its caloric density, only thin people should consume it, if at all. (See D. D. Blankenhorn, et al. ”The Influence of diet on the Appearance of New Lesions in Human Coronary Arteries.” Journal of the American Medical Association, Mar. 23, 1990.)

The brilliant Cornell epidemiologist who wrote the landmark, China Study, while acknowledging that the Mediterranean diets were virtually the same, commented, “I would say the absence of oil in the rural Chinese diet is the reason for their superior success“ (qtd. In Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, p. 84).

The upshot in all of this? If you want to eat healthy, minimize disease, control weight, and foster longevity, then a a plant-based diet is your best bet.

Oh, about the Cretans, they now eat like most of us and, like most of us, now suffer similar rates of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, colon and breast cancer.

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