Whether you’re a meat-eater, flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan, we now know that there are a host of reasons why including more plant-based and whole foods in your diet can make you healthier and live longer…
Dr Michael Gregor is the author of ‘How Not To Die’. As he points out, dying of old age isn’t really a thing – some disease ends up getting you in the end. ‘Most deaths in the United States are preventable, and they are related to what we eat. Our diet is the number-one cause of premature death,’ he argues.
You might expect modern medication to hold disease at bay, and extend life, but despite the Mayo Clinic estimating that 70% of Americans are on prescription drugs, life expectancy in the US is down in 27-28th place in the table of 34 top, free-market economies.
So, what is it in our diets that’s doing the damage, and how can we stop it?
Heart Disease Starts Young
The bad news when it comes to heart health is that you probably already have the first signs of heart disease. Studies done on Americans who died accidentally between the ages of three and 27 have shown that fatty streaks in the arteries were found in almost all American children from the age of ten.
This is the first stage of atherosclerosis, which leads to arteries being clogged with fatty plagues, and then heart attacks, and strokes.
‘It’s The Cholesterol, Stupid!’
The good news is that we know exactly what the risk factor is for atherosclerosis – your levels of LDL blood cholesterol.
The average LDL cholesterol level for people living in the US is around 200 mg/dL, but the optimal level, according to Gregor, is ‘probably 50 or 70mg/dL and apparently the lower the better. Thats where start out with at birth, that’s the level seen in populations largely free of heart disease, and that is the level at which the progression of atherosclerosis appears to stop in cholesterol-lowering trials.’
Eat To Save Your Heart
When it comes to stopping your arteries from being clogged up with fatty deposits, the cure seems to be avoidance: ‘To drastically reduce LDL cholesterol levels, you need to drastically reduce your intake of three things: trans fat which comes from processed foods and naturally from meat and diary; saturated fat, found mainly in animal products and junk foods; and to a lesser extent dietary cholesterol, found exclusively in animal-derived foods,’ says Greger.
Given a chance, your body is more than capable of dissolving and flushing out the fatty deposits from your arteries – Greger points to the pioneering work done by docs such as Nathan Pritikin, Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn Jr who managed to reverse heart disease in their patients by putting them on a plant-based diet.
All of the evidence points to cutting junk food and animal products to promote a healthy heart (one 2017 University of Connecticut study did find that low-fat yoghurt can lower LDL cholesterol, and live yoghurt is good for gut health, so we should give that an honourable mention). But put simply, plant-based foods that are also low in saturated fat, are going to be your arteries’ friends.
‘A junk food meal can send your heart into the dead zone within hours of you eating it’
Why Junk Food Is An Instant Disaster
If you need another reason not to cave into temptation and order that double cheeseburger, know that junk food doesn’t just pose a threat to your health at some unspecified date in the far future, when a lifetime of choices catches up to you – it can send your heart into the dead zone within hours of you eating it.
‘We’ve known for nearly two decades that a single fast food meal – Sausage and Egg McMuffins were used in the original study – can stiffen your arteries within hours, cutting in half their ability to relax normally,’ says Greger. This stiffening increases the chances of an arterial plaque being dislodged and finding its way to your heart or brain, to trigger a lethal heart attack or a stroke.
Scientists used to think that this effect was down to animal fat or proteins, but it’s now thought that bacterial toxins called endotoxins, present in some foods including meat, can trigger this arterial inflammation, even when the food is fully cooked. Once in your gut, these endotoxins hitch a ride on saturated fat to cross the gut wall and enter your bloodstream.
Could Brazil Nuts Be A Crazy Cholesterol Killer?
Greger talks about a study, in his book, that seems far too good to be true, particularly as it was researched performed on Brazil nuts, in Brazil!
The researchers fed volunteers a meal containing between two and eight Brazil nuts and measured their LDL cholesterol levels nine hours later. They found that the levels were an incredible 20 percentage points lower than before the meal. Even stranger, they measured the levels one month later and found their ‘bad’ cholesterol levels stayed down.
As Greger admits, small studies like this one can be unreliable, which is why scientists wait for them to be repeated to make recommendations, but for him the fact that you’re just talking about four Brazil nuts a month means it’s probably worth a shot.
Just be careful not to overdo it because Brazil nuts are so high in selenium that eating four every day would actually put you up towards the upper safe limit for selenium.
Meet Your Cancer-Fighting Arsenal
Heart disease may be the number one killer of men in America and the UK but cancer is still high on the causes of death – every year in the USA an estimated 1.7 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed and 609,000 people will die from the disease.
Fortunately, there are inexpensive and widely available foods that have been shown to combat the spread of cancer, by apparently making human cells more resistant to the DNA damage that gives rise to cancer.
A 2010 study found that young healthy smokers who ate a single stalk of broccoli a day had 41% fewer genetic mutations in their bloodstream. Tests showed that wasn’t due to boosting liver function, but to some process that worked at a subcellular level. The broccoli effect has also been shown to work with other green leafy vegetables, such as kale.
Tumeric has also been shown to lower genetic mutations by 38% in smokers, at a level of eating less than a teaspoonful per day. And other antioxidants in spices can increase your daily antioxidant count dramatically: don’t miss out on the chance to add flavour-boosting spices like cinnamon and cloves to porridges and smoothies.
You don’t have to be a smoker to benefit from this cancer protection – there are many carcinogens in the environment from those give off by frying foods, to outdoor air pollution, which was officially classed as carcinogenic by the World Health Organisation in 2013.
Why High Dairy Intake Could Be A Prostate Cancer Risk
Apart from skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common form to strike American men – the American Cancer Society says there are around 174,650 new cases of prostate cancer and 31,620 deaths from the disease every year.
While diary is a source of calcium, and low-fat yoghurt can provide valuable gut probiotics, a 2015 meta-analysis of several studies showed that high intakes of dairy products (but not non-dairy calcium sources) appear to increase total prostate cancer risk.
As Greger reports in his book: ‘Harvard University nutrition experts have expressed concern that the hormones in dairy products and other growth factors could stimulate the growth of hormone-sensitive tumours.’
WHAT NEXT? Want to know more about plant-based food? Then read the explosive RSNG interview with James Wilks, MMA coach and documentary maker behind Gamechangers.
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.
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