A new book examines what to eat to cut the chances of suffering illnesses linked to western diets
A century ago, the vast majority of deaths were caused by infectious diseases. In the developed world that is no longer the case, thanks to antibiotics, sanitation and clean water. Unfortunately, the main causes of death now are lifestyle related, due especially to the western diet.
Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in the US and Britain. As recently as the 1940s, however, doctors could not find a single case of heart disease in Uganda, which at the time was a relatively undeveloped country. The probable reason?
A diet with far more fibre, fresh fruit and vegetables than we in the west eat.
I have been reading a fascinating new book with the morbid title of How Not to Die by Michael Greger, a doctor in Washington who seems to devote every waking moment to reading thousands of research studies on diet and nutrition.
The book is a distillation of his work for nutritionfacts.org, a website on which Dr Greger passes on diet research. For those who roll their eyes when the media trumpet the latest health news, this is the website to turn to.
The book looks at the 15 main causes of death — heart, lung and brain disease, digestive cancer, infections, diabetes, high blood pressure, liver disease, blood cancer, kidney disease, breast cancer, suicidal depression, prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease and being killed by medical treatment — and examines how they relate to what we eat and drink. The second half of the book is devoted to how diet can help prevent some of these issues.
Dr Greger advocates a diet that includes a lot of unprocessed fruits and vegetables as the answer to many of humankind’s ills but he says the book is not just for vegetarians. “The book is for anyone wanting to eat healthier,” he tells me. “I didn’t know any of this stuff before I saw the research.”
For example, many people eat cruciferous vegetables — broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts — for their cancer-preventing properties; did you know, though, that both frozen and cooked broccoli cannot make sulforaphane, a key anti-cancer agent? If you add a little mustard powder to these vegetables after cooking, it restores the enzyme myrosinase, which is needed to make sulforaphane.
Similarly, if you eat oatmeal porridge, adding a pinch of cloves increases the antioxidant benefits and, even better, a small amount of Indian gooseberries, sold as a powder called amla, can reduce blood sugar and bad cholesterol.
Unlike many so-called experts on the internet, Dr Greger is not a fan of supplements, preferring whole foods to pill popping.
In one interesting note, he relates how many older people, especially women after the menopause, have been told to take calcium supplements for their bones. Recent research cited by Dr Greger has shown that supplements can cause a spike in blood calcium, which raises the risk of stroke and heart attacks.
This book brims with valuable insights. Dr Greger tends to rely on the gold standard of medical research — randomised controlled trials — rather than the latest fads. Vegetarian or not, this book is a great way to improve your diet.