Can a change in diet prevent fatal medical issues?

Modern-day medical killers are all now proven to be reversible and sometimes curable with the right diet and exercise.

 DR. DEAN ORNISH, president and founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute and clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, in 2017. (photo credit: LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)
DR. DEAN ORNISH, president and founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute and clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, in 2017.
(photo credit: LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)

They are the modern-day killers: heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, mild cognitive impairment, early stage prostate cancer – all now proven to be reversible and often, totally curable.

On the prevention front, all of the above plus Alzheimer’s disease, most cancers, most autoimmune diseases, arthritis, infectious disease, mental health ailments and more can be reduced and even prevented. The typical protocol to reverse disease is to get assessed by a physician, get tests done and then either you would be given medication, or undergo some procedure or surgery.

The problem is that there is no medication that truly reverses or cures these diseases and it is doubtful there ever will be. Modern medicine can try to slow the progress of all of these conditions by treating the symptoms. However, unlike a bacterial infection, meds won’t cut it here. 

What will? It’s actually as simple as a change in diet and lifestyle. Yes, that’s it. How can something so seemingly complex have such a simple solution?

Can a change in diet prevent it?

 LEMONS DETOX the liver.  (credit: Cristina Anne Costello/Unsplash) LEMONS DETOX the liver. (credit: Cristina Anne Costello/Unsplash)

For those of you who are familiar with the recent history and development of psychology over the last 60 years, you know that around 1960 a change began to take place that is still evolving today. Dr. Aaron Beck advanced the idea of behavioral psychology and then cognitive behavioral therapy, which contradicted traditional, Freudian-based psychoanalysis. One of the main criticisms of Beck, and of behavioral therapy in general, was that it was entirely too simple to possibly work. 

Here we are, some 60 years later, and hundreds of studies have proven that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and its offshoots like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and Positive Psychology are effective for almost every psychological malady. These modalities are based on simple principles, but highly effective. Disease prevention and reversal is similar. 

It is based on surprisingly simple principles. What makes it even simpler, is that according to Dr. Dean Ornish, all of the Western illnesses are basically one disease. We don’t need a separate treatment for each chronic disease. 

Ornish, the first researcher to prove that diet can reverse heart disease, subscribes to what he calls the Unifying Theory. That is, even though each disease has its own pathology, they all stem from a bad lifestyle, primarily diet. Both the cause and the treatment come down to one thing – lifestyle. Ornish subsequently has run randomized controlled trials showing the reversal of Type 2 diabetes, early-stage prostate cancer, early-stage Alzheimer’s and the ability to up regulate and down regulate genes through lifestyle, by examining the telomeres on DNA strands. 

Can it be that what I eat, how much exercise and activity I engage in, how well I sleep, how well I integrate with my fellow humans, and how I manage my stress are more powerful than medication and surgery? For chronic disease, that answer is usually a resounding yes. And yes, it is that simple.

The part that isn’t simple is that the way we do things, like eating and living a sedentary lifestyle become ingrained. Lifetime habits are not easy to change, but it can and must be done in order to maintain health and a good quality of life. For some, it can actually happen quickly; for others, it will take longer and require great patience. We are all familiar with cognitive dissonance. You want to make a change and are motivated, whether in the area of health and fitness or any other area of your life. 

You make up your mind. But then you engage in some behavior that goes contrary to your success. For instance, you want to stop smoking, and the dangers of smoking are well known to you, but you continue to smoke anyway. Or, you know that your BMI is above 30 and this presents a clear and present danger to your health. You have resolved to lose weight, but as you walk up and down the aisles of the supermarket, you notice a container of your favorite ice cream and you buy it and bring it in the house and eat it. 

So we have conflicting thoughts, hence the dissonance. But when someone works on their thinking and becomes acutely aware of his choices and the consequences of his choices, he can manage to change gradually. 

The most wonderful thing about adopting healthy lifestyle changes is that it is generally self-motivating. You start feeling better and you start looking better. You see the improvement in your next blood test. So, you want to keep going, you want to keep feeling better and better. I know from many of my own clients how many people can do more and function better at age 60 than they did at age 35. That usually is motivating enough. 

So here are some simple tips for simple changes to simply improve your health:

Eating and nutrition

• Don’t eat after 8 p.m.

• Try to eat at least five servings of vegetables and three fruits daily

• Cut your portion sizes by 10-15% (you still won’t be hungry)

• Switch to a mostly whole foods, plant-based diet

• Drink 8-10 cups of water per day

• Write down what you eat on a food tracker daily

• Eliminate ultra-processed foods (cakes, cookies, candy, prepared foods, jarred sauces, etc.)

• Reduce the amount of protein you are eating and keep them as plant-based as possible

• Brown bag it! Take your food to work or school and only eat out occasionally

Exercise and activity

• Start walking from place to place instead of driving or using public transportation

• Schedule a brisk, daily 30-minute walk or two 15-minute walks. 

• Get off public transportation a stop or two before your destination

• Use stairs instead of elevators. If that is difficult, start with a few flights 

• Park your car a few blocks away from where you want to end up

• Add a quick muscle building circuit two-to-three days a week. See what six-to-seven minutes can do!

• Go on a family hike once a week

We now know that it’s all one disease and it has pretty much one solution called lifestyle medicine, and with all the difficulties there may be to change habits, it can be done. The number one complaint for not taking this on, is time. “I just don’t have time” or “I wish I had the time” are the common refrains that all health professionals hear all the time. 

Consider the following: for what is a relatively small investment of time and effort, you can head off waiting in doctors’ offices, spending time making appointments, not miss so many productive hours because of reactions and side-effects of drugs, and not have to spend a great deal of time recovering from procedures and surgeries.

So, keep it simple. As we are now approaching the holidays which can be a challenging time for our health and well-being, don’t wait. Get started, feel fantastic, save time in the long run and have a great quality of life heading into the holiday period. Start now to “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”