4 Simple Things You Can Do to Prevent Most Diseases

Image Credit: Punchyy / Flickr. This image has been modified.

4 Things To Help Prevent Most Disease

Though I was trained as a general practitioner, my chosen specialty is lifestyle medicine. Most of the reasons we go see our doctors are for diseases that could have been prevented. But lifestyle medicine is not just about preventing chronic disease—it’s also about treating it. And not just treating the disease, but treating the causes of disease.

If people just did four simple things—not smoking, exercising a half hour a day, eating a diet that emphasizes whole plant foods, and not becoming obese—they may prevent most cases of diabetes and heart attacks, half of strokes, and a third of cancers. Even modest changes may be more effective in reducing cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and all-cause mortality than almost any other medical intervention.

The key difference between conventional medicine and lifestyle medicine is instead of just treating risk factors, we treat the underlying causes of disease, as Drs. Hyman, Ornish, and Roizen describe in their landmark editorial Lifestyle medicine: treating the causes of disease. Doctors typically treat “risk factors” for disease by giving a lifetime’s worth of medications to lower high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, and high cholesterol. But think about it: high blood pressure is just a symptom of diseased and dysfunctional arteries. We can artificially lower blood pressure with drugs, but that’s not treating the underlying cause. To treat the underlying cause, we need things like diet and exercise, the “penicillin” of lifestyle medicine (See Lifestyle Medicine: Treating the Causes of Disease).

As Dr. Dean Ornish is fond of saying, disregarding the underlying causes and treating only risk factors is somewhat like mopping up the floor around an over-flowing sink instead of just turning off the faucet, which is why medications usually have to be taken for a lifetime. As Dr. Denis Burkitt described, “if a floor is flooded as a result of a dripping tap, it is of little use to mop up the floor unless the tap is turned off. The water from the tap represents the cost of disease, and the flooded floor represents the diseases filling our hospital beds. Medical students learn far more about methods of floor mopping than about turning off taps, and doctors who are specialists in mops and brushes can earn infinitely more money than those dedicated to shutting off taps.” And the drug companies are more than happy to sell rolls of paper towels so patients can buy a new roll every day for the rest of their lives. Paraphrasing poet, Ogden Nash, modern medicine is making great progress, but is headed in the wrong direction.

When the underlying lifestyle causes are addressed, patients often are able to stop taking medication or avoid surgery. We spend billions cracking patients’ chests open, but only rarely does it actually prolong anyone’s life. Instead of surgery, why not instead wipe out at least 90% of heart disease through prevention? Heart disease accounts for more premature deaths than any other illness and is almost completely preventable simply by changing diet and lifestyle, and the same dietary changes required can prevent or reverse many other chronic diseases as well.

So why don’t more doctors do it?

One reason is doctors don’t get paid to do it. No one profits from lifestyle medicine, so it is not part of medical education or practice. Presently, physicians lack training and financial incentives, so they continue to do what they know how to do: prescribe medication and perform surgery.

After Dean Ornish proved you could open up arteries and reverse our number one cause of death, heart disease, with just a plant-based diet and other healthy lifestyle changes (see Resuscitating Medicare and Our Number One Killer Can Be Stopped), he thought that his studies would have a meaningful effect on the practice of mainstream cardiology. After all, he had found a cure for our #1 killer! But, he admits, he was mistaken. “Physician reimbursement,” he realized, “is a much more powerful determinant of medical practice than research.”

Reimbursement over research. Salary over science. Wealth over health. Not a very flattering portrayal of the healing profession. But if doctors won’t do it without getting paid, let’s get them paid.

So Dr. Ornish went to Washington. He argued that if we train and pay for doctors to learn how to help patients address the real causes of disease with lifestyle medicine and not just treat disease risk factors we could save trillions of dollars. And that’s considering only heart disease, diabetes, prostate and breast cancer. The Take Back Your Health Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate to induce doctors to learn and practice lifestyle medicine, not only because it works better, but because they will be paid to do it. Sadly, the bill died, just like millions of Americans will continue to do with reversible chronic diseases.

By treating the root causes of diseases with plants not pills, we can also avoid the adverse side effects of prescription drugs that kill more than 100,000 Americans every year, effectively making doctors a leading cause of death in the United States. See One in a Thousand: Ending the Heart Disease Epidemic and my live presentation Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death.

For those surprised that policy makers wouldn’t support such a common sense notion as preventive health, check out my video The McGovern Report. What about medical associations? Medical Associations Oppose Bill to Mandate Nutrition Training.

There is another reason that may explain why the medical profession remains so entrenched. See my video The Tomato Effect.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

25 responses to “4 Things To Help Prevent Most Disease

Comment Etiquette

On NutritionFacts.org, you'll find a vibrant community of nutrition enthusiasts, health professionals, and many knowledgeable users seeking to discover the healthiest diet to eat for themselves and their families. As always, our goal is to foster conversations that are insightful, engaging, and most of all, helpful – from the nutrition beginners to the experts in our community.

To do this we need your help, so here are some basic guidelines to get you started.

The Short List

To help maintain and foster a welcoming atmosphere in our comments, please refrain from rude comments, name-calling, and responding to posts that break the rules (see our full Community Guidelines for more details). We will remove any posts in violation of our rules when we see it, which will, unfortunately, include any nicer comments that may have been made in response.

Be respectful and help out our staff and volunteer health supporters by actively not replying to comments that are breaking the rules. Instead, please flag or report them by submitting a ticket to our help desk. NutritionFacts.org is made up of an incredible staff and many dedicated volunteers that work hard to ensure that the comments section runs smoothly and we spend a great deal of time reading comments from our community members.

Have a correction or suggestion for video or blog? Please contact us to let us know. Submitting a correction this way will result in a quicker fix than commenting on a thread with a suggestion or correction.

View the Full Community Guidelines

  1. Thank you for your candidness and the work you do. Personally, I wish medicine would take your work more seriously, as lifestyle medicine definitely would reduce the costs of healthcare, especially Big Pharma’s outrageously exorbitant take from prescription drugs, the mainstay of allopathic medicine, which is based mostly in petrochemicals, that in many cases has tremendous side effects as numerous studies and data prove.


  2. Everyone has this information at their disposal….be it via sites like these or in the general press, or on TV (Dr. Oz, etc..)…the physicians haven’t failed to get the message out. It’s that it’s just too hard for people to stick to eating this way. It’s healthy yes, but most would rather have a pizza, burger, or some other ultra high calorie food in their face. The bottom line is that your health is your responsibility ….if you end up being treated for the symptoms and won’t treat the causes, it’s entirely on all of us who choose to live that way.

    1. Very well-stated. Is there a human being in this country that does not know that smoking is bad, that overeating, especially sugar, and sitting on your can make you fat? People eat what satisfies them at the moment. It is inherent in this age of instant gratification. Most would find more pleasure in a McDonald’s Hot Apple Pie than an apple; a bag of chips than a bunch of nuts. The minority who do lead healthy lifestyles generally don’t need doctors. I have been a physician for thirty years. Other than a hernia repair and colonoscopy, the only reason I’ve seen a doctor is for periodic labwork to reconfirm that my personal choices continue to be sound. I am indebted to Dr. Greger for his invaluable service. I incorporate all his advice into my own lifestyle and promote it to anyone who will listen. Those who are truly interested are the exception.

    2. You are right, people do prefer high fat, caloric foods, but if people actually tried really good fruit actual, tree ripened sweet fruit they would be shocked at how good it is. Also, if people actually knew just how much damage they are doing by eating that way, they would stop. They think that heart disease is fairly inevitable as “slim” people die of it too, and that a burger a day might increase their risk of dying, but its worth the risk. They don’t realise that the burger pretty much is the cause of heart disease itself, rather than just being risky. And that if they ate more healthy their chances of dying of HD are very slim indeed, they just don’t realise how slim.

  3. I am currently in school for a Nurse Practitioner degree and am taking pharmacology. We learn from the same guidelines the physicians use. Most of these guidelines do mention “lifestyle” as a first step in managing diseases but not much is said about what that means, and there is little agreement anyway. After that, turn to medications. If a patient has high blood pressure, treat him with a diuretic, then another drug if that doesn’t work, then maybe another. Diabetes? Metformin, then a second drug, then a third drug, maybe insulin. High cholesterol? Statins, of course. Then depending on risk factors a patient might get blood thinners to prevent stroke, anti-anginal drugs to manage symptoms, expensive drugs to take care of that acid stomach. Then we get into drugs to manage the side effects of all the rest. What are we doing? Why is it OK that patients have shoe boxes full of pill bottles with drug names they can’t understand? I am so glad Dr. Greger has done the research of the research to help us find our way. I wish doctors had more of an incentive to do what’s right for patients.

  4. A suggestion for a couple of videos: Since most people have never seen, nor heard the cracking open of a chest, I think a vivid video (with sound) of an operation would be very enlightening. “What a WFPB diet could keep you from ever having to live or die through” A narration of a time-lapse video of an actual open chest operation, a stent placement, an amputation for a diabetic foot etc. For each video, a listing of the % of problems encountered from the procedure, and a few quotes or interviews of those who have lived through them on what it was like. And, of course, stats on outcomes and prognosis all compared to WFPB results. Shocking, yes, but reality can be our best friend in living well, both physically an d psychologically.
    As ever, Dr. Greger, and TEAM, thank you for your information, tone, and accessibility. You have improved the lives of so many of us.

    1. Thank you Dr. Delaney (If I may call you that).
      I’m a 49-year old male and consider myself quite fit. 3 years ago I was on the brink of death, luckily I happened to be at the clinic when I experienced a major heart attack. Don’t let the shape or size of the body fool you. I was at
      160 lbs, looked fit on the outside but quite unhealthy on the inside. I got rushed to hospital and had to undergo a stent operation. 3 months later, the same symptoms came back and had no choice but to have my rib cage crack-opened.
      Funnily enough, I recall being so happy going to the operating room to have my operation. I knew that my two clogged arteries would be fixed but I needed to do more from my end.

      After the operation was over, I decided to turn my life around. I’ve started by recycling the people I knew, got rid of many, kept a few and looked for new ones that could invigorate my life. So, it’s important to change one’s attitude towards life.
      Then, I tackled my diet. I gradually started to follow a Vegan diet. It’s been 2 years that I am a Vegan and have no desire to going back to eating meat or having dairy products.
      Moreover, regular exercise is so important. Even just a simple daily stroll round the neighborhood can be sufficient.
      Lastly, I feel that it’s key to meditate and focus on the good things in life. Staying away from stressful situations, listening to bad news or dealing with pressure in a calm way should expedite the healing process, be it physical, emotional or a spiritual one.

      So my take on hear disease is such that if it had to happen and one survived it, then it was a wake up call – a second chance to roll the dice and win big. Heart disease isn’t easy to deal with but there are certainly better ways to treat it than mere medications. It’s our attitude towards illnesses and diseases that must change. The system had got so complex and science is constantly looking for either evidence or results to make a sound judgement prior to providing a relatively workable solution. Yet, most of the time the solution lies in our hands.

      I want to thank Dr. Greger for his courage and maverick approach in enlightening most of us readers so we can make better decisions when it comes to issues regarding our well being. The world certainly needs more people like him.

      I remember vividly the moments as I was coming around after my open heart operation. My mind was so active but my body was completely battered. No one would ever know what it was like having a chest crack-opened for 4 or 5 hours, or having the heart exposed out in the open, or having to heal for 30 days afterwards. It’s certainly a unique experience and most of the time it has some positive repercussions. I also remember how I refused to take morphine after the second day at the ICU. Even the doctors where surprised! But I dealt with the pain in my own way. I used that shell above my shoulders – that we call brain – to deal with the pain. After my second day, I had stopped taking Morphine and was put on a very low dose of headache pills. On my third day, I was able to walk around the ward and the fourth day I was released from hospital.

      The changes in one’s life usually occur when one is faced with a major calamity. I made all those decisions that I mentioned earlier when I laid in bed looking at the state I was in and looking at the people (other patients) around me. But I didn’t judge them, I only questioned myself for how I got there. I think lying in a hospital bed isn’t just about being treated, it’s more than that. It’s about soul searching and almost like watching a movie of your life with a predictable ending. But the end can change if we change certain steps that were taken in the past.

      Getting well o getting better must be an ongoing process, just like breathing. If I don’t take care of my body then my body won’t take care of me. It’s like playing give and take with the body.


    2. i agree with your comment, and you tube is a good place where to start, it is enough to write down “sternotomy” to see a good number of results and they’re highly graphic…

      The sensation that i feel when i see a chest crack open it’s like “OMG”.

      I mean, surgeons seems to cut butter, not bones.

      It’s highly impressive.

  5. Thanks for this info and nobody should really be surprised by it. Wealth over health indeed. Just look at pharmaceutical companies lobbying budget and activities in Washington DC …and in doctors offices.

    History clearly shows us that real change at the political and social level, regarding any entrenched situation (think kings ruling by “divine right”, the earth is flat, women getting the right to vote, reforming workplace safety, civil rights, etc) unfortunately takes decades and decades. No quick fix coming here with trillions of dollars at stake.

    So what’s a solution? Vote with your feet and dollars. Go to a lifestyle physician, naturopath, functional medicine MD etc. When people ask “How do you stay so healthy and look so good?” tell them how and recommend in the strongest possible terms that they too do these “4 things” AND that they too should entrust the true physicians, those who get to the root causes of illness rather than “mopping up the floor with a lifetime supply of paper towels” that you, your family and society foots the bill for.

    Alternatively, stand up and tell your conventional Dr that you are sick and tired of pills as a band aid pseudo-solution that fails to address the underlying CAUSES of your health problem. Demand better medicine him/her.

    As demand for the Dr Gregor, Dr Hyman and similar MDs increases, so will the supply.

    It’s also useful to see what other developed countries do – like in Japan where all hospitals are non-profit.

    Lobby your schools to start teaching lifestyle medicine right from grade 1.

    I don’t claim to have the answers. These are just a few things we all have the power to take action on to drive change. Margaret Mead hit the nail on the head when she famously said:

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

  6. I want to become a doctor or do something with lifestyle medicine.? Any advice and resources? Any medical schools or educational programs to look into?

    1. First: you need to became a doctor, so you have to attend Med school, then after you became an MD, focus on a specialization like Lifestyle Medicine, or Nutrition.

      Maybe you could ask here: http://www.lifestylemedicine.org/

      Even Dr Ornish provide certified training about his method:


      Or instead of following med school you could became a Registered Dietitian and then focused on whole food plant based diet, like Jeff Novick, or Jack Norris:



      Try to search for med blogs and asks for information there.

  7. You’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head. Sometimes I ask myself, why bother going to the doctor, since I know the answer to all that ails me is either medication or surgery. There is much wrong with America’s health care system and I agree we need to incenticize physicians to incorporate lifestyle medicine into their practice.

  8. The tape of the medical lobbyists reminds me of non government organizations in Haiti. If poverty went away, there would be no jobs for the NGO’s. Doctors buy nice stuff from billable services. It is amazing how few embrace nutrition and how many are quick to look down their nose at the growing body of evidence that demonstrates plant based living is healthiest. Pharmaceuticals and the docs who benefit from prescribing them perpetuate heart disease and diabetes in America. Fact.

  9. Excellent post. I would like to add another perspective. I grew up in Australia where the health care is free and the relationship with doctors seems very different. Having lived the US for 2 decades now, the glaring difference here is that commerce and medicine have become bedfellows. I worked in a restaurant for a while and there was a medical building close by. I regularly waited on roundtables of doctors discussing ways to increase their patient numbers and profits. It used to make my skin crawl. There are some professions that should not be centered on financial concerns or they run the real risk of coming disconnected from what matters. I now work as a nutrition researcher for 4 Organics and spend all my time looking into the remarkable healing power of food and plants. This makes it even tougher when I visit my doctor and try to discuss what I know about proper approaches to good health only to have him look at me like I am speaking a foreign language. I swear that every time I have a minor complaint, he tries to get me onto some drug. I went in with a stomach complaint and he prescribed me tri-cyclic antidepressants! When I suggested alternatives for controlling my cholestrol, I could sense his irritation at my resistance to statins. He gave me the clear impression that he considered my more naturopathic notions as complete bunk, and anything dietary was essentially just not in his wheelhouse. No matter his educational background, his disinterest in proactive health is cultural. Given that most illnesses are rooted in lifestyle and diet choices, it is totally counter-intuitive to have doctors that are entirely reactive. It changes your very fundamental mentality as a health practitioner, and it is distinctly apparent to me as a once-foreigner. And in the end, if his ultimate concern is his bottom line, then how can I trust my health to his care? I have the same visceral reaction when I take my car in to the mechanic and get a long list of repairs I am pretty sure I do not need. Somebody turn off the tap. Thanks. Rafael – http://organicsmanufacturer.com/blog.html

    1. Rafael – It puzzles me why you would go to the Dr in the first place. You knew he was not going to use diet and lifestyle and you should have already knew the reason for your problems.

    2. I have a similar feeling about my own naturopathic industry. So many clients comes out rattling with pills galore after consults. I specialise in helping people develop mind body self-awareness and light self-hypnosis techniques to facilitate positive behavioural change and improved stress-management. How can we put the clients best interests first if we are fixated on the need to sell stock? I have lost count of the times I have heard fellow naturopaths speaking with each other about how they rely on their stock sales to survive.

      I rarely prescribe, and have distanced myself from the naturopathic industry because it is so strongly driven by the promotion and sale of supplements. After graduating, it can be so easy to slip into the trap of product suppliers becoming your on-going teachers and mentors. I was told by my industry body that if I wasn’t prescribing during a consult, I couldn’t rightly consider my treatments to be ‘naturopathic’. Lifestyle counselling doesn’t cut the mustard, apparently.

      My rule of thumb in my own life, and what I bring to my practise is this: Don’t use medication if you can use supplements, don’t use supplements if you can use herbs, don’t use herbs if you can use food and never under-estimate the power of the mind and the value of exercise.

    3. Rafael, Thanks for your post. You story is sad, but all too often is common.

      Also, I find it fascinating to learn how things work differently in different countries. We have definitely gone the wrong way in America. It’s nice to hear that other models are possible and produce better results.

  10. I heartily subscribe to your message of diet and lifestyle’s connection to health. My husband, our three adult children and their mates, and I have been vegans for many years. We originally gave up animal products for ethical reasons, but we’ve since come to realize the “side” nutritional benefits: most of us have excellent health (my husband takes aspirin for a slight heart arhythmia). I’m writing to request more information on the definition of ‘whole foods.” The food industry, eager to exploit every market, has come out with many, many meat and dairy analogs—in addition to dozens of different varieties of veggie burgers, which never pretended to taste like meat burgers, but are tasty, nevertheless. Our family frequently uses and enjoys many of these products. BUT JUST HOW HEALTHY ARE THEY? They are processed, after all! When we eat faux sausage, brats, or beef tips, are we treating our bodies any better than if we ate the animal-bases products?

    1. Kathy: I think it is worth taking a moment to acknowledge the great strides you have made for your health so far. …

      But if you are ready to take the next step in eating a healthy diet, I think Toxin’s point about skipping the store-bought mock meats and veggie burgers is a great idea. If you look at the ingredients of those store-bought products, you will not see many whole foods. You are likely to see soy protein isolate (not a whole food!) and gluten (not a whole food!), etc. You will see lots of fat, including from a highly processed source: oil (not a whole food!). etc.

      If you are ready to take the next step, you might consider making your own veggie burgers, which you can make with whole foods and no oils. Just as an example, Jeff Novick has a DVD called Fast Food: Burgers and Fries. If you got that DVD, you would see how to make very healthy and tasty burgers out of beans and rolled oats and lots of spices. And those veggie burgers would be extremely healthy.

      And then there are some really great recipes out there for things like: quinoa taco meat, etc.

      My point is: You can still eat foods that have those flavors. But if you make the food yourself (and it’s really not hard!!!) from carefully chosen recipes rather than buy pre-made packages from the store, the health difference is gigantic. Maybe save those store purchased faux sausages for rare treats?

      Hope that helps!

  11. I am surprised that the four mentioned factors only reduce stroke by 50%. I am aware there are two types of strokes, hemorrhagic and ischemic. I would think that the above factors would lower blood pressure and reduce the incidence of hemorrhagic strokes as well as reducing cholesterol formation and the development of a thrombosis. I would think that lowered BP would reduce the incidence of hemorrhage from aneurysms and AVMs as well. So why does it only reduce stroke by 50%?

  12. I can’t help myself but agree on this. Thank you Dr G. And yes, if only people would be more focused on just 4 things: quit smoking, exercise for 30 mins each day, eat healthy, and maintain a healthy weight. Then all the other diseases and health conditions could have flown away. In fact, reading through http://bit.ly/1yoHpNq makes me agree more with this article. Personally, I thank myself that I don’t know how to smoke. As for the other 3 things, I know these are just doable. I just have to learn how to budget my time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This