Have you ever wondered if there’s a natural way to lower your high blood pressure, guard against Alzheimer's, lose weight, and feel better? Well as it turns out there is. Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, founder of NutritionFacts.org, and author of the instant New York Times bestseller “How Not to Die” celebrates evidence-based nutrition to add years to our life and life to our years.

Food as Medicine: TEDx Talk

If you’ve ever wanted the back story on how I became such a strong advocate for information based nutrition – here it is!

This episode features audio from my recent talk at TEDxSedona. The video for that talk can be found here.


There are lots of good reasons to try and follow a healthier diet–you lose weight, you feel good, but the main reason–to live a longer, happy, productive life. Sounds good, right?  And though it may sound deceptively easy, the devil is in the details.  Welcome to the Nutrition Facts podcast. I’m your host Dr. Michael Greger.

If you’re wondering if I’ve ever done a TED talk, you will be thrilled to know that the answer is a resounding yes! And here it is… a talk I did for a recent TEDx event in Sedona, Arizona, about our greatest public health issues. 

My grandmother was diagnosed with end-stage heart disease and sent home to die. She already had so many bypass surgeries, basically run out of plumbing, confined to a wheelchair, crushing chest pain—her life was over at age 65. But then, she heard about this guy, Nathan Pritikin, one of our early lifestyle medicine pioneers and what happened next is actually detailed in Pritikin’s biography. My grandma was one of the death’s-door people. Frances Greger, my grandmother, arrived in a wheelchair. Mrs. Greger had heart disease, angina, claudication—her condition so bad she could no longer walk without great pain in her chest and legs. Within three weeks though, she was not only out of her wheelchair, she was walking 10 miles a day! She was given a medical death sentence at age 65 and thanks to a healthy diet, was able to enjoy another 31 years on this planet, until age 96, to enjoy her 6 grandkids—including me. That’s why I went into medicine.

See, years later, when Dr. Dean Ornish published his landmark lifestyle heart trial, proven with something called quantitative angiography, that indeed heart disease could be reversed, arteries opened up without drugs, without surgery—just a plant-based diet and lifestyle program. I assumed this was going to be the game-changer. I mean, my family had seen it with their own eyes, but here it was in black and white, published in some of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, yet, nothing happened.

So, wait a second. If effectively the cure to our number one killer could get lost down some rabbit-hole and ignored, what else might there be in the medical literature that could help my patients but just didn’t have a corporate budge driving its promotion? Well, I made it my life’s mission to find out.

For those of you unfamiliar with my work, every year I read through every issue of every English language nutrition journal in the world so busy folks like you don’t have to. I then compile the most interesting, the most groundbreaking, the most practical findings to new videos and articles I upload every day to my nonprofit site, NutritionFacts.org. Everything on the website is free. There are no ads and no corporate sponsorships. It’s strictly noncommercial, not selling anything. I just put it up as a public service, as a labor of love, as a tribute to my grandmother. New videos and articles every day on the latest in evidence-based nutrition. What a concept!

So, where did Pritikin get his evidence from? Well, a network of missionary hospitals set up throughout sub-Saharan Africa uncovered what may be one of the most important medical advances. According to one of our most preeminent medical figures in the last century, Dr. Dennis Burkitt, the fact that many of our major and commonest diseases were universally rare, like heart disease. In the African population of Uganda, for example, coronary artery disease was almost nonexistent. Wait a second! Our number one killer almost nonexistent? What were they eating? Well, they were eating lots of vegetables and grains and greens, and their protein almost entirely from plant sources—and they had the cholesterol levels to prove it, very similar to what one sees in kind of modern-day plant-eaters. You say, wait a second, maybe they were just all dying early, never lived long enough to get heart disease. Out of 632 autopsies in Uganda, only one myocardial infarction. Out of 632 age-and-gender matched autopsies in Missouri 136 myocardial infarctions, more than a hundred times the rate of our leading killer. In fact, they were so blown away, went back, did another 800 autopsies in Uganda; still, just that one small healed infarct, meaning it wasn’t even the cause of death. Out of 1,427 patients, less than one in a thousand, whereas here heart disease is an epidemic.

Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) is a disease that begins in childhood. By age 10, nearly all kids raised on the Standard American Diet already have what are called fatty streaks building up inside of their arteries, the first stage of the disease. These streaks then turn into plaques in our 20s, get worse in our 30s, and then can start killing us off. In our heart it is called a heart attack, in our brain the same disease can cause a stroke. So, if there’s anyone here today older than age 10, then the question isn’t whether or not to eat healthy to prevent heart disease, it’s whether you want to reverse the heart disease you likely already have, whether you know it or not. But, is that even possible? You know, researchers took people with heart disease, put them on the kind of plant-based diet followed by populations that did not get epidemic heart disease, their hope was that maybe we could slow the disease down a little bit, maybe even stop it. But, instead, something miraculous happened! As soon as people stopped eating artery-clogging diets, their bodies were able to start dissolving some of that plaque away, opening up arteries, without drugs, without surgery, suggesting their bodies wanted to be healthy all along, but were just never given the chance. That remarkable improvement in blood flow to the heart muscle itself was after just three weeks of plant-based nutrition.

The human body is a self-healing machine, unless you’re sticking it with a fork three times a day.  Now, sure you can choose moderation and hit yourself with a smaller hammer, but why beat yourself up at all? This is nothing new. American Heart Journal 1977: Cases like Mr. F. couldn’t even make it to the mailbox, started eating healthier, a few months later, he was climbing mountains no pain! Alright? Now, there are these fancy new classes of antiangina drugs on the market now, cost thousands of dollars a year, but at the highest dose, may be able to extend exercise duration as long as 33 ½ seconds! It does not look like those choosing the drug route are going to be climbing mountains anytime soon.

See, plant-based diets aren’t just safer and cheaper, they can work better because you’re treating the underlying cause of the disease.

Now, normally I would go on to cancer, talk about the other 15 leading causes of death, talk about the role diet may play in preventing, arresting and reversing each of our top 15 killers, but what more do you need to know? There’s only one diet ever been proven to reverse heart disease in the majority of patients—a plant-based diet.

So, anytime someone tries to sell you on some new diet, do me a favor, ask them one simple question: Wait a second, has this diet been proven to reverse heart disease? You know, the number one reason me and all my loved ones will die. And, if the answer is no, how would you even consider it? If that’s all a plant-based diet could do, reverse the number one killer of men and women, shouldn’t that kind of be the default diet until proven otherwise? And, the fact it can also be useful for preventing, arresting and reversing other leading killers, like type 2 diabetes and hypertension, would seem to make the case for plant-based eating simply overwhelming.

Most deaths in the United States are preventable and related to nutrition. According to the Global Burden of Disease Study, the largest study of human disease risk factors in history, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the number one cause of death in these United States, it’s our diet. The number one cause of disability in the United States, it’s our diet, now bumping tobacco smoking to number two. Cigarettes now only kill about a half million Americans every year, whereas our diet kills hundreds of thousands more. So, if most deaths are preventable and related to nutrition, then obviously nutrition is the number one thing taught in medical school, right? I mean, obviously it’s the number one thing your doctor talks to you about at every single visit, right? Well, how could there be this disconnect between the science and the practice of medicine?

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine yourself a smoker back in the 1950s. Back in the 1950s, the average per capita cigarette consumption was 4,000 cigarettes a year, meaning the average person walking around smoked half pack a day, on average. The media was telling people to smoke. Famous athletes agreed. Even Santa Claus wanted you to smoke. I mean, look, you want to “keep fit” and stay slim, make sure to smoke and eat lots of hot dogs to stay trim, and lots of sugar to stay slim and trim, a lot better than that apple there. I mean, sheesh, right? “Though apples do connote goodness and freshness”, reads one internal tobacco industry memo, which brings up many possibilities for a youth-oriented cigarette. They wanted to make apple flavored cigarettes for kids. Shameless!

“For digestion’s sake” you smoke, but “no curative powers claimed” by Phillip Morris, but, hey, better to be safe than sorry and smoke. After all, John Wayne smoked them, until he got lung cancer and died.

You know, back then, even the Paleo folks were smoking and so were the doctors. Now, this is not to say there wasn’t controversy within the medical profession. Sure, you know, some doctors smoked Camels, but others preferred Lucky, so there was a little disagreement there. The leader of the US Senate agreed. Who wouldn’t want to give their throat a vacation?  Not a single case of throat irritation. How could there be, when “cigarettes are just as pure as the water you drink”–maybe up in Flint, Michigan. But don’t worry, if you do get irritated, your doctor can just write you a prescription for cigarettes. This is in the Journal of the American Medical Association. So, when the AMA is saying smoking, on balance, is good for you. When the American Medical Association is saying that, where could you turn back then if you just wanted the facts? What’s the new data advanced by science? Well, she was “too tired for fun and then she smoked a Camel.”

Babe Ruth spoke of proof-positive medical science; that is, when he still could speak, before he died of throat cancer.

You know, if by some miracle back then there was a SmokingFacts.org website that could deliver the science directly, bypassing commercially corruptible institutional filters, you would have become aware of studies like this. This is an Adventist study out of California published in 1958 showing that nonsmokers had at least 90% less lung cancer than smokers. Alright. But, this wasn’t the first. When famed surgeon Michael DeBakey was asked why his studies back in the ‘30s linking lung cancer and smoking were simply ignored, he had to remind people what it was like back then. We were a smoking society; it was everywhere; it was in the movies; airplanes, medical meetings were one “heavy haze of smoke.” Smoking was, in a word, normal.

So, back to our thought experiment. If you’re a smoker in the ‘50s in the know, what do you do? I mean with access to the science, you realize the best available balance of evidence suggests your smoking habit, uh, not so good for you. So, do you change or do you wait? If you wait, until your doctor tells you, between puffs, to quit, you’d have cancer by then. If you wait until the powers that be officially recognize it, like the Surgeon General did in the subsequent decade, you could be dead by then. It took more than 7,000 studies and the death of countless smokers before the first Surgeon General’s report against smoking came out. You’d think maybe after the first 6,000 studies could give people a little heads up or something? Powerful industry. Maybe we should have stopped smoking after the 700th study. As a smoker in the ‘50s, on one hand, you had all of society, the government, the medical profession itself telling you to smoke. And, on the other hand, all you had was the science–if you’re even aware of studies like this.

Alright, well let’s fast forward 55 years. There’s a new Adventist study out of California warning Americans about something else they may be putting in their mouths. Of course, it’s not just one study, they put all the studies together. Mortality from all causes put together, and many of our dreaded diseases, significantly lower among those eating more plant-based diets.

So, instead of someone going along with America’s smoking habits in the ‘50s, imagine you or someone you know going along with America’s eating habits today. What do you do? I mean, with access to the science, you realize the best available balance of evidence suggests your eating habits are not so good for you. So, do you change or do you wait? If you wait until your doctor tells you–between bites–to change, it could be too late. In fact, even after the Surgeon General’s report came out, the American Medical Association went on record refusing to endorse it. Why? Could it have been because they were just handed a 10 million dollar check from the tobacco industry? Maybe. So, you know, while the AMA was sucking up to tobacco industry, more and more individual doctors speaking up, there were a few gallant souls, ahead of their time, speaking up against industries killing millions, but why not more? Maybe it’s because the majority of physicians themselves smoke cigarettes, just like the majority of physicians today continue to eat foods that are contributing to our epidemics of dietary disease. What was the AMA’s rallying cry back then? “Everything in moderation.” “Extensive scientific studies have proven smoking in moderation”; oh, that’s fine. Sound familiar? The food industry used the same tobacco industry tactics: twisting the science, misinformation.  The same scientists-for-hire paid to downplay the risks of cigarettes and toxic chemicals are the same paid for by the National Confectioners Association to downplay the risks of candy, and the same paid for by the meat industry to downplay the risks of meat. Whereas animal foods and processed foods may be killing us off, at least 14 million people every year. So, those of us involved in this kind of evidence-based nutrition revolution, we’re talking 14 million lives in the balance. Maybe, you know, plant-based nutrition should be considered kind of the nutritional equivalent of quitting smoking, but how long do we have to wait before the CDC says don’t wait for open heart surgery to start eating healthier as well?

Until the system changes, we need to take personal responsibility for our own health, for our family’s health. We can’t wait until society catches up to the science again, because it’s a matter of life and death.

You know, a few years ago, Dr. Kim Williams became President of the American College of Cardiology. He was asked in an interview why he himself follows the same diet he recommends to all his patients, a strictly plant-based diet. “I don’t mind dying,” Dr. Williams replied, “I just don’t want it to be my own fault.”

Thank you.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images or studies mentioned here, please go to the Nutrition Facts podcast landing page. There, you’ll find all the detailed information you need, plus links to all of the sources we cite for each of these topics.

Be sure to check out my new How Not to Die Cookbook. It’s beautifully designed, with more than 120 recipes for delicious, plant-based meals, snacks, and beverages. All the proceeds from the sales of all my books all go to charity. I just want you to be healthier.

NutritionFacts.org is a nonprofit, science-based public service, where you can sign up for free daily updates on the latest in nutrition research via bite-sized videos and articles.

Everything on the website is free. There’s no ads, no corporate sponsorship. It’s strictly non-commercial. I’m not selling anything. I just put it up as a public service, as a labor of love—as a tribute to my grandmother – whose own life was saved with evidence-based nutrition.

Thanks for listening to Nutrition Facts. I’m Dr. Michael Greger.

This is just an approximation of the audio content, contributed by Allyson Burnett.


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