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.

Taking Personal Responsibility for Our Health

Flipping the switch on a better lifestyle. This episode features audio from Why Don’t People Eat Healthier?, Why You Should Care About Nutrition, and Taking Personal Responsibility for Your Health. Visit the video pages for all sources and doctor’s notes related to this podcast.


Let’s say you really need to find reliable information about the best diet – for high blood pressure – or heart disease – or diabetes. Where do you go? Do you go to a website sponsored by Big Pharma that wants to sell you pills to fix your problem?

Or, do you want to treat the cause? 

Welcome to the NutritionFacts podcast – with the latest peer-reviewed research on the best ways to eat healthy – and live longer.

Today, we ask – why doesn’t everyone – just eat healthier? Right? It seems like such a simple solution to so many of our problems.  As it turns out – the answer is complicated. Here’s our first story.

Yes, media messages surrounding nutrition are often inconsistent and confusing, but many Americans know what constitutes a healthy diet. I mean, does anyone really think drinking brown carbonated sugar water is good for them? At issue is that they don’t appear to be translating their knowledge into action.

There are a number of reasons people have such difficulty changing their dietary behaviors. While ignorance and confusion may play a part, the motivation to change is likely much more important. Certainly, we are living in a world that pushes us to eat whatever we want, regardless of the long-term consequences. But one of the major problems in getting people to change their behavior is the need to get them to recognize the need to change.

For example, if you ask people how much meat they eat, or how much greasy food, eggs, sweets, alcohol, or butter, they claim to be eating less than the average person. So, if people think they’re at less risk than others, they may dismiss advice to eat more healthfully, thinking that they already eat healthier. Maybe they are? No, people rated their own eating behavior as healthier on average even when their actual eating habits were terrible. For this reason, maybe health-promotion campaigns need to make individuals aware of how badly they are eating. But when you do that, a strange thing happens. If you challenge people with the reality of what the average person actually eats, they change their answer to make themselves appear as though they’re still healthier than average.

When people’s favorable comparisons on risky behaviors are threatened, they not only reduce their estimates of how often they engage in those behaviors—”Oh, I don’t eat that much meat”—but they also attenuate the significance of those behaviors. “Meat’s not that bad for you anyway.”

It’s the same personal fable that smokers tell themselves. Studies show that smokers have a strong tendency to underestimate all smoking-related risks, developing a series of illusions and false beliefs to support their choice to keep on smoking. Why do so many people continue to light up, in spite of smoking’s harmful effects to their health? For many of the same reasons people continue to eat unhealthy food. First, they convince themselves that they are less at risk than others who engage in the same behavior. And in addition to this optimism bias, smokers underestimate the extent to which smoking elevates lung cancer risk––thinking two-pack-a-day smokers only have like five times the risk of getting lung cancer, when their actual risk is 20-fold higher. And anyway, many smokers believe lung cancer is mainly determined by one’s genes.

Many food-related hazards share this same optimistic bias, such as heart attacks and heart disease (our #1 killer), obesity, diabetes, and all the rest. People are often quite ingenious in finding reasons for believing that their own risk is less than the risk faced by their peers. So, maybe public health advocates need to be just as ingenious in understanding the origins of this unrealistic optimism, and in finding approaches that help people gain a more accurate picture of their own vulnerability. All sorts of work is being done trying to reduce or eliminate this bias, “but we must consider the possibility that reductions in optimistic bias may lead to reductions in self-esteem and psychological well-being”––if people start to realize just how much risk they truly face, and how much they have themselves to blame.

This reminds me of the tightrope wire health professionals have to walk, telling people how much power we all have over getting cancer. This is the oft-cited paper that calculated that we may be able to prevent approximately 90 percent of human cancers. (But by “present trends,” the researcher was talking about present trends of the 1960s, when this paper was published.) But they remain true to this day, about a half century later. Genetic factors are not the major causes of chronic diseases. Using identical twins to see how much was really just in your genes, of all the chronic diseases they looked at, cancers had the lowest genetic component––again only about 10 percent attributable to bad genes. What runs in families is bad habits.

But when you go out there and tell everyone the good news about how much power we have over not getting cancer, what about the people who already have it? When people are diagnosed with cancer, they often ask, “Why me? Did I do something wrong? Is this my fault?” And so, you can imagine how the message of, “Well yeah, kinda,” could be destructive for patients or survivors. In other words, a message that is intended to empower people in a prevention context could just make cancer victims feel guilty. But the truth is still the truth, no matter how difficult it may be. So, what we have to do is try to guide patients to switch from feelings of guilt to a “responsibility” approach. They have personal control; they can make different choices from then on. We need to give them a sense of agency in their life. Better, though, to try to take those steps before you get cancer.

In our next story, we look at how most deaths in the United States are preventable and related to nutrition.

Does it really matter what we eat? Well, the good news is we have tremendous power over our health destiny and longevity. The majority of premature death and disability is preventable, with a healthy enough diet. It’s…the…food.

Most deaths in the United States are preventable and related to nutrition. According to the most rigorous analysis of risk factors ever published—the Global Burden of Disease Study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—the number one cause of death in the United States, and the number one cause of disability, is our diet, which has bumped tobacco smoking to number two. Smoking now only kills a half million Americans every year, whereas our diet kills hundreds of thousands more.

What we eat is the number one determinant of how long we live. What we eat is what determines most whether we’ll die prematurely. What we eat is what determines most whether we become disabled or not.

So, if our diet is the number one cause of death and disability, if most deaths in the United States are preventable, and related to nutrition, then, obviously, nutrition is the number one thing taught in medical school. Right? Obviously, it’s the number one thing your doctor talks to you about at every visit. Right?

Unfortunately, doctors suffer from a severe nutrition deficiency—in education. Most doctors are just never taught about the impact healthy nutrition can have on the course of illness, and so, they graduate without this powerful tool in their medical toolbox.

Now, there are also institutional barriers—such as time constraints, and lack of reimbursement. In general, doctors aren’t paid for counseling people on how to take better care of themselves. Of course, the drug companies also play a role in influencing medical education and practice. Ask your doctor when’s the last time they were taken out to dinner by Big Broccoli—it’s probably been a while.

That’s why I started NutritionFacts.org. It’s the tool I wish I had in medical training. NutritionFacts.org is a free, nonprofit, science-based public service, providing daily updates on the latest in nutrition research via bite-sized videos. There are videos on more than 2,000 health and nutrition topics—all free—with new videos and articles uploaded every day on the latest in evidence-based nutrition. What a concept.

Finally, today – we know for a fact that a healthy plant-based diet could reverse the #1 killer of men and women. So, shouldn’t that be the default diet, until proven otherwise?

There’s only one diet that’s ever been proven to reverse heart disease in the majority of patients—a diet centered around whole plant foods.  So, anytime anyone tries to sell you on some new diet, do me a favor. Ask them one simple question: “Has it been proven to reverse heart disease—you know, the number one reason you, and all your loved ones, will die?” If the answer is “No,” why would you even consider it, right? Only one diet has ever been proven to do that. That’s not cherry-picking—there’s only one cherry.

In fact, if that’s all a plant-based diet could do—reverse the number one killer of men and women, shouldn’t that be the default diet, until proven otherwise? And, the fact that it can also be effective in preventing, arresting, or reversing other leading killers—like type 2 diabetes, and hypertension—would seem to make the case for plant-based eating simply overwhelming.

So, why don’t more doctors prescribe it?  How could there be such a disconnect between the science and mainstream medical practice?  Well, look; it took 25 years before the first Surgeon General’s report against smoking came out. It took more than 7,000 studies, and the deaths of countless smokers, before the powers-that-be officially recognized the link. You’d think after the first 6,000 studies they could have given people a little heads up, or something? Powerful industry, right?

In fact, even after the Surgeon General’s report came out, the medical community still dragged their feet. The American Medical Association actually went on record refusing to endorse the Surgeon General’s report. Why? Could it have been because they had just been handed a ten million dollar check from the tobacco industry? Maybe.

So, we know why the AMA may have been sucking up to the tobacco industry—but why weren’t individual doctors speaking out? Well, there were a few gallant souls ahead of their time writing in, as there are today, standing up against industries killing millions. But, why not more?  Maybe, it’s because the majority of physicians themselves smoked 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 that smoking in moderation…” Oh, that’s fine. Sound familiar?

Consumption of animal foods and processed foods may cause at least 14 million deaths around the world every year. 14 million people dead. Those of us involved in this evidence-based nutrition revolution are part of a movement with 14 million lives in the balance, every year.

Plant-based diets may now be considered “the nutritional equivalent of quitting smoking.” How many more people have to die, though, before the CDC encourages people not to wait for open heart surgery to start eating healthy, as well?

Until the system changes, we have 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.

Last year, in 2015, Dr. Kim Williams became President of the American College of Cardiology. He was asked, in an interview, why he follows his own advice to eat a plant-based diet. “I don’t mind dying,” Dr. Williams replied, “I just don’t want it to be my [own] fault.”

We would love it if you could share with us your stories about reinventing your health through evidence-based nutrition. Go to nutritionfacts.org slash testimonials. We may share it on our social media to help inspire others.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, or studies mentioned here, please go to the NutritionFacts 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.

For a timely text on the pathogens that cause pandemics – you can order the E-book, audio book, or the hard copy of my last book “How to Survive a Pandemic.”

For recipes, check out my second-to-last book, my “How Not to Diet Cookbook.” It’s beautifully designed, with more than 100 recipes for delicious and nutritious meals. And, all the proceeds I receive from the sales of all my books go to charity.

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.

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