Presently, US health care costs constitute 18% of GDP, up from about 5% around 1970 (1). These costs are burdensome and many sectors of our society are paying the price. School programs are being scaled back because of the escalating costs of retiree health care benefit programs, as illustrated in Michigan where they are “laying off teachers, scrapping programs and mothballing extracurricular activities…[because of]…health care bills of retirees.“(2). About 60% of personal bankruptcies are now attributed to medical care costs (3) and these rising costs are eroding family incomes (4), among many other devastating outcomes. It is also far from evident that the almost four-fold increase in the costs of healthcare (as a percent of our dollars) since the 1970s is leading to better health outcomes…. A solution is urgently needed but, in my opinion, this will not happen if we depend on the health care reform proposals offered in recent years, either from the political right or the political left. These proposals mostly concern who will pay a bill that is dependent on the use of expensive pills and procedures. This is not the needed solution because it ignores a strategy that decreases demand for services by improving health….
When I examine the various proposals made in recent years to reform this system, I see all as having one remarkably consistent omission. It is our neglect of the remarkable ability of nutrition to promote health and decrease illness. I particularly refer to the emerging evidence on the exceptional health benefits provided by a whole food plant-based (WFPB) diet—or should I say, re-emerging evidence. Re-emergence because the idea of the healing power of food has been around at least since the time of ancient Greece. Hippocrates said it best when he exclaimed, “Let food be thy medicine.”
I am referring here not only to the well-known ability of nutrition to prevent diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes but to the ability of the WFPB diet to actually treat and thus reverse diseases that are already diagnosed or forecast by out-of-range risk factors.
A WFPB diet (5) is defined as one rich in antioxidants and complex carbohydrates. It also avoids animal-based foods, refined carbohydrates, and added fat typically used to make processed, convenience foods. The remarkable health benefits of the WFPB diet is attributed to its being naturally low in fat (10-12% of diet calories), low in protein (10-12% of calories), high in complex carbohydrates (75-80% of calories) and abundant in natural vitamins and minerals.
The science behind a WFPB diet is compelling. A WFPB lifestyle is effective in the short and long terms against a broad spectrum of diseases and ailments (16,17). Population-level studies show lower chronic disease rates the closer diets approximate the nutritional composition of a WFPB dietary lifestyle (7,18). That is, these population studies show the effects on a long term basis and that this dietary lifestyle serves the body’s innate biological tendency to repair itself and so constantly create health. But a WFPB diet can also act to reverse disease progression in a manner that is surprisingly fast (a few days to a few weeks). Such a diet can therefore function as a medical treatment.
The remarkable treatment effects are best documented in a clinical trial for patients with advanced heart disease (19-21). In one published study (19), seriously ill heart patients (i.e., 49 cardiac events during eight years prior to dietary intervention) cured themselves of coronary heart disease by adopting the WFPB dietary lifestyle. Now, 26 years later, five have passed but none from coronary disease (22). Additionally, the occurrence of cancer in these individuals is only about 10% of that expected (23). These results are unprecedented in a clinical trial.
Additionally, a rich body of evidence has come to light in recent years to support the ability of a WFPB diet to suspend progression of, or even reverse, serious diseases like melanoma (26), prostate cancer (27), multiple sclerosis (28), rheumatoid arthritis (McDougall, J. Diet: only hope for arthritis. McDougall Newsletter (2002) and many other diseases (5). The breadth of this dietary effect both to prevent and to reverse such a diversity of diseases and ailments is truly remarkable.
Much of the benefit of a WFPB diet originates from the avoidance of cow’s milk protein, the most biologically active protein of animal origin yet known, which in experiments markedly promotes cancer development (29-31). A discussion of the multiple mechanisms accounting for this effect on cancer may be found elsewhere (5). Cow milk also elevates serum cholesterol (total, LDL) as well as early lesions that lead to heart disease (32, 33), decreases the production of cells that repair heart vessel damage (34) and is the major cause of early childhood allergies (35, 36).
It is now abundantly clear that the health restoring effect offered by the WFPB diet is greater than that of modern medicine. The WFPB treats a broader range of diseases, it is more effective, and it acts just as fast or even faster. Nor, importantly, is it typically reliant on a detailed diagnosis. Were a composite pill made containing the best of all known pharmaceutical drugs, such a pill could not compare with the benefits of a WFPB diet. When the lesser side effects are taken into account, it is no contest. Thus nutrition is now in a position to displace modern medicine as the treatment of choice for chronic disease….