Nutrition and health, investigate and learn

By Vernon Gras

This essay has its origin in a seminar which I had to prepare for the UUBridge congregation some earlier this summer on the present health crisis. To promote a whole food, plant-based diet approach to health, I needed to provide evidence that the Standard American Diet (SAD) and the AMA and Big Pharma’s approach to disease — which provides expensive treatment but no cures — needed criticism, and needed to be changed.

So I investigated the past history of the four prevalent chronic diseases — heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity — that the American Medical Association seems to think are just due to aging. These statistics need to be more widely known.

According to statistics gathered from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Johns Hopkins health library, about 600,000 people die of heart disease every year in the U.S., making it the leading cause of death for both men and women. More than half of the deaths, however, are men. Coronary heart disease and stroke either directly or indirectly costs the U.S. $300 billion each year, and the cost increases each year.

Most cancer rates in 2009 have not changed measurably since 1930, notes the American Cancer Society. Except, that is, for lung cancer — which soared upwards until 1990 before beginning a decline — and stomach cancer, which had the highest cancer death rate in 1930 and now has the lowest.

The probability of developing invasive cancers in the U.S. from 2007-2009 for men from birth to death was 44.81 percent, or close to 1-in-2 men. For women, the rate was 38.17 percent (or 1-in-3).

On diabetes, the American Diabetes Association says that nearly 10 percent of the entire U.S. population has diabetes, including more than 25 percent of seniors. If present trends continue, one in three American adults will have diabetes in 2050.

Adults with diabetes have heart disease and stroke death rates about two to four times those of adults without diabetes. In 2007, diabetes contributed to a total of 231,404 deaths. It’s the seventh highest death-producing disease.

Diabetes is also the leading cause of new cases of blindness in adults and of kidney failure, accounting for 44 percent of new cases in 2008. In 2006, more than 65,000 nontraumatic lower-limb amputations were performed on people with diabetes, which came to 60 percent of all such amputations. As of 2013, the cost of diabetes in the U.S. in 2012 came to $245 billion.

In 1994, no state had more than 20 percent of its population qualify as “obese.” In 2010, no state had less than 20 percent. Those are sad statistics. Almost 70 percent of adults in the nation are overweight or obese. Widespread obesity is a recent phenomenon, ushered in by the proliferation of fast food restaurants and a deluge of microwaveable, processed, ready-to-eat meals.

Processed food gives dense calories: A pound of processed food can give five to 10 times the calories found in a pound of whole foods. “Nearly all weight problems are resolvable through the adoption of a diet derived from fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. If you are currently overweight, it is not necessary to utilize restraint on portion size, only on portion content,” says the 2003 nutrition-based book “The Pleasure Trap.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the United States spent more on health care per capita ($8,608), and more on health care as a percentage of its GDP (17.2 percent) than any other nation in 2011. Our health and human services department expects that the health share of GDP will continue its historical upward trend, reaching 19.5 percent of our GDP by 2017.

But the Commonwealth Fund ranked the United States last in the quality of health care among similar countries, while noting U.S. care costs the most. In a 2013 Bloomberg ranking of nations with the most efficient health care systems, the U.S. ranked 46th among the 48 countries.

A 2001 study in five states found that medical debts contributed to 46.2 percent of all personal bankruptcies and in 2007, 62.1 percent of filers for bankruptcies claimed high medical expenses. A 2013 study found that about a quarter of all senior citizens declare bankruptcy due to medical expenses. So we have ever-higher medical costs with little progress in curing these chronic diseases — just increasingly expensive treatments.

On these health issues, we certainly could use help and relief. But can nutrition provide this relief in the form of alternative medicine? T. Colin Campbell, Caldwell Esselstyn, Neal Barnard, Dean Ornish and John McDougal assert that nutrition can do what the AMA and Big Pharma have failed to do in the last century.

They provide startling and convincing evidence that it can be done and that the WFPBD has done it.

Here are two examples. First, on breast cancer: 1-in-8 women in the U.S develop breast cancer; in European nations, it’s 1-in-10; in the U.K., it’s 1-in-12. In rural China, about 67 out of 100,000 women develop breast cancer. You can’t put that last statistic on a graph. It virtually doesn’t exist.

Yet these same Chinese women have the same stats as Western women when they settle in Hong Kong and eat the Western diet. It’s not genes or heredity that is the variable, but nutrition or food. My second example, also given to me when I attended the health conference last August at the Esselstyn farm up near Hudson, NY, concerns Bill Clinton.

In 2004, he had a quadruple heart bypass operation. Five months before his daughter Chelsea’s wedding in July 2010, he had another heart attack. Two stents were put into a coronary artery due to a bypass vein having already deteriorated, but a month later he had further discomfort. This time it concerned a vein going down the middle of his heart. No bypass was possible and the damage to the vein was too long for a stent insertion.

Clyde W. Yancey, then president of the American Heart Association, said that there was nothing further that science could do for Clinton. That was the nature of the disease. USA Today echoed this verdict under the headline “No Cure for Heart Disease, Bill Clinton’s Case Shows.” The story also quoted Dr. Allan Schwartz, a cardiologist, who opined, “We don’t have a cure for this condition, but we have excellent treatments.” True enough for the AMA, but quadruple bypass heart surgery runs from $70K to $200K. Clinton’s doctor, however, knew Caldwell Esselstyne and gave Clinton Esselstyne’s book, “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.”

Notice the title says “reverse” which means “cure.” So Clinton followed the nutritional path because he had no other option. And he looks pretty good these days. So what conclusions should we draw from these statistics and attitudes? I suggest two.

First, our health predicament reflects in microcosm what ails America’s culture. When profit becomes the ultimate value in all cultural activities — government, education, media, medicine, food, entertainment, etc. — then the best or real solutions rarely happen. In America now, when truth and profit conflict, truth hardly ever wins.

Second, and on a more positive note, truth can be achieved with diligence and weighing of evidence. For example, ignore all claims on food packages; learn how to read the ingredients list. At UUBridge, we  followed up on the nutritional approach to health with book purchases for our library, a seminar on heart disease and cancer, and two special speakers on diabetes and obesity. We do what seems necessary — investigate and learn.

Vernon Gras is a professor emeritus at George Mason University who has a farm in Sperryville.

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