Every year, Dr. Michael Greger, the director of public health and animal agriculture for The Humane Society of the United States, peruses untold numbers of medical journals for the newsiest of food news. He then presents the most notable findings in a quiz show format DVD. I dropped the good doctor a line and asked him to explain some of the more curious revelations from his newest releases, the 2009 and 2010 Latest in Clinical Nutrition.
Roseann Marulli: Hey, Dr. G! Long time no speak. Thanks for chatting with SuperVegan.
There’s a lot of information jam-packed into your nutrition DVDs. Some of it’s a no-brainer, like the fact that artifical colors are harmful and that having a cat or a dog is protective against cancer. (Well, we all knew companion animals make us happier, anyway.) But there were a few surprises, too. What was the most shocking thing you learned from the medical literature in the last two years? The most yawn-inducing?
Dr. Michael Greger: I continue to be amazed by our bodies’ ability for self-repair. Like, if you bang your shin on something it gets better—unless you keep banging it in the same place day after day. That’s what smoking does, daily lung injury. But when people stop smoking, their lung cancer risk after enough years approaches that of a nonsmoker! Isn’t that amazing? Our body can get all the crap out of there and heal. Same thing with the lining of our arteries getting injured day after day from unhealthy diets. All you have to do is stop it and your body will heal. Our bodies want to be healthy, if we would just let them. That’s what these new research articles are showing: Even after years of beating yourself up with a horrible diet, your body can reverse the damage, open back up the arteries—even reverse the progression of some cancers. Amazing! So it’s never too late to start exercising, never too late to stop smoking and never too late to start eating healthier.
The yawns come mostly from the cascade of studies touting the benefits of foods like berries and greens. I don’t even cover them anymore in my DVDs. Been there, done that.
Roseann: You’re always reminding vegans to take their vitamin B12. Now it turns out that a B12 deficiency can lead to schizophrenia. Does it make you nuts when you find out we’re not taking our supplements? Ba-dum-bum!
Dr. G: No, B12 deficiency can give you paranoid psychoses, which can be misdiagnosed as schizophrenia (though thankfully it may be reversible). But either way, take your damn B12.
Roseann: I’m all for natural alternatives, but they often don’t seem to work. As the research has borne out, homeopathy doesn’t do us a damn bit of good. On the flip side, though, coconut-derived shampoo kills lice better than pesticides. (Thanks for making me itchy, by the way.) Why is that? What other remedies were tested?
Dr. G: For the lice thing, it was just a study of that particular shampoo, and it doesn’t really have anything to do with diet. I just find myself debunking the claims of the multibillion-dollar natural-supplements industry, so I like to give props when I run across something that actually works!
Roseann: Those of us who like to eat our weight in food will be saddened to learn that caloric restriction improves memory. Equally dismaying for the sedentary among us is the fact that 30 minutes of exercise a day can reverse minor cognitive impairment. On the positive side, though, soy not only protects memory but also inhibits fat uptake. Skip the exercise, pound the soy?
Dr. G: Do both! Well, actually, eating soy while jogging might present a choking hazard, so maybe not. :)
Roseann: New products boasting health benefits come out all the time, but many of them end up being bunk (like mangosteen juice—which is also ridiculously expensive bunk). So while green and black teas are health-promoting, studies have shown that yerba maté can actually increase your cancer risk. How could a little old beverage be so dangerous?
Dr. G: One word: carcinogens.
Roseann: And unfortunately for a lot of our readers, there was no change to the findings that kombucha, spirulina and chlorella are harmful. What else is at the top of your “Get this out of your pantry now!” list?
Dr. G: I also talk about a bunch of things you can overdo, like natural licorice. In fact, the safety window is so small, it may be better to just stay away from regular consumption altogether.
Roseann: Another bummer: Not only are white potatoes less nutrient-rich than even Iceberg lettuce, they increase our risk of kidney cancer by 50%. Um, that’s a lot. White potatoes cooked using any method? Why?
Dr. G: Yeah, it wasn’t just fried taters. I can see why they wouldn’t be particularly health-promoting, but actually increasing disease risk? That was a surprise. Same thing with refined grains. I would have expected things like white rice, bagels, etc., to be just useless, but they can actually increase disease risk. Choose the grain, the whole grain, and nothing but the whole grain.
Roseann: Oh boy…
The vegetarians among us will be dismayed to learn that half an egg a day increases the risk of cancer. And members of the 420 club will be saddened to learn that smoking just one joint is the equivalent of smoking 20 cigarettes—an entire pack!—when it comes to lung cancer. But what I found really shocking was that just a spoonful a day of kimchi can increase your breast cancer risk twofold and your risk of prostate cancer 10 times. Cancer, cancer everywhere. Why?
Dr. G: Because people are ingesting, inhaling and generally being exposed to carcinogenic substances. We live in a pretty toxic world. Let’s not make it worse by going out of our way to add to our bodily burden.
Roseann: Other fun facts: Farmed fish are fed cow brains, beef is injected with ammonia to kill bacteria, and arsenic is added to chicken feed. Why would anyone in their right mind continue to eat animals?
Dr. G: Uh, have you seen McDonald’s advertising budget lately?
Roseann: Speaking of fun, your DVDs are peppered with corny jokes, cute animal photos and plentiful poop references. The Bristol Stool Scale actually illustrates what healthy feces should look and feel like, with vegetarians and vegans coming out (ahem) ahead of omnivores. When you go to cocktail parties, do you ask people to rate their stool as based on the Bristol Scale?
Dr. G: Let’s just say “Would you look at my mole?” is one of the more benign things I’m dragged behind closed doors to inspect at parties.
Roseann: On the positive side, just two teaspoons of vinegar with food lessens the blood sugar spike we feel after eating—and it’s calorie-free. And date sugar topped out as the healthiest sweetener on the planet. I love dates! Why are Hallawi dates in particular so healthy?
Dr. G: The healthiest date is the one you’ll eat the most of! But if I remember correctly, Hallawi just had a particularly high antioxidant density in the study I presented.
Roseann: More good news: Eating nuts can help us lose weight by increasing our resting energy expenditure. Not only that, it decreases inflammation and helps suppress cancer. Any old nuts, or some more so than others? The evidence in support of an inert lifestyle seems to be stacking up, yes?
Dr. G: Basically I’m talking about all nuts, except coconuts, chestnuts and betel nuts. Even peanuts, which, although they’re not technically nuts, can be considered part of the pack nutritionally.
Roseann: We also learned that what we eat can turn gene expression on and off, actually changing us on a genetic level, and that a healthy, plant-based diet can be as powerful as drugs and surgery, even better in many cases. So why are doctors and nutritionists still pushing animal products?
Dr. G: Mostly ignorance. Buy your doc my DVDs.
Roseann: Finally, in your DVD Flu Factories, we learn that the three primary threats to humanity are the global food crisis, climate change and pandemic influenza—all of which can be linked to industrial animal agriculture. Are we destined to eat ourselves to extinction, or is there hope?
Dr. G: I never thought I’d live to see a year where the number of animals killed for food would actually drop. Well, guess what? That happened in 2008, and again in 2009, with all the attendant nutritional, food safety, public, environmental and animal health benefits. We’re all part of a tremendous movement for change—it’s a very exciting time to be alive!
Roseann: I had no idea! That’s great news. Up with vegans, down with animal agriculture!
Thanks again for sharing your brain with us, Dr. G. Looking forward to next year’s installment!
Dr. Greger’s nutrition DVDs pack in more information than any mere mortal could possibly retain. Get them here, and 100% of the proceeds will go to The Humane Society of the United States. Or donate $30 or more to Mercy for Animals through
Nov. 30 and get the 2010 DVDs for free. You can also watch and/or purchase Dr. Greger’s presentation on swine flu and read and/or buy Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, with all proceeds going to charity.